Thoroughly Bad Guy
By Richard E. Nicholls
A photograph of Jesse James, taken in July 1864, captures a 16-year-old boy in the process of transforming himself into a killer. His rosy cheeks and delicate features, and the rakish tie he wears, contrast oddly with the hefty Colt pistol he clutches in one hand. Two more revolvers are thrust in his belt. The portrait might seem a harmless counterfeit if it had been produced at any time other than during the Civil War, with a boy none too convincingly imitating the look of a desperado.
In fact, as a member of a band of Confederate guerrillas operating in the contested borderlands of Kansas and Missouri, James had already seen men die violently. In the early summer of 1864, just after he had left his home in Missouri to join them, the guerrillas had ambushed a force of Union militia. They also assassinated at least eight civilians in Missouri that summer because they were believed to be Union sympathizers. Some were "slain before the eyes of their wives and children," according to a contemporary account. A slave was killed "for fun." It is likely that the boy in the photograph participated in at least some of these events. Indeed, by the time James sat for his portrait he may already have taken a life. According to one of his acquaintances, in June 1864, James and his older brother, Frank, a hardened bushwhacker (as the guerrillas were often called), had shot down a suspected Unionist. His first experience of war, as T. J. Stiles points out in his provocative, heavily revisionist biographical study, was not that of a soldier fighting as part of a disciplined army, but as "a member of a death squad, picking off neighbors one by one."
The passage of time, the efforts of tireless apologists and the judgment-free creations of popular culture have simplified and sanitized the life of Jesse James. His actions as a guerrilla during the Civil War have often been glossed over, with the emphasis placed instead on his later, hectic career as an outlaw. He has become the most folkloric of 19th-century badmen, with the fictionalized portraits of his life presenting a daring bandit who robbed arrogant railroads and banks, distributed loot to the needy and defied the powerful in the name of the powerless. In this narrative, James is too great a hero to be bested by conventional means. Having outwitted or outshot all those sent against him, he is brought down not by his foes but by the lethal sycophant Bob Ford. In Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, Stiles attempts to penetrate the layers of fabrications swaddling James to uncover something of the real man and his motives. As the editor of a series of anthologies on American history (including Civil War Commanders and Robber Barons and Radicals: Reconstruction and the Origins of Civil Rights), Stiles has developed considerable skills as a researcher, and he employs them quite impressively here, drawing on letters, newspaper reports, official documents, diaries and memoirs to recapture the complex and violent times in which Jesse James grew and flourished. Not surprisingly, the figure that emerges bears only a passing resemblance to the legendary outlaw. This James is far more ruthless and manipulative. He is an impulsive killer, forged by the corrosive experience of guerrilla warfare, Southern intransigence and his own appetite for notoriety. Even his depredations after the war, Stiles argues, were inspired less by proletarian anger than by the desire to play a visible part in the Southern effort to defeat the goals of Reconstruction. Had he lived a century later, Stiles asserts, "he would have been called a terrorist."
James's life was shaped by a series of disruptions and disappointments. He was born in rural Missouri in 1847, and might have grown up as the privileged son of a community leader. His father, Robert, was a charismatic preacher, a successful farmer (of hemp, corn, hogs and sheep) and a slaveowner. When Jesse was 2, his father departed for the California gold fields and died soon after arriving there. His mother, the indomitable Zerelda, hurried into a second marriage with a wealthy, older man. It quickly failed, and the family's fortunes never recovered. Zerelda's third husband, Reuben Samuel, was more pliant but less ambitious. The Civil War further devastated the family. Markets for farm products evaporated, cash disappeared, violence was a constant threat. Frank joined a group of guerrillas, and in the spring of 1863 brought them back to the family farm to rest after a series of raids. Union militia tracked the bushwhackers to the James farm, beat 15-year-old Jesse and tortured Reuben into leading them to the guerrilla camp. Most of the band escaped. If Jesse, having been raised in an adamantly anti-abolitionist family and very likely envying Frank's adventures, needed further incentive to go to war, the day's events provided it.
The conflict he plunged into in 1864 had almost nothing in common with the vast struggle being waged elsewhere. Jesse's war was, as Stiles notes, "small-scale, intensely personal, and intensely vicious." Southern Kansas and much of Missouri were battlegrounds for abolitionist and anti-abolitionist forces. A vexing number of factions hunted each other through the region's canebrakes and forests, staging ambushes, assassinating suspected enemies, spreading terror. Bands of Confederate guerrillas, sheltered and protected by Missouri's large population of Southern partisans, fought Union militia, regular Army patrols, bands of abolitionist guerrillas and even on occasion local militia who were pro-slavery but devoted to the preservation of the union. The Confederate guerrillas frequently carried the fight into Kansas.
The niceties of battle never applied here. To fervent abolitionists, the southern frontiersmen of Missouri were, as the historian Michael Fellman explains in Inside War, his study of the guerrilla campaigns in that state, examples of "impoverished barbarism," their degraded condition a result of the slave system. They were "beasts who had to be expunged if free white civilization were to be implanted." To pro-slavery firebrands, abolitionists were a morally corrupt "foreign foe," evil hypocrites attempting to reverse or destroy the God-given "natural, good order of society." In this absolute battle of good and evil, almost anything was permissible--and even necessary. Crops, homes and entire towns were burned. Every man, armed or unarmed, was a potential combatant and thus fair game. Men were shot down in their fields, on their doorsteps, while on the road. Captives were routinely executed. As the war grew more bitter, even murder was insufficient. More and more mutilated corpses--scalped or beheaded, bodies slashed or genitals severed--were reported.
Frank James had been among the several hundred bushwhackers under Quantrill who attacked, looted and burned the town of Lawrence, Kan., shooting down some 200 men and boys in 1863. In September 1864, Jesse and Frank, part of a group of bushwhackers led by the psychopathic Bloody Bill Anderson, held up a train in the town of Centralia, looted it and, when they found 23 unarmed Union soldiers on board, killed all but one. Several were scalped. Stiles vividly details the lengthy series of attacks, pursuits, ambushes and murders that the James brothers participated in until the war's end. The collapse of the Confederacy in 1865 left the James boys and their fellow guerrillas feeling particularly vulnerable. Since they were not members of a recognized army, the possibility existed that they might be tried for their crimes by the radical Republican administration in Missouri. They might also face private vendettas, attempts by family members to avenge the dead. The actions of the new Republican administration in Missouri and throughout the South added further tinder to an explosive situation. The federal government was perceived as being determined to dismantle most Southern institutions, and to give blacks in the South an equal footing in political and economic life. "In the face of political revolution and private revenge," Stiles writes, "in the face of former slaves who now carried muskets and asserted their freedom, it was only a matter of time before the bushwhackers resisted." When they did so, Stiles notes, it was inevitable that they would use the same methods they had employed during the war, "ranging from robbery to intimidation to murder."
It was at this point that the restless Jesse, who had seemingly relished the adventures and mortal gambles of the war years, began to become identified with the fury of a defeated South. Former guerrillas, including the James brothers, carried out what is believed to be the first daylight robbery of a bank in America in 1866, escaping from Liberty, Mo., with $58,000 after killing a bystander. Between this robbery and his death in 1882, James would take the lead in a long series of robberies of banks and trains. The violence of the war years would carry over into the robberies, leaving bank tellers, bystanders, railroad personnel and even some of his own gang dead.
Under other circumstances, these robberies would have been viewed as simple, if audacious, crimes. But in the turbulent, vitriolic atmosphere of the postwar years, they acquired a very different meaning. John Edwards, newspaper editor, self-proclaimed champion of Confederate causes and political activist, seized on James as the perfect example of a Southern patriot harassed and haunted by radical Republicans. Jesse James, who seems, Stiles suggests, to have craved fame, happily collaborated in his transformation into a wronged, defiant hero. He was an avid reader of local newspapers and even contributed heated letters defending his actions, denying his crimes and attacking perceived Republican abuses. "His robberies, his murders, his letters to the newspapers, and his starring role in Edwards's columns," Stiles writes, "all played a part in the Confederate effort to achieve wartime goals by political means." During the struggle in Missouri and the broader South in the 1860's and 1870's to repeal civil rights laws and seize control of local and state government, James provided a useful rallying point. In all of this, Stiles argues, James was more than a passive symbol: he was "a highly political man who was intensely aware of his effect on Missouri politics."
After the radical Republicans were largely driven from office in the mid-1870's, following sustained intimidation and violence directed at blacks and Northern officials, James became a man without a cause. He went on robbing because, apparently, he craved thrills, was too restless to settle down and could think of no better way to attract attention. By the time he was killed by a panicked member of his gang, his close identification with the Confederate cause had already begun to fade. The harsh specifics of his life and actions have gradually vanished, to be replaced by a rather generic narrative of a heroic figure defying abusive institutions and faceless enemies.
Stiles forcefully sets Jesse James in the context of his times, firmly identifying him as a violent and effective Confederate partisan. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War is so carefully researched, persuasive and illuminating that it is likely to reshape permanently our understanding of its subject's life and times. James has become far more human, more complex and less admirable. Stiles works on a large canvas, and his descriptions of the events leading up to the Civil War in the West, the horrific guerrilla campaigns in Kansas and Missouri during the war and the complex political struggle after the war are clear and vivid. His portrait of the defeat of the more visionary aspects of Reconstruction and the destruction of the hopes of black Americans is restrained and moving.
Stiles has a large and very dramatic story to tell, and he does so with energy and conviction. But James often seems to get lost in a narrative crowded with outsize figures and events. The book frequently seems more like a record of the times in which he lived than of the man shaped by them. James himself remains a violent enigma. Thanks to Stiles's tireless detective work, we learn much about what he was not; what he was is less certain. We never quite understand why he excited such loyalty, respect and fear in his followers. The man behind the gun remains remote.
He dressed well, was a canny publicist and politician, a superb horseman and supremely cool in action. He apparently found it hard to hold on to much of the money he stole. Little else seems certain. It may be that James's horrific experiences in the war closed off parts of his personality, suspending him in a kind of emotional adolescence. He seems to have been driven by a constant need for attention and for new and ever greater risks, suggesting that something of that defiant and slightly uncertain boy in the photograph lingered throughout his life. When Bob Ford finally shot him down, in his own home, he was unarmed. It was the first time that most of his acquaintances could recollect seeing Jesse James without his guns.
Richard E. Nicholls is writing an account of a 19th-century kidnapping, the first for ransom in the United States.