Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War

Article excerpt

Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. By T. J. Stiles (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Pp. xii, 510. Prologue, acknowledgments, illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $27.50.)

On Sunday, April 6, 2003, a statue commemorating President Abraham Lincoln's only visit to a foreign country's capital city-Richmond, Virginia, Confederate States of America-was dedicated with the usual speeches and ceremony. The statue tastefully depicts the sixteenth president of the United States sitting on a bench with his son Tad, who had accompanied him on his visit 148 years before. Behind the pair is a stone wall emblazoned with the words: "To bind up the nations wounds," words derived from Lincoln's moving second inaugural speech.

But here, nearly a century and a half after what some have characterized as the War for the Domination of White America, it was evident the nation's wounds had not yet been bound tightly enough. Sons of Confederate Veterans gathered at the nearby grave of Confederate president Jefferson Davis to denounce the Lincoln statue as an insult to the honor and memory of southern secession and independence. Two dozen more rabid protesters, some dressed in Rebel gray and carrying the thirteen-starred St. Andrews cross battle flag of yore, chanted and whistled in derision at this modern-day Yankee invasion. Overhead, a small airplane circled, towing a banner adorned with the words "sic semper tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants), the state motto of Virginia. These were the words presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth allegedly yelled as he executed Lincoln with the only shot that had to be fired in this bloodiest of American wars-four years too late to really matter to the over 600,000 dead, North and South.

No doubt, most Americans in 2003 read this news story with amazement. If so, they ought to peruse T. J. Stiles' expertly-crafted tale of Jesse James as the last Rebel and how he carried on the Civil War in the state of Missouri from 1865 to the ultimate Confederate political victory in the centennial year of 1876. Indeed, his own assassination in 1882 by Robert Ford (better known as the "dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard [Jesse's alias], and laid poor Jesse in his grave") served to revive "those halcyon days of yesteryear" as no other event could.

But rather than tell the time-worn story of Jesse as Border Ruffian, Stiles wisely describes how Jesse, through his own and admirers' efforts in a sympathetic and formidable press, became more than the Robin Hood of the Confederacy, or what is called nowadays a social bandit. Jesse cleverly tailored his vicious robberies and murders into apparent defeats of exploiting Radical Republican politicians, tax collectors, bankers, and railroad barons (actually he robbed express companies which used railroads), who had set out to rape the Prostrate South under the guise of a beneficial Reconstruction of the Union. He was the Rebel hero against the Carpetbaggers, with all of the rampant stereotypes writ large. The result of Stiles' approach is that Jesse often seems to get lost among lengthy descriptions of national and regional history. But not to worry. Stiles soon ties it all together in a neat package that demonstrates how Jesse's actions in a Missouri state history not widely known have great significance to the Reconstruction era and the nation as a whole.

Only sixteen when he joined William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson's "black flag" guerrillas, Jesse went through what modern psychologists call a process of violentization. …