Jesse James was a man
He was known throughout the land
He was bold, he was bad, but he was brave;
But that dirty little coward
That shot down Mr. Howard
Has gone and laid poor Jesse in his grave . . .
T. J. Stiles
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
New York: Chelsea House, 1993
When I was in graduate school at Mizzou I had an internship at Missouri’s State Historical Society, and our extensive genealogy books and indexes were always researched and well-used. There were two people Missourians most wanted to be descended from: Thomas Jefferson and Jesse James.
As the above song notes, Jesse is a folk hero of sorts, especially in Missouri — a 16-year-old who went to war against the Union, learning and perfecting his horsemanship, shooting skills, and hiding abilities, all of which would do him good stead when the war ended. Or did it?
T. J. Stiles’ book, written in 1993, argues that Jesse, instead of being a mere outlaw, was a terrorist of sorts fighting for the Confederacy as he knocked over banks and trains in Reconstruction America, although the mess after the war was as much deconstructive as reconstructive. Stiles’ absorbing and thoughtful narrative is still very relevant, perhaps even more so nowadays as polls show a strong percentage of Americans think a civil war is just around the corner. The issues of antebellum strife have crept back into the forum.
Stiles wished to deromanticize the Jesse James legend, and dismisses the idea of Jesse as a Wild West bandit or a Robin Hood goin’ agin the banks and such. Instead, Stiles offers a complicated story of a young man coming of age in the fierce political world of a divided Missouri caught between secession and union, slavery and abolition.
The James family came from Kentucky and settled in western Missouri, along the Missouri River from the west to central Missouri, in a region that was called — and is still called — Little Dixie. The transplanted Southerners brought their way of life with them, and of course this meant slaves.
This world, as Stiles describes it, wasn’t one of isolated farmers subsisting on meager crops and wanting to be left alone by big government. It was a world of camaraderie and various goods that were being manufactured, such as saddles, tobacco, and hemp (no, not marijuana!), which was grown to be shipped to as many diverse markets as possible by riverboats on the Missouri while they were on their way back to St. Louis, bringing goods from all over the world. The Southerners here wanted the world and, as George Caleb Bingham depicted in his paintings, it was a society where political issues were debated in open assemblies. It was a world at once independent, self-sufficient, and free.
This was Jesse’s society, and it was doomed.
Robert James, Jesse’s father, was a prosperous hemp farmer and Baptist minister. Robert joined the gold rush and went west, but died there in 1850, leaving three-year old Jesse fatherless. Robert’s wife Zerelda was a determined and formidable woman who took over the farm and its almost assembly-like food production. Her photograph shows a strong, opinionated woman one would not want to argue points of politics or faith with. Zerelda supported Jesse through all his banditry. When Pinkerton sent J. W. Whicher, an agent, to infiltrate the gang, the Sheriff warned him to get out of the area. “The old woman will kill you if the boys don’t,” he said.
Whicher shrugged this off, used his Pinkerton skills to approach the farmhouse, and his body was found in a ditch a couple of days later.
Zerelda was remarried to Dr. Reuben Samuel, a physician who gave up his practice to farm. Surprisingly, Stiles says this was a wise decision, since farming was seen as more respectable than medicine, doctors being “skilled tradesmen with pretensions.” How about that, Dr. Fauci?
Samuel was seen as always deferring to the formidable Zerelda. People called the place “Mrs. Samuel’s farm.”
Stiles opposes Jesse’s usual classification as a Western outlaw alongside Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, and others. He had no connection to the West, and his criminal life was solely rooted in the Civil War in Missouri. The problem was that the Southerners had a place there and controlled the political system, but there simply weren’t enough of them. The North had many supporters in the rest of the state. In 1861, the pro-Southern Claiborne Jackson was the Governor and wanted to keep out of the approaching war. He mobilized the state militia for possible resistance and prepared to seize the federal arsenal in St. Louis. General Lyon, the local Union commander, got wind of this and beat him to the punch. He drove Jackson and the pro-Confederate political leadership out to Texas. The early Civil War in Missouri then became a see-saw: The Union forces prevailed politically, while the Southern forces won some early battles — but they simply couldn’t maintain an army.
Sterling Price, Missouri’s Confederate commander, sent a call to arms for 50,000 men. 5,000 responded. Throughout the entire war, Missouri furnished 50,000 Confederate volunteers, while 110,000 joined the Union forces.
Despondent over the low turnout, Price issued a stern public appeal that sounds like a lot of castigating on the Internet:
Are Missourians no longer true to themselves? Are they a timid, time-serving, craven race, fit only for subjection to a despot? Where are our Southern rights friends?
Those “friends” were the bushwhackers.
Jesse claimed he was forced to join the bushwhackers because Unionists came to his farm and hung his stepfather (although they failed to kill him), hauled his mother off for interrogation, and dragged him through their tobacco field. The reason Union troops had come was because Frank, Jesse’s older brother, had joined the Confederate forces and they were searching for him.
This kind of crackdown caused other Missourians who were initially neutral to join the South. Sam Hildebrand, a notorious bushwhacker in east Missouri, gave up his neutrality when Union troops sent to fetch him found only his brother, and gunned him down instead.
The bushwhackers, who operated as armed, mounted bands, proved a tough if strategically inefficient enemy. To combat them, Missouri became a police state. Union garrisons dotted the countryside. It became a fierce partisan war unlike how the war was fought in the rest of the country, where most of the fighting was carried out in conventional military fashion.
The Union forces weren’t outsiders, for the most part; they were native Missourians. When their kin were gunned down or burned out, they went to the Southern supporters, killed some and burned others out, causing the Southerners to retaliate — and thus the cycle continued.
Jesse was radicalized, so to speak, but he was from a solidly pro-Southern family and it didn’t take much to persuade him to join fierce, bloodthirsty men like William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson. These were men who happily gunned down Union prisoners, their scalps hanging from their saddles. The war and political outrages unleashed a savagery that had never been seen before in America. As one veteran put it, “You’re going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average 19-year-old American boy.”
The fact that Jesse was three years underage made no difference. The bushwhackers learned to hide in the state’s forests and ambush their foes in its many winding roads. They foraged off the land or relied on friendly farmers, of which there more than a few. They used Colt revolvers, usually three per man or more; their rapid fire and mobility made them a formidable light cavalry capable of mounting a blitzkrieg on horseback. A man armed with two or three Colts, with their six chambers, made them the Civil War’s answer to the assault rifle.
Jesse became fast and dangerous, and liked it. His brother had joined Quantrill in the savage raid on Lawrence, Kansas in 1863, where 200 men and boys were slaughtered by a swarm of bushwhackers that descended on that outpost of abolitionism and Union control. Quantrill urged his men on: “Lawrence should be thoroughly cleaned, and the only way to cleanse it is to kill! Kill!”
Stiles notes that the bushwhackers waged total war not only against the Union, but against the population as a whole — against the very notion of Union or abolition. It became an ethnic war as fierce as the one in Bosnia.
Stiles mostly blames the Southerners for the violence, especially the pre-war strife along the Kansas-Missouri border. While Nebraska declared itself a free territory, it was too far away for Missouri to intervene, but they could easily cross the border into neighboring Kansas, where they would threaten, pillage, and kill. In elections, in counties where there were only a few hundred voters, Missourians turned in thousands of ballots. Stiles simply notes that the war in Missouri was only a continuation of what had happened in “Bleeding Kansas” during the 1850s. In this light, John Brown and his slaughtering of pro-Southerners at Osawatomie was merely equal time.
After Lawrence, the Union’s response was to evict thousands of Missourians from the border, in effect depriving bushwhackers of their sanctuaries. The fury over this incensed people like Jesse, and for decades, Southerners didn’t forget. In 1905, a proud Harry Truman enlisted in the Missouri National Guard and showed his uniform to his family. His grandmother, who had been one of those evicted, told him, “Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don’t bring it here again.”
When the Civil War ended, Missouri became a huge repository of anti-Union sentiment that was easily stoked when the state’s Republican government excluded Confederate veterans, demanded that all citizens take an oath of allegiance to the United States, and issued a new state constitution that gave equal rights to blacks.
The Union had suffered 360,000 dead in order to preserve the Union and free the slaves, but it soon came to seem as if those supposedly noble deaths had also served to feed the most ignoble and venal government corruption in America at that time. Southerners felt that they were under a dictatorship in all the former Confederate areas, Missouri being one of them. The Republicans became Radical Republicans. Stiles maintains that the war never really ended for many in the South, nor in Missouri.
Nearly everyone in Jesse’s gang had been bushwhackers in the war. They began robbing banks. Stiles claims that they did this as a combination of thievery and striking back at those big interests that had backed the Union and profited from it. He argues that Jesse and his fellow bandits were a kind of terrorist group — and in fact on one of their first robberies they wore what were described as Ku Klux Klan masks.
The high tide of Jesse’s career was in the Reconstruction era. This was when the North imposed a dictatorship in the South to enforce racial equality, as well as, frankly, economic exploitation. Thus there were many disgruntled people, especially in Missouri, and many of them were armed.
Banks were seen as instruments of Northern economic oppression, and the expanding railroads as an example of Northern technology being used to control how farmers got their goods to market. It was a more exploitative transit system than the old riverboats had been, due to price fixing. Enormous fortunes were made from these new twins of finance and technology, and there was general discontent throughout much of America with these new developments. At an unveiling of a portrait of the financial buccaneers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, one stockholder remarked, “I see the two thieves, now where’s Christ?”
It didn’t take a lot of imagination for Jesse James to become a Robin Hood of the conquered and oppressed, even as some of his wartime atrocities, like his gunning down of farmers as they were picking apples from their orchards, were readily admitted.
Among Jesse’s supporters was John Newman Edwards, former adjutant of Missouri Confederate General Joe Shelby, who had became a journalist. He offered romantic descriptions of the Missouri bushwhackers in his florid style:
Free to come and go; bound by no enlistment and dependent upon no bounty; hunted by one nation and apologized for by the other; . . . merciful rarely and merciless often . . . holding no crime as bad as that of cowardice; courteous to women amid the wild license of pillage and slaughter; steadfast as faith to comradeship or friend . . .
Edwards was always in communication with Jesse, since he wrote many letters to newspapers to justify his robberies and denounce the bankers. It was said that Edwards doctored some of these letters, but it may have been only to correct the grammar. Jesse was hardly an unlettered hoodlum. He came from an educated family, and therefore explained his actions very well. He wrote that “I will never surrender to be mobbed by a set of bloodthirsty poltroons . . .” He was referring to the Radical Republicans, whom he considered “degraded” for their supposed race-mixing, blaming them for turning him into a fugitive. Jesse expressed his self-justification:
We never kill, only in self-defense . . . But a man who is a d___d enough fool to refuse to open a safe or a vault when he is covered with a pistol ought to die.
This was certainly a bandit’s self-justification. But when Jesse took up his pen, he was also partisan:
Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is to hang them, but Grant and his party can steal millions, and it is all right . . . It hurts me very much to be called a thief. It makes me feel like they were trying to put me a par with Grant and his party.
Stiles notes that the Jesse James gang’s biggest public support came during the ugly resentments of the Reconstruction period. In Missouri, the Republican governors were always trying to arrest Jesse, but his bushwhacking skills came in handy. He always enjoyed the grassroots support of people who hid and fed his group. As noted earlier in Whicher’s case, the James farm was a fortress not to be breached.
Pinkerton nevertheless kept up his battle against the James gang. A raid on his farm by former Unionists led to the use of dynamite in an eerie prelude to the Waco massacre. Jesse got away, but the blast killed his younger brother and blew off one of Zerelda’s arms. The outrage over this led to an outpouring of support. Pinkerton had to admit defeat and stopped trying to track Jesse down.
When Jesse raided trains, he only ever robbed the passengers on two occasions. His gang always went after the express car, where the safe was kept. Stiles notes that it wasn’t really the railroads that went after Jesse, but rather the express transit companies that carried the loot. They put bounties on Jesse and sent men like Pinkerton to deal with him.
Jesse and his gang seemed impervious to the state of Missouri’s efforts to collar him because the state itself, while controlled by Radical Republicans, was seeing a groundswell of Southern sentiment that continued into the 1870s. Stiles notes that James, while seen as a defender of the poor and downtrodden, was also always linked to the Confederacy in the public imagination.
His downfall of sorts came in August 1876 during a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota. It was, Stiles asserts, a semi-political act, as one of the Northfield bank’s directors was Adalbert Ames, a Union army hero and later military governor of Mississippi. He firmly supported the radical plan of black enfranchisement. When this was strongly resisted, Ames became disenchanted and he went to Minnesota to get away from politics and regroup. He little imagined that he would end up as a target of Jesse James.
Unlike the gang’s other robberies, Northfield was a disaster. Three of the gang were killed, and Jesse’s right-hand man Cole Younger and his three brothers were all captured in the subsequent chase. Stiles asserts that the fiasco might have the result of a rising crime wave of land pirates like Jesse. Ordinary people were armed and had become more suspicious of strangers in town. Of Jesse’s gang, it was noted that although they were “nobler looking fellows,” there “was a reckless, bold, swagger about them that seemed they would be rough and dangerous fellows to handle.”
Townsmen now expected robbers. Before the war, bank robberies in America were almost unheard of. The banks’ main problem were burglars and safe-crackers. When Jesse and his gang began their robberies, the citizens rallied, whipped out their guns in a textbook case for the Second Amendment, and fought back. Ames, when he heard the shooting, ran toward the action and calmly fired on the gang. The city marshal was, incredibly enough, unarmed, but he did throw rocks at the escaping group. Two civilians had been killed. Frank and Jesse escaped and retreated from the far north back to their home turf, only because their bushwhacking skills had clicked in.
The raid’s failure presaged Jesse’s decline, because the country changed in 1876. After a fixed election, the South was outraged. Samuel J. Tilden, the Democrat, lost to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, mostly because the Republicans had manipulating the polling in the South, which was still occupied by the Union army, and “Tilden or blood” was as strong a threat as our recent invectives against the Deplorables. Stiles argues that it was the Southern Democrats who spiked the election, but there’s ample evidence that the Republicans used their influence at polling places in areas under occupation to swing votes. As it was, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote (Tilden won the popular vote by 250,000 votes, losing by only one electoral vote). To head off another civil war, the north abandoned Reconstruction and Southerners regained the political power they had had before 1861, This also meant that black enfranchisement ended, for the most part.
Stiles sees this as a tragedy, but I argue that the real reason Reconstruction ended was that the North was tired of radical legislation and occupying the South. Americans in the North finally decided that if it was a choice between fighting the South again or dumping the endless, frustrating fight for negro rights, they would choose the white race, and so bought about 90 years of peace — until the 1960s.
Once Southern self-government was reestablished, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan disbanded, and the return of the pre-war status quo meant that sympathy for Jesse lessened. Even John Newman Edwards distanced himself from Jesse. Now that the South had had some of its power and honor restored, Jesse’s semi-political freebooting lost its appeal and justification. He had always been a man made by the war and, as Stiles described him, a man in the shadows. With the end of Reconstruction, the country settled down.
So did Frank James. He farmed and raised horses, but Jesse, while half-heartedly trying to settle down, was too itchy to stay put. Again claiming that the state wouldn’t let him live a peaceful life, he returned to a life of robbery, and took to robbing train passengers as well as the safes full of banknotes.
The state of Missouri had had enough of him, and when Jesse returned home after living in Kentucky, Missouri Governor Crittenden called for a meeting of bank, railroad, and express officials to raise the bounty on his head.
As the legend goes, Jesse was finally shot in the back by Robert Ford in 1882. Robert and his brother Charley were the last of the gang, and were willing to do whatever they could to collect the bounty on Jesse, suspecting that he was in fact about to shoot them. One factor leading to Jesse’s end was the lower quality of his new gang; the old Civil war bushwhackers, with their military mentality and code of honor, were gone. As a result, Jesse had to rely on lower-class crooks — and we know what they say about honor among thieves.
Yet, Jesse lived on. He was first a Confederate warrior, then a man who refused to accept defeat, becoming a Robin Hood of the dispossessed. In the twentieth century he came to be seen as a misunderstood, troubled man.
Stiles offers the most recent interpretation of Jesse as a political terrorist. Stiles continually laments the end of Reconstruction and is on the side of the oppressed blacks. These days, however, after George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and a never-ending cycle of black crime and welfare abuse that is harder to defend than it was 30 years ago, Jesse’s stance might have new admirers.
In his History of the American People, Paul Johnson notes that the Civil War ended the slavery problem and began the Negro problem, which is still with us. An authoritarian federal government such as the one that arose under Abraham Lincoln and persisted until the end of Reconstruction dismantled it has arisen again, and in the age of Biden it is readily acknowledged to be an immoral, tyrannical threat to the American people. Perhaps not by all of them, but certainly the smell of disenfranchisement is in the air as much as it was in Jesse’s world of 1861 Missouri.
When I studied Missouri history in high school, what we learned about Jesse was less than inspiring, as it focused on his criminal life of Jesse and his Civil War atrocities. The author observes that if Jesse James has been sanitized in order to become a folk hero, one wonders what the original Robin Hood must have been like.
Yet now, a great percentage of the American populace is seen as “Deplorables,” and it is being made clear by the Yankees’ descendants that this is a class which mustn’t be allowed to exist. In the 2020 election, Chris Wallace grilled both candidates about white supremacy. Now, merely being white is crime enough, according to the ruling class. I wonder if more and more people are thinking that if I’m gonna do the time, I might as well do the crime. Jesse appears less as Robin Hood today than as someone fighting to stay alive against a repressive government. As the bumper sticker says, when freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will be free.
Perhaps the final word on Jesse James and his bushwhacker past might be from Ang Lee’s magnificent film Ride With the Devil, which was adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On. Alex Linder’s review of the film questioned whether liberty is consistent with civilized order. Linder felt that the film showed that feral men are the only free men.
A crucial scene in the film is when the bushwhackers, hiding out at a safe house during the winter (they had to wait for spring, when the trees and brush offered enough cover, to go back to war), they dine with a Mr. Evans, a pro-Southerner who plans to escape to Texas. He and his well-armed guests speak of Lawrence, Kansas, and how the Yankee invasion had begun in the schoolhouse. As Chiles, one of the bushwhackers, remarks: “Spelling won’t help you hold a plow any firmer. Or a gun, either.”
No, it won’t, Mr. Chiles, but my point is merely that they rounded up every pup-pup into the schoolhouse because they fancied that everyone should think and talk the same freethinking way they do, with no regard to station, custom, or property. And that is why they will win. Because they believe everyone should live and think just like them. And we shall lose. Because we don’t care one way or another how they live, we just worry about ourselves.
This has a special poignancy when we consider our present situation. It’s hardly lunatic-fringe stuff to say that the public schools have declared war on morality and normal human behavior.
Linder argued that destroying this feral kind of male left our people open for destruction. He mused that the same kind of whites who were Unionists and Jayhawkers and who fought the bushwhackers descended into the pitiful white victims of the 2000 Wichita massacre, where they were forced to perform sexual acts before their black captors, and were then forced to drive to an ATM to give the blacks money before they were forced to lie naked in the snow, waiting to be shot.
I once met Daniel Woodrell and asked him about the tension between feral liberty and submission, and he agreed that it is a theme he is drawn to in his writing.
I always took the traditional view, being from a policeman’s family, that Jesse James was a criminal. But Stiles claims Jesse was a terrorist — in effect, a white supremacist. These days we all seem to be white supremacists, so maybe Jesse doesn’t look so bad anymore. Nowadays, where the Reconstruction era’s mores have become regnant, both in terms of racial demands and rule by plutocrats, the past has a way of becoming more relevant than we think.
* * *
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