Jesse James: An education in violence (Part 3)
“It was sort of like growing up in some parts of Iraq today.”
— Ted P. Yeatman, author of Frank and Jesse James (2000), on what it was like to grow up in Missouri when the James brothers were young.
around us is made of matchsticks and
I am telling you,
— Frank James in Paulette Jiles’ poem, “Frank Invites Jesse to join him in Quantrell’s Guerrillas: September 1862” in The Jesse James Poems.
“It required, indeed, all the excesses of the civil war of 1861-65, to produce the genuine American guerrilla – more enterprising by far, more deadly, more capable of immense physical endurance, more fitted by nature for deeds of reckless hardihood, and given over to less penitence or pleading when face to face with the final end, than any French or Spanish, Italian or Mexican guerrilla notorious in song or story.
“He simply lived the life that was in him, and took the worst or best as it came and as fate decreed it. Circumstances made him unsparing . . . Fought first with fire, he fought back with the torch; and branded as an outlaw first, in despite of all reason, he made the infamous badge a birthright and boasted of it as a blood-red inheritance . . . ”
— Major John Newman Edwards, “Noted Guerrillas” (1877)
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It wasn’t just good farmland that brought Robert and Zerelda James to Clay County in 1845. Of great importance, too, was that Clay was one of a group of counties in north central Missouri along the Missouri River that came to be known as “Little Dixie.”
“Little Dixie” got its name from the large numbers of families from Border States, like Kentucky, where Robert and Zerelda came from, or from the Deep South who settled there. In these Missouri counties, the slave population was a much as 25 percent of the total population, much higher than it was anywhere else in the state.
But if Zerelda and Robert hoped for peace and quiet among folks whose convictions they shared, they did not find it. Slave owners and those who opposed slavery existed in uneasy tension in Missouri, even though the state by law allowed slavery.
Across the border in Kansas Territory, tensions were even greater. By 1855, those pressures erupted into violent conflict. The question was whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or one where slavery was legal. So nasty did the battle between the factions become that the territory got dubbed “bleeding Kansas” in the national press.
From their farm across the border from Kansas in Clay County, Frank and Jesse watched the fighting in Kansas, but didn’t join up. Then in 1861 came the Civil War and Kansas entered the Union as a free state, much to the chagrin of slaveholders in Missouri.
By 1862, Frank had joined a Confederate guerrilla band. Known as “bushwhackers” and “border ruffians,” Confederate guerrilla groups fought Union guerrilla bands called “jayhawkers” and “red legs,” for the reddish leather leggings they sported.
Bushwhackers and jayhawkers were “irregulars,” groups of men not part of the Confederate or Union armies and not subject to regular army discipline. There lay much of their appeal: Young men could attach themselves to leaders they admired; they could leave that leader and follow another.
Above all, they enjoyed a freedom regular army duty wouldn’t have permitted. There is a basic lawlessness about guerrilla warfare, more even than in regular war. I think this lawlessness changed Jesse and worked to turn him toward outlawry when the war came to an end.
Jayhawkers and bushwhackers alike plundered and burned homes and farms and destroyed crops and livestock. They left whole districts of Missouri devastated and “burnt out,” in the parlance of the time. If regular war is hell, as General Sherman famously said, then irregular guerrilla war can be even more so.
For the farm boys and those from small towns who fought this guerrilla war, life had become an education in violence that left permanent scars. They fought these brutal battles at an impressionable age. Had there been no war, they would have been courting and starting their adult lives.
It was during their guerrilla years that Frank and Jesse got their nicknames. Frank became Buck, and Jesse Dingus. I’ve read that “Dingus” came when he was still a raw recruit. He used the word to swear in place of a genuine swear word, and the hardened warriors around him were so amused they gave that name to him.
Frank very likely – there is some dispute – was present at the bloodiest of all bushwhacker battles. That was the August 21, 1863 attack on Lawrenceville, Kansas, by a band known as Quantrill’s Raiders (Pictured in top feature photo)
Bushwhackers had long despised Lawrenceville. It was a major hub of jayhawker and anti-slavery sentiment and activity. The Ohio-born Quantrill (often but wrongly spelled Quantrell) was a guerrilla leader already by the time of Lawrenceville legendary for his ruthlessness and leadership.
Quantrill’s legend persists today. There is a William Clarke Quantrill Society, which holds yearly reunions and sponsors tours of Quantrill-connected historic sites. See their informative website — HERE
There’s also an epic poem about his exploits, Thomas Brower Peacock, “The Rhyme of the Border War: A historical Poem of the Kansas-Missouri Guerrilla War” (1880), which I found almost impossible to read. It’s old-fashioned poetry at its worst. I was surprised to find this poem readily available on Kindle.
Very readable indeed is Max McCoy’s contemporary look at the guerrilla leader, I Quantrill (2008), a novel, as its title suggests, written in the first person. McCoy’s great fame, of course, stems from his authorship of the Indiana Jones series.
On that auspicious August day, Quantrill led a force of 400 raiders (estimates vary) into Lawrenceville, slaughtering some 200 Kansan men and boys. Women and girls they left unharmed, the raiders proudly proclaimed, because Southern chivalry didn’t allow harm to come to the fair sex.
Quantrill’s men left the town in ruins. They looted stores and set buildings on fire. Boys and men who tried to surrender to the Raiders were shot down. Historians view Lawrenceville as very much a symbol of the Civil War: A battle of white male Americans pitted against white male Americans, an example of the terrible savagery the war unleashed.
When Quantrill’s men were at Lawrenceville, Jesse was still at home, working on the farm. By the summer of 1864, however, he had joined the bushwhackers. Frank had left Quantrill and was now fighting under William Anderson, known to history as “Bloody Bill.” It was this group that Jesse, now 16, became part of.
Kentucky-born Bloody Bill had moved to Missouri with his family, just as Robert and Zerelda James had. He fought under Quantrill, but quit after a quarrel with the guerrilla leader, a common occurrence in guerrilla groups, where loyalty to leaders could shift overnight.
Bloody Bill’s men were seasoned guerrilla warriors. One member, Archie Clement, stood just over 5-feet tall and never weighed more than 130 pounds. Born in Johnson County, Missouri, he was 17, only one year older than Jesse. Still a teenager, he had already made a name for himself far and wide as a crack-shot. Archie had earned the description as Bloody Bill’s “chief scalper and devil”.
It was among such men that Jesse honed his fighting skills. Bloody Bill’s most notorious deed took place on September 27, 1864, when he led a band of about 80 men into Centralia, Missouri. Jesse went along; Frank wasn’t part of this raid.
Anderson and his men terrorized the small town. They robbed a stagecoach. They found a barrel of whiskey, and proceeded to get drunk, but not too drunk to carry out the rest of their plan.
The bushwhackers placed railroad ties across the tracks, stopping an incoming train. Among the passengers were 25 unarmed Union soldiers on leave. The guerrillas forced the soldiers off the train, lining them up. Bloody Bill ordered Archie Clement to take care of them, and he did.
Clement began shooting the men, one by one, and other guerrillas joined in. Then they set fire to the train and sent it traveling down the tracks to the next town. As a final touch, they set fire to Centralia’s depot.
A force of well over 100 Union infantry under Major A.V.E. Johnson sent to stop Anderson’s men was no match for the guerrillas, whose numbers in the hours after the Centralia raid had swollen to nearly 300, including Frank.
Almost the whole Union contingent got wiped out. In a newspaper interview years later, Frank claimed that Jesse shot and killed Major Johnson, the Union commander. His claim has been disputed. What isn’t in dispute, however, is the carnage. Seventeen Union corpses had been scalped, and one had its genitals cut off and stuffed in its mouth.
Frank James would later claim with absurd exaggeration that “The only battles in the world’s history to surpass Centralia are Thermopylae and the Alamo.” I suspect he was showing off his reading by mentioning Thermopylae, a battle that took place in 480 BC and was of great import in the history of Ancient Greece, just as the Alamo has significance in Texas history.
Centralia was of no great import to history at all. It was another example of guerrilla war atrocity in a war packed with ample atrocities carried out by both sides, bushwhacker or jayhawker.
In any case, it was a short-lived victory for Bloody Bill, who was shot dead in yet another battle a month later, at the age of 25, which brings into focus a central fact of this war, or any war: most regular army soldiers are young. The average age of guerrilla warriors – especially in Missouri during the Civil War – may be even younger.
Frank, who was 21 and one of the older members of the band when the battle of Centralia took place, would years later recall, “At night when we were in camp, we played like school boys. Some of our play was a rough as football. The truth was, we were nothing but great big boys . . . scarcely a dozen of us boasted a moustache.”
Bloody Bill had this to say about young Jesse’s skills: “Not to have any beard he is the keenest and cleanest fighting in the command.” It was their very youth, I believe, that made them the most aggressive of warriors, young men in fierce rivalry to prove themselves by displaying uncommon courage — and never revealing weakness.
Why did these young men devote themselves to bloody warfare, living under constant threat of death, outside in all weather, far from home and its comforts, or even from the greater security the regular army might provide?
If you’d asked Jesse, Frank, Archie Clement, Bloody Bill, or for that matter any bushwhacker, their first response would be “to kill Yankees” and protect their families and farms.
But I think there’s another reason that led these young men to leave home and pursue the rough life of a guerrilla in those violent times. That reason first became clear to me when I read Robert M. Coates’ 1930 The Outlaw Years, a book I was lucky enough to come across in an Albuquerque secondhand bookstore.
Coates was an exceptional man and a first-rate writer. As art critic for “The New Yorker,” it was he who coined the term “Abstract Expressionism” to describe the art movement that dominated American art in the mid-20th century and placed American artists, for the first time, at the art world’s very center.
But Coates had an abiding interest in American history as well. In The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace he wrote about bad men and their gangs active in the first half of the 19th century, a generation or two earlier than the James Gang.
Coates focused on the Natchez Trace, an early trading route that connected the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. One of these bad men, a truly nasty piece of work, was James Murrell. Mark Twain once called Murrell worse than Jesse James had ever imagined being.
Samuel Mason was another, as were the Harpe brothers, Micajah “Big” and Wiley “Little” Harpe. Finally there was Joseph Thompson Hare, who had an impressive life in crime before he was captured in Havre de Grace, Maryland, and hanged in Baltimore in 1818.
Coates asked himself what it was that caused men to join bands led by such men, where life was bleak and early death almost a guarantee. What he concluded was both obvious and profound: “The outlaws … in all that turbulent time, were the sole class of men who sustained their solidarity.”
What Coates meant was that in difficult times warrior bands such as the bushwhackers provided groups of young men a source of camaraderie and a sense of shared purpose — the very things their disordered lives no longer provided.
In a world where families had been slaughtered, homes burned and farms destroyed, and nothing was as it had been, life together with fellow guerrillas in a warrior band where they could fight the enemy offered security and a sense of direction, however fragile, when nothing else did.
Poet Paulette Jiles captures these feelings of uncertainty and the need for comradeship movingly in her poem “Frank Invites Jesse to Join Him in Quantrell’s Guerrillas,” from her book, The Jesse James Poems.
“We will move like clocks / through the night hours,” Frank promises Jesse. “We will work for ourselves and we / will be employed as the / goldenrod and the grass. It is / better than owning things.”
With the precision that good poetry provides, Jiles then has Frank say to Jesse, “The world / around us is made of matchsticks and / rye straw. / I am telling you reality is / unstable.”
Those unstable times – and the comradarie provided by a guerrilla band – have been accurately captured in fiction as well. Daniel Woodrell, Missouri-born, like the poet Jiles, is author of the 1987 novel Woe To Live On, whose subject is a small band of bushwhackers.
Woodrell I regard as one of the best fiction writers in America today. If his name sounds familiar (and I hope it does), it may be because he is also author of Winter’s Bone (2006), which was made into a powerful 2010 indie film for which Jennifer Lawrence got a best actress Academy Award nomination.
Jake Roedel narrates Woe to Live On. He’s 16 when he joins the bushwhackers. At the same age, Jesse joined them. Unlike Jesse, however, it becomes clear that bushwhacking is not Jake’s true calling. Jake is German-American, and German-Americans of the time (like Jake’s own father in the novel) despised slavery, and were among its most outspoken opponents.
But Jake’s best friend, Jack Bull Chiles is the son of a slave-owning gentry family, and when Jack joins the bushwhackers, Jake follows along. In Woe To Live On Jake tells the story of those times, from the vantage of later years, when he’s had time to reflect.
“We made trash of men and places,” Jake recalls, marveling at the degree of violence he participated in. “Warfare was what we knew,” he explains. “Our struggle had carried us into new territory of the soul where we found new versions of ourselves.”
“New versions” of themselves is exactly what the war created: Innocent young men who have become jaded and inured to violence, seeing it as a natural part of life. But Jake is also a mine of wit and self-deprecating irony, and it is these characteristics that make him a great fictional character.
Here he is, describing with his considerable irony the image he believes he and his friends presented as guerrilla warriors:
“I can think of no more chilling a sight than that of myself all astride my big bag horse, with six or eight pistols dangling from my saddle, my rebel locks aloft in the breeze and whoopish yell on my lips.
“When my awful costumery was multiplied by that of my comrades, we stopped faint hearts just by the mode of our dread stylishness.”
Film director Ang Lee captured than “dread stylishness” in the 1999 film he made of the novel under the name “Ride With The Devil.” Tobey Maguire was a perfect fit as Jake. Skeech Ulrich played Jake’s friend Jack Bull Chiles.
Lee’s movie was not a box office hit, though it did receive praise from critics for historical accuracy. I love the movie, but not as much as I do the novel. The film may be on the way of becoming a cult classic: In 2010, Criterion released it in Blu-Ray with commentary by the director and screenwriter James Schamus.
How much did the Civil War and guerrilla experience mean to Jesse and his family?
A great deal. Zerelda named a daughter born in 1863 Fanny Quantrell Samuel. She told friends it was good to have a Quantrill in the family. A son born three years later got the name Archie Peyton Samuel. So Zerelda had an Archie Clements in the family as well.
Jesse paid a heavy price for his guerrilla years. He lost part of the middle finger of his left had, a mark that would be used to identify him after his assassination. He suffered two serious, life-threatening chest wounds from which recovery was agonizing and protracted.
After the second serious wound, his first cousin Zerelda Mimms, better known as Zee, nursed him back to health. She would later become his wife.
According to the legend that began to grow up around Jesse even before he died, he wanted to go straight after the war, settle down, farm and raise a family. This is a theme in many Jesse movies.
There may be something to it, but only a tiny bit. I believe his years as a guerrilla made it difficult and likely impossible that he could settle down. After all, he’d learned violence from masters like Bloody Bill. It was the way of life Jesse had become accustomed to. It perfectly suited his rebellious side.
In a haunting passage in his The James Farm (2006), the best short introduction to the subject I’ve come across, Martin McGrane reminds visitors to the James Farm that when they tread the floors of the house, they’re walking where Quantrill, Bloody Bill, and other guerrilla warriors once walked.
McGrane is right to remind us of that fact. The ghosts of Rebel heroes haunt the Farm and they do so to this day. One of the reasons (but by no means the only one) for Jesse’s enduring popularity is that his admirers regard him as a rebel who didn’t change his ways, who went down fighting for what he believed in, just like Quantrill and Bloody Bill. It’s this enduringly defiant Jesse that many who come to the James Farm pay their respects to, both consciously and unconsciously.
A last note: First: The best and most thorough of Jesse biographies, T. J. Stiles’ Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002) makes Jesse’s guerrilla experience a major theme of Jesse’s life. For Stiles, Jesse became an outlaw to continue the guerrilla war on into “peacetime” and remain a thorn in the side of the Yankee victors.
Stiles compares Jesse’s role in Missouri after 1865 with that of Osama bin Laden in the Middle East. I hesitate to go that far, but I think Stiles is correct to stress Jesse’s guerrilla years as formative: They explain Jesse as no other single part of his life does, with he exception of the defiance he learned from Zerelda.
Steve Goode grew up in Elkins, WV in the 1950s – a fine time and place to be young
– and attended Elkins public schools. He holds a BA from Davidson College, an MA from the University of Virginia, and Ph. D. from Rutgers – all in history – but pursued a career in journalism rather than academia. For 20 years he wrote on politics and culture for Insight Magazine and the Washington Times. He is the author of 17 nonfiction books and numerous articles in various publications. With his partner of 40 years, the botanist and artist Ray Petersen and their dog Pearl, he divides his time between their home in Milton, DE and a condo in Albuquerque, NM.