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.

Most guerrillas faded from view at the end of the war, retreating into the communities from which they had come. James and his gang members were part of a smaller cohort who moved from being guerrillas to outlaws. By 1868 they had descended, as Stiles writes, into ‘simple crime’. This is the usual interpretation of the James Gang. A few pages later, however, Stiles reverses this trajectory of guerrilla into criminal. The James brothers, he declares, were faced with the decision of ‘whether to give up the guerrilla life’ or ‘take command for themselves’. They made the latter choice and so remained, it seems, guerrillas still. But what were they fighting for and whom were they fighting? It is here that the book becomes simultaneously most original, most confusing and most unconvincing, as Stiles inserts James into the complicated politics of postwar Missouri.

In a three-way struggle between Radicals (anti-slavery Republicans) and two groups of Democrats (conservatives, who were pro-slavery but Unionist, and ex-Confederates), James sympathised with the Confederate wing of the Democratic Party. The obvious question is: so what? Stiles’s answer is that James’s career as an outlaw was in part – a very large part – an attempt to advance the fortunes of these Democrats. As the Ku Klux Klan was the armed wing of Southern Democrats, so Jesse James, who turned 21 in 1868, was a political outlaw in the service of the Democratic Party.

In making this argument, Stiles rejects James’s own explanation of his career. This was false in several respects, and certainly self-serving, but there was some truth in it. James denied being a criminal (which he certainly was), and argued that he could not surrender and prove his innocence because Radical Republicans, his wartime enemies, would lynch him. The wave of robberies and murders in western Missouri in the 1860s were indeed met with a series of lynchings. The criminals tended to be ex-Confederates; the lynchers were Unionists, both Democrats and Republicans. So when Jesse James asserted in 1871 that the Radicals would not give him or any ex-guerrilla a fair trial in Missouri, he had considerable evidence behind him. Stiles, however, treats James’s assertion not as a simple statement of fact but as ‘explicitly, even harshly’ political.

James contended that his family had been persecuted by his Unionist enemies during the war, and that the persecution continued afterwards. Stiles will have none of this. But in attacking what he regards as self-justification he diminishes real provocations and suffering. James witnessed his stepfather not only threatened with lynching but actually raised off the ground by the noose around his neck and then lowered until, strangling and crazed with fear, he told his persecutors what they wanted to know. Stiles admits that this was ‘harrowing’ but downplays it as ‘perfectly routine’. Similarly, he insists that a bullet which went through James’s lung did not necessarily cause a grave injury.

At the same time, Stiles exaggerates the suffering of western Missouri. He makes Missouri the most ‘scourged’ state in the Union. He cites state census data to show that the population fell by 300,000 during the Civil War, but the Federal census shows Missouri’s population rising from 1,182,012 in 1860 to 1,721,295 in 1870, a greater rise by far than any other Southern or border state: it would seem that either the state census or the Federal census was wrong. Western Missouri certainly suffered, but it also recovered quickly. Between 1860 and 1870 Jackson County’s population more than doubled, and Clay County’s also rose. Land values increased roughly proportionately. Economically, as Stiles acknowledges, Missouri seemed far more like states in the North and West than the South. Stiles, however, doesn’t want it to be a border state. He wants it to be a Southern state undergoing ‘homegrown Reconstruction’, and the narrative doesn’t so much turn away from the Gilded Age of economic expansion, corruption and depression as try to tie all of these things to a Reconstruction which did not take place in Missouri.

He creates the most political Jesse James in the literature by attacking previous interpretations of him. There’s not much here about social banditry, though James explicitly played the Robin Hood card. He compared himself to classic social bandits and argued that his own thefts paled when compared to the thefts of the Grant Administration. Stiles claims that such complaints about corruption were only a mask for a ‘partisan attack’ on the Republicans. The social bandit argument troubles him because it focuses on the wrong politics. Hobsbawm’s bandits were ‘primitive rebels’ whose oppressors came from an elite, but Stiles wants to make James a modern, self-conscious and manipulative political outlaw who cared nothing about class and everything about race.

Social banditry is one obstacle to Stiles’s theorising; another is John Edwards. Edwards, a Confederate diehard, prolific writer and newspaper editor, was the man who did the most to create the legend of Jesse James. He popularised the stories casting James both as a persecuted ex-Confederate and as a social bandit. Stiles, however, doesn’t want to think of James as the creation of a flowery and sometimes ridiculous newspaperman. But he cannot eliminate Edwards, because Edwards is necessary to connect James to Democratic politics in Missouri. His book postulates a partnership between the two aimed at restoring ex-Confederates to power in Missouri. This solves his difficulties, but the question is whether such a project existed.

For Stiles, James’s enemies could never be railroad corporations or servants of American corporations and capitalists like Allan Pinkerton. Even though it was the railroad companies that put up the reward that led to his capture, Stiles argues that they weren’t really worried about James or other train robbers because they ‘did not rob railroads’, they robbed express cars and passengers. This was a distinction that was lost on the railroads themselves. All you have to do is read journals of the time such as Railway Age, with their complaints about robberies, tramps seizing trains, tramps riding on trains and cowboys terrorising passengers, for such a contention to seem astonishing. Stiles himself repeats stories about travellers going well out of their way to avoid Missouri because of train robberies. Robbers played havoc with schedules and equipment, and sometimes shot the help. Jesse James derailed trains. Is Stiles really suggesting that the railroads didn’t care?

Just as Stiles wants to relegate railroads to the background, so he wants to diminish Allan Pinkerton’s corporate ties. Pinkerton was one of the most hated men in 19th-century America. His detectives were strikebreakers, labour spies and armed thugs, but Stiles portrays them as stalwart men who helped save the Union. You did not have to be an ex-Confederate to sympathise with James when the Pinkertons killed his six-year-old brother, blew off his mother’s arm and set fire to her house.

Stiles’s attempt to make the James Gang part of ‘the great wave of “Redeemers” working to overthrow Reconstruction with their own invisible empire’ leads to further interpretative curiosities. Forget for a minute that there was no Missouri Reconstruction and that the targets of the Redeemers – African Americans, Federal troops and carpetbaggers – were not the targets of the Gang, and see what evidence Stiles offers. Edwards was certainly willing to defend the James Gang as persecuted ex-Confederates and to denounce the Grant Administration, which was notoriously corrupt, as a fount of crime. He also hated Reconstruction. With the exception of his defence of the Gang, however, these attitudes were typical of Southern reactionaries.

In September 1872, the Gang robbed the Kansas City Fair and shot a small girl. Stiles reminds readers that this was an election year and that Horace Greeley, a leading Republican and the most famous journalist in America, was running against Grant. Edwards praised the daring of the robbers and, in different articles, attacked Grant. But then there is the bothersome letter that someone, claiming to be one of the robbers, wrote to the Kansas City Times comparing the Gang to Dick Turpin, Jack Shepherd and Claude Duval, and saying that they ‘rob the rich and give to the poor’.

The next summer the Gang robbed the Rock Island Railroad in Iowa. Their goal, Stiles admits, was plunder, but he claims they were also ‘determined to make statements with their crimes’. They spouted the Robin Hood rhetoric and wore Ku Klux Klan regalia. They were in Iowa. If this was a statement, it would seem an incoherent one, but to Stiles it is cunningly political.

He is relentless in his search for threads that lead to Reconstruction. He argues that the Southern rage against railroads was linked to the corruption of Radical Republican governments, failed subsidies and rising taxes. There was indeed a Southern reaction against railroads, but it was shared by Republicans as well as Democrats, and was in any case part of a national movement that was most in evidence in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Stiles casts robbery after robbery as either a symbolic political statement aimed at overthrowing Reconstruction or as an attempt to influence Missouri politics. Again, there is no doubt that Edwards sought to romanticise and justify the guerrilla war in Missouri and to turn the ex-guerrillas into heroes. And there is equally no doubt that the James Gang members were thoroughly modern criminals who kept track of their press clippings. At Gads Hill, James even left his own press release. There was nothing political in it, but for Stiles it’s another sign that ‘the bushwhackers were going back to war.’

And an odd war it was. Lawlessness and robbery were an issue in Missouri, but the bandits were hardly an asset for the Democrats. The Republicans attacked the Democrats for being soft on crime. Silas Woodson, a Democrat who was elected governor in 1872 in a triumph Stiles says was ‘savoured by all the old rebels’, offered large rewards for the bandits and sought to create a secret police force to capture them. Republicans attacked Edwards for defending the criminals. And at this moment what does Jesse James do? He robs an omnibus in Kansas City. It’s the equivalent of Robin Hood picking a peasant’s pockets. One of his victims, who recognised him, denounced him for being reduced to ‘such small work’. James committed the crime, Stiles reasons, to embarrass Governor Woodson. So much for the Governor’s election being a triumph ‘savoured by the old rebels’. This is a politics too deep for me.

Jesse James did gain considerable sympathy among Democrats in Missouri, but the reason is not mysterious and requires no resort to a political explanation. The Pinkertons’ assault on the James family home and the failure of the authorities to prosecute those responsible made the James brothers, as a contemporary wrote, ‘hundreds of friends . . . when they had but few’. Edwards, of course, jumped all over this attack and made the James brothers proxies for the persecution of ex-Confederates. This may have worked, but it was opportunistic. The James Gang gained sympathy not because of their actions, or Edwards’s support of them, but because of the actions taken against them. It is this that led to the amnesty bill that was nearly passed by the Missouri legislature.

The centrepiece of the book is the Gang’s 1876 raid on Northfield, Minnesota. It is an often told story that Stiles recasts by finding an unlikely hero: Adelbert Ames, ‘a man who represented the opposite of everything Jesse stood for’. Stiles, having created a book full of villains, needs a hero; but Ames isn’t much of one. Born in New England, he was a minor Republican politician and Reconstruction governor of Mississippi, who went from there to Minnesota, where he was an equally minor businessman. He opposed railroad corruption, but was elected governor with the support of conservative Democrats who opposed Reconstruction. When they didn’t need him any more, they accused him of corruption and drove him from office in 1875. The charges, false as they were, had some credibility because Ames was the son-in-law of Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, perhaps the most corrupt politician of a corrupt age. What Ames ‘represented’ is thus open to considerable question, but Stiles says that this failed politician represented Reconstruction and the campaign for black civil rights. He was, it is claimed, the real target of the James Gang’s raid into Minnesota.

According to Stiles, this raid was an attempt to ‘hit the enemy in his own home’, but a simpler explanation would be that the James Gang, which had been operating beyond Missouri for some time, robbed the Northfield bank on the basis of some spectacularly bad advice from a new gang member who came from Minnesota. Two statements by Bob and Cole Younger, made after their capture, to the effect that Ames and Butler had made large deposits in the Northfield bank and that ‘one of the boys had a spite against’ Ames, provide Stiles’s evidence that this was intended as a ‘personal political blow’ in the ‘climactic campaign’ of 1876.

The Northfield raid was a disaster for the James Gang. Three of them died; the three Younger brothers were captured; and only Jesse and Frank James made a near miraculous escape. Had Jesse James been a political outlaw, this disaster, together with the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and the return to power of ex-Confederates in Missouri, would presumably have marked an end to his exploits. But he carried on (Stiles rather lamely argues that he had become addicted to crime). He died in 1882, murdered for a reward offered by the railroads. His brother Frank subsequently surrendered, and was tried and acquitted. Stiles surprisingly doesn’t mention that Frank James and the Younger brothers moved to the left, and retrospectively connected their crimes with a struggle against the railroads and corporations.

The problem with Stiles’s Life is the problem of much recent popular history: it is resolutely reductionist. The complexity of the past here boils down to one fact neglected by everyone until now. This imperial fact turns out to explain everything. Jesse James was a Confederate, but that is not all he was, or all he became in legend. A trip to Astee will tell you that.