Friday, June 06, 2008

Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War

Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles

This is one of the most in depth and well researched biographies that I have ever read. Stiles did extensive investigation into primary sources when performing the research for the book.

There is a great deal of perception of Jesse James as a larger than life myth. Much of what he did was very much grounded in the history of his time and focuses on the Civil War as a driving force behind his actions and behavior.

James's father was a Baptist minister who left the family to go to California during the gold rush in 1849. While there, he contracted an illness and died when Jesse was still a young boy. This left his mother to raise Jesse and his siblings on her own until eventually remarrying.

The James family owned a good sized farm with quite a few slaves and so had a vested interest in maintaining the slavery structure. They were very much a part of the Confederate mindset and supported that side during the Civil War.

Jesse joined his brother as a teenager during the Civil War by banding together with a bunch of "bushwhackers" who were basically guerrillas (or terrorists depending on how you look at it) on the Confederate side. They would walk up to Union sympathizers who were often neighbors and point blank kill them in cold blood simply for being supporters. This instilled fear in the local populace and a general sense of uncertainty and terror.

People from the Union side did similar types of things to Confederates namely Jayhawkers from Kansas. Missouri during the civil war and the days afterwards had a feel like that of Iraq today. People of differing ideological backgrounds resorted to violence and force to push their political agendas and philosophies.

Following the war James stayed with the bushwhackers until they gradually dissipated. At first they targeted banks to rob with Union ties for political reasons. Eventually, however, the targets became less political and more for pure monetary gain.

One of the primary reasons for Jesse James's notoriety and fame was his frequent correspondence with newspapers. He was a voracious reader and constantly maintained his innocence in letters to editors. Newspaper man John Edwards became a champion for James and glorified him and his gang in articles. He cast them as heros and icons for the Confederate political agenda and used them in print to help advance political purposes. In that day, newspapers were very openly partisan and did not try to maintain an appearance of neutrality as news agencies do today.

As James et al gained more and more fame and notoriety, public outcry became much more pronounced against them while encouraging local and state officials to crack down and bring them to justice. After stealing from express companies similar to Wells Fargo who operated primarily via railroad, private business interest arose in tracking them down and preventing future robberies.

His gang branched out into other states as well such as Iowa, Tennessee, Minnesota, Kentucky, and West Virginia obtaining national attention.

The Pinkertons a private investigative agency were hired to find them but most of their efforts were fruitless considering the James/Younger gang's support from local friends and their knowledge of the backwoods.

On several occasions, Jesse was injured in gun fights some requiring lengthy recovery times. All told though he personally probably killed at least 20 men so came out on plus side from his battles.

The gang eventually met their match while trying to rob a bank in Minnesota where the people fought back and injured or killed many members of the gang. Jesse and his brother barely escaped back to Missouri once word got out and posses were gathered to track them down.

Jesse never could settle down to a life of honest work which resulted in his downfall. He was constantly suspicious of those around him but gathered a new gang to continue his exploits. A couple of brothers in his new gang plotted to kill him and eventually succeeded, collecting a hefty reward in the process.

Stiles book reads like a combination of a pure history and real life historical novel. The first 200 pages are primarily devoted to the historical background of the Civil War and environment James grew up in. The last 200 pages are focused more on Jesse's emergence as a bank/train/stagecoach robber, leader of a gang, and Confederate symbol. As mentioned on the book cover, Stiles debunks the myth that James was a form of Robin Hood and was instead mostly interested in his own fame and fortune.

At times the book moves slowly and is exhaustive in its coverage of the material but if the reader stays with it, he or she will have a very complete picture of Jesse James and the history of Missouri during the Civil War and the decades afterwards.

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