Jesse James, The Last Rebel of the Civil War by TJ Stiles

A dense book packed with details, The Last Rebel by TJ Stiles is an exhaustive treatment of the life of Jesse James, the most notorious bandit of the post-Civil War era. The memory of Jesse James is one-part folklore, one-part pop culture, and one-part fact. Stiles’ book alters that mix, wiping out the large fractions of myth that have built up around the prototypical Wild West bank and stage coach robber. Emerging from this fascinating study is picture of a man prone to violence and a family devoted to the cause of slavery and the Confederacy.

Stiles’ thesis is that Jesse James was deeply involved in the guerrilla warfare side of the Civil War and that he championed the Confederate cause long after Lee surrendered to Grant in Virginia. Stiles is persuasive in showing that both Jesse and his brother Frank James were willing participants in ambushes and atrocities committed against Union supporters in Missouri in 1863-1865. Stiles indicates further that the James brothers were active in seeking to undo the Union victory in Missouri in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the period known as Reconstruction. Stiles is at his best in describing the alliance between the law-breaking Jesse and a local newspaper writer, John Edwards. Edwards often published articles glorifying James’ crimes and may have helped James write a few of his own newspaper accounts.

Jesse James was neck deep in politics after the Civil War. The James’ family, including its matriarchal leader and the boys’ mother, Zerelda James, hoped to punish Unionist Republicans and Democrats alike and to ensure that Confederate-sympathizing Missourians gained political power. The broad network of the James extended family and friends were tied as much to Jesse for his political views as they were to his bloodlines. Indeed, in trying to distinguish why west central Missouri was a base of support for Jesse James it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the source of family/friendship ties and those of politics and ideology.

Stiles debunks the belief popular among academic historians in the late 20th century that Jesse James committed crimes to protest the capitalist economic system of the Gilded Age. Stiles shows that the James family was a willing participant in the agricultural side of the capitalist system, an active cog in a far-reaching machine of market economics. Jesse James was not the hybrid of Robin Hood and Karl Marx.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the book is the decision of Stiles to make Jesse James into a broader symbol of post-Civil War America. Stiles describes how Confederate-supporting Democrats slowly regained control of Missouri’s government and that James’ exploits helped mark the evaporating power of Union supporters. Reforms that might have benefited ex-slaves were strangled in infancy after the war. What the rebellious national government and armies of the Confederacy had been unable to do on the battlefield their supporters in Missouri were able to accomplish in “peacetime” through intimidation, terror, vigilantism, and political activism. The Missouri of Jesse James was a key step in the declension from the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to the legalized racism of the so-called Jim Crow laws of the 1890s.

I was amazed at additional insights into the life of Jesse James. I had no idea of James’ geographic range; he lived, and robbed, in places as far away from Missouri as Kentucky and Tennessee. Credible evidence even suggests he was in Baltimore for a while. Moreover, Frank James escaped a life of crime for a short period. He returned to robbery by the late 1870s. And again, I was flabbergasted to read the numerous contemporary articles by John Edwards and Jesse James in which politics were intertwined with law-breaking.

Additionally, I found fascinating the varied attempts of members of the James-Younger gang to profit from their exploits and reputations through “Wild-West”-style shows. You can see the faint outline of an emerging national pop culture that looks and feels very much like that of the early 2000s.

You also recognize instantly the ongoing importance of public communication and relations. That’s the larger point of the James-Edwards partnership in newspaper journalism in Missouri. James sought to use the best means at hand to disseminate his story to the public. I wondered if James believed this was necessary to maintain his sub-state regional network of support (family, friends, and fellow political travelers) or to add to his supporters by reaching a wider state-wide audience.

My chief criticism of the book is that Stiles occasionally bogs down in Missouri’s political scene. The cost to Stiles’ political interpretation of James’ life is that he spends great time and energy in describing and re-describing political parties, factions, and personality cults in Missouri over twenty years. The names, labels, affiliations, and beliefs within this political stew overwhelm the reader. I found myself simply blurring over the countless political details. In saying this, I don’t know how to suggest any improvement when political dynamics are such a key part to the story.

I owe Stiles a debt beyond his skillful discussion of James’ life. That debt is his introduction to me of a new historical figure, Adelbert Ames. Ames was a Union general who ultimately was placed in charge of post-war Louisiana. Ames was a fierce believer in the abolition and black rights side to the Civil War—notice that my language hints that there was more than one motivation to both the Union and Confederacy. A native of Massachusetts, Ames left his position in Louisiana convinced of the utter failure of his cause. Ex-Confederate whites in Louisiana brutalized freed black men and women in the state and essentially reinstated a system of racism and apartheid. The discouraged Ames relocated to Northfield, Minnesota where he became a successful businessman. His holdings and operations included a local bank, the Northfield bank that became the site for the destruction of the James-Younger gang during a botched bank raid. Ames’ letters are a fountain of information and insight into person with leadership abilities being compelled to shift his career and calling, all the while trying to maintain a stable marriage and family life. Such a story is familiar to many of us in the early 21st century.

I divide takeaways from the book into two categories. On the personal and individual level, you find strains of leadership in Stiles’ account of Jesse James. James underwent a period of tutelage or preparation before emerging as a leader in his own right. His leadership sprang from a willingness to reach higher and farther than his colleagues in nerve, daring, outlook, and most certainly, propensity for using the group’s stock-in-trade, violence. Where his fellow robbers were adequate in these areas, James excelled. He didn’t just succeed, he exceeded. That was the basis of his leadership. You and I should examine the role of success and/or excess (two different things) in our leadership.

Ponder another quick point before moving on. James linked his leadership of success/excess to a body of opinions, attitudes, and ideology. That linkage of behavior to belief was vital to his leadership. A takeaway from this point ought to be our own assessment of the link in our leadership.

The leadership of Jesse James revealed a sophisticated reality of support. He gained support and sustenance from his immediate gang members—his team, if you will. More than that, however, James benefited from a far broader pool of support among his friends, family, and political allies. The team or gang gave support in the form of action and work. The pool or network gave support in the form of information, sanctuaries of resources, and denial of cooperation to James’ many enemies among sheriffs and detectives. To reach back to a previous point about the book, it is in this context that you should consider the effectiveness of the journalistic communication of James and Edwards. They used newspapers to keep in contact with the pool of support. Here again, you and I would likely find real gains if we better understood the depth of support for our leadership that exists beyond our nearest team of followers. We should gauge our “sanctuary of support.”

The other category of takeaways pertains to national security policy. Stiles is chillingly persuasive in depicting the shift of conflict from formal warfare to informal violence. Peace meant very little in describing the post-war life of Missourians, especially those in the west central part of the state. The most avid supporters of slavery and white supremacy continued to pursue their aims. They finally secured control within the existing American governmental system, not outside it in a breakaway Confederate nation. As Americans we have a much more prevalent heritage of such guerrilla violence than we think.

The takeaway in this instance is that we need to recognize that guerrilla warfare on a social setting will produce a similar guerrilla-style reaction. We are very unlikely to respond to it through formal, organized, and regular warfare. In addition, there is little that can be done—short of death—to eradicate a deeply implanted outlook and attitude that is hostile to our own. You either decide to deal harshly through violence, accept a shift in thinking that embraces the enemy’s way of life, or seek to drain the countryside and cityside of every other asset that can be used in defending the iniquitous outlook.

The Last Rebel will change your understanding of American history in the heartland after the Civil War.