QUANTRILL'S WAR: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill by Duane Schultz. (St. Martin's Press: $24.95; 338 pp.). It sounds like a scene from "Natural Born Killers": A gang of robbers, having offered to spare the lives of two teenage clothing-store clerks if the boys would open the office safe, insisting on being clothed in the store's latest fashions. Do the robbers keep their word? Of course not: The clerks are shot dead, then immolated in a gang-set fire. This is not a modern gang, however; the year is 1863, the place is Lawrence, Kan., the gang is an irregular Confederate army regiment led by William Quantrill and the death toll will approach 200. Duane Schultz, a military historian and psychology professor, in "Quantrill's War" has done an admirable job recounting the life of one of the most despicable figures in U.S. history, a man who exacted personal vengeance under the guise of military and political purpose. Schultz doesn't explain how William Quantrill went bad. It's surprising to learn he was a sometime schoolteacher, and a good one, but he went bad in spades, apparently taking much joy in killing and plundering and glad to have the 1850s Free-Soil/pro-slavery debate provide a rationale. Quantrill began as a common thief, then advanced to raider and robber of Free Soilers, until his boasting con-artistry, unquestioned leadership ability and talent for narrow escapes brought him a reputation and, with the outbreak of the Civil War, a role to play as a true Son of the South (never mind that Quantrill was Ohio born). From the safety of Missouri he led guerrilla gangs of ever-increasing size against the Kansas abolitionists and demonstrated early on that he had no interest in fair play or prisoners: He reveled in the glory of the Lawrence massacre, despite the fact that the men and boys shot down by his gang, which included scores of criminals, among them Confederate deserters and numerous future members of the James Gang, were unarmed. Schultz tells Quantrill's story--especially the leveling of Lawrence--in blistering detail, and one only wishes his subject had come to an equally horrific end. Quantrill did die of a gunshot wound, in 1865 at the age of 28 . . . but in bed, in a prison hospital, a newly baptized and avowedly repentant Catholic.

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