Rebel With a Cause

A new biography recasts Missouri's natural-born killer Jesse James as a political terrorist

Missourians maintain a perverse affection for their most violent native son, Jesse James. T.J. Stiles, author of a new and controversial James biography, recently got a taste of the outlaw's continuing grip on the local imagination. Appearing on a local radio call-in program, Stiles outlined his revisionist profile of James as "a forerunner of the modern terrorist," but callers wanted to know whether James really left a twenty-dollar gold piece under Grandma's plate.

"It's so universal," Stiles says. "It's amazing. It seems like every person I've met has a personal connection -- whether family legend or fact, it doesn't really matter. They feel a personal connection with Jesse James. He's so closely tied up with the identity here."

However, as Stiles documents in Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002, Alfred A. Knopf), it is a false identity. James took part in some of the most vile atrocities of the Civil War, murdered neighbors in cold blood and implemented a terror campaign of murder and robbery for personal and political ends.

Biographer T.J. Stiles
Brice Hammick
Biographer T.J. Stiles

But the fact that James is a much darker figure than the romantic Robin Hood of comfortable legend is not what most intrigues Stiles. "One of the points I make," says the historian, "is that all the central battles of American history in this period, the battles that still define the United States, are exemplified and come out in Jesse James' life. He knew this. He wasn't just simply a man who happened to be robbing banks and trains along this political fault line. He knew the role he was playing."

James left home at the age of sixteen to fight for the cause of slavery and white supremacy. He rode with Quantrill's Raiders, as well as the guerilla troops of "Bloody" Bill Anderson. After the war, James spoke pridefully of his time with the bushwhackers, who today would be labeled "death squads."

Stiles writes graphically of the aftermath of an ambush set by Anderson and his men near Centralia, Missouri, in 1864: "The rebels walked among the dead, crushing faces with rifle butts and shoving bayonets through the bodies, pinning them to the ground. Frank James bent down to loot one of the corpses, pulling free a sturdy leather belt. Others slid knives out of their sheaths and knelt down to work. One by one, they cut seventeen scalps loose, then carefully tied them to their saddles and bridles. At least one guerrilla carved the nose off a victim. Others sliced off ears, or sawed off heads and switched their bodies. Someone pulled the trousers off one corpse, cut off the penis, and shoved it in the dead man's mouth.

"In this blood-drunk crew, of course, stood Jesse James."

Far from the romantic outlaw, James compares more closely to the war criminals of the Balkans or Lieutenant William Calley at My Lai.

But unlike Calley, James did not slip back into civilian life as another face in the crowd after his war was over. James wanted to shake up the country. After the Civil War, he and his fellow bushwhacker veterans eventually returned to Missouri from exile. Their war was not over. Their enemy remained the Union, the Republican party of Lincoln and Grant, and Reconstruction.

Those glorious bank holdups and train robberies, the stuff of Wild West legend, were orchestrated for political impact. James selected banks controlled by former Unionists. He chose trains because they were the arteries of the country's economy. His political motivations were clear. During one train robbery, he and members of his gang wore Klan hoods. For more than a decade after Appomattox, James waged war in Missouri, seeking to transform the political and regional identity of the state.

James helped galvanize conservative sympathies with the aid of newspaper editor John Newman Edwards, who glorified James exploits and outlined their political meaning. James also gained anti-government sympathies after the Pinkerton Agency raided the family farm in search of the outlaw, killing Jesse's infant brother and maiming his mother. The Pinkerton raid had all the aspects of the FBI's raid on Ruby Ridge a century later and was used for similar anti-government propaganda.

James provides a dramatic example of how politics can be affected by the barrel of a gun. Extremism won in Missouri, observes Stiles: "That's the shocking point. It's absolutely astounding. Extremism won. And extremism won across the South. That's disturbing."

In Stiles' biography, as the romantic image of James darkens, the forgotten history of Reconstruction gains perspective. For it is Reconstruction, and the emergence of civil rights and the enfranchisement of former slaves, that James waged his war against.

After the Civil War, freed slaves exerted their political will to create the first civil-rights initiatives, including, most importantly, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The 14th Amendment, Stiles says, "extends Bill of Rights protections over every level of government, so that they're truly national liberties.

"The reason you can be Jewish or Muslim and vote in an election anywhere is because freed slaves in 1865 and 1866 were pushing and demanding something. They were basically liberating everyone else for future generations.

"These are the central issues in American history. These are the central issues of African-American history. Here Jesse James is on the fringe of these fights, yet also in an area where these fights were at the most bitter and most bloody. He was a criminal, but he was writing letters to the press attacking President Grant, attacking the radical Republicans, saying, 'Look at me, I'm their number-one victim. They won't leave me alone. I have no choice but to lead a life where I'm protected by my own gun.'"

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