Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The Confederate Terrorist

Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles. Alfred A. Knopf. 510 pages. $27.50.

When the Jesse James gang held up a train in Gads Hill, Missouri in late January, 1874, it was mostly just another day at the office, except for one thing: they left behind a press release.

"The most daring robbery on record," read the release. "The south bound train on the Iron Mountain railroad was robbed here this morning by five heavily armed men, and robbed of ________ dollars." Prepared well in advance, and possibly written by Jesse himself, who enjoyed bragging about his exploits in letters to the editor, the release described the robbery that had just occurred down to the last detail. The final take would be around $2,000, and the press reception was all they could have hoped for. Like terrorist groups a century later, they knew the true value of bad publicity: it not only lets enemies know you are alive and well, but it boosts the morale of supporters, and there were plenty. While some newspapers decried the theft, a good many others said "Go for it."

Jesse James is known today mainly as one more colorful Wild West robber, but as T.J. Stiles shows in this exceptional new biography, he and his older brother Frank -- one a shoot-first extrovert, the other bookish and soft-spoken; both cold-blooded -- were also heroes of a decidedly zealous breed, with a p.r. machine to match. Across their hotly-divided home state of Missouri and throughout Reconstruction South, they were seen as Robin Hoods, "robber bandits" who not only defended the values (such as they were) of the Confederacy but who waged war on behalf of the independent farmer by attacking railroads and banks, the bloodlines of encroaching commerce. Like the men who trained them -- white supremacist bushwhackers like William Quantrill and "Bloody Bill" Anderson -- they were horsemen of the Southern apocalypse, waging war with the Lincolns, Grants, Radicals, Federalists, abolitionists and ex-slaves who were trying to change their way of life. Once a powerful Confederate editor took their side, they would also become legends.

Jesse learned his role early, growing up in the very thick of tensions that would erupt in war. Missouri was the epitome of a land half-slave and half-free; by 1861, a secessionist governor and Unionist (if often slave-owning) populace gave the state two governments. JesseÕs family, living in the violently anti-abolitionist stronghold of Clay County on the stateÕs western border, were middle-class farmers who had prospered from slavery; the cheapest possible form of labor and the driving force behind the Southern economy. His father, a charismatic Baptist preacher and hemp farmer, would join the pro-slavery dissenters who formed the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845; his mother, Zerelda, was a vindictive, flinty shrew who would encourage her boys in their massacres and -- like many Southern families -- would keep a standard retinue of slaves long after Lincoln had freed them.

In the James household, Frank rode off with Quantrill, with Jesse to follow in a few years; both participated in the bloody 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas, the state's abolitionist capital, where they rode through town shooting, knifing and clubbing every man or boy in sight. ("Kill!" their leader howled. "Kill and you will make no mistake! Lawrence should be thoroughly cleansed, and the only way to cleanse it is to kill! Kill!") Back home in Missouri, Zerelda was so proud of her family's association with Quantrill she would name one of her many children after him. Jesse learned not only to kill for respect -- Stiles, like Richard Rhodes in last year's history of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen, draws heavily on the "violentization" theories of sociologist Lonnie Athens -- but also how to rob. Initially, money wasn't the point; the point was inflicting terror. The same taste for butchery would prevail in their work with Anderson, who rode with Union scalps on his saddle and proved to be an all-round reservoir dog in his taste for dismemberment.

While the end of the war closed a chapter for many guerrillas, Jesse and Frank were just getting warmed up, going from defenders of the losing side to scourges of the Lost Cause. Now they would be bank robbers of a decidedly political bent; when they robbed the Rock Island Railroad in 1873, they did so wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. With the open support of newspaper editor John Edwards, who was looking for a figure to remobilize the Missouri Confederacy, Jesse assumed the status of heroic myth. In Edwards view, Jesse wasnÕt just a common thief and thug, but a man who walked with danger. With his purple prose in full flower, Edwards would describe one robbery as being "so high-handed, so diabolically daring and so utterly in contempt of fear that we are bound to admire it and revere its perpetrators for the very enormity of their outlawry." It was the perfect match: Jesse gave Edwards a cause, and Edwards gave Jesse immortality Ð at least, until his time ran out.

In examining the mythic status that has grown up in the 120 years since Jesse JamesÕs death, Stiles makes short work of the idea that he struck banks and railroads on behalf of farmers; Missouri River valley farmers, he points out, had profited from commercial interests long before the James brothers arrived on the scene. If anything, he writes, "the Union victory drove them unwillingly back toward self-sufficiency when their commercial operations were disrupted by emancipation." Also, in terrorizing the countryside and keeping new blood from moving into Missouri, they went a long way toward not only destroying Reconstruction (as they intended) but in wrecking the economic interests of everyone.

Prudently sifting through letters, newspapers, the annual census, and accounts of the times, Stiles brings to this book all the curiosity, tough-minded scholarship and narrative skill a reader could ask for. HeÕs especially acute at rendering the 1850 farm life of Zerelda and her children, from the fine details of processing hogs and hemp to the tedious labor involved in loading an 1851 Colt Navy model revolver, and his writing throughout is superb. ZereldaÕs struggles in her early years "would hone her edge to a lethal glint;" slaves are "the silent chorus of the South"; with the disastrous surprise defeat of Anderson's guerrillas, Stiles describes "a blade of fire É cutting through their line like a bandsaw."

A good biography is good history, and Stiles not only throws light on a somewhat shadowy life, but brings into perfect focus the political and economic forces that made him possible. ItÕs the story of a man and his time who were made for each other -- and made each other.

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