The essay that follows was delivered as the annual James Neal Primm Lecture at the St. Louis Mercantile Library on September 11, 2006.
Call them scenes from an insurgency. A man answers a knock at the door and is riddled with bullets. A platoon of soldiers storm a farm and torture the head of the household for information. Several guerrillas stop at another farm; when they get food and supplies, they reveal themselves to be soldiers in disguise, and arrest the inhabitants. Some troops stop a civilian on the road and ask his allegiance; when he says it’s to the government, they reveal themselves to be insurgents in disguise, and murder him.
These are all examples from the guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the Civil War. It’s hard to miss the resemblance between these scenes and those in Iraq today. I don’t believe in drawing simple lessons or parallels from the past, but as I try to explain Missouri’s guerrilla conflict and the resulting postwar banditry, I have to acknowledge the resonances with the Iraq war and fight against Islamic terrorism. Does a better understanding of what happened a century and a half ago help us understand what is happening today? Well, we can only hope. The questions we must ask, if not the answers, are certainly much the same.
Making allowances for an earlier era and smaller population, the devastation of the guerrilla war in Civil War Missouri is certainly comparable to Iraq today. Confederate insurgents shot or burned out noncombatants purely for their political beliefs. Union forces engaged in torture and summary execution. With martial law in force for the entire conflict, the Union army carried out more trials of civilians by military commission in Missouri than in all eleven Confederate states combined. By war’s end, about 300,000 people—roughly one-third of the state’s prewar population—were missing. They had either died, been driven out, or fled to a safer place.
When I started my biography of Jesse James, I knew this context was the key to explaining him. What I didn’t know was just how poorly that context had been understood, even by historians. I had to ask fundamental questions: How did a robust political system collapse so catastrophically? How did civil society disintegrate into such violence? How did the military try fight an entrenched insurgency? What was the legacy of the conflict in the years that followed?
To answer those questions, let’s focus on one community, the place I know best: Clay County, Missouri.
Part I. Polarization: 1854 to 1860
Clay County was not typical of Missouri, but it was typical of the places where the insurgency flourished. Slavery was concentrated in the counties that lined the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers; though slaves were only ten percent of the population of Missouri as a whole, they were 25 percent of Clay. Those slaves comprised much of the county’s wealth; they were also integrated into a commercial economy that included small farms; rope factories and tobacco warehouses; banks, mercantile establishments, and the like. Slavery, agricultural products, business relationships, and family ties gave Clay County a connection to the South.
Take, for example, the Reverend Robert James, the father of Frank and Jesse. He and his wife Zerelda moved to northern Clay County from Kentucky. A popular Baptist preacher, he acquired a half dozen slaves, most of them children. When two preachers tried to bring the county’s Baptists into the antislavery Northern Convention, Robert James successfully opposed them.
Robert and Zerelda’s southerness extended to business. He grew hemp, used to make rope, much of it sold to the South for binding cotton bales. When he died in California during the gold rush, Zerelda eventually remarried to a doctor, Reuben Samuel, who moved onto the farm and raised tobacco, another commercial crop. Reuben and Zerelda purchased more slaves, eventually owning a total of seven. In politics, they identified with the “fire-eaters,” Southern politicians who demanded that new territories be opened to slavery.
In Liberty, the county seat, three other men took a different view of things. One was Edward M. Samuel, an enterprising merchant who sold supplies to wagon trains bound for Oregon and California. Two others were brothers, James and O. P. Moss, who were prominent members of the Whig party.
All three came from Southern families, owned slaves at various times, and had a big stake in keeping things as they were. Like nearly all Missourians, apart from German immigrants, they loathed abolitionists, and approved of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise by allowing settlers in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to vote on the question of slavery there. Edward Samuel and the Mosses saw slavery as a positive good. As the Tribune, Liberty’s middle-of-the-road newspaper, editorialized, “Where there is no legal sanction of slavery the masses, the laboring portion of the people, are oppressed and run over.”
But Samuel and the Moss brothers grew uneasy when fighting broke out between proslavery “border ruffians” from Missouri and free-soil “Jayhawkers” in Kansas. The border ruffians established camps in Clay County, and they seized the small federal arsenal in Liberty. Samuel and the Mosses disliked their violence and intimidation—and their talk about secession, should Kansas become a free state. When the Whig party collapsed, the three men organized the Know-Nothing Party in Clay. The central issue for the ex-Whig Know-Nothings of Missouri was support for the Union.
Samuel and the Mosses grew downright alarmed when the border ruffians began to attack their opponents inside Missouri. In early 1855, border ruffians ran a Christian minister out of the town of Weston, under suspicion of insufficient enthusiasm for slavery. When the editor of the Parkville Industrial Luminary defended the right of the settlers of Kansas to vote against slavery, a mob destroyed his presses. The fire-eaters in Liberty held a mass meeting in support of the attack. They passed a resolution that declared, “We will begin at home, and rid ourselves of the traitors harbored in our midst.”
The Whigs turned Know-Nothings drew a line against this extremism. They saw that such polarization in politics, both nationwide and locally, was destroying the system itself. As a statewide leader declared, they were “ready to resist illegal Northern aggression and abolitionism on the one hand, and to suppress the Southern fanaticism and nullification on the other.” That wasn’t hardline enough for the border ruffian movement. In June 1856, a mob in clay County attacked Darius Sessions, a Know-Nothing leader, who was saved from lynching by several neighbors.
Five years before the Civil War, Clay County was already the scene of political violence—not over the question of slavery or abolition, but over how far they should go in order to defend slavery, and extend it to new territories.
Part II. Militarization: 1861
When Lincoln was elected in 1860, a chain reaction of secession began, starting with South Carolina on December 20. In Clay County, voters swung back and forth. On December 24, the secessionists organized an armed unit of “minute men.” On January 28, 1861, the unconditional Union men held a rally at the county courthouse. On February 1, the secessionists organized a “Southern Rights” meeting; James H. Moss showed up, spoke eloquently for the Union, and changed the crowd’s mind. When a special election was held for a state convention on secession, the county elected Moss and a pro-Union ticket.
Then came Fort Sumter, and Lincoln’s call to put down the rebellion. Old border ruffians seized the federal arsenal in Liberty on April 20. The eighteen-year-old Frank James joined one of the many secessionist companies that formed in the Missouri River counties, in order to fight under General Sterling Price. Frank was serving under Price when he defeated federal forces at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, and afterward marched north to besiege Lexington. Rebel enthusiasm swept Clay County. “At the start of the rebellion,” one Unionist observed, “the people of Clay were a unit for the Union, but in the fall and winter of 1861 . . . it was quite the other way.”
Now that the secessionists were on top, they turned against their enemies. “There were organized bands in the county at that time,” O.P. Moss testified two years later. “We received information that the two Mosses, [James M.] Jones, and [Edward M.] Samuel must be got out of the way.” As these men put it, they were “persecuted and driven from our county,” as their property was seized to support General Price’s army. In neighboring counties, local Unionists organized their own units; skirmishes erupted between self-organized gangs of armed men.
The longstanding orthodoxy about the Civil War in Missouri overlooks all this. Historian Richard Brownlee wrote that “the most direct factor” leading to violence in the state “lay in the abuses visited upon the civil population of Missouri by the Union military forces.” William Parrish claimed that invading federal troops from other states “found it impossible to think of Missourians as anything other than . . . natural enemies.” But the violence started when Union troops were far away, and it was largely between Missourians.
For most of 1861, federal units in the state were concentrated to fight Price’s army, and had little contact with most communities. Union troops marched through Clay County only three times during the entire year, and stayed no more than three or four days. And Union officers hardly saw all Missourians as disloyal. General Ulysses S. Grant vividly remembered Jefferson City in the summer of 1861, describing a town “filled with Union fugitives who had been driven by guerrilla bands to take refuge with the national troops. They were in a deplorable condition. . . . Their worldly goods were abandoned and appropriated by their former neighbors.”
Outsiders didn’t start the breakdown of Missouri society; Missourians did. Kansas Jayhawkers did cause terrible suffering with plundering raids, but they were not the causal factor—neither the kindling nor the match—for the strife that erupted in 1861. I can do no better than to quote a man from the western border, who described the turmoil for a committee of the legislature. “The germ lies in the troubles of 1855, relating to Kansas,” said John R. Carter. “The original Union men in that region were opposed in the older day to the raids that were made into Kansas,” and so they “engendered a bitter hatred against themselves from the strong pro-slavery party.”
Part III. Pacification: 1862
General Price captured Lexington, but he couldn’t hold it. On February 12, 1862, he was forced out of the state entirely. He left behind an ailing Private Frank James, who surrendered and was allowed to go home in early 1862.
Union army commanders and provisional state government now turned to the pacification of the countryside. Columns of soldiers were put on the march, driving rebel partisans into hiding. At the same time, the provisional state government began to organize militia forces to keep order, and free up standard federal troops (the U.S. Volunteers) for the main battlefront. The most important was the MSM, or Missouri State Militia, an organization of about 10,000 full-time soldiers, armed and organized like the U.S. cavalry. The MSM established garrisons in rebel-controlled towns—but not until March 15, 1862, nearly a year after the start of the war, did it arrive in Liberty. James and O.P. Moss, along with Edward M. Samuel, could finally return home.
The MSM’s Fifth Cavalry Regiment, under Colonel William R. Penick, now enforced martial law in Clay County. Colonel Penick found, however, that the very success of Union forces simply put in motion an evolutionary process, a survival of the fittest. The smarter and tougher insurgents held together, and organized smaller, more nimble, more lethal guerrilla units.
The most famous of these survivors is still a familiar name. As a school girl in Clay County wrote in a letter, “There is a man by the name of Quantrill, who is fighting the Feds on his own hook. [He] is giving the Feds some trouble.” Riding fast horses and carrying multiple six-shot revolvers, he and his men staged hit-and-run attacks on Union forces in Jackson County. As early as February 3, 1862, a Union officer in Independence wrote of him as “the notorious Quantrill. . . . I have seen this infamous scoundrel rob mails, steal the coaches and horses, and commit other similar outrages upon society even within sight of this city. Mounted on the best horses in the country, he has defied pursuit. . . . I hear of him tonight fifteen miles from here, with new recruits, committing outrages on Union men, a large body of whom have come in tonight, driven out by him.”
Note the attacks on civilians. This was a hallmark of the conflict from the very beginning, and it would only grow worse.
But for all of the attention given to Quantrill, he was only one of many “bushwhackers,” as the Confederate guerrillas were called, and he operated mostly in Jackson County. Other insurgents stalked the state from end to end. Fighting them was frustrating. In Clay County, Colonel Penick took increasingly severe measures that fell mostly on civilians. “The Feds condescended to pay us a visit,” wrote a neighbor of Jesse James’s family, “though they were uninvited and unwelcome. They got in and were over half of the house before we knew they were on the place. They turned beds upside down, searched drawers and trunks, and jawed and disputed around considerably.” One day Penick and his troops stopped at a house and interrogated three men, who, he wrote, “denied having any knowledge of any camp or gathering of armed men.” A short distance away, the troops ran into a guerrilla outfit. “After the skirmish was over,” Penick reported, “I sent two of these men out . . . and had them shot.”
Such harsh measures appeared to be a military necessity. But guerrilla warfare is as much political and psychological as military. Colonel Penick thought only of the insurgents and their supporters; but his heavy-handed tactics often victimized neutral or even friendly civilians, turning some into opponents. Even Edward M. Samuel thought Penick was “very rigid,” and often spoke up for arrested neighbors.
Part IV. Radicalization: 1863
The state government organized an additional militia force, the Enrolled Missouri Militia, or EMM. It consisted of part-timers, local men who were to assume the lighter duties from the MSM and U.S. volunteers. None other than James H. Moss organized the EMM in Clay County, which replaced Penick’s MSM regiment.
The idea behind the EMM seems obvious: Put local security in the hands of men who know the community. The problem with it was threefold: First, the most highly motivated men had already joined the U.S. army or MSM. Second, the EMM recruits were untrained, underequipped, and unpaid. Third, the new force consisted of Unionists who had been feuding with their neighbors; there was a lot of bad blood. Now they were instructed to “subsist on the rebels, their aiders, and abettors”— essentially an order to loot the neighborhood.
The bad blood bled both ways. James H. Moss (now Colonel Moss) picked as his company commanders men known to be conservatives, former Whigs who were pillars of the community—but war was war. Captain Anthony Harsel, for example, owned at least sixteen slaves; but rebels called him as an abolitionist and burned his house down. Civilians refused to help the militia. “Many [local women] have told me that they, the bushwhackers, had as much right there as I, with my company,” reported Captain William Garth.
The EMM in Clay County became increasingly embittered. As a result, Edward Samuel explained, “they were becoming more radically Union.” Some militiamen started to think that slavery should be abolished. As Samuel put it, he himself was “an Unconditional Union man, even radically so, if necessary to put down this rebellion.”
That kind of talk infuriated Colonel Moss. He had no intention of destroying the old society in order to save it. “It is a common report here,” wrote a militia officer on February 14, 1863, “that Col. Moss of Clay County uses the Enrolled Militia of said county to prevent the escape of negroes.” I discovered one case of the militia whipping a rebellious slave, even though his owner was a secessionist.
But Colonel Moss’s day was passing. The state government organized a smaller and meaner version of the EMM—the Provisional EMM—with men noted for their hardline attitudes. In April, Colonel Moss was put on the shelf, and security for the county was taken over by the Provisionals.
On the other side, another family was radicalizing as well. In the spring of 1863, Frank James joined a guerrilla band led by Fernando Scott, a saddler from Liberty. On May 19, Frank took part in an ambush in which the guerrillas killed their prisoners, including Darius Sessions, a prewar Know-Nothing leader. The bushwhackers raided through Clinton and Clay counties before going to ground on the farm of Zerelda and Rueben Samuel, Frank’s mother and stepfather. Along the way, they encountered two civilians who reported their presence to the militia headquarters in Liberty. The tip proved crucial.
On May 25, 1863, the Provisional EMM stormed onto the Samuel farm. They roughed up Jesse, just fifteen years old, and demanded that Reuben Samuel tell them where the guerrillas were camped. He said he didn’t know. Lieutenant James H. Rogers reported, “The militia judged him to be speaking falsely, and at once procured a rope, placed it about his neck, and gave him one good swing.” When Reuben came down, choking and terrified, he cracked. He led the militia to his stepson’s encampment in the woods. Fernando Scott lost several men in the firefight that followed, though he and Frank James both escaped across the Missouri River in the aftermath.
Reuben and Zerelda Samuel now fell into the maze of martial law in Missouri. They both were arrested, held for some days, and eventually released on parole. The timid Reuben was ordered to report to the provost marshal’s office in St. Joseph every twenty days. Desperate to get out from under this requirement, he asked three neighbors to write a letter on his behalf. “We regard him as a peaceable, quiet, inoffensive man, who would harm no one,” they wrote. “He is, we hesitate not to state, under the control of his wife & stepson, and is really afraid to act contrary to their wishes in anything. This fear, we believe, caused him to make a false statement he would not otherwise have done. We know of no man who is more peaceably inclined and who is more inoffensive.” The letter was endorsed by Edward M. Samuel, who acted as an advisor to the assistant provost marshal for Clay County.
Poor Reuben. Caught between martial law and a militant wife and stepsons, he simply wanted to be left alone. In that way, he was much like a great, silent mass of Missourians. But Zerelda, Frank, and Jesse became ever more radical rebels. Such national events as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg only made them more bitter. Then, on the night of August 13, most of the remaining slaves on the farm probably joined a well-coordinated mass escape, called a “general stampede,” that emptied much of Clay County. On August 21, Frank followed Quantrill in the destruction of the Kansas town of Lawrence, the headquarters of the abolitionist Jayhawkers. The bushwhackers murdered more than 200 men and boys in cold blood, and burned down the town. Zerelda’s response was to name her newborn daughter Fannie Quantrell Samuel, “just to have a Quantrell in the family,” as she later put it.
The Union military commander in Kansas City, General Thomas Ewing, Jr., responded with General Order No. 11. As Mao later put it, the guerrilla is a fish that swims in the sea of civilian supporters, so Ewing decided to drain the sea. He ordered virtually everyone living in Quantrill’s theater of operations—Jackson, Cass, Bates, and the northern half of Vernon counties—to leave. “There is hundreds of people leaving their homes from this country,” wrote a colonel in the MSM, “and God knows what is to become of them. . . . It is heart sickening to see what I have seen since I have been back here. A desolate country and women & children some of them almost naked. Some on foot and some in old wagons. Oh God what a sight to see in this once happy and peaceable country.” The region was so thoroughly destroyed by Union troops that it became known as the Burnt District.
The cycle of radicalization had become unstoppable.
Part V. Eradication: 1863 to 1864
Colonel James H. Moss was determined to stop the cycle. He convinced Governor Hamilton Gamble, a fellow former Whig, to give him control again of Clay County, to protect it from retaliation by angry Kansans. Indeed, raids from Kansas by “Red Legs”—ideological Jayhawkers or just plain bandits—had been a big problem for Western Missouri. But Moss’s main concern was the radicalization of the militia. He wrote to Alexander Doniphan, “When I reached home I found that the entire military force . . . was nothing more or less than an armed mob. My arrival was like the falling of a thunder bolt in their midst.”
In a public speech, Moss denounced the radicals, and he dismissed antislavery officers. He refused to hand over prisoners to the provost marshal, and he even enlisted former Confederate soldiers, the better to fight Red Legs. All this upset local Unionists, including O.P. Moss. “I remarked to my brother that we were running considerable risk in putting arms into the hands of such men indiscriminately.” The Colonel dismissed the argument, saying, “The war was far down South.”
Unionists soon began to complain about Moss’s force, dubbing it the Paw-Paw Militia, after the plants that filled the creek bottoms where the guerrillas hid. When Red Legs raided Clay County, the Paw-Paws put up a good fight; when the bushwhackers showed up, the Paw-Paws disappeared—or defected.
Those guerrillas showed up in force in early 1864. After spending the winter with Confederate forces in Texas, Frank James and his comrades returned in the spring. Frank now followed Fletch Taylor, who led his band into Clay County. There 16-year-old Jesse James joined the ranks.
Jesse’s introduction to guerrilla warfare was stark. Taylor used his gang as a death squad, going house to house to murder Unionist farmers. Jesse’s first skirmish with Union forces came weeks later, when Taylor ambushed a pursuing column led by Captain William B. Kemper, an MSM officer sent to replace Colonel Moss and his disloyal Paw-Paws.
After the ambush, Fletch Taylor sent a letter to the Liberty Tribune, explaining his approach. “I am going to stay here until the Radicals all leave this county,” he wrote. He excused his attacks on civilians by accusing Captain Kemper of doing the same thing. “I will carry war on as you carry it on. You can’t drive me out of this county. . . . If I find that you are warring on the citizens, so be it; I will retaliate—if you fight me alone, I will return the compliment.”
Taylor largely succeeded in eradicating the Unionists. “A general terror prevails,” one man wrote. “Today there is not in the county of Clay one unconditional loyal Union man who dares to go into the harvest field to do a day’s work. Many of them have left the State; all are now talking of going.”
Taylor, however, lost his right arm to a shotgun blast. So, around the start of August 1864, the James boys joined up with William T. Anderson, better known as “Bloody Bill.” Anderson moved into Clay County, making Zerelda Samuel’s farm his base, and picked up where Taylor left off.
With Colonel Moss now out of the way, the Union command once again targeted rebel civilians, including Zerelda Samuel and her frightened husband. Reuben asked Edward M. Samuel to intervene with the provost marshal. He wanted a pass to go to Indiana. This time, however, Edward wouldn’t help. “I told him, very bluntly and plainly, that it was his duty to help the military authorities in finding out his stepsons, and in bringing them to justice,” Edward reported. He mocked Reuben as “an easy, good natured, good for nothing fellow” who was “completely under the control of his wife.”
The Union command had tried any number of counter-insurgency tactics in Clay: They had planted garrisons, dispatched patrols, searched for bushwhacker camps; arrested rebel sympathizers; placed ambushes of their own. Nothing worked. They now saw only one solution: to empty the land of the insurgency’s supporters. The military drew up a plan to banish Clay County’s leading secessionist families—and at the top of the list were Zerelda and her weak-kneed husband. One colonel called them “the most disloyal of that disloyal locality.”
The plan was help up by a bureaucratic glitch. The provost marshal headquarters in St. Louis wanted a more detailed report before issuing the orders. As the fighting heated up in the fall of 1864, the local officers never got around to it.
But the Samuels would not escape vengeance forever.
Part VI. Mutilation: 1864
The Missouri bushwhackers had a weakness that was also their strength. They were organic, self-organized guerrillas; they had no connection to the Confederate chain of command. That meant they had no overall strategy, no statewide coordination, which was a serious problem. The successful insurgencies in history have had a guiding hand—a George Washington, a Ho Chi Minh—but no one, not even Quantrill, ever filled that role in Missouri. As much trouble as the bushwhackers caused, they never came close to breaking the Union grip on the state. On the other hand, decentralization also made it nearly impossible to wipe them out. Killing off one band of guerrillas made no difference to the others; and each leader who died was simply replaced by another.
Both that weakness and that strength diminished in late 1864. General Price finally returned to Missouri, leading an army of invasion. The guerrillas rode to join him, convinced that the Confederate liberation had finally begun. By combining with a conventional army, however, they made themselves vulnerable to a decisive blow by Union forces. As Price’s army was eviscerated in October 1864, so were the bushwhackers who rode with him.
The exception to that story is “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Price welcomed him at a ceremony, mid-invasion, but then ordered him to go off in the opposite direction. “Bloody Bill” had become too bloody for comfort. On September 25, he had led his followers, including Jesse and Frank James, into the town of Centralia; as they were looting the town, they stopped a train and pulled out 22 unarmed Union soldiers. They gunned them down in cold blood, then mutilated their bodies. Afterward they lured a pursuing force into an ambush; they killed every man who tried to surrender, and engaged in further dismemberment of the dead.
Jesse’s special mentor in “Bloody Bill’s” band was Archie Clement. Clement became known as Anderson’s “scalper and head devil.” He popularized the custom of scalping the dead, and displaying the bloody trophies from their saddles and bridles. Cutting off heads and genitals was another hobby that became increasingly common.
Massacres and mutilation are hardly unknown in American history, but they usually occurred across lines of race and ethnicity. Whites often butchered blacks, and atrocities by both sides in wars with Native Americans were extremely common. But in Missouri, white Protestant men slaughtered and carved up white Protestant men—men from the same state, often from the same communities.
Why? The answer is in part sociological. A military institutional culture was nonexistent on the bushwhacker side, and very weak on the militia side. Units from both sides operated with great independence. In this environment, the process of violentization—the social pressure to become hyper violent—became unstoppable. And the answer is in part biological. The participants were almost all young men, often teenagers, at an age when the parts of the brain that control judgment are not yet fully developed. And the answer is in part ideological. The people of Missouri had been on the front lines of the long political battle leading up to the war. This was a highly political age, and the politics had progressively become more and more polarized, the positions more and more extreme, more and more uncompromising. When the shooting finally started, they were primed for the worst. Once the worst began, a self-feeding cycle kept carrying it to new levels of horror.
In October, a skillful militia commander named Samuel Cox used Anderson’s favorite tactic, the decoy, the lure “Bloody Bill” into an ambush. Cox and his men shot “Bloody Bill” off his horse, which was decorated with human scalps. Jesse and Frank James returned to Clay County, where they went from house to house, murdering the remaining Unionists. Then they fled to Texas.
Meanwhile, Captain William Kemper returned to the task of collecting evidence in order to exile the county’s leading secessionists. He singled out the worst of the worst: Zerelda Samuel and her brood. He wrote in his official report to St. Louis:
"Of Reubin Samuel & family. Samuel lives in Clay County. I regard his wife as being one of the worst women in this State. She has two sons in the brush now & have been for 10 months. They have engaged in the murder of a number of citizens of this county. They were with Bill Anderson and assisted in the murdering of 22 unarmed federal soldiers at Centralia Mo some time in the month of Sept last. I heard her asked the question a few days since, if she was not ashamed of her sons—the way they were acting & she rejoined that she was not—that she was proud of them—that she prayed to God to protect them in their work. . . . It is not through anything personal that is existing between these parties & myself that I speak thus. . . . I feel today that I am almost as much in ‘rebellion’ here in this county as I would be in South Carolina."
On January 29, 1865, Reuben and Zerelda Samuel were ordered to take their children and leave the state. They settled in Nebraska, just across the river from Missouri.
Part VII. Purification: 1865-66
The order to exile the Samuel family was personally approved by the Union commander in Missouri, General Grenville M. Dodge. On January 16, 1865, Dodge explained his policies to President Lincoln in an eight-page letter. His strategy was to concentrate on “the Missouri River Counties,” he wrote. “No loyal people can live there.” He wanted to exile secessionists, and give control to “local loyal organizations,” which, he explained, “I consider the best troops to keep these outlaws under.”
Missourians would have to solve their own problems, and solve them by force. As one militia general urged three months later, “Organize! Organize! All volunteer troops are being withdrawn from North Missouri; martial law will soon be abrogated, civil law will be supreme. Spencer rifles must aid in the good work.” But handing off security to local forces may have aggravated the divisions within Missouri.
The war had divided Unionists into two camps, the Radicals and Conservatives, and it was the most hardline Radicals who now took charge along the Missouri River. They were determined to banish the rebels and overturn the old society. General Dodge alluded to this in his letter to Lincoln. Don’t worry about the exodus of secessionists from these counties, he told the President. “They do not leave on account of depredations committed upon them by the troops, but through fear of the action of the state convention.”
That convention was elected in 1864 to rewrite Missouri’s constitution. This Radical-controlled body embarked on a revolution. It enacted immediate emancipation, freeing thousands of slaves still held in Missouri. It also tried to bar Confederates from public life forever. It required an “Iron-Clad Oath” of each voter, a sworn declaration that he had not committed any of 86 rebellious acts, including simply expressing sympathy for an individual Confederate. It barred all but strong Unionists from any public position, including corporate offices, the profession of law, teaching, even preaching the gospel. To top it off, the convention empowered the governor to appoint new officials for almost every public office, down to the county level. The purification of Missouri had begun.
The problem was, the bushwhackers were still around. Even as General Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, Jesse James was riding behind back from Texas behind Archie Clement, killing and plundering. On May 11, Clement demanded the surrender of the town of Lexington! Four days later, he and Jesse James ran into a patrol of Wisconsin cavalry; Jesse was shot through the lung. Tellingly, it was the only well-established incident in which he exchanged fire with troops from a state other than Missouri, and it was four weeks after the war officially ended. The badly wounded Jesse was carried into the town of Lexington, where he surrendered and was paroled.
The war may have ended, but the bitterness did not. Ol Shepherd, a bushwhacker friend of the James brothers, negotiated the surrender of his men and himself on May 25. “We must keep our side arms,” he wrote, “for you know we have personal enemies that would kill us at the first opportunity.” As late as June 15, 1866, a wild gunfight erupted just a few miles north of Zerelda Samuel’s farm between a former bushwhacker and one of his wartime victims. In October 1866, a year and a half after the war ended, army Lieutenant James Burbank was sent to investigate reports of “an armed pistol company” in western Missouri. The search was fruitless, he reported. “Nearly every man I saw during my stay in these counties carried army revolvers, even men at work in the fields, and boys riding about town.” It was “a habit which grew out of the unsettled condition of the country since the war.”
The Unionists, meanwhile, were fighting each other. Men such as James H. Moss and his brother were Conservatives—who became the Democratic party in the state. They wanted to reintegrate the former rebels as quickly as possible, and put things back as they were as closely as possible. Men such as Edward M. Samuel were Radicals—who became the Republican party in the state. They saw the Confederates as traitors, and wanted to keep them out of politics, and preferably out of Missouri. A Radical committee in Clinton County, neighboring Clay, announced: “We advise them not to make their abode with us, and if they do so, they do it at their peril.” The Radicals were suspicious of the Conservatives for their friendliness toward the former Confederates, which justified, in their minds, any and all means to defeat them at the ballot box.
Across the state, Republicans (I’m using Radical and Republican interchangeably now) replaced county officials who represented the old society. The Republicans even took charge in business. Back in 1861, many rural banks had lent heavily to equip secessionist forces, counting on reimbursement by the Confederate government. When the Union prevailed, they went bankrupt. The Liberty branch of the failed Farmer’s Bank was purchased by the leading Republicans of the county, including Edward M. Samuel and James Love, who had risen to prominence as a Radical during the war. They renamed it the Clay County Savings Association.
On January 29, the Republicans of Liberty, a party created by the war, held the party’s first mass meeting ever in Clay County. Their leaders were mostly former militia officers—also happened to be the chief officers of the Clay County Savings Association. Two weeks later, a group of former bushwhackers selected that bank for the nation’s first armed, daylight bank robbery in peacetime. The chief suspect was Archie Clement, the heir to “Bloody Bill” Anderson and the mentor to Jesse James.
The robbery marked the start of a year-long campaign of crime and intimidation by Clement’s band. They robbed at least two, perhaps three more banks (all owned by Unionists). They also clashed with the Radicals of Clay and Lafayette counties (Archie Clement’s home), focusing on the voter registration officials who were trying to keep all but Republicans from voting.
The Republican officials in Clay sent an appeal to the army, declaring, “We deem the lives of Union men in great danger. . . . Several of the most respectable citizens have been ordered to leave and many others have been publicly insulted and their lives threatened.” A Republican newspaper in Kansas City declared, “Clay County, Lafayette county, and Callaway county are today worse, if possible, than they were five years ago.” In much of the state, Radicals intimidated their enemies with their own armed bands; in Archie Clement’s territory, however, they lived in fear.
On election day, Clement led his men through the streets of Lexington. Firing their revolvers in the air, they forced the Republicans into hiding. The sheriff sent a desperate appeal for help. After some delay, Governor Thomas Fletcher sent in the state militia. They cornered Clement in a saloon, and a wild gunfight erupted as he ran out and mounted his horse. He died in front of the court house, riddled with bullets.
The death of Archie Clement marked a turning point in the postwar career of the guerrillas. Most of the old bushwhackers in Missouri had returned to peaceful lives, or became isolated criminals. What made Clement unusual is how he kept his group together after the war, and focused much of his violence on political foes. He was a brutal, impulsive robber, but he also hated Radicals. His actions in November 1866 even swung the local election to the Democrats, as he intended.
In peace, as in war, the bushwhackers knew who their enemy was, but they had no strategy for victory. They simply wanted to inflict pain. But Clement left behind two legacies: First, a model of how the bushwhackers could continue to live the lawless life, by robbing banks; second, an inspiration to avenge the Confederate defeat, by attacking the victors where they could.
At least one of his followers grasped Clement’s legacy, and his name was Jesse James. He may or may not have been present for the events of 1866; many think his lung wound still kept him out of the saddle, while other reports place him in Lexington on election day. Still, Clement remained an icon to him. When his mother Zerelda had another son, she named him Archie, in Clement’s memory. As late as 1876, Jesse wrote, “Arch Clement, one of the noblest boys, and the most promising military boy of this age, [was] murdered in cold blood [by] Tom Fletcher’s cut-throat militia.”
Part VIII. Justification: 1869-76
In the three years after Clement’s death, his old group continued to rob banks, but arrests, gunfights, and local lynch mobs decimated their ranks. Then, in December 1869, Jesse James got his name in the newspapers for the first time by murdering a bank officer he mistakenly believed to be Samuel Cox, the militia commander who had killed “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the war. Indeed, he boasted of the crime as he escaped.
That murder brought Jesse to the attention of the editor of the Kansas City Times, a former Confederate cavalryman named John Newman Edwards. Over the next five years, Edwards and James worked together, building the former guerrilla into a symbol of the persecution that former Confederates felt. In my book, I suggest that Jesse is best understood as a kind of forerunner of the modern terrorist. I use that comparison carefully; he robbed for the money, and most of the time did not select symbolic targets. But he used violence and notoriety for a political purpose, writing letters to newspapers that attacked the Radicals and echoed Edwards’s editorials.
The dual image of Jesse James—both martyr and avenger—helped Edwards to reshape Missouri’s historical memory, to convince even Unionist Democrats that it was a Southern state, badly mistreated by the Union (despite the fact that three out of four Missourians who fought in the war fought against the Confederacy.)
This was the secret of Jesse James’s popularity during his own lifetime—not as a Robin Hood, going after corporate capitalism, but as a Confederate demanding his rights in bitterly divided postwar society. When the rebels were allowed to vote again, Edwards and James helped to create a Confederate identity for the state. On the local level, Jesse James received material support from former Confederates, while the neighbors who cooperated in the attempts to capture him were all former Unionists, some of them former militiamen. On the statewide level, Edwards worked the legislature to aid the outlaws and use their symbolism to help the Confederates win control of the Democratic party. With the collapse of Reconstruction, both U.S. senate seats and much of the legislature were filled with former Confederates.
The guerrilla war in Missouri had been stopped by a combination of military measures, political resolution, and psychological pressure. During Price’s raid in 1864, many of the bushwhacker leaders were killed, disorganizing the survivors. Then came Lee’s surrender, which removed the political reason for the guerrillas’ existence. The bushwhackers were physically capable of continuing to fight, but the Confederate surrender had a huge psychological impact, at a time when they lacked their old leadership.
The Radicals, however, bungled the peace. By excluding the rebels from politics, they left them with no outlet for their grievances except violence. On the other hand, they provided the state with no adequate law-enforcement institutions to suppress disorder and resistance. In other words, the victors were both provocative and weak. By keeping his men together, Archie Clement took advantage of these circumstances. His successor, Jesse James, attracted even greater support. Edwards helped establish him as a political avenger. Jesse, meanwhile, carried out daring crimes with near impunity, further feeding his legend.
The irony is that he outlived his role. After the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876 (and the destruction of his gang at Northfield, Minnesota), he could not stop living the life that his guerrilla childhood had prepared him for. Without a political excuse for his crimes, he rapidly lost support. Governor Thomas T. Crittenden orchestrated a plot that resulted in James’s murder in 1882, not three years after he returned to crime.
Lucky Jesse. In his cinematic assassination, he was elevated from violent Confederate avenger to kindly populist folk hero. The political context of his crimes drained away from memory, as did the horrors and grassroots divisions that shaped his life, and Missouri history.
Lexington, Missouri, center of Archie Clement's activities during the election of 1866 and scene of his death
Fletch Taylor, Frank James, and Jesse James