Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just finished reading - Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles

When I was young I remember seeing an episode of the Brady Bunch where Bobby became infatuated with the story of Jesse James and began to consider him a hero. Mr. Brady wanted Bobby to learn the true story of Jesse James so he had an old timer come to the Brady house and tell Bobby the true story of James. Like Bobby, I didn't know much about Jesse or his brother Frank James...until I read this book. I had previously read some about the bushwhacking war that went on in Missouri during the Civil War, and of course, I had heard of Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson; and one of my favorite Civil War movies is Ride With the Devil, which covers this aspect of the war. But I didn't understand the background and motivations for those that brought about this neighbor-on-neighbor, personal-style of warfare to Missouri and beyond.

Jesse Woodson James was born the son of a Baptist preacher, Robert James, and a strong-willed mother, Zerelda Cole James, in 1847 in Clay County, Missouri. Robert James had emigrated to Missouri from Kentucky with Zerelda in 1842. Robert James was not only a minister, but also a successful farmer and owner of a small number of slaves. Jesse had been preceded in birth by his brother, Alexander Franklin (Frank), who was born in 1843. Robert James went to California in 1850 for the Gold Rush, but instead of finding riches, he died of camp fever. Zerelda married a much older Benjamin Simms two years later, but Simms died in 1854. Then a year and a half later she married Dr. Reuben Samuel. They would remain married the rest of their lives and have a number of children together, but it was clear early on that Zerelda ruled the roost in this union.

Jesse was just 13 when the Civil War broke out. 18 year old brother Frank joined the states' Confederate forces, but was quickly captured and paroled. Back at home in Clay County, Frank joined up with William Clarke Quantrill's guerrilla band and participated in the terrible raid on Lawrence, Kansas in August of 1863. Jesse joined up with the group of bushwhackers in the spring of 1864 at the age of 16. The type of warfare that Jesse and Frank James waged in western Missouri is difficult to understand. In a sense the Civil War provided the opportunity for neighbors to take vengeance on neighbors for feuds that predated the conflict, but often dealt with the whether the victim was pro or anti-slavery. Those with a history of anti-slavery, and then were pro-Union, or who were in the Republican Party during the war, became the James's most noted targets. During the war Jesse was shot on two different occasions in almost the same location; the right chest. The first wounding didn't do much damage, but the other punctured his lung. He healed from both rather quickly and was soon out again on his exploits.

After the formal surrenders of the Confederate armies many of the bushwhackers continued their backwoods war. Jesse and Frank were not in the exception. Instead of fighting the pro-Union Missouri militias, now they started fighting against the Reconstruction policies and politicians that had so starkly changed the James's worlds. They targeted banks and express companies for robberies that were run by Radical Republicans, and waged a war in the press with a befriended editor, John Newman Edwards, to claim their innocence and express their desire to overthrow an unpopular governance. A good example of their anit-Radical tactics is the James-Younger Gang's famous raid on Northfield, Minnesota in 1876. This botched robbery was largely an effort to damage former Union general, Freedman's Bureau officer, Radical Governor and Senator of Mississippi, Aldelbert Ames, who owned a flour mill and had banking interests in Northfield.

Politically, the James brothers were largely successful. They helped discourage or at least keep Northern influence at bay in Missouri. All the while their public relations, especially with former Confederates, could not have been better. Edwards the editor carefully crafted their image as Robin Hoods of sorts. After a rather long career as a thief and murderer, Jesse would meet his death in 1882, at the hand of one of his associates Bob Ford, who had been hired by Missouri governor Crittenden to finally bring Jesse to bay. As Jesse climbed a chair to dust and straighten a picture Ford shot him in the head. Frank would live in hiding and obscurity for many years, and finally passed away in 1915.

Jesse James is an American figure who has long been shrouded in myth and legend, but Stiles does an excellent job of stripping off the layers to get at the real Jesse James, and does so in an excellent style of writing. If this book sounds interesting, also check out the movies Ride with the Devil, and the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

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