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An American Terrorist

JESSE JAMES: Last Rebel of the Civil War, By T. J. Stiles, Alfred A. Knopf: 512 pp., $27.50

September 22, 2002|ERIC FONER | Eric Foner is the author of "The Story of American Freedom" and "Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World."

During the 1960s, when I was a college student caught up in the folk music craze, one of my favorite songs was "The Ballad of Jesse James."

"He stole from the rich and gave to the poor," is the one line I now remember. Like many other things I thought I knew about America's most famous outlaw, James' reputation as a latter-day Robin Hood is far from the truth. Midway through "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War," T.J. Stiles notes rather laconically that there is no evidence that the James gang "did anything with their loot except spend it on themselves."

Nonetheless, the image of Jesse James is as important as the man himself. Hundreds of outlaws robbed banks and committed murders in the post-Civil War era, but virtually all except James are now forgotten.

And one of the major contentions of this new biography is that James' enduring renown rests not so much on his considerable success as a bandit as on his mastery of public relations. James, Stiles shows, was a publicist for himself. He forged a close working relationship with a newspaper editor who penned laudatory accounts of his exploits, and he wrote numerous letters to the press. On one occasion he even distributed what Stiles calls "a prepared press release" to startled train passengers during a robbery that not only exaggerated his height but offered a detailed apologia for his actions.

Stiles effectively places James' career of crime in the context of the turmoil in Civil War-era Missouri, a state on the border between slavery and freedom and internally divided among the industrial city of St. Louis, a large area of small farms using free labor and a string of slaveholding counties known as Little Dixie. In a violent era, Missouri was an especially violent place. Before the Civil War, its "border ruffians" poured into Kansas to take part in the battles between pro-and anti-slavery settlers. During the war, Missouri remained within the Union, but pro-Confederate guerrillas murdered slaves and unarmed pro-North civilians and Unionist bands preyed on Confederate sympathizers.

Jesse James was born in 1847 in Clay County, a stronghold of slavery in western Missouri. His father, a Baptist preacher, died three years later in California, where he had gone in an effort to bring religion to participants in the Gold Rush. James was raised by his mother, Zerelda, a resourceful and strongly pro-slavery woman. Young Jesse grew up alongside slave children and was raised, in part, by a slave woman. But this does not seem to have affected his outlook. Rather than a romantic outlaw, Stiles argues, James was a pro-slavery murderer, a forerunner of what we would today call a terrorist.

In 1864, at the age of 17, Jesse joined the guerrilla band of "Bloody Bill" Anderson, "the personification of horror," as Stiles calls him, who tortured prisoners and murdered more than 20 unarmed Union soldiers after seizing them from a train. After the surrender at Appomattox, while most Confederate veterans integrated themselves back into peaceful life, James formed a gang that assassinated civilians who had supported the Union. Then, in 1869, he embarked on a series of daring and usually successful bank and train robberies.

Stiles is not the first scholar to link James' crimes to the volatile environment of wartime Missouri. But more than any previous writer, he places the emergence of James as a larger-than-life figure, a hero in the eyes of Missouri's ex-Confederate Democrats, in the context of the divisive politics of Reconstruction. For a time, radical Republicans controlled the state. They enhanced the rights of the emancipated slaves and imposed loyalty oaths to keep ex-Confederates from power. Democrats, who soon regained power in Missouri, were themselves divided between Unionists and former supporters of the Confederacy.

Stiles contends that, rather than a common criminal or a "pre-political" outlaw of the type depicted by the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm in his influential book "Bandits," James was an ideologically committed political partisan who was bitterly opposed to emancipation and Reconstruction. In one robbery, the gang even wore masks modeled on those of the Ku Klux Klan. John N. Edwards, the newspaper editor who promoted his image, was a shrewd publicist who made James a "symbolic hero" as part of a campaign to place the state under ex-Confederate control and return blacks to a position of subordination.

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