Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
This page is your portal to essays and selected primary sources related to Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. Here you can find information and interpretations not found in the book itself.
This page offers the following resources, including essays by T.J. Stiles:
1) Honors for Jesse James
2) "In Memory of Ted P. Yeatman"
3) "Why Jesse James Is Like That: An Essay on the Book's Structure and Approach"
4) "Reinterpreting History: How Jesse James Differs from Standard Accounts"
5) "Iraq: An Unheard Warning from 2003"
6) "My Mistake"
7) "Right Photo, Wrong Date: Jesse James Buffs Misdate an Important Photo"
8) "Tactics of the Guerrilla War in Missouri"
9) "Newly Discovered Primary Sources"
10) "Truer Than History: A Review of The Assassination of Jesse James"
11) "Movie Review: American Outlaws"
12) "Book Review: Other Books About Jesse James"
The copyright for each essay on this page belongs to T.J. Stiles. No reproduction without permission of the author.
Honors and Awards for Jesse James:
• Winner of the English Speaking Union's Ambassador Book Award for Biography
• Winner of the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship
• Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography
• Named one of the 5 best biographies of the year by the London Sunday Times
• A New York Times Notable Book
• An American Library Association Notable Book
• One of the New York Public Library's 25 Books to Remember for 2002
• Named a Best Book of the Year by Library Journal, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Bookpage, and the London Independent
• Winner of the John Newman Edwards Award from the Friends of the James Farm and the Perry Award from the James-Younger Gang
In Memory of Ted P. Yeatman
One of the premier authorities on the James brothers has died: Ted P. Yeatman, author of Frank and Jesse James. It is a great loss to anyone who takes the history of the outlaws seriously. Mr. Yeatman worked for twenty years on his book, and it is an invaluable resource. It appeared when I was working on my own biography of Jesse James. I relied on it, and followed up many of the sources it cited.
When my book appeared, I had some clashes with Mr. Yeatman. I don't think he was pleased by another research-intensive book appearing so soon after his, and I don't blame him. Yet more recently we came to terms. He graciously distanced himself from his initial hostility. I have made my own criticisms of his book (which can be read on this webpage), yet I have always held his work in high regard. I'm glad we didn't end on a negative note. And I am sincerely sorry that he is gone.
Why Jesse James Is Like That:
An essay on the book's structure and approach
Jesse James consists of twenty chapters, divided into four parts:
I: Zion, covering the James/Samuel family before the Civil war.
II: Fire, covering the Civil War.
III: Defiance, 1865-76, covering the primary arc of Jesse James's outlaw career.
IV: Fate, 1876-1882, covering the aftermath of the failed Northfield robbery, and Jesse James's brief return to crime, ending in his assassination.
The typical book about Jesse James briefly discusses his family's history, usually in a few pages, and covers the Civil War in perhaps one chapter. My book, however, devotes approximately 100 pages to the years in which Jesse James himself was too young to be a significant actor. Though Jesse takes center stage in the last three-quarters of the book, I devote a fair degree of attention to the people and developments that surrounded him. Why?
In writing this book, I aimed to do more than simply dig up new sources or fill in some details on his life. I wanted to truly explain him, to show how he came to be the most famous criminal in American history, and to show why he played such a sizeable role in public life in Missouri after the Civil War. In doing so, I also hoped to throw new light on the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I could never accomplish this by focusing strictly on Jesse James--who, after all, lived underground his entire adult life, and left behind no papers, diaries, or personal records. Of course, I also wanted to understand Jesse's personal life, his motivations and experiences, but given the shortage of direct evidence, his outlook can only be understood by placing it in the context of his times.
But I faced a serious problem as I researched the book: The evidence I found contradicted much of what historians have written about that context. For example, Jesse James's bandit career can only be explained in terms of the guerrilla war in Missouri during the Civil War (whether we want to explain Jesse's political views, the widespread support for him and his fellow outlaws, or the origins of banditry itself). However, the standard accounts of that guerrilla conflict did not fit what I dug up in the archives. Usually, historians say that Confederate bushwhackers rose up in reaction to the rampaging Union forces from Kansas, who treated all Missourians as rebels. The war is painted as a border war between two states. I found something very different.
That Kansas troops did quite a bit of rampaging is true, but the war in Missouri was primarily an internal war between local Unionists and secessionists. The turmoil and bloodshed predated the arrival of Union troops. In Clay County, for example, local secessionists drove out local Unionist leaders months before the arrival of Union forces. Most of those Union forces consisted of fellow Missourians. In fact, two-thirds to three-quarters of the Missourians who took up arms in the war did so for the Union. Even before the war, the notorious Border Ruffians who tried to force slavery on the Kansas Territory actually devoted much of their efforts to attacking political opponents within Missouri, which set the stage for the guerrilla war in the state.
This kind of analysis is not what you expect in a biography of a daring bank-and-train robber (though I couch it all within a narrative that includes a great deal of action and suspense--or so I hope). But it is essential to explaining why Jesse James became a political figure. It's well-known that he painted his outlaw actions in terms of his Confederate loyalties and wartime experiences--but if his war experiences were all about defending the state from invaders, why didn't he spend his time robbing Kansans? Most of his victims were Missourians. Once we see that Missouri's war was almost entirely one of Missourians fighting their neighbors, Jesse's career (not to mention his very political statements to the press) begins to make sense. He did see himself in terms of the larger struggle between North and South--but during Reconstruction, as well as during the war itself, Missouri was a border state, where local people had to make personal choices about which side they stood on. It is telling, for example, that every local man who assisted the Pinkertons in their notorious raid on Jesse's mother's house in 1875 was a former Unionist, and two of them were leading Radicals and Union militiamen.
In reconstructing the robberies, gunfights, and escapes of Jesse's outlaw career, I drew almost entirely on sources from the time--not stories told decades later. I used my best judgment, presenting the story of each event the most accurate way I knew how (I do not invent dialogue, or provide details that were not in primary sources). However, I realize that another writer could interpret the evidence differently than I do, so I present my sources and my logic in my endnotes, which stretch on for almost 100 pages. In one notable example, in recreating the Northfield raid of 1876, I do not place Bob Younger in the bank, as many writers do. I don't bog down the narrative itself with my explanations, but I do elaborate at length on my thinking in the notes.
It's important to note, however, that I think these famous incidents appear more dramatic, and far more meaningful, after they are understood in the historical context. Jesse James consciously chose to play a role in a conflict that went to the heart of what the Union victory really meant in the Civil War, what the American republic itself stood for. That made him much more significant than the simple robber of legend--and even more exciting to read about.
How Jesse James Differs from Standard Accounts
1. Taking a Scholarly Approach
Why another book about Jesse James? There have been many books about his life, some very recent, some well-researched (both in the case of Ted Yeatman's Frank and Jesse James). With one notable exception, however, these have been nonscholarly works, dedicated to getting the details right--to separate the myth from the fact. But that is the mere starting point for a serious work of history.
When I call most books on Jesse James nonscholarly, I am not being disrespectful. Many of these writers have done good, hard work. They have dug up important sources, sorted through various bits of evidence, and have often used good judgment in piecing together events. I use "scholarly" in a technical sense. A scholarly work must approach its sources with a critical eye, address the larger historical context, and engage the scholarship surrounding its subject. A really worthwhile book on Jesse James should do more than add a few facts to his life story; it should shed new light on his world, and so allows us to see him in new ways.
The one truly scholarly book is Jesse James Was His Name, by the late William A. Settle, Jr. (See the last essay on this page for more about it.) This biography had its origins in Settle's graduate studies in the 1940s, and was published in 1966. A very serious work, it set the standard for a rigorous approach to this man. However, it is almost forty years old. Historical studies have moved on, and much of what Settle accepted as conventional wisdom has been overturned--or should be overturned. And new sources have been found that better illuminate Jesse James's own life.
2. The Classic View
The traditional view of Jesse James casts him as an avenger of the small farmer against the great powers that dominated rural life in the late nineteenth century: the banks and railroad corporations. Popular writers cast him as a Robin Hood, robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Scholars call him a "social bandit." This concept was created by British historian E.J. Hobsbawm to describe inarticulate defenders of politically unsophisticated peasant societies. The social bandit is a kind of "primitive rebel," or a foe of authority who has no real grasp of politics. Hobsbawm specifically named Jesse James a social bandit.
Almost all writers have recognized the importance of Jesse James's background as a Confederate guerrilla in Missouri during the Civil War. Typically, they have seen it mainly as training for his postwar banditry. Settle argues that postwar boredom led the guerrillas into banditry. Many historians link the Civil War experience with postwar banditry by casting Missouri's war experience as a battle of close-knit local society against invading outsiders. In this view, Kansans and other Northern troops invaded Missouri, and the guerrillas rose up in response. After the war, the locals (accustomed to self-sufficient traditional farming) resisted Yankee efforts to introduce capitalism, with its national markets and corporate economy. Jesse James's actions gave shape to resentments that everyone felt, but few could put into words. The banks and railroads represented vast, alien forces that the humble men of the soil could barely comprehend; by striking back at them, Jesse became a folk hero. So goes the conventional wisdom.
3. The Reinterpretations
The conventional wisdom about Jesse James, both popular and scholarly, is based on assumptions that fall apart upon close inspection. A fresh look reveals a far more purposeful, and significant, figure than we thought.
• Jesse James was a forerunner of the modern terrorist, and was not a Robin Hood or social bandit. Though he was clearly a criminal, motivated by money, he was also explicitly partisan, and consciously played a role in post-Civil War politics.
• Jesse James, his supporters, and his society were highly politicized, sophisticated, and articulate. The assumption that post-Civil War Missouri was home to unsophisticated, self-sufficient farmers, who could only understand social conflicts in personal terms, is inaccurate. Support for Jesse James was centered in the Missouri River valley, long the scene of a well developed market economy, with livestock and cash crops raised for distant Southern markets, wage labor (most of it the labor of slaves who were rented out), and numerous banking and manufacturing institutions. Robert James, Jesse's father, was a commercial hemp farmer and slaveowner, and Cole Younger's father was also a rural entrepreneur. These prosperous, well-educated, politically active people were highly articulate. Jesse's own comments and letters to the press (and statements by his mother) revealed a keen attention to the details of politics.
• Jesse James was not a product of the frontier. His criminal career had little or nothing to do with frontier conditions, such as those that shaped such violent episodes as the Lincoln County War in New Mexico or the Johnson County War in Wyoming. By the 1860s, Missouri was a long-settled state with a thriving market economy, thorough law enforcement, and solid political institutions.
• Jesse James's popularity was a result of wartime loyalties and Reconstruction politics. The press, Jesse's supporters, and his own letters revolved exclusively around the legacy of the war and the bitter disputes of Reconstruction. Through his alliance with newspaper editor John N. Edwards, Jesse explicitly aligned himself with the ex-Confederate wing of Missouri's Democratic Party in the 1870s, pitting himself against Radical Republicans and Unionist Democrats. After his move to Tennessee in 1875, he appealed to newspapers there to recognize him as a Confederate, Democratic hero.
• The bandits whom Jesse came to lead emerged out of political turmoil that followed the war. Intense political and social tensions followed on the heels of the war in Missouri. In 1866, the approach of a decisive Congressional election (one that would decide the shape of Reconstruction) led to actual bloodshed in the countryside in Missouri. Former Confederates were excluded from politics, so the former bushwhackers formed the vanguard of secessionist resistance to the Radical authorities that ran the state. Their resistance was direct and violent. This ultimately led to the death of Arch Clement, leader of Jesse's own band of guerrillas, which opened the way for Jesse's rise to prominence. All of this took place against a backdrop of national crisis over Reconstruction, which deeply affected Missouri.
• Economics had very little to do with his popular appeal or political outlook. Economic questions were virtually nonexistent in the public debate over Jesse James, and in his own statements. Close inspection shows that he did not rob unpopular businesses. Discontent over banks largely revolved around national banks, the regional distribution of national banknotes, and the Treasury's deflationary monetary policy. The bandits mostly robbed private or state banks; those in Missouri were owned by long-time residents, not invading outsiders.
Furthermore, the bandits did not rob railroads; they robbed express companies, which transported currency shipments by train. The railroad corporations suffered few if any losses, and took almost no interest in the hunt for the bandits. The express companies, however, were not the target of popular discontent; few farmers had any dealings with them. The main benefit of robbing banks and trains was that the bandits were seen as attacking impersonal institutions, and not the average person. But it was not the driving force behind their popularity.
• Missouri's guerrilla war was primarily an internal struggle, not a response to invasion from the outside. It had its origins in the border-ruffian warfare against freesoil settlers in Kansas in the mid-1850s. The overlooked role of Missouri's proslavery organizations was their effort to suppress dissent within Missouri itself, often leading to violence. Their opponents were nationalist Whigs who, though proslavery themselves, did not wish to endanger the Union. When war broke out, the old hardline proslavery forces struck first against Unionist leaders, then against loyal families, long before Union military forces were able to establish any significant presence in western Missouri.
Kansans did indeed fight and plunder in Missouri, but bulk of the Union war effort in the state was shouldered Missouri's own loyalists, gathered into the various militia forces. The Confederate guerrillas often spent more effort killing and burning out Unionist civilians than they did battling Federal troops. The militia experience led many Unionists to join the new Radical Party, which supplanted the older Republican party in the state, while others clung to a conservative (but still Unionist) vision of society. All this laid the groundwork for the three-way political division (secessionists, Unionist Radicals, and Unionist conservatives) that defined the politics of Jesse James's banditry.
Iraq: An Unheard Warning
The Story of Jesse James Foreshadowed the Insurgency in Iraq
I wrote the opinion piece that follows on the day that Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, in April 2003. I submitted it to several major newspapers, all of which declined to publish it. As one editor told me, the situation in Iraq was changing so rapidly that he was being careful about what he printed. Reading it now, three and a half years later, I am struck by how accurately I predicted the problems that would afflict the occupation of Iraq—and, frankly, a bit surprised. I had no expertise of any sort on the Middle East; I was merely armed with knowledge of one particular guerrilla conflict and its aftermath—that of Missouri, during and after the Civil War. If I could see the potential troubles in Iraq, then, I wonder how many voices of real experts went unheard. Please note that none of my concerns should be taken as criticism of our truly brave and skilled fighting men and women; they have shown remarkable fortitude and adaptability in Iraq. I believe, however, that they were let down by the decisions made over the first years of the war by both the civilian and senior military leadership. Note also that references to the "war" in this piece refer to the conventional campaign that culminated in the capture of Baghdad. The insurgency had yet to begin when this was written.
Now, that unpublished essay from April 2003:
Iraq’s Greatest Danger: The Jesse James Scenario
Even if American and British forces wrap up the war without further complications, there remains a troubling possibility. Call it the Jesse James scenario: an Iraq torn by a level of lawlessness, mingled with outright terrorism, that could threaten the survival of the new government.
The war in Iraq offers disturbing parallels to the environment that created America’s most famous (and misunderstood) criminal, Jesse James. Saddam’s war effort has consisted of, to a large extent, fanatical guerrilla attacks by a narrow group of young men who, it appears, have been immersed in brutality. For whatever reason, the Fedayeen have devoted themselves to a vicious regime, to the extent of making suicidal attacks on American troops. Even if most civilian Iraqis hate their dictator, enough hide and support the Fedayeen (whether through fear or actual loyalty) to make it difficult to wipe them out.
Jesse James emerged out of a similar, savage chapter of the Civil War, the guerrilla conflict in Missouri. Though perhaps three-quarters of the state’s population was Unionist, the Confederate minority was large and dedicated enough to sustain widespread partisan warfare. Young men and boys such as Jesse and Frank James fought to destroy the Union and defend slavery; their methods included wholesale murder and dismemberment (including scalping). Saddam’s Fedayeen scarcely surpass the Missouri bushwhackers in brutality.
The Union army kept just enough control over Missouri to avoid the diversion of strategically significant numbers of troops from the main battlefronts. So, too, have the U.S. and U.K. armies been able to suppress the Fedayeen while pressing on to Baghdad. But the really troubling parallel is not in the war, but the peace. The bitter guerrilla warfare fostered by Iraq’s government provides the perfect background for a bloody and confusing aftermath.
After Appomattox, the James brother and their fellow Confederate guerrillas maintained their organization, kept their arms, and preserved a bitter hatred for the victors. Having fought a chaotic war without central direction, they continued a chaotic resistance to the Unionist authorities, ranging from explicitly political acts (including the occupation of an important town on election day in 1866) to murder and robbery. Jesse James emerged as the most famous of these men by actively creating a public image as an unrepentant rebel, rallying old Confederates through letters to friendly newspapers. Around his family farm, he terrorized old Unionists; statewide, he became a hero to former rebels, helping to mobilize them politically.
I can only hope that the coalition forces have long since developed a far-reaching plan to create order and protect civil rights in Iraq. Early news reports, however, are not encouraging; the extent of military interaction with civilians seems to be a series of tense checkpoints, and hopes that Iraqis will throw flowers at our troops. If our experience on our own shores teaches us anything, it is that we cannot simply ignore civilians during a war, let alone walk away afterward and leave the peace to a traumatized population. Like Missourians at the end of the Civil War, Iraqis will be angry and divided against each other, and the freely available supply of weapons could lead to bloodshed. Already we have seen looting and other outbreaks of lawlessness; it will only take a few die-hard Fedayeen to turn such violence into a more serious threat to the postwar order.
The solution, however, will not be simple. After the Civil War, such ex-Confederates as the James brothers were barred from voting or other civic roles by Unionists who saw secession as treason. At the same time, the federal government made only spasmodic efforts to enforce new civil rights laws in the South—even less so in such border states as Missouri. The perpetrators of violence against Unionists and freed slaves, then, felt justified in their acts, and also saw that they could get away with it. In fact, they did get away with it, and the Jim Crow era was the bitter result.
If Iraq is to have a peaceful future, even Saddam’s loyal followers must be allowed access to a legal, political expression of their resentments. They must not be alienated from the new order. However, any outbreaks of violence and intimidation must be rapidly, and consistently, suppressed. The rule of law must be strictly enforced. This will undoubtedly require an extended presence of outside troops, who will not be prone to the divisions and passions that Iraqis must necessarily feel. It will not be pretty, or cheap, but the alternative could be chaos—or even an invitation to a more deadly presence, the followers of Osama bin Laden.
A Correction to the Essay that Follows
In the next essay after this, I take to task Jesse James buffs who date the photograph shown to 1867 and offer it as proof that James was still suffering from a lung wound at that date. This claim cannot be true, I write, because the man on the left, Charles Fletcher Taylor, clearly has his right arm, which was amputated in 1864.
However, researcher Gay Mathis has found an image of Taylor that seems to prove that he lost his left arm, not his right. Click on this link to take a look:
The evidence we rely on as historians is always subject to being disproved by better evidence. The contemporary newspaper reports I relied on when I wrote that Taylor's right arm was amputated seem pretty clearly to have been wrong. So I offer my retraction.
But what does this mean? I'm not sure. No solid conclusions about Jesse James's life can be drawn from the picture discussed below. With Taylor's left arm out of view in it, there's no convincing way to date it, to my mind, and I personally have never seen any good documentary evidence for the claim that it was taken in Nashville in 1867. Nor am I convinced by the assertion that it shows how Jesse James who was emaciated and suffering. (He's the one standing up, and he looks kind of amused—just a somewhat skinny teenager, not a man on the edge of death.) Claims about Jesse James's health, made from highly subjective guesses about what a photograph supposedly shows, are far less convincing to me than the multiple contemporary accounts I found that described Jesse James as up and around, apparently quite healthy, no later than 1866.
I was quite wrong in my previous claims about Taylor's arm. But I don't yet see any reason to rethink my argument about Jesse James's health and potential for criminal activity from 1866 through 1869.
Of course, the inconclusive nature of the evidence about James, who lived underground, is what makes arguments about his life so interesting. Wherever you turn, there's always a new case to be made.
Right Photo, Wrong Date:
Jesse James Buffs Misdate an Important Photo
* Note: I offer a correction in the essay above to what I write below.
The photograph immediately below this paragraph is one of the most important images of Jesse James in existence. Unlike most photos of him, it is undisputed in its authenticity. It also offers a rare juxtaposition of Jesse and his brother Frank in the same frame. In addition, it includes their wartime guerrilla commander (Jesse's first, after he began to fight in the Civil War), Fletch Taylor, standing on the left. What may be the most interesting thing about this photo, however, is the fact that Jesse James buffs insist on giving it the wrong date.
If you open a recent issue of Wild West magazine, you will find this photo occupying the better part of a page, with a caption that patiently explains that it was taken in a studio in Nashville in 1866 or 1867. Jesse James, we are informed, was receiving treatment in Nashville at the time for the crippling wound to his lung that he received in May 1865. The photo, we are told, is often mistakenly given a date of 1864.
That caption reflects the conventional wisdom among the dedicated fraternity of Jesse James buffs. At some point, a researcher found a link between the picture and the Nashville studio, so the buffs now dismiss the idea that the photo could have been taken during the war.
There is only one problem with this theory. Examine the image of Fletch Taylor closely. Note his right arm, how it, well, how it exists. Note also from Frank's jacket that this is not a reversed image, so that Taylor's right arm is indeed his right arm. In August 1864, Taylor had his right arm amputated at the shoulder after getting hit with a devastating shotgun blast. The wound and amputation were well documented at the time; one Missouri newspaper expressed the wish that it had been a mortal injury.
If Taylor has his right arm in this photo, then, it is simply impossible for the picture to have been taken any later than August 1864. In all likelihood, it dates to May or June of 1864, soon after Jesse and Frank joined Taylor's band of guerrillas.
No amount of documentation can erase this simple physical fact. Taylor's arm did not grow back, therefore the photo was taken before he lost it. Indeed, the link to the Nashville photo studio probably stems from the fact that it was copied there. Jesse James lived in Nashville, and no doubt visited there prior to settling in the city; he may well have had the photograph photographed. This seems obvious. Why, then, do buffs insist that it was taken in 1867, and not during the war?
For one thing, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one piece of evidence proves everything. When the first researcher to find a link to the Nashville studio uncovered that bit of documentation, it must have seemed like a eureka moment. After all, it fit with an alibi that Jesse James himself gave to newspaper editor John Newman Edwards: He claimed that he could not have taken part in any robberies by the ex-Confederate guerrillas between 1865 and 1868 because he was still recovering from his lung wound, and visited a Dr. Eve in Nashville in 1867. There's another appeal to matching the photo and the alibi: Jesse James buffs tend to be protective of the bandit, and are prone to look with favor on anything that might exonerate him. But I'm only guessing; I can't get inside someone else's head.
There are other problems with Jesse James's alibi, besides the whopper about Taylor's arm in this photo. The only evidence that Jesse was bedridden for two or three years is Jesse's own story, given to Edwards. On the other hand, there are a number of accounts from the 1865-1868 period that depict Jesse as active and apparently healthy, starting no later than 1866. The sources include a future Clay County sheriff and at least two others, including one man who insisted to the press that he recognized both Frank and Jesse as participants in the Richmond robbery in 1867. I believe it is possible that his 1865 wound festered for years, but I also note in my book that lung wounds are actually surprisingly survivable (provided no major blood vessels are severed), due in part to the nature of the soft tissue of the lungs.
Taylor's right arm means that this photo must have been taken before August 1864. The insistence that it was taken in 1867, however, suggests a curious desire by many buffs to believe Jesse's own story. Jesse James was many things: a truly remarkable bandit, a ruthless killer, a man with a passion for publicity. But honest he was not, at least not in his public alibis.
Tactics of the Guerrilla War in Missouri
In Bloody Crucible of Courage, a recent and important book, Brent Nosworthy systematically analyzes the tactics of the Civil War. His chapter on partisan warfare, however, is probably the weakest in the book. I cannot offer a complete catalog to fill the gap, but I believe the experiences of Frank and Jesse James provide a worthwhile introduction to the complexity of partisan warfare and counterinsurgency in the Civil War.
For the most part, the rebel bushwhackers of Missouri had no central direction from the Confederate high command. They were self-organized gangs of young men who operated on a tactical level. Some of their most important techniques can be described as follows.
1. The Ambush: The simplest and one of the most effective tactics was to lie in wait for a passing patrol or wagon train. On July 4, 1864, for example, both Frank and Jesse James took part in a successful ambush of a cavalry column of Missouri State Militia led by Captain William B. Kemper. The brothers' commander, Fletch Taylor, ordered them to spread out behind a high bank of the Fishing River, near a ford. When Kemper led his men into the water, the guerrillas rose and opened fire, wounding Kemper and scattering his unit.
2. The Decoy: A refinement of the ambush was to send a small decoy unit to make contact with the enemy, then lead them back into a trap. Frank James took part in an decoy-ambush on May 19, 1863, on a Fishing River bridge. Jesse James's second guerrilla commander, "Bloody Bill" Anderson, was a master of the decoy. During Jesse's time with Anderson, his men destroyed an Enrolled Missouri Militia unit in this way in Ray County, and later carried out the most successful decoy -ambush of all at Centralia, wiping out more than 100 Union troops on September 27, 1864.
3. Massed Assault: On occasion, the guerrillas would stage a conventional assault on a town or fortified position. Sometimes this took the form of a raid—a surprise sweep through a town's streets. But sometimes they stormed a prepared foe. On July 6, 1864, for example, Fletch Taylor led the James brothers and other men on an assault on a militia unit holed up in a brick building in Parkville. They broke down the door, rushed inside, and convinced the militiamen to surrender by threatening to set fire to the joists and floorboards of the upper levels, where they had retreated. Usually, however, this tactic led to disaster, as in an assault led by Bill Anderson in Fayette on September 24, 1864.
4. Dispersal: As important as attacking was surviving. When pursued, the guerrillas would break up into small groups, scatter, and rendezvous at pre-arranged points. Taylor's band did this after capturing Platte City, and Anderson's men did the same after the Centralia battle.
5. Disguise: By 1864, the guerrillas routinely used captured Union uniforms. The assault on Fayette, for example, was spearheaded by men in blue; they gave themselves away when one of the guerrillas shot a black soldier as they were riding into town.
6. Camps and Informers: To avoid discovery, the guerrillas camped in heavily overgrown areas, especially in ravines and on river banks. The camps were "always hidden where hardly more than a horse track points the way," wrote one Union soldier, "in heavy timber and creek bottoms." They also stayed on the farms of supporters (though in heavy timber), and relied on intelligence provided by civilian Confederate sympathizers.
7. Slaughter: As the war went on, the bitterness at the grassroots in Missouri increased exponentially. The Confederate guerrillas began to employ cold-blooded murder freely, to intimidate their opponents and politically cleanse their home counties. Frank took part in the massacre at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, in which 200 men and boys were butchered. Jesse and Frank both took part in the murder of Unionist civilians (only men, not women) near their home. Wearing captured Union uniforms, they often went to the door of an old neighbor, then shot him down when he emerged. As a part of this reign of terror, the guerrillas began to take scalps. Bill Anderson's men rode with enemy scalps tied to their saddles or hanging from their bridles.
Union forces in Missouri experimented with a wide range of tactics to wipe out the Confederate insurgency. They never completely succeeded, but they did maintain a secure grip on the state for the Union, and prevented the guerrillas from shifting the strategic balance.
1. Garrisons: Though it hardly seems to be a tactic, the very foundation of the counterinsurgency effort was the establishment of garrisons in key towns and villages. Before a Missouri State Militia regiment was stationed in Liberty, for example, rebels ran the town, having driven out leading Unionists. Once loyal forces established control, civil government and commerce went into operation again (though both were severely circumscribed), the Confederates were driven into the brush, and the Unionist militia had a base of operations against guerrillas in the countryside. Taking control of towns was far from sufficient in and of itself, but it was essential to winning, on both the political and the military levels of the conflict.
2. Patrol: The simplest and least effective tactic was to send a squad of men wandering through the countryside. At best, such patrols would be ambushed, which would at least lead to a firefight and notify Union commanders to the presence of guerrillas in the area.
3. Pursuit: Better was pursuit—a chase after guerrillas following a clash. Pursuit rarely led to results, however, unless the quarry stood and fought in a pitched, conventional battle. This happened, for example, on July 14, 1864. Following the rebel occupation of Platte City, Confederate Col. John Thornton gave battle to Union forces under Col. James Ford. The rebels were crushed. Guerrilla leader Fletch Taylor had wisely dispersed his men before the fight. More often, pursuit led to nothing, or to ambush, as when Taylor ambushed Capt. Kemper on the Fishing River.
4. The Hammer and Anvil: This tactic remains a standard in counterinsurgency warfare (the name for it became famous in the Vietnam War), and it was tried out in the Civil War in Missouri. The decoy-ambush that Frank James took part in on the Fishing River in 1863, for example, disrupted an impending hammer-and-anvil strike. Union forces had planned to sweep up either bank of the Fishing River to a bridge, where another Union unit was to wait to catch guerrillas who tried to escape.
5. Storming a Camp: A major goal of experienced Union guerrilla-fighters was to locate a guerrilla camp and launch a surprise attack. Locating it, however, was the hard part. Union forces relied on intelligence from informers and prisoners (see below), or engaged in old-fashioned tracking. Capt. Kemper, for example, reported a visit to a farm near the Fishing River in 1864: "I noticed at the yard fence a path made, both by horses and men. . . . I took the track at once, and followed it through a pasture adjoining the yard into a densely brushy pasture, where I came upon this party of bushwhackers." Also, on October 20, 1864, a camp that Bill Anderson made on the Crooked River was stormed by a Union force that had tracked them down.
6. Ambush: Surprisingly, Union forces also made use of the ambush. The Second Colorado Cavalry was particularly effective at this, lying in wait on foot beside roads in Jackson County known to be used by the guerrillas. Capt. Kemper tried the same thing in Clay County, but a manpower shortage eliminated any chance of success.
7. The Decoy: Just as Union troops made use of the ambush, so too did they adopt the decoy. The most famous use of this tactic came on October 27, 1864, when Lt. Col. Samuel P. Cox set a trap for Bill Anderson in Ray County, and sent a small mounted unit to lure the infamous bushwhacker into it. It succeeded brilliantly, leading to the death of Anderson, himself the master of the decoy. Jesse James tried to take revenge for the incident in 1869, killing a man he mistakenly believed to be Cox.
8. Disguise: In areas known to be sympathetic to the guerrillas, the Union forces disguised themselves as bushwhackers to ferret out their civilian supporters. When offered food and horses at a farm, they promptly arrested the inhabitants.
9. Intelligence: Summary Executions, Torture, and Informers: Frustrated by the lack of intelligence, Union forces used a variety of methods—some horrifically brutal—to get information. Men who lied, or simply failed to provide intelligence, were often killed on the spot. Colonel William Penick, for example, attacked a bushwhacker camp on August 14, 1862. Two men who lived nearby "denied having any knowledge of any camp," he wrote. "After the skirmish was over I sent two of these men out...and had them shot." Torture was common. In the most infamous episode, Jesse James was beaten and his stepfather briefly hung from a tree by his neck. The stepfather then told the Union troops where to find the guerrillas, including Jesse's brother Frank, who were hiding on the farm. But the Union troops were there in the first place because of information volunteered by informers. Union provost marshals maintained networks of informers, often old Whig Unionists, who filed extensive reports on their neighbors.
10. Martial Law Regulations: Union authorities recognized that, as Mao famously wrote, the civilian population is the sea in which the guerrilla fish swims. With Missouri under martial law, they imposed a number of regulations designed to identify, punish, and control Confederate sympathizers. The creation of the Enrolled Missouri Militia, for example, required all adult men to register for duty. But men who identifed themselves as Southern sympathizers, or who were identified as such by informers, were required to register as disloyal. When guerrilla attacks took place nearby, they were subject to reprisal. Union troops often imposed fines (called "assessments") on them, and raided their homes to search for contraband or simply to take what they wanted. Civilians were arrested in large numbers, and often sent to prison with little or no paperwork to even identify their supposed crimes. Of course, Missouri was rife with Confederate supporters, but the Union response suffered from both intentional abuse and simple amateurism. Both had brutal results.
11. Depopulation: The most heavy-handed tactic of all was outright depopulation. This occurred on a vast scale in 1863 when, after the Lawrence massacre, the civilians in three and a half counties were ordered to leave their farms under General Order No. 11. Tens of thousands were driven out, and the zone was so thoroughly destroyed that it became known as the "burnt district." It continued on a smaller scale throughout the war. Jesse's mother, stepfather, and sister were exiled from Missouri in January 1865 along with nine other pro-Confederate families. To justify the banishment, Capt. Kemper called Zerelda Samuel, Jesse's mother, "one of the worst women in this state.... I feel today that I am almost as much in 'rebellion' here in this county as I would be in South Carolina." To end the rebellion, they decided to drive out the rebels, civilians or not.
Truer Than History:
A Review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
“We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way,” E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel. “But in a novel we can know people perfectly. . . . In this direction fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence, and each of us knows from his experience that there is something beyond the evidence.”
I reached for my dog-eared copy of Forster’s little book to sort out my thoughts after seeing the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a superb adaptation of Ron Hansen’s fine novel. The movie and novel both deserve an award for truth in advertising, for the story is relentlessly about this historical event and the relationship that led to it. That leads to a pair of obvious questions: Is it true to history? Does it even matter if it is true or not?
My answers are: Yes, much more than any other movie on Jesse James; and, much to my surprise, yes, it matters a great deal.
Why am I surprised? Because fiction and films about Jesse James have always existed in a separate universe of make-believe, one that bears little relationship to history. Even before his death, Jesse was liberated by fabulists to serve the purpose of the moment: to play a dime-novel superhero in fantastic adventures to enthrall urban clerks and teenagers—to rise up as a populist Robin Hood in battle against the monopolistic railroads—to stand in as American Myth personified. Richard Slotkin, among others, has produced vast quantities of career-making scholarship on the commercial mythology of the West (including that of Jesse James). At this late day, it seems downright silly to hold any kind of popular entertainment about Jesse James to a historical standard.
But along comes Assassination. To be sure, it has inaccuracies and omissions (more on those in a moment), but for the first time I felt that I was watching a James movie truly rooted in historical reality. In part this is because director Andrew Dominik limits his room to get things wrong by zooming in on the relationship between Jesse James and his eventual killer, Bob Ford. Almost everything that does not directly pertain to it is left out. Spared the distraction of errors or egregious rewriting of history, I felt myself drawn into these characters.
And that leads us back to Forster’s quote. Jesse James lived underground, deliberately leaving little trace of himself; Bob Ford was a self-promoting liar who gave contradictory accounts of his brief time with his victim. As a biographer, I was constrained by a scarcity of evidence in drawing conclusions. But Ron Hansen and his interpreters, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, fill these figures with life. Yes, they go beyond the evidence, but so much the better: The inner lives they portray on screen emerge organically from what we do know about the historical men, so that they are round, full, believable characters. Pitt captures the mercurial Jesse James perfectly: One moment charismatic, gregarious, friendly—then murderous—then friendly again—then sick with remorse—then vicious once more. This is not only true to life, but authentic and believable in Pitt’s performance. The same is true with Affleck’s Ford, a needy hero-worshiper filled with pain and resentments. It may or may not be what Ford was truly like, but it is a provocative interpretation that usefully infuses history with imagination.
I don’t agree historically with everything in this film, but Dominik does on screen what I tried to do in my book: Take the story of Jesse James seriously, not as myth but as a human reality. He succeeds admirably.
Of course, the film is ripe for historical nitpicking. Take, for example, the train robbery that opens the movie: the Blue Cut raid on September 7, 1881. Jesse James had already killed Ed Miller by this time, for one thing. And Jesse himself strode through the aisles, his mask removed, announcing his identity to the passengers as he denounced the railroads for funding the reward offer for himself and Frank. It was a dramatic moment whose potential is missed in the film.
Another example is the portrayal of Governor Thomas T. Crittenden by James Carville (who is perfectly fine, except it is hard to get past the novelty of seeing Carville on screen). He delivers a line from Hansen’s novel about how Jesse James claimed to be avenging the Confederacy, but had selected none of his victims for that purpose. This was in fact an argument made by Jesse’s detractors at the time, most notably by the prosecutor William Wallace in his autobiography. In reality, Crittenden was very sensitive to the political support for Jesse James. In his memoirs this Democrat wrote, “I confess there was a large element of my own party who had more sympathy with such outlaws than with my undertaking to suppress them.” In his inaugural address he declared, “No political affiliations shall ever be evoked as the means of concealment of any class of law-breakers.” The movie tosses aside Crittenden’s main worry.
Perhaps most glaring are the omissions. Jesse’s mother Zerelda, a towering figure in his life, is completely absent, even though Jesse moved from distant Tennessee to the region close to her farm in the final months of his life. The enormous reward offer that Crittenden strong-armed out of the railroads is another item simply left out of the story. Even Jesse’s wife, Zee, says virtually nothing, to her husband or anyone else. And the disastrous break-up of Jesse’s final gang is cut down to the story of the Fords, Ed Miller, Dick Liddil, and Wood Hite, leaving out the capture of Jesse's cousin Clarence Hite and the tumultuous trial of another follower in Jackson County.
My biggest historical disagreement with the film is with the most important scene: Jesse's assassination. The director leaves the impression the Jesse wanted to be shot, that his actions otherwise were inexplicable. But the Fords gave good reasons for why things happened as they did. Jesse was engrossed in preparations for their departure to carry out a high-profile robbery. He was going in and out of the house as they readied the horses. It was an unusually hot April day, and Jesse took off his coat. He realized his guns would be visible. Off they went. Then, in one of those quirky little human moments that need no big explanation, he got up to dust or possibly straighten a picture. No suicidal tendencies required.
On the other hand, countless details seem exactly right—including a hilariously inaccurate exchange of close-range gunfire between Liddil and Hite. They did indeed miss each other with shot after shot at close range, the kind of true-to-life inaccuracy that Westerns rarely depict.
But this fact-checking is beside the point; I still believe it is unfair to hold historical drama or fiction to strict factual standards. The omissions and inaccuracies in this film serve the story and the characters, and as a viewer I honestly cannot find fault with them. As a piece of filmmaking, Assassination is stupendous: beautiful, haunting, intimate yet epic. As I mentioned before, it shuns the shoot-em-up model to take the story of Jesse James and his killer seriously, in a manner I find completely engrossing and convincing. As a biographer, I find it to be equally convincing, even a pleasure. It gave me the unique experience, in watching a Jesse James movie, of feeling that I was watching Jesse James.
Directed by Les Mayfield
Produced by James G. Robinson
Written by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers
2001; color; 94 minutes
A serious evaluation of the historical accuracy of American Outlaws is about as pointless as a discussion of the differences between bumper cars and highway driving. This is determinedly light-hearted entertainment. I have the impression that the screenwriters and director would be surprised to learn that Jesse James was an actual historical figure. It appears that the research for it consisted of several screenings of the 1939 Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, plus a viewing of Ang Lee’s 1999 Ride with the Devil with the sound turned off. (Which is a good thing, since American Outlaws lacks the stilted dialogue of Ride.) But, since Kansas History requested a historically minded review, and because shooting fish in a barrel is actually a lot of fun, here goes.
American Outlaws does have a few things going for it, including a sense of humor, some neatly choreographed action sequences, and marvelously over-the-top performances by Harris Yulin (as the fictitious railway baron Thaddeus Rains), Timothy Dalton (as Allan Pinkerton), and Kathy Bates (in a deliriously goofy and all-too-brief turn as the mother of Frank and Jesse James). In terms of historical accuracy, it manages to hit the mark as follows: Frank and Jesse James were brothers. Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger were brothers. Frank and Jesse fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, as did Cole. Both families lived in Missouri. The two sets of brothers, with Clell Miller, robbed banks. Allan Pinkerton hunted the James-Younger gang. Everything else is wrong. Jesse and the Youngers were not cousins, for example, but Jesse and his wife Zee were.
But this film was created because of the mythical, not the historical Jesse James. The man on screen sticks closely to the folk hero who knocks around in the basement of historical legends, along with Molly Pitcher, Johnny Appleseed, and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. This Jesse is good with a gun but a reluctant killer, impossibly daring but devoted to his farm and mother. He is driven to crime by the evil railroad. He is a victim of injustice, a hero to the people -- a social bandit, to use E.J. Hobsbawm’s terminology.
The myth remains a fruitful subject for scholarly investigation, though there have been a number of excellent studies (including Hobsbawm’s Bandits, Richard White’s 1981 article "Outlaw Gangs of the Middle Border," and Richard Slotkin’s superb books). Watching American Outlaws, however, I was struck by the precise points of separation between this mythical image and the historical reality. Those gaps speak to the remarkable capacity that Americans have to amend their historical memory, to reinvent their innocence.
Yes, innocence: If Jesse James stood for anything in life, it was the intense hatred that consumed the Missouri (and nation) of his day. The real Jesse James exacerbated social and political bitterness between his neighbors; he did not unite them against impersonal corporations. American Outlaws, like the longstanding myth, renders Jesse harmless, whereas the real Jesse was very dangerous indeed.
For example, the movie begins with a skirmish between Jesse and Frank’s Confederate cavalry unit and a company of Federal troops. But there is no evidence that Jesse ever fired at a Union soldier from another state. Missourians shouldered most of the war effort on both sides of this bitterly divided state. As a Confederate guerrilla, Jesse spent much of his time murdering Unionist civilians.
Once the movie returns to Missouri, an immediate question popped into my mind: Where are the black people? On the James farm, there were more black faces -- slaves -- than white. This was Missouri’s most slave-dependent region, later dubbed "Little Dixie." Jesse and Frank fought for slavery -- but that doesn’t fit the myth.
Surprisingly, the gang robs no trains in the movie, though they raided several in history. Railroad corporations however, paid no attention to the outlaws until almost the end of Jesse’s life. Express companies, not railways, suffered the losses in train robberies. In short, there was no war between the gang and the railroads, and agrarian populism played no role in the outlaws’ very real popularity.
The Civil War did. In the bitter atmosphere of Reconstruction, Jesse became a polarizing figure who rallied old rebels by defying the triumphant Radical Republicans in letters to the press. Though he was clearly disposed to crime after his wartime experiences, he also allied himself with newspaper editor John N. Edwards to spark a Confederate resurgence by glorifying his robberies and cold-blooded murders.
American Outlaws is silly, as befits the myth. There remains a much better, much grimmer movie to be made about Jesse James, one that shows the horror and lingering hatred of a nation that went to war with itself, seen through the lives of neighbors who could never forgive or forget.
[This essay originally appeared in Kansas History.]
Other Books About Jesse James
Many books have been written about Jesse James, but not all have been equally serious. The reason Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War has received such media attention is that it is only the second book-length study of the outlaw to take a scholarly look at him--that is, to truly try to explain him in the context of his times, rather than simply throwing a few more pebbles on the pile of details.
The first truly scholarly study of Jesse James was Jesse James Was His Name by the late William A. Settle, Jr., published in 1966. Settle's slender book (201 pages of text, with 34 pages devoted to the folklore that arose after Jesse James's death) originated in his graduate studies. Twenty-four years earlier, in 1942, he had published a groundbreaking article in the Missouri Historical Review, "The James Boys and Missouri Politics."
Settle's grasp of the political context, his critical approach to the limited primary sources surrounding the topic, and his citations of now-lost primary sources (including letters from Robert James to his wife Zerelda, and interviews with Frank James's son, Robert) make his book a landmark. Indeed, he seems to have been taking great pains to differentiate his book from the others on the subject, which were mostly sensationalistic or works of folklore.
What's wrong with Settle's book? The main problem is age. In the almost forty years that have passed since it was published, two things have happened: First, new primary sources on Jesse James have come to light; second, new ground has been broken in the way historians see the period. Historians have overturned many of the assumptions Settle worked with regarding the fight over slavery, the approach of the Civil War, the nature of the Civil War within Missouri, and Reconstruction. None of this is Settle's fault, of course; the passing of time erodes every work of history.
The other problems with Settle's work are less significant. For one, he shaped his book according to the sources in a sometimes awkward way. He does not introduce information according to the chronological flow of the narrative, but when the source appeared. Also, as the first serious scholar to write about Jesse James, he hesitated to give him too much credit for political motivations in his banditry, despite the repeated references to politics in Jesse's letters to the press. Given the historiographical context in which Settle was working, however, he can hardly be blamed for this. His work remains the indispensable starting point for any investigation of Jesse and Frank James.
Another essential book on Jesse James is Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, by Ted P. Yeatman (published in 2000 by Cumberland House Publishing of Nashville). Yeatman's work is the height of what might be called the buff approach to the James brothers. It is, in essence, a research report, a lengthy collation of sources directly related to the outlaw careers of the James brothers. Yeatman deserves great credit for his widespread research, his lengthy appendices that reprint verbatim selected primary sources, and his extensive treatment of Frank James's life after Jesse's assassination. He has thoroughly grounded himself in the grassroots research on the James brothers. He also includes numerous photos of houses where Jesse James lived.
Yeatman's book is an essential resource for any investigation of Jesse James. In it, he approaches the James brothers seriously, and uses good judgment in piecing together events. However, it has some limitations. First, it is not a scholarly work of history, in that it does not address the academic historiography on the period or on banditry, and (most important) does not attempt to explain the James-Younger outlaws and their larger significance. For example, there is no mention of the concept of the "social bandit," a concept created by E.J. Hobsbawm that is the center of the scholarly debate over banditry. Yeatman simply cites historical works when he finds that they directly support what he writes; he makes no attempt to critically assess them, or to engage the larger historical discussion of banditry, the Civil War and Reconstruction in Missouri, crime and political violence, or other key issues. His approach to the historical context is similarly circumscribed. For example, he ignores the issue of slavery in his five-page discussion of the antebellum years, but devotes much of a page to the possible influence of a mountain-man uncle who may have visited the Samuel farm sometime in the 1850s.
Yeatman's aim is to fill in the details of the lives of the James brothers, but there are some important gaps in his research. For example, he apparently did no research in the Missouri State Archives, the Minnesota Historical Society, Robert James's probate records, the records of the Post Office (whom he mistakenly names as the party that hired the Pinkertons), or the contemporary journals of the express and railroad industries. His treatment of primary sources is often uncritical; for example, he quotes accounts given several decades later in his discussion of the Gallatin robbery of December 1869 and Jesse James's residence in Tennessee in the late 1870s, and cites stories handed down through families as evidence, despite the known tendency for such stories to warp over time. He also uncritically relies on "A Terrible Quintet," written by propagandist John N. Edwards, to account for Jesse's whereabouts in the late 1860s. And (strangely, in a book devoted to the minutia of the James brothers' lives) Yeatman also ignores some robberies and gunfights in which Frank and Jesse were suspects, including the Civil Bend fight in 1871, the Ste. Genevieve robbery in 1873, and the Henry County store robbery in 1875.
Every book, of course, has its limitations. Despite these failings, Yeatman's is an excellent summary of key sources and details, and is an absolutely essential resource for any look at the James and Younger brothers. Indeed, any reader of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War who is interested in pursuing the subject further should consult Yeatman's book, particularly for its more detailed treatment of Frank James and of certain episodes, such as the Huntington, West Virginia, robbery.