Guerrilla into Criminal

Richard White

  • 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.

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