Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War

This is a terrific book by T. J. Stiles. He’s done prodigious research for the book and did a great job placing Jesse James into historical context and bringing out his motivations. Along the way he dispels myths and gives us the background and structure of the guerrilla war in Missouri during the Civil War as well as the violent resistance to Reconstruction policies and the Republican Party in Missouri.

“Jesse James,” we learn, “was not an inarticulate avenger for the poor; his popularity was driven by politics–politics based on wartime allegiances–and was rooted among former Confederates. Even his attacks on unpopular economic targets, the banks and the railroads, turn out on closer inspection to have had political resonances. He was, in fact, a major force in the attempt to create a Confederate identity for Missouri, a cultural and political offensive waged by the defeated rebels to undo the triumph of the Radical Republicans in the Civil War. His robberies, his murders, his letters to the newspapers, and his starring role in [John Newman] Edwards’s [newspaper] columns all played a part in the Confederate effort to achieve wartime goals by political means (to use historian Christopher Phillips’s neat reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum). Had Jesse James existed a century later, he would have been called a terrorist.” [pp. 5-6]

Jesse James came from Clay County, Missouri, a county with one of the highest slave-owning percentages in Missouri. He came from a slave-owning family, his father Robert, a preacher, owning as many as six enslaved people. “Like most Southern commercial farmers, Robert began to buy slaves as he prospered, probably paying between $200 and $400 for each of the boys and girls who populated his spread by the end of the decade [1840s]. Boys and girls? The image is jarring: the pious, beloved man of God, shouting out bids for toddlers at auction. But that is indeed what he did. By 1850, he came to own at least five black children, ranging in age from two to eleven (in addition to a black woman, age thirty). And those child slaves on the James farm were not only evidence of affluence, but an indication of a spiritual choice on the part of the preacher. Despite the omnipresence of slavery in Clay County, some local Baptists began to question its morality. By 1845, two circuit-riding evangelists named Chandler and Love had turned this ambivalence into a crusade. ‘No slave holder,’ they declared, ‘had a right to an office in the church, or a place in the church.’ They carried a surprising number of people with them. Jane Gill described Chandler as ‘an avowed Northern man’ who ‘influenced the most of the preachers under him to go with him,’ and badly divided the Liberty church membership. ‘Two preachers, Huffaker & Garner, got such a tincture of abolitionism last year,’ she wrote in 1846, ‘that they lost their usefulness and have been exerting an unhealthy influence ever since.’ ” [pp. 20-21]

Jesse’s mother Zerelda was a strong influence in his life. It was said that if a lawman went to try to arrest Frank and Jesse James, if the boys didn’t kill him the old woman would. Even after the Civil War, even after the ratification of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, Zerelda kept at least two people enslaved on her farm. Jesse James got into the war late due to his young age, but he became a member of “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s band of cutthroat guerrillas, becoming one of the most bloodthirsty of the group. After the war he became a hero to the former confederates of his part of Missouri because he refused to surrender to the idea that the Union had won the war. He continued to fight against Reconstruction and against equality for blacks. He gleefully shot down fellow Missourians who had supported the Union, especially those who had joined the Republican Party. “In this intense, sophisticated political environment, what made Jesse James and his colleagues heroes was simply a matter of war. The debate that raged over them revolved monotonously around the ir roles as Confederate heroes, as undefeated champions of the Lost Cause, as galvanizers of rebel resentments. Wartime allegiance alone can account for their importance. At the moment when they were most central to Missouri politics, when newspapers and politicians took public stands in favor of them, they were the central issue in a struggle between the Union and Confederate wings of the Democratic Party, factions that were ideologically identified in every respect except the sides they took during the Civil War. Of course, many Confederates frowned on Jesse James–he was a criminal, after all–but virtually every one of his grassroots supporters was a former rebel. As the hostile Kansas City Journal of Commerce noted, ‘There is not a man of average intelligence in this county who does not know that these outlaws have been harbored and befriended … by men who harbored and befriended them during the war, and by nobody else, and for no other reason.’ And all of the newspapers that sympathized with him were secessionist-aligned–the Lexington Caucasian, for example, along with John Edwards’s publications–framing their favorable commentary strictly in terms of Confederate political aspirations. Of course, the politics of the Lost Cause were far from simple. The sentiments that animated ex-Confederate Democrats included deep-seated racism in the face of emancipation and civil rights laws; a fierce resentment of the political restrictions imposed by the constitution of 1865; anger at Congress’s treatment of the South and Radical Reconstruction generally; a longing for the conditions of the antebellum era; and a conservative vision of both government and private life. But the impact of the Civil War as a searing social and political event cannot be overstated. In Missouri, more than anywhere else, neighbor literally fought neighbor, invading homes, looting, burning, and murdering unarmed partisans of the other side. It would be remarkable indeed if wartime allegiance had not become a defining element in postwar politics. Could the average farmer or merchant honestly be expected to forget the fact that his neighbor stole his horses, killed his son or brother, or burned his house? With peace, the rebels saw their cause delegitimated and their service cited as a reason to bar them from politics. Small wonder that, however bad their cause might have been, they sought to overturn the Radical legacy, win power as a group within the Democratic Party, and find for themselves a place of glory.” [pp. 386-387]

As alluded to above, Jesse James fought against Reconstruction. “Jesse James himself looked South, not West; he, his brother, and his bandit colleagues were proud products of the Confederate war effort. Moreover, this was the period of the greatest outbreak of political violence in all of American history. Confederate veterans returned home to find a social and political revolution breaking out. Like German and Italian veterans after World War I, they banded together to suppress it. Their efforts included assassination of officeholders and political leaders, raids on black homes to intimidate assertive African Americans; and, finally, outright insurrection. Organized mass violence played a primary role in overthrowing state governments from Louisiana to South Carolina, while Ku Klux Klan raids occurred in outlying states such as Texas, Kentucky, and Missouri itself. In Missouri, however, Unionism had such a broad base of support in the white population–and the black population was so small–that anti-Reconstruction violence was necessarily fractured, and waged on a far smaller scale than in the Deep South.” [p. 388]

Jesse James led a short, violent life, and that life was dedicated to violence and to the confederate cause. The Union and people who supported the Union were his enemies. He even targeted former Mississippi Reconstruction Governor and Union Army general Adelbert Ames in one of his raids, the famous Northfield, Minnesota Raid that eventually led to his downfall. “Every September, the town celebrates the annihilation of the James-Younger gang.” [p. 397]

This book is really well done. The only criticism I have is that the view of Radical Republicans Mr. Stiles portrays is still highly influenced by the Dunning School. I highly recommend the book not only to learn about Jesse James, but to use Jesse James to learn about the Civil War and Reconstruction in Missouri.


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