After the war, the locals accustomed to self-sufficient traditional farming resisted Yankee efforts to introduce capitalism, with its national markets and corporate economy. Jesse James's actions gave shape to resentments that everyone felt, but few could put into words. The banks and railroads represented vast, alien forces that the humble men of the soil could barely comprehend; by striking back at them, Jesse became a folk hero.
So goes the conventional wisdom. The Reinterpretations The conventional wisdom about Jesse James, both popular and scholarly, is based on assumptions that fall apart upon close inspection. A fresh look reveals a far more purposeful, and significant, figure than we thought. Though he was clearly a criminal, motivated by money, he was also explicitly partisan, and consciously played a role in post-Civil War politics. The assumption that post-Civil War Missouri was home to unsophisticated, self-sufficient farmers, who could only understand social conflicts in personal terms, is inaccurate.
Support for Jesse James was centered in the Missouri River valley, long the scene of a well developed market economy, with livestock and cash crops raised for distant Southern markets, wage labor most of it the labor of slaves who were rented out , and numerous banking and manufacturing institutions. Robert James, Jesse's father, was a commercial hemp farmer and slaveowner, and Cole Younger's father was also a rural entrepreneur. These prosperous, well-educated, politically active people were highly articulate.
Jesse's own comments and letters to the press and statements by his mother revealed a keen attention to the details of politics. His criminal career had little or nothing to do with frontier conditions, such as those that shaped such violent episodes as the Lincoln County War in New Mexico or the Johnson County War in Wyoming. By the s, Missouri was a long-settled state with a thriving market economy, thorough law enforcement, and solid political institutions. The press, Jesse's supporters, and his own letters revolved exclusively around the legacy of the war and the bitter disputes of Reconstruction.
Through his alliance with newspaper editor John N. Edwards, Jesse explicitly aligned himself with the ex-Confederate wing of Missouri's Democratic Party in the s, pitting himself against Radical Republicans and Unionist Democrats. After his move to Tennessee in , he appealed to newspapers there to recognize him as a Confederate, Democratic hero.
Intense political and social tensions followed on the heels of the war in Missouri. In , the approach of a decisive Congressional election one that would decide the shape of Reconstruction led to actual bloodshed in the countryside in Missouri. Former Confederates were excluded from politics, so the former bushwhackers formed the vanguard of secessionist resistance to the Radical authorities that ran the state.
Their resistance was direct and violent. This ultimately led to the death of Arch Clement, leader of Jesse's own band of guerrillas, which opened the way for Jesse's rise to prominence. All of this took place against a backdrop of national crisis over Reconstruction, which deeply affected Missouri. Economic questions were virtually nonexistent in the public debate over Jesse James, and in his own statements. Close inspection shows that he did not rob unpopular businesses. Discontent over banks largely revolved around national banks, the regional distribution of national banknotes, and the Treasury's deflationary monetary policy.
The bandits mostly robbed private or state banks; those in Missouri were owned by long-time residents, not invading outsiders. Furthermore, the bandits did not rob railroads ; they robbed express companies, which transported currency shipments by train. The railroad corporations suffered few if any losses, and took almost no interest in the hunt for the bandits.
The express companies, however, were not the target of popular discontent; few farmers had any dealings with them. The main benefit of robbing banks and trains was that the bandits were seen as attacking impersonal institutions, and not the average person. But it was not the driving force behind their popularity. It had its origins in the border-ruffian warfare against freesoil settlers in Kansas in the mids. The overlooked role of Missouri's proslavery organizations was their effort to suppress dissent within Missouri itself, often leading to violence.
Their opponents were nationalist Whigs who, though proslavery themselves, did not wish to endanger the Union. When war broke out, the old hardline proslavery forces struck first against Unionist leaders, then against loyal families, long before Union military forces were able to establish any significant presence in western Missouri. Kansans did indeed fight and plunder in Missouri, but bulk of the Union war effort in the state was shouldered Missouri's own loyalists, gathered into the various militia forces.
The Confederate guerrillas often spent more effort killing and burning out Unionist civilians than they did battling Federal troops. The militia experience led many Unionists to join the new Radical Party, which supplanted the older Republican party in the state, while others clung to a conservative but still Unionist vision of society. All this laid the groundwork for the three-way political division secessionists, Unionist Radicals, and Unionist conservatives that defined the politics of Jesse James's banditry.
I submitted it to several major newspapers, all of which declined to publish it. As one editor told me, the situation in Iraq was changing so rapidly that he was being careful about what he printed. Reading it now, three and a half years later, I am struck by how accurately I predicted the problems that would afflict the occupation of Iraq—and, frankly, a bit surprised. I had no expertise of any sort on the Middle East; I was merely armed with knowledge of one particular guerrilla conflict and its aftermath—that of Missouri, during and after the Civil War. If I could see the potential troubles in Iraq, then, I wonder how many voices of real experts went unheard.
Please note that none of my concerns should be taken as criticism of our truly brave and skilled fighting men and women; they have shown remarkable fortitude and adaptability in Iraq. I believe, however, that they were let down by the decisions made over the first years of the war by both the civilian and senior military leadership. Note also that references to the "war" in this piece refer to the conventional campaign that culminated in the capture of Baghdad.
The insurgency had yet to begin when this was written. Call it the Jesse James scenario: an Iraq torn by a level of lawlessness, mingled with outright terrorism, that could threaten the survival of the new government. For whatever reason, the Fedayeen have devoted themselves to a vicious regime, to the extent of making suicidal attacks on American troops.
Even if most civilian Iraqis hate their dictator, enough hide and support the Fedayeen whether through fear or actual loyalty to make it difficult to wipe them out. Jesse James emerged out of a similar, savage chapter of the Civil War, the guerrilla conflict in Missouri. Young men and boys such as Jesse and Frank James fought to destroy the Union and defend slavery; their methods included wholesale murder and dismemberment including scalping. The Union army kept just enough control over Missouri to avoid the diversion of strategically significant numbers of troops from the main battlefronts.
So, too, have the U. But the really troubling parallel is not in the war, but the peace. After Appomattox, the James brother and their fellow Confederate guerrillas maintained their organization, kept their arms, and preserved a bitter hatred for the victors. Having fought a chaotic war without central direction, they continued a chaotic resistance to the Unionist authorities, ranging from explicitly political acts including the occupation of an important town on election day in to murder and robbery.
Jesse James emerged as the most famous of these men by actively creating a public image as an unrepentant rebel, rallying old Confederates through letters to friendly newspapers. Around his family farm, he terrorized old Unionists; statewide, he became a hero to former rebels, helping to mobilize them politically.
Make the most of your city
I can only hope that the coalition forces have long since developed a far-reaching plan to create order and protect civil rights in Iraq. Early news reports, however, are not encouraging; the extent of military interaction with civilians seems to be a series of tense checkpoints, and hopes that Iraqis will throw flowers at our troops. If our experience on our own shores teaches us anything, it is that we cannot simply ignore civilians during a war, let alone walk away afterward and leave the peace to a traumatized population. Like Missourians at the end of the Civil War, Iraqis will be angry and divided against each other, and the freely available supply of weapons could lead to bloodshed.
Already we have seen looting and other outbreaks of lawlessness; it will only take a few die-hard Fedayeen to turn such violence into a more serious threat to the postwar order. The solution, however, will not be simple. After the Civil War, such ex-Confederates as the James brothers were barred from voting or other civic roles by Unionists who saw secession as treason. At the same time, the federal government made only spasmodic efforts to enforce new civil rights laws in the South—even less so in such border states as Missouri. The perpetrators of violence against Unionists and freed slaves, then, felt justified in their acts, and also saw that they could get away with it.
In fact, they did get away with it, and the Jim Crow era was the bitter result. They must not be alienated from the new order. However, any outbreaks of violence and intimidation must be rapidly, and consistently, suppressed. The rule of law must be strictly enforced.
This will undoubtedly require an extended presence of outside troops, who will not be prone to the divisions and passions that Iraqis must necessarily feel. It will not be pretty, or cheap, but the alternative could be chaos—or even an invitation to a more deadly presence, the followers of Osama bin Laden.
This claim cannot be true, I write, because the man on the left, Charles Fletcher Taylor, clearly has his right arm, which was amputated in However, researcher Gay Mathis has found an image of Taylor that seems to prove that he lost his left arm, not his right. Click on this link to take a look:. The evidence we rely on as historians is always subject to being disproved by better evidence. The contemporary newspaper reports I relied on when I wrote that Taylor's right arm was amputated seem pretty clearly to have been wrong. So I offer my retraction. But what does this mean?
I'm not sure. No solid conclusions about Jesse James's life can be drawn from the picture discussed below. With Taylor's left arm out of view in it, there's no convincing way to date it, to my mind, and I personally have never seen any good documentary evidence for the claim that it was taken in Nashville in Nor am I convinced by the assertion that it shows how Jesse James who was emaciated and suffering. He's the one standing up, and he looks kind of amused—just a somewhat skinny teenager, not a man on the edge of death.
Claims about Jesse James's health, made from highly subjective guesses about what a photograph supposedly shows, are far less convincing to me than the multiple contemporary accounts I found that described Jesse James as up and around, apparently quite healthy, no later than I was quite wrong in my previous claims about Taylor's arm. But I don't yet see any reason to rethink my argument about Jesse James's health and potential for criminal activity from through Of course, the inconclusive nature of the evidence about James, who lived underground, is what makes arguments about his life so interesting.
Wherever you turn, there's always a new case to be made. The photograph immediately below this paragraph is one of the most important images of Jesse James in existence. Unlike most photos of him, it is undisputed in its authenticity. It also offers a rare juxtaposition of Jesse and his brother Frank in the same frame.
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
In addition, it includes their wartime guerrilla commander Jesse's first, after he began to fight in the Civil War , Fletch Taylor, standing on the left. What may be the most interesting thing about this photo, however, is the fact that Jesse James buffs insist on giving it the wrong date. If you open a recent issue of Wild West magazine, you will find this photo occupying the better part of a page, with a caption that patiently explains that it was taken in a studio in Nashville in or Jesse James, we are informed, was receiving treatment in Nashville at the time for the crippling wound to his lung that he received in May The photo, we are told, is often mistakenly given a date of That caption reflects the conventional wisdom among the dedicated fraternity of Jesse James buffs.
At some point, a researcher found a link between the picture and the Nashville studio, so the buffs now dismiss the idea that the photo could have been taken during the war. There is only one problem with this theory. Examine the image of Fletch Taylor closely. Note his right arm, how it, well, how it exists. Note also from Frank's jacket that this is not a reversed image, so that Taylor's right arm is indeed his right arm.
In August , Taylor had his right arm amputated at the shoulder after getting hit with a devastating shotgun blast. The wound and amputation were well documented at the time; one Missouri newspaper expressed the wish that it had been a mortal injury. If Taylor has his right arm in this photo, then, it is simply impossible for the picture to have been taken any later than August In all likelihood, it dates to May or June of , soon after Jesse and Frank joined Taylor's band of guerrillas. No amount of documentation can erase this simple physical fact.
Taylor's arm did not grow back, therefore the photo was taken before he lost it. Indeed, the link to the Nashville photo studio probably stems from the fact that it was copied there. Jesse James lived in Nashville, and no doubt visited there prior to settling in the city; he may well have had the photograph photographed. This seems obvious.
T.J. Stiles - Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
Why, then, do buffs insist that it was taken in , and not during the war? For one thing, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one piece of evidence proves everything. When the first researcher to find a link to the Nashville studio uncovered that bit of documentation, it must have seemed like a eureka moment.
After all, it fit with an alibi that Jesse James himself gave to newspaper editor John Newman Edwards: He claimed that he could not have taken part in any robberies by the ex-Confederate guerrillas between and because he was still recovering from his lung wound, and visited a Dr. Eve in Nashville in There's another appeal to matching the photo and the alibi: Jesse James buffs tend to be protective of the bandit, and are prone to look with favor on anything that might exonerate him. But I'm only guessing; I can't get inside someone else's head.
There are other problems with Jesse James's alibi, besides the whopper about Taylor's arm in this photo. The only evidence that Jesse was bedridden for two or three years is Jesse's own story, given to Edwards. On the other hand, there are a number of accounts from the period that depict Jesse as active and apparently healthy, starting no later than The sources include a future Clay County sheriff and at least two others, including one man who insisted to the press that he recognized both Frank and Jesse as participants in the Richmond robbery in I believe it is possible that his wound festered for years, but I also note in my book that lung wounds are actually surprisingly survivable provided no major blood vessels are severed , due in part to the nature of the soft tissue of the lungs.
Taylor's right arm means that this photo must have been taken before August The insistence that it was taken in , however, suggests a curious desire by many buffs to believe Jesse's own story. Jesse James was many things: a truly remarkable bandit, a ruthless killer, a man with a passion for publicity. But honest he was not, at least not in his public alibis. His chapter on partisan warfare, however, is probably the weakest in the book. I cannot offer a complete catalog to fill the gap, but I believe the experiences of Frank and Jesse James provide a worthwhile introduction to the complexity of partisan warfare and counterinsurgency in the Civil War.
Guerrilla Tactics For the most part, the rebel bushwhackers of Missouri had no central direction from the Confederate high command. They were self-organized gangs of young men who operated on a tactical level. Some of their most important techniques can be described as follows. The Ambush: The simplest and one of the most effective tactics was to lie in wait for a passing patrol or wagon train. The brothers' commander, Fletch Taylor, ordered them to spread out behind a high bank of the Fishing River, near a ford. When Kemper led his men into the water, the guerrillas rose and opened fire, wounding Kemper and scattering his unit.
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