To Gardner residents in 1861, the early evening of Oct. 22 probably seemed a lot like many other nights. It was a Tuesday and residents attended to their nightly rituals. Most had likely taken to their beds by 10:30 p.m.
But before the night was over, Gardner residents of the time would take a footnote in history as the first Johnson County town to be raided and looted by Confederate Guerillas.
The Dick Yeager Gang — sometimes referred to as the U Hays Gang — rode into town from the east around 10:30 p.m. Members of the gang, which include the well-known outlaw Cole Younger, decided to break into the armory on the northwest corner of Main and Elm Streets in the home of Osmar Green.
Employees of the General Store were not aware of what was taking place across the street at the armory. Stephen Wilson, a 16-year-old, and Wesley Iliff, a former soldier in the Mexican-American War, lived above the General Store. Both were employees of the store owned by J.W. Sponable. Iliff had retired to bed by the time the Bushwackers of the Dick Yeager Gang rode into town. Sponable and Wilson stayed at the store late taking care of a customer from De Soto.
Shortly after 10:30 p.m. Sponable stepped out of the store to walk home leaving 16-year-old Wilson behind to lock up. Seconds later, he was back in the store.
“There are robbers,” Sponable told Wilson.
Wilson recalled the events of that night in great detail in his old age, and gave a number of interviews and first hand accounts of what took place.
“We counted 14 bandits in sight,” he told one interviewer. “We could see from the store what they were doing and realized our danger. After securing the guns, they surrounded the store.”
Wilson and Sponable locked and bolted the front door, put out the lights, and proceeded upstairs to wake Iliff and inform him of what was occurring.
Wilson said, “The bandits rattled the front door and demanded to be let in.”
The trio — Wilson, Sponable, and Iliff — kept quiet. Then, four or five of the Bushwhackers took a big breaking plow that stood just outside of the store and began ramming the front door with it until it finally smashed open.
The captives had two rifles, one with no ammunition. Now the robbers were in the store and the men remained quiet.
“Mr. Iliff told us to hide our guns, and we placed the loaded gun in the bed,” Wilson said.
The Bushwhackers knew the three were upstairs, and promised no one would be harmed, if they came down and lit a lamp for them.
Wilson, Sponable, and Iliff knew there were at least 14 men and all had double barrel shot guns, so they found it in their best interest to surrender.
“Mr. Sponable went first and lighted a lamp,” Wilson said. “Iliff was the next one down, and in a few moments I went down passing by a man with whiskers and a double barrel shot gun standing at the foot of the stairs. He looked like a common, every day sort of a fellow, and I failed to be frightened upon seeing him.”
The guerillas demanded the key to the safe from Sponable, though Sponable explained he had lost the key, or had left it in his other pant pockets at home.
Sponable proceeded to show them where the cans of powder were, and suggested blowing it open, but he also explained they wouldn’t find much because he had just made a stock run days before to Leavenworth and spent all of his money. The Bushwhackers examined the safe and determined it couldn’t be blown open, so four of the men escorted Sponable to his home to look for the key.
Myra, Sponable’s wife, was awakened by her husband who was surrounded by several men with guns. J.W. found the key in the pocket of another pair of pants.
Myra Sponable was an intelligent woman. She was the first school teacher in Gardner, and her father was the first doctor. This clever woman single-handedly convinced the robbers that the key currently in her husband’s hand was not the key to the safe and belonged to something else. She told the bandits that her husband expressed to her he had lost the key the very night he returned from Leavenworth.
J.W. played along that he was forgetful of this fact and the Bushwhackers bought the story. Myra must have been aware the safe enclosed important papers and several hundred dollars which would have been devastating to have stolen.
Before leaving town a little after midnight, the Missouri Bushwhackers awakened 17 Gardner residents from their homes, tied them up and took them hostage placing everyone, including Wilson and Iliff in the town’s armory.
The gang departed Gardner around 12:30a.m. Early the next morning, a band of farmers from rural Gardner gathered and followed the Yeager gang’s trail back to Missouri.
The Gardner band’s chase was made easy. They simply followed the trail of stolen goods which had bounced out of the Bushwhackers’ wagons as they scurried back into Missouri. After reaching the Missouri border, one of the Gardner band’s men, Henry Gorseline accidentally shot himself, so the men decided not to continue further and returned home.
The Gardner raid by Missouri Bushwhackers was only the first of many raids on Kansas towns by Missourians. Kansas had voted to become a free state, which irritated their pro-slavery neighbors in Missouri.
Gardner was raided a second time less than two years later on May 9, 1863. A group of Quantrill’s men, led by Dick Yeager again, entered Gardner from the west shortly after midnight that night. They raided Council Grove, Kans., the day prior and were on their way home to Missouri.
Quantrill’s men presented themselves as travelers looking for rooms for a night at Gardner’s Hotel on Main Street. As soon as the hotel keeper opened the door, a gun barrel instead of a friendly smile greeted him. The gang took everyone in the hotel hostage stealing their fine clothes and horses as they departed east out of town.
William Quantrill raided Gardner himself the third and final time the town was raided. His Bushwhacker gang of 300 to 450 men included Frank James, Cole Younger, and Bloody Bill Anderson.
On Aug. 20, 1863, Quantrill’s men entered Gardner from the east just before sun down. The large gang presented themselves as soldiers on their way to Leavenworth to enlist for the Union, but Gardner residents were leery of their actions and word spread quickly throughout the area.
People rushed to hide valuables. Men of fighting age, ages 15 and up, hid in the cornfields and creeks, some with their good livestock. Quantrill’s Gang traded their tired worn out horses for healthier and stronger ones and instructed the Gardner men to send the bill to Leavenworth for payment.
After the gang left, the Gardner men discovered the letters C.S.A. stamped on the hoofs of the horses they left. C.S.A stood for Confederate States of America.
Quantrill knocked on the door of Dr. Shean whose house sat northwest of Center and Washington Streets. Fearing for their lives, Dr. Shean quietly slipped out the back with his 16-year-old son, Chandler, and hid in the pasture behind the house. Shean was well known for his Free-State beliefs.
Mrs. Shean and her youngest son answered the door. Mrs. Shean explained her husband was on call out in the country and would not return possibly until morning. Quantrill wanted directions to Lawrence and a guide. Shean’s youngest son gave directions, but his mother insisted that he not lead them to Lawrence. Quantrill was satisfied and left town.
The next morning Gardner residents were on edge, but still intact. They awakened to the site of billowing black smoke in the northwestern sky, it was Lawrence, and a massacre was taking place.
In the following days after news had spread of the brutal murders, torture, and burning Lawrence had endured from Quantrill’s men, Gardner residents realized how fortunate their outcome was having hosted the same visitors only the night before.
By fall of 1863 Union soldiers were on guard and had the eastern border of Kansas so well covered, the Confederate guerilla raids virtually stopped.
A few years later after the Civil War had ended. A tremendously scarred Lawrence built Kansas University, and Jayhawker was chosen as their mascot to ensure that the men whose blood was shed for their free-state ideals will never be forgotten.
William Quantrill finally met his maker, from a gun shot wound in 1865 during a Kentucky raid. Cole Younger and Frank James started up the Younger-James Gang, which included Frank’s infamous younger brother, Jesse. Bloody Bill Anderson whose merciless killings of many civilians and Union soldiers made a murderous legacy of his own.