Near the end of the Civil War, gangs of "border outlaws" roamed the rugged backcountry of the divided nation's heartland, robbing, burning and killing all who got in their way.
Some ruffians fought in the name of the Confederacy, but most were simply in it for the money.
One such man was William Clarke Quantrill. Elusive, shadowy, always on the run, Quantrill and his band of rowdy rebels blazed a bloody trail of terror from Texas to Kentucky before a Union patrol caught up with him one morning in the waning days of the war.
Before he supposedly died in a hail of bullets, Quantrill reportedly told his men to "keep up the fight: Don't allow the Confederacy to fall."
Rumors persisted that he somehow survived the battle and plotted to restore the fallen Confederacy years later. Legends about Quantrill's unwavering loyalty to the Stars and Bars, his uncertain fate and his mysterious plans to help the South rise again continue to intrigue historians more than 135 years later.
According to some sources, Quantrill - who was apparently on his way to Washington to assassinate Abraham Lincoln - was killed by federal soldiers in a shootout at Wakefield Farm in Kentucky. Other accounts say he was captured and executed.
Yet another story suggests that Quantrill escaped from the ambush and didn't die until after the turn of the century. That story is usually linked with other legends about Quantrill's missing treasure and secret plans to restore the old Confederacy.
Quantrill reportedly stole millions in gold, silver and cash from Northern banks and Union army payloads. The loot, buried at several locations throughout the South, was going to be used to finance the new uprising - or so the legend goes.
Unfortunately, leading members of Quantill's inner circle either died or disappeared, and no trace of the treasure was ever found. Quantrill was never seen or heard from again, although rumors continued to crop up until the early 1900s that he was holed up at several locations in the South.
Ironically, the man who gave the Union army and Northern sympathizers so much trouble was the son of an Ohio schoolteacher. Quantrill also taught school for a while before heading west with his brother in a covered wagon.
Fate overtook the young brothers in Kansas. One night a group of 30 "Red Legs" - Union sympathizers - rode into camp, killing Quantrill's brother and leaving him for dead. When he recovered, he tracked down and killed all but three of the murderers.
When war broke out, Quantrill joined the Confederate cause. He formed a band of followers who shared his burning hatred for Yankees and his attraction to easy money. Quantrill's raiders eventually attracted such infamous desperados as Frank and Jesse James, the Dalton brothers and the Younger brothers.
In most of the South, Quantrill was a hero, a gallant Confederate crusader fighting for the cause. With cape flying and sword flashing, he proved to be a formidable foe even against superior forces.
North of the Mason-Dixon Line, Quantrill was regarded as a common thug, a "border ruffian" who mutilated innocent people for pleasure, put towns to the torch and garrotted unarmed soldiers.
So many legends continue to surround this enigmatic rebel chieftain that it is difficult to separate fact from folklore. Was he a psychopathic killer, as suggested by historian James McPherson, or an innocent martyr, as many believe?
In his memoirs, Captain Kit Dalton, who went on to achieve his own black fame as a guerrilla outlaw long after the war ended, defended Quantrill as a "man of dignity and the highest calling."
According to Dalton, "Quantrill was never an outlaw, but a soldier whose genius and energy in behalf of the Southern people made the world ring with his daring exploits."
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd's latest book is 100 of the World's Greatest Mysteries: Strange Secrets of the Past Revealed. He can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.