Guerrilla into Criminal
- Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles
Cape, 510 pp, £20.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 224 06925 X
In the village of Astee in County Kerry there is a pub where thirty years ago the lavatory consisted of a sink, a hole in the floor, and an alcove whose wall was thick with black mould. When it was occupied, the patrons used the hall, which was, except for the sink and the hole, indistinguishable from the lavatory. This is one thing I remember about the pub; the other thing I remember is that the pub was called the Jesse James. Someone told me it was named for James because his people came from there. But a lot of Americans came from there, and, since James’s father was a Baptist minister, it was not his Irish Catholic roots the pub celebrated. It was his notoriety as a particular kind of outlaw: a social bandit, to use Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, a Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.
Why, a century and more after his death in places far from where he died, James should be remembered and commemorated is the mystery that T.J. Stiles, like others before him, sets out to solve. Yet, despite his book’s virtues, Stiles only deepens the mystery. This is an old-fashioned life and times that is full of times but has very little life, or at least little of the life of Jesse James. This is not entirely the author’s fault. There are abundant stories about James, but most of them are false. Stiles, unlike most writers trying to understand the appeal of the James Gang, is uninterested in them. He has researched James as thoroughly as anyone, but has managed to add little to the little we already know.
What he has done instead is recontextualise James. ‘Missouri outlawry,’ Stiles writes, ‘was an appendage of the Southern-separatist, white supremacist revolt of the former Confederacy.’ According to Stiles, James, like the Ku Klux Klansmen, was fighting against Reconstruction. Reconstruction involved the division of the conquered South into military districts whose commanders supervised the organisation of new state governments with black suffrage. The states could re-enter the Union once Congress had approved their new constitutions, the state legislature had approved the 14th Amendment making African Americans citizens and the 14th Amendment had been ratified by the country as a whole.
Reconstruction plays a major role in Stiles’s book, but it is more metaphorical than actual. That there was no Reconstruction in Missouri, which had not left the Union, would seem to limit the relevance of Stiles’s explanation. And that the James Gang’s violence was directed not against ex-slaves, agents of the Federal or state government, or the Republican Party, but against banks, railroad and express companies, and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, would seem to distinguish its members from the Klan. Stiles, however, counters such objections by arguing that the key postwar struggle in Missouri was within the Democratic Party, between Unionists and former Confederates and Confederate sympathisers. Jesse James was an articulate and quite consciously political champion of the Confederates.
Virtually every account of Jesse James has stressed his Confederate roots and his support among ex-Confederates in Clay and Jackson Counties in Missouri. Stiles, however, distils James and the James Gang down until nothing is left of them but their secessionist convictions. Other reasons for their actions are ignored, marginalised or explained away. In Stiles’s hands, James is a monomaniac, unable and unwilling to escape the Civil War.
To make the argument, Stiles retells the story of the Civil War in Missouri with considerable verve. Roughly the first 150 pages of his book cover the 1850s and early 1860s, when James was a child and adolescent. Even when he became a guerrilla late in the war, he remained a minor figure. During this long opening section, the Confederate guerrillas William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson and even Archie Clement, James’s companion during the Civil War, overshadow him. Still, the account is often smart and engaging.
In the 1850s and 1860s, western Missouri and eastern Kansas produced Border Ruffians, Jayhawkers, guerrillas and John Brown. Pro-slavery men and Abolitionists, Confederates and Union men murdered their opponents. Unionists expelled many non-combatants in an attempt to deny guerrillas support. The Southern guerrillas rode under the black flag, slaughtering their prisoners. James was typical of the guerrillas of Jackson and Clay Counties, the vast majority of whom were young and from prosperous slave-holding families. They were also merciless killers, and Stiles recounts their atrocities in detail. The killings were often revenge attacks and after the war, James continued to kill those who sought to resist or impede him and those he thought guilty of violence against his family and friends.
Vol. 25 No. 12 · 19 June 2003
In his review of my book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, Richard White (LRB, 5 June) fails to mention that he is the author of an influential analysis of Jesse James, which I criticise at length. In it he claimed that Civil War loyalties played no role in James’s popularity and attributed this to his ‘masculine virtue’, saying that his gang won respect as ‘strong men who could protect and revenge themselves’. This omission sets the tone for his essay. It was not my purpose, as he claims, to explain ‘why, a century and more after his death … James should be remembered and commemorated’. The Jesse James of folklore has been analysed often and well. I sought to understand why he was commemorated during his lifetime. There are several other misrepresentations.
White writes that ‘there was no Reconstruction in Missouri,’ a statement that is central to his attack on my book. He can assert this only by limiting his definition of Reconstruction to the Congressional acts relating strictly to the military administration of ten Confederate states. No historian of Reconstruction would accept this.
White’s only evidence for his claim that ‘Stiles exaggerates the suffering of Western Missouri’ during the Civil War is the 1870 Federal census, which shows the state rebounding from its wartime loss of population. However, I discuss at length the postwar influx of immigrants from the North, along with the return of wartime refugees. The newcomers, I argue, heightened grassroots tensions which encouraged James’s popularity. White also claims that I ‘will have none of’ the argument that Jesse James’s family was persecuted in the war, and faced retaliation afterwards. This is simply false. What I say in the book is that the family moved to the Confederate side before any suffering had been inflicted on them.
According to his review, I cast ‘robbery after robbery as either a symbolic political statement aimed at overthrowing Reconstruction or as an attempt to influence Missouri politics’. This is a distortion, and one that becomes bald misrepresentation when White claims that I depict the omnibus robbery of 1874 as an attempt to embarrass the Governor. I do indeed find political aspects to some robberies, but note that most were not directed against symbolic targets. A point of my argument that White ignores is that the outlaws’ symbolism was often confused.
White implies that if I had read such contemporary journals as Railway Age ‘with their complaints about robberies’ I would have realised that the railroad corporations hated the outlaws. I did read Railway Age and other industry journals, and discovered that the railroad press made virtually no mention of the James-Younger gang’s crimes, although the journals of the express companies (which handled fast deliveries, such as cash for banks) discussed them at length. In the outlaws’ initial wave of train robberies, in 1876, they struck no railroad twice, and robbed passengers only once. In that case, I found clear evidence that the railroad did not attempt to apprehend the bandits. It was the express companies that hired the Pinkertons and other detectives. I expected to find anti-railroad sentiment behind popular support for James during his lifetime, and reciprocal hatred from the railway corporations; I found none.
Most important, White claims that I eliminated all possible explanations for banditry but politics. This isn’t correct. I repeatedly state that plunder for its own sake was the foremost motivation in each crime. I do claim that Civil War loyalties and Reconstruction politics were central to James’s identity and popularity, but try to avoid the common fallacy that James’s criminal nature cancelled out his political nature – that he could not be both a violent felon and a man with strong partisan opinions. I argue that what separated James from virtually every other bandit of his era was his attempt to cast himself in a political light.
Vol. 25 No. 14 · 24 July 2003
Richard White (LRB, 5 June) says that because Missouri remained in the Union during the Civil War it was never defeated and so never reconstructed. The best work on Reconstruction sees it as beginning in 1863, meaning that it can be viewed as an assault on the society and culture resulting from slavery and not merely as a set of laws and Constitutional Amendments following Confederate defeat. But even the more traditional dating, which has Reconstruction begin in 1865, allows historians to include Missouri. The state remained in the Union primarily because pro-slavery Missourians believed that the Republicans would not interfere with slavery in states where it was legal, merely prevent its spread into new territories. The Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 freed all the slaves in those areas remaining in rebellion after 1 January 1863 (those areas, in other words, that the Union did not control) and kept slavery legal in the areas it did control (primarily Kentucky and Missouri). Between 1863 and 1865 the vast majority of slaves became free, in large part as a result of Union victories in rebel areas. So when the 13th Amendment, declaring slavery unconstitutional, was passed in December 1865, it was confirming the already existing freedom of more than 90 per cent of former slaves. The Amendment made most difference in states untouched by the Emancipation Proclamation: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. It is entirely plausible that pro-slavery Missourians felt betrayed, and championed Jesse James, as T.J. Stiles argues in the book White reviewed, for striking back at those denying them the Constitutional right to enslave.
Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago