Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War

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Overview

In this brilliant biography T. J. Stiles offers a new understanding of the legendary outlaw Jesse James. Although he has often been portrayed as a Robin Hood of the old west, in this ground-breaking work Stiles places James within the context of the bloody conflicts of the Civil War to reveal a much more complicated and significant figure.

Raised in a fiercely pro-slavery household in bitterly divided Misssouri, at age sixteen James became a bushwhacker, one of the savage ...

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Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War

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Overview

In this brilliant biography T. J. Stiles offers a new understanding of the legendary outlaw Jesse James. Although he has often been portrayed as a Robin Hood of the old west, in this ground-breaking work Stiles places James within the context of the bloody conflicts of the Civil War to reveal a much more complicated and significant figure.

Raised in a fiercely pro-slavery household in bitterly divided Misssouri, at age sixteen James became a bushwhacker, one of the savage Confederate guerrillas that terrorized the border states. After the end of the war, James continued his campaign of robbery and murder into the brutal era of reconstruction, when his reckless daring, his partisan pronouncements, and his alliance with the sympathetic editor John Newman Edwards placed him squarely at the forefront of the former Confederates’ bid to recapture political power. With meticulous research and vivid accounts of the dramatic adventures of the famous gunman, T. J. Stiles shows how he resembles not the apolitical hero of legend, but rather a figure ready to use violence to command attention for a political cause—in many ways, a forerunner of the modern terrorist.

A biography of the outlaw, focusing on his involvement in the Civil War and the formation of the James Gang.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"So carefully researched, persuasive, and illuminating that it is likely to reshape permanently our understanding of its subject's life and times." —The New York Times Book Review

"After reading this biography . . . can doubt that the driving force of Jesse James's career was persistent Confederate ideology and loyalty. . . . [Stiles writes] vigorously, eloquently, persuasively." —James M. McPherson, The New York Review of Books

"Intricate, far-reaching. . . . A fascinating revisionist biography.” —TheNew York Times

"In this excellent account, T.J. Stiles shows James to be a southerner, not a westerner; a Confederate, not a cowboy. . . . [He] masterfully strips James bare." —The Economist

“Elegantly rendered and compelling.” —Jay Winik, Washington Post Book World

"Stiles has combed a wealth of contemporary sources and imbues this story with the drama it deserves.” —Eric Foner, Los Angeles Times

“[A] bold, myth-bashing account of the brutal life and times of the outlaw-icon.” —Boston Globe

"Carries the reader scrupulously through James’s violent, violent life. . . . When Stiles, in his subtitle, calls Jesse James the ‘last rebel fo the Civil War; he correctly definies the theme that ruled Jesse’s life." —Larry McMurtry, The New Republic

“A fascinating challnge to old legends.” —The Dallas Morning News

“A dazzling work of American history. . . . James emerges, stripped of his Robin Hood folk mythology, as a more complex and pivotal figure than earlier histories have allowed.” —Sunday Times [London]

“Arresting and powerful.” —The Richmond-Times Dispatch

"This gripping biography of one of the most famous American outlaws clarifies the development of modern violence and proves that the simplistic Jesse James of western movies fall far short of the historical mark." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Perhaps the finest book ever written about this American legend.” —Salon.com

“The book is quite simply outstanding. . . . [Stiles is] a writer whose allegiance is not with the easy and obvious but with the subtle and definiantly humane.” —Guardian

"As gracefully written as a novel, and convincingly argued throughout, this is biography at its finest." —Bookpage

"Stiles spent four years examining James’s deadliest weapon: his politics. . . . James emerges as no mere robber, but as a proslavery 'terrorist' who remains wildly misunderstood." —Time Out

“In hard-eyed, exhilaratingly physcial language . . . T. J. Stiles takes us beyond the usual interpretation of the outlaw’s notorious life and into a far more challenging understanding of the man.” —The Bloomsbury Review

“Wonderful. . . . An important new biography.” —John Mack Faragher, Raleigh News & Observer

School Library Journal
Gr 6-12-A gripping portrait of one of the most notorious and vicious criminals in U.S. history. At 18, James was to most a feared and hated outlaw, but to others he was a folk hero in the image of Robin Hood. Along with his brother Frank and other renegade soldiers, he formed the ``James Gang,'' which sought to avenge the lost cause of the Confederacy. This man has fascinated readers for a century, and Stiles brings him to life with his poignant style and use of vivid period photographs. While his tone is highly sympathetic to James and the cruel and iniquitous treatment he received at the hands of Union soldiers, he in no way romanticizes or justifies the killer's actions. The legend lives on in this readable biography.- Julie Halverstadt, Douglas Public Library District, Castle Rock, CO
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375705588
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 369,360
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

A native of rural Benton County, Minnesota, T.J. Stiles studied history at Carleton College and Columbia University, where he received two graduate degrees. His writings about American history include articles in Smithsonian, essays in the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post, and a five-volume series of primary-source anthologies. He lives in New York. For more information on T. J. Stiles and Jesse James see www.tjstiles.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Part One
Zion
1842-1860

Walk about Zion, and go round about her; tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces, that ye may tell it to the generation following.

-Psalms 48:12-13

Chapter One - The Preacher

In the blind man's memory, the river ran west. It was in the spring of 1846 when young Francis Parkman had first looked on the Missouri, and he had seen clearly that its wide and silty waters flowed east to the Mississippi. But when he closed his faltering eyes in a clinic on Staten Island in 1847 and began to dictate the story of his adventure of the previous year, he had already begun to think like the great historian he would soon become. As he scanned in his mind the lines of passengers and clots of wagons and piles of goods crowding the St. Louis levee, as he recalled the sound of steamboat paddles slapping and churning against the Missouri's current, he could see the life of the nation pulsing westward up the river like blood cells pouring through an artery. In the most important sense, the river ran west.1

Parkman did not record how he arrived in St. Louis from his home in Boston, but he undoubtedly spent most of his trip on the water. It was virtually his only choice. Most roads amounted to little more than muddy ravines-in Missouri, it was said that roads were worn, not made-and the first, pioneering railways had yet to cover much territory. So, whenever possible, Americans set out in schooners and square-rigged ships, paddlewheel steamboats, or mule-drawn canal barges. He might have taken a ship to New Orleans, then a riverboat north; or he could have sailed up the Hudson, been towed down the Erie Canal, then shipped through the Great Lakes before crossing to descend the Mississippi, or taking another canal to reach the mighty Ohio.2

North and south, east and west, these flowing highways met at the metropolis of St. Louis. One of Parkman's contemporaries, a farm woman named Elizabeth Carter, wrote that merchants swarmed in and out of the place "like bees." The water off the city's tightly packed levee presented a breathtaking spectacle, as dozens of teetering, wedding-cake paddlewheelers pressed in to find a landing. "The steamboats were strung up and down the river for miles as close as they could stand," she wrote to her family in Kentucky.3

Some fifty of those vessels regularly plied the Missouri River, hauling passengers and goods between St. Louis and the state's inner river towns. But the twenty-two-year-old Parkman's imagination was captured by the immense throng of settlers and traders bound for Oregon, California, and Santa Fe. "The hotels were crowded," he wrote, "and the gunsmiths and saddlers were kept constantly at work in providing arms and equipments for the different parties of travellers."4

On April 28, 1846, Parkman left St. Louis on a Missouri steamer named the Radnor. "The boat was loaded until the water broke alternately over the guards," he recalled. "Her upper-deck was covered with large wagons of a peculiar form, for the Santa Fe trade, and her hold was crammed with goods for the same destination. There were also equipments and provisions of a party of Oregon emigrants, a band of mules and horses, piles of saddles and harness."

For the next week, the heavily laden steamboat chugged up the winding river, forcing its way against the swift current. The Missouri ran high in the spring, making the pilot's job simpler-but not simple. The channel constantly shifted back and forth across the soft-soiled floodplain; sandbars swelled into islands and then dissolved; snags of drifting dead trees came and went, threatening to spear the hull of a poorly guided boat. Everything rested on the pilot's knowledge and skill. He had to learn and relearn the river, read the water for shoals and snags, know how to time a burst of steam to carry the boat through a shallow chute. It was a dangerous career. Between boiler explosions and the river's own obstacles, an average of three boats each year sank to the Missouri's muddy bottom, often taking dozens of lives at a time. The pilot, Mark Twain later wrote, ruled over his vessel "in glory," trumping even the captain in pay and authority.5

During that week, the Radnor existed as a floating town, piled high and trailing a cloud of smoke. The average boat was a sidewheeler, some 165 feet long and 28 feet wide-though they often reached 250 feet with a 40-foot beam-and some could hold as many as 400 passengers. "In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions," Parkman observed, "and her steerage was crowded with Oregon emigrants, 'mountain men,' negroes, and a party of Kanzas Indians, who had been on a visit to St. Louis." Also on board, unmentioned by the young Bostonian, would have been country lawyers, frontier merchants, and farmers returning home, along with dozens of women, children, and teenagers. "The young people seemed to enjoy themselves very well," Elizabeth Carter noted on a similar trip, "with music and dancing every night."6

"In five or six days we began to see signs of the great western movement that was then taking place," Parkman recalled. Tents and wagons began to appear on the bank as the boat drew near Independence. When the Radnor steamed in to the landing, he gaped at the wild diversity of the scene: dozens of Mexicans, "gazing stupidly out from beneath their broad hats"; clusters of Native Americans, gathered silently around campfires; a few long-haired, buckskin-clad French hunters, fresh from the mountains; and crowds of Anglo-Saxon pioneers.7

There was probably no other place in the country like Missouri's western border. The aptly named town of Westport served as the access point between the settled states and the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific coast. Traders came and went, spending the Spanish silver coins they acquired in Santa Fe; Native Americans of countless nations and cultures visited and passed through; and settlers departed by the thousands in their ox-drawn wagons. The first large group of emigrants had departed for Oregon just three years before, starting a steady flow to that distant territory; and now the Mormons were gathering for a long trek west that would end at Great Salt Lake, deep in Mexican territory. Westport's shops were filled with the sounds of English, Spanish, French, along with the occasional German and various Indian languages.

And yet, as wild as the region might have seemed to the eye, it was hardly a raw, untamed frontier. A full decade before Parkman's arrival, one writer thought that many of the towns "would lead the visitor to believe, were he governed by appearances, that he was in the heart of the best settlements of one of the older states." A few years afterward, another visitor made a telling observation: Missouri's western border, he wrote, "is fenced up all on one side with old and well improved farms as far east as we could see, while on the right . . . it is open, wild prairie."8

Hard against this boundary-next to the vast plains that President Andrew Jackson had set aside as the "permanent Indian frontier"-sat this long-settled, thriving community, bustling with commerce. Hemp and tobacco fields abounded; river towns rang with noise from carriage workshops, tobacco stemmeries, and leaf-prizing houses, as well as ropewalks, where hemp's rough fibers were turned into twine. Both farmers and merchants prospered by selling supplies to the migrants marching by. Passing wagon trains kept cobblers, saddle makers, and blacksmiths busy; they also provided a major market for locally raised food and livestock. In May 1848, for example, outfitter Edward M. Samuel in the town of Liberty announced that he needed at least two thousand pounds of bacon to keep up with demand.9

When Parkman looked over these Missourians, he found them "yellow-visaged," with "lank angular proportions, enveloped in brown homespun, evidently cut and adjusted by the hands of a domestic female tailor." Though his description seems at odds with this general picture of prosperity, it was nonetheless accurate. Almost everything had a handmade look out here, on the far end of the bending limb of the Missouri River. "From all I have seen," Elizabeth Carter wrote from Clay County, "I would judge that the people are very plain." Even residents whose homes dated back to the early 1820s sometimes lived in log cabins, though well-improved ones; many used walnut or butternut oil to die their homespun clothes a distinctive brown, earning these people the nickname "butternuts."10

Butternuts could be found all across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, where they had moved from the upper South-especially from Kentucky, the great fountain of settlers that flooded the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in the early nineteenth century. They went by other nicknames as well, such as crackers, hoosiers, pukes, and rednecks-terms that originated in Ulster, Scotland, and northern England, where this long movement of peoples began a century earlier. Even the wealthiest among them-those who could afford fine wool and cotton clothes, rather than walnut-stained homespun-shared common cultural traits: a willingness to resort to violence, for example, to resolve private disputes or keep public order.11

Parkman continued on into the vast expanse of the Great Plains, where he joined a wandering Oglala band of the Lakota people; but when he turned in his saddle to glance over his shoulder, settled Missouri itself looked like an alien land to his Harvard-bred, Bostonian eyes. How different it must have seemed to another passenger who stepped off a steamboat that spring; to him, Missouri's western reaches would have been little less than Zion.

This man had also spent a slow week in early 1846 on a paddlewheeler from St. Louis, as it churned toward the setting sun. If he had been aboard the Radnor, Parkman would have noticed him: he was a commanding figure, a tall man with a long, thin face, his hair parted on one side and combed across to leave his high forehead bare. Perhaps he carried a Bible when he appeared in the dining room for his meals; though his name was Robert Sallee James, this twenty-eight-year-old was better known to his Baptist neighbors as brother or Preacher James.12

He probably disembarked at Liberty landing, in Clay County, across the river from Independence. There he would have hired a horse or a wagon for the long ride home along those rutted tracks that Missourians called roads, across a landscape that resembled a rug pushed into a corner: rumpled, wrinkled, rippled with ravines and dusted with timber. His route would have carried him through the town of Liberty, the prosperous but modest county seat, and a dozen miles farther into the northern reaches of Clay. There he would have ridden over a low rise and caught sight of a humble three-room house with a narrow porch stretching across its single story, perched with a barn and a few outbuildings above a deep streambed. It was home.13

James had clearly given careful thought to the timing of the extended trip he had just completed. The month of January, though the deepest trough of winter, overflowed with labor for the typical Missouri farmer, but eight to twelve weeks into the year the demands temporarily lightened. The river, too, would finally be free of ice, as the first paddlewheelers puffed into the landings along Clay County's long waterfront. After selling his annual harvest of hemp, he would have had several weeks free before new seed had to go into the ground. So church member Jane W. Gill expressed little surprise when she noted in a letter that "Preacher James" had departed in late March to visit his native Kentucky.14

But there was something odd about that journey. He apparently went alone, leaving behind his wife of five years, Zerelda Cole James, and their two-year-old son. Robert looked uncertain and uneasy when he left, a condition that his neighbors kept in mind as they welcomed him home. "Preacher James," Gill wrote on June 15, 1846, "was here with his wife a few days after his return, and seems better contented to live in Mo."15

Better contented. These modest words suggest a disquiet not quite dispelled. But the cause of his discontent is unclear. By any measure, he had already come far from his humble beginnings. Born on July 7, 1818, he became an orphan at the age of nine and went to live with his sister Mary Mimms (eighteen years old and already married). In 1838, he enrolled at Georgetown College, Kentucky, a rare distinction at a time when primary education was haphazard, secondary education rare, and illiteracy all too common. There he met Zerelda E. Cole, a strikingly tall girl who attended a Roman Catholic school in town. And she was indeed a girl. Born on January 29, 1825, she was only sixteen when she engaged to marry the devout college student.16

Zerelda, too, was a native of Kentucky, and she, too, had lost a parent at an early age. Her father had died when she was just two, and she was left by her mother with her grandfather, Robert Cole. After he died, her mother married Robert Thomason-reportedly ignoring Zerelda's disapproval-and moved to distant Clay County, Missouri. Once again, the girl found herself packed off to live with relatives, this time with her uncle James M. Lindsay in Scott County, Kentucky. Though a Protestant, she entered the Catholic school in Georgetown, the community where she met her future husband. On December 20, 1841, they said their vows at Lindsay's home. The wedding of such a young girl was not an ordinary event in antebellum Kentucky: Lindsay had to give county officials his written permission for the minor to marry. Once Robert James received his diploma, in the spring of 1842, the pair packed their things and traveled to Clay County, where they moved in with Zerelda's mother and Thomason. The child bride soon showed signs of pregnancy. Nine days before her eighteenth birthday, on January 10, 1843, she delivered a boy. They named him Alexander Franklin James, or Frank, for short.17

All in all, Robert James found himself in a seemingly blissful domestic setting, with a young, attractive wife and a newborn son. But he was a restless, driven man. In short order, he found a forum for his ambition at the New Hope Baptist Church. Founded in 1828, it was a humble affair: a log structure twenty feet square, with a haphazard stone chimney that opened into a gaping fireplace. Even in this cramped space, worshippers had plenty of room during Sunday meetings. Their recently departed preacher had driven away most members with heated doctrinal disputes over communion. When James first arrived, a mere fifteen people gathered for services.18

In that dim, gritty church, James discovered his own inner light; and in him, the tiny church found its salvation, in both the spiritual and the worldly sense. Baptist congregations ordained their own preachers from among their membership; nothing more was required than a mutual agreement that a man had received a divine calling to speak the word of God. And the pious, charismatic, well-educated young fellow from Kentucky inspired immediate consensus among these "very plain" people. One neighbor recalled how he had attended the ordination service as a boy.

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First Chapter

Part One
Zion
1842-1860


Walk about Zion, and go round about her; tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces, that ye may tell it to the generation following.

-Psalms 48:12-13


Chapter One - The Preacher

In the blind man's memory, the river ran west. It was in the spring of 1846 when young Francis Parkman had first looked on the Missouri, and he had seen clearly that its wide and silty waters flowed east to the Mississippi. But when he closed his faltering eyes in a clinic on Staten Island in 1847 and began to dictate the story of his adventure of the previous year, he had already begun to think like the great historian he would soon become. As he scanned in his mind the lines of passengers and clots of wagons and piles of goods crowding the St. Louis levee, as he recalled the sound of steamboat paddles slapping and churning against the Missouri's current, he could see the life of the nation pulsing westward up the river like blood cells pouring through an artery. In the most important sense, the river ran west.1

Parkman did not record how he arrived in St. Louis from his home in Boston, but he undoubtedly spent most of his trip on the water. It was virtually his only choice. Most roads amounted to little more than muddy ravines-in Missouri, it was said that roads were worn, not made-and the first, pioneering railways had yet to cover much territory. So, whenever possible, Americans set out in schooners and square-rigged ships, paddlewheel steamboats, or mule-drawn canal barges. He might have taken a ship to New Orleans, then a riverboat north; or he could have sailed up the Hudson,been towed down the Erie Canal, then shipped through the Great Lakes before crossing to descend the Mississippi, or taking another canal to reach the mighty Ohio.2

North and south, east and west, these flowing highways met at the metropolis of St. Louis. One of Parkman's contemporaries, a farm woman named Elizabeth Carter, wrote that merchants swarmed in and out of the place "like bees." The water off the city's tightly packed levee presented a breathtaking spectacle, as dozens of teetering, wedding-cake paddlewheelers pressed in to find a landing. "The steamboats were strung up and down the river for miles as close as they could stand," she wrote to her family in Kentucky.3

Some fifty of those vessels regularly plied the Missouri River, hauling passengers and goods between St. Louis and the state's inner river towns. But the twenty-two-year-old Parkman's imagination was captured by the immense throng of settlers and traders bound for Oregon, California, and Santa Fe. "The hotels were crowded," he wrote, "and the gunsmiths and saddlers were kept constantly at work in providing arms and equipments for the different parties of travellers."4

On April 28, 1846, Parkman left St. Louis on a Missouri steamer named the Radnor. "The boat was loaded until the water broke alternately over the guards," he recalled. "Her upper-deck was covered with large wagons of a peculiar form, for the Santa Fe trade, and her hold was crammed with goods for the same destination. There were also equipments and provisions of a party of Oregon emigrants, a band of mules and horses, piles of saddles and harness."

For the next week, the heavily laden steamboat chugged up the winding river, forcing its way against the swift current. The Missouri ran high in the spring, making the pilot's job simpler-but not simple. The channel constantly shifted back and forth across the soft-soiled floodplain; sandbars swelled into islands and then dissolved; snags of drifting dead trees came and went, threatening to spear the hull of a poorly guided boat. Everything rested on the pilot's knowledge and skill. He had to learn and relearn the river, read the water for shoals and snags, know how to time a burst of steam to carry the boat through a shallow chute. It was a dangerous career. Between boiler explosions and the river's own obstacles, an average of three boats each year sank to the Missouri's muddy bottom, often taking dozens of lives at a time. The pilot, Mark Twain later wrote, ruled over his vessel "in glory," trumping even the captain in pay and authority.5

During that week, the Radnor existed as a floating town, piled high and trailing a cloud of smoke. The average boat was a sidewheeler, some 165 feet long and 28 feet wide-though they often reached 250 feet with a 40-foot beam-and some could hold as many as 400 passengers. "In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions," Parkman observed, "and her steerage was crowded with Oregon emigrants, 'mountain men,' negroes, and a party of Kanzas Indians, who had been on a visit to St. Louis." Also on board, unmentioned by the young Bostonian, would have been country lawyers, frontier merchants, and farmers returning home, along with dozens of women, children, and teenagers. "The young people seemed to enjoy themselves very well," Elizabeth Carter noted on a similar trip, "with music and dancing every night."6

"In five or six days we began to see signs of the great western movement that was then taking place," Parkman recalled. Tents and wagons began to appear on the bank as the boat drew near Independence. When the Radnor steamed in to the landing, he gaped at the wild diversity of the scene: dozens of Mexicans, "gazing stupidly out from beneath their broad hats"; clusters of Native Americans, gathered silently around campfires; a few long-haired, buckskin-clad French hunters, fresh from the mountains; and crowds of Anglo-Saxon pioneers.7

There was probably no other place in the country like Missouri's western border. The aptly named town of Westport served as the access point between the settled states and the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific coast. Traders came and went, spending the Spanish silver coins they acquired in Santa Fe; Native Americans of countless nations and cultures visited and passed through; and settlers departed by the thousands in their ox-drawn wagons. The first large group of emigrants had departed for Oregon just three years before, starting a steady flow to that distant territory; and now the Mormons were gathering for a long trek west that would end at Great Salt Lake, deep in Mexican territory. Westport's shops were filled with the sounds of English, Spanish, French, along with the occasional German and various Indian languages.

And yet, as wild as the region might have seemed to the eye, it was hardly a raw, untamed frontier. A full decade before Parkman's arrival, one writer thought that many of the towns "would lead the visitor to believe, were he governed by appearances, that he was in the heart of the best settlements of one of the older states." A few years afterward, another visitor made a telling observation: Missouri's western border, he wrote, "is fenced up all on one side with old and well improved farms as far east as we could see, while on the right . . . it is open, wild prairie."8

Hard against this boundary-next to the vast plains that President Andrew Jackson had set aside as the "permanent Indian frontier"-sat this long-settled, thriving community, bustling with commerce. Hemp and tobacco fields abounded; river towns rang with noise from carriage workshops, tobacco stemmeries, and leaf-prizing houses, as well as ropewalks, where hemp's rough fibers were turned into twine. Both farmers and merchants prospered by selling supplies to the migrants marching by. Passing wagon trains kept cobblers, saddle makers, and blacksmiths busy; they also provided a major market for locally raised food and livestock. In May 1848, for example, outfitter Edward M. Samuel in the town of Liberty announced that he needed at least two thousand pounds of bacon to keep up with demand.9

When Parkman looked over these Missourians, he found them "yellow-visaged," with "lank angular proportions, enveloped in brown homespun, evidently cut and adjusted by the hands of a domestic female tailor." Though his description seems at odds with this general picture of prosperity, it was nonetheless accurate. Almost everything had a handmade look out here, on the far end of the bending limb of the Missouri River. "From all I have seen," Elizabeth Carter wrote from Clay County, "I would judge that the people are very plain." Even residents whose homes dated back to the early 1820s sometimes lived in log cabins, though well-improved ones; many used walnut or butternut oil to die their homespun clothes a distinctive brown, earning these people the nickname "butternuts."10

Butternuts could be found all across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, where they had moved from the upper South-especially from Kentucky, the great fountain of settlers that flooded the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in the early nineteenth century. They went by other nicknames as well, such as crackers, hoosiers, pukes, and rednecks-terms that originated in Ulster, Scotland, and northern England, where this long movement of peoples began a century earlier. Even the wealthiest among them-those who could afford fine wool and cotton clothes, rather than walnut-stained homespun-shared common cultural traits: a willingness to resort to violence, for example, to resolve private disputes or keep public order.11

Parkman continued on into the vast expanse of the Great Plains, where he joined a wandering Oglala band of the Lakota people; but when he turned in his saddle to glance over his shoulder, settled Missouri itself looked like an alien land to his Harvard-bred, Bostonian eyes. How different it must have seemed to another passenger who stepped off a steamboat that spring; to him, Missouri's western reaches would have been little less than Zion.

This man had also spent a slow week in early 1846 on a paddlewheeler from St. Louis, as it churned toward the setting sun. If he had been aboard the Radnor, Parkman would have noticed him: he was a commanding figure, a tall man with a long, thin face, his hair parted on one side and combed across to leave his high forehead bare. Perhaps he carried a Bible when he appeared in the dining room for his meals; though his name was Robert Sallee James, this twenty-eight-year-old was better known to his Baptist neighbors as brother or Preacher James.12

He probably disembarked at Liberty landing, in Clay County, across the river from Independence. There he would have hired a horse or a wagon for the long ride home along those rutted tracks that Missourians called roads, across a landscape that resembled a rug pushed into a corner: rumpled, wrinkled, rippled with ravines and dusted with timber. His route would have carried him through the town of Liberty, the prosperous but modest county seat, and a dozen miles farther into the northern reaches of Clay. There he would have ridden over a low rise and caught sight of a humble three-room house with a narrow porch stretching across its single story, perched with a barn and a few outbuildings above a deep streambed. It was home.13

James had clearly given careful thought to the timing of the extended trip he had just completed. The month of January, though the deepest trough of winter, overflowed with labor for the typical Missouri farmer, but eight to twelve weeks into the year the demands temporarily lightened. The river, too, would finally be free of ice, as the first paddlewheelers puffed into the landings along Clay County's long waterfront. After selling his annual harvest of hemp, he would have had several weeks free before new seed had to go into the ground. So church member Jane W. Gill expressed little surprise when she noted in a letter that "Preacher James" had departed in late March to visit his native Kentucky.14

But there was something odd about that journey. He apparently went alone, leaving behind his wife of five years, Zerelda Cole James, and their two-year-old son. Robert looked uncertain and uneasy when he left, a condition that his neighbors kept in mind as they welcomed him home. "Preacher James," Gill wrote on June 15, 1846, "was here with his wife a few days after his return, and seems better contented to live in Mo."15

Better contented. These modest words suggest a disquiet not quite dispelled. But the cause of his discontent is unclear. By any measure, he had already come far from his humble beginnings. Born on July 7, 1818, he became an orphan at the age of nine and went to live with his sister Mary Mimms (eighteen years old and already married). In 1838, he enrolled at Georgetown College, Kentucky, a rare distinction at a time when primary education was haphazard, secondary education rare, and illiteracy all too common. There he met Zerelda E. Cole, a strikingly tall girl who attended a Roman Catholic school in town. And she was indeed a girl. Born on January 29, 1825, she was only sixteen when she engaged to marry the devout college student.16

Zerelda, too, was a native of Kentucky, and she, too, had lost a parent at an early age. Her father had died when she was just two, and she was left by her mother with her grandfather, Robert Cole. After he died, her mother married Robert Thomason-reportedly ignoring Zerelda's disapproval-and moved to distant Clay County, Missouri. Once again, the girl found herself packed off to live with relatives, this time with her uncle James M. Lindsay in Scott County, Kentucky. Though a Protestant, she entered the Catholic school in Georgetown, the community where she met her future husband. On December 20, 1841, they said their vows at Lindsay's home. The wedding of such a young girl was not an ordinary event in antebellum Kentucky: Lindsay had to give county officials his written permission for the minor to marry. Once Robert James received his diploma, in the spring of 1842, the pair packed their things and traveled to Clay County, where they moved in with Zerelda's mother and Thomason. The child bride soon showed signs of pregnancy. Nine days before her eighteenth birthday, on January 10, 1843, she delivered a boy. They named him Alexander Franklin James, or Frank, for short.17

All in all, Robert James found himself in a seemingly blissful domestic setting, with a young, attractive wife and a newborn son. But he was a restless, driven man. In short order, he found a forum for his ambition at the New Hope Baptist Church. Founded in 1828, it was a humble affair: a log structure twenty feet square, with a haphazard stone chimney that opened into a gaping fireplace. Even in this cramped space, worshippers had plenty of room during Sunday meetings. Their recently departed preacher had driven away most members with heated doctrinal disputes over communion. When James first arrived, a mere fifteen people gathered for services.18

In that dim, gritty church, James discovered his own inner light; and in him, the tiny church found its salvation, in both the spiritual and the worldly sense. Baptist congregations ordained their own preachers from among their membership; nothing more was required than a mutual agreement that a man had received a divine calling to speak the word of God. And the pious, charismatic, well-educated young fellow from Kentucky inspired immediate consensus among these "very plain" people. One neighbor recalled how he had attended the ordination service as a boy.
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 30 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2002

    The only honest appraisal: A superb book

    As a historian of the Civil War period, with a particular interest in the border states, I found this to be a superb work of scholarship and tremendous storytelling at the same time. To my knowledge, that is the universal opinion of every historian and professional book reviewer who has examined Mr. Stiles's work. Indeed, the only fair-minded appraisal one can make is that it is simply outstanding. Unfortunately, the deserved praise this book has received has also made it a target of abuse by a handful of patently dishonest customer reviewers. For example, Tom Spencer writes here on Barnes and Noble that this is simply a work of popular history, with no scholarship. This claim is so absurd it is apparently calculated to undercut this fine book, for reasons unknown. In my opinion, if an assistant professor of history made simply one of the many new interpretations Stiles offers, he or she would make tenure--such as the role of the border ruffians in polarizing politics within Missouri before the Civil War, the emergence of the Radical party in the state, the political nature of both bushwhacker and militia operations against civilian targets, the transition of the bushwhackers into bandits amid the turmoil of 1866, the political rather than economic nature of support for the James-Younger gang, and the definitive assessment Stiles offers of the historical theory of social banditry. Customer Spencer would have you believe that Stiles is creating a work of historical fiction. My knowledge of the period and sources, and my review of the endnotes of this book, allow me to state that it is an extraordinarily well-reasoned work of history. Stiles focuses on Jesse James over Frank (as the title indicates he will do from the beginning) because it was Jesse who was central to the outlaws' public, political role. He addresses all the things his critics claim he doesn't, including the role of bushwhacker victims Bond and Dagley in the hanging of Reuben Samuel (he simply puts a different light on it, saying, "they had long since left the militia, and had been tending their fields and livestock in peace," p. 104), and the possibility that the outlaws wanted to rob the Mankato bank in 1876 (Stiles shows why this is unlikely). As Larry McMurtry noted in a review in The New Republic, this is an extremely careful biography that never goes out on a limb--it is dishonest to accuse it of being fiction. As Stiles himself notes, the leading buff book on the subject, Ted Yeatman's "Frank and Jesse James," is a very useful resource, one that (again, as Stiles notes) covers things that Stiles simply doesn't cover in an already-sweeping account; but I have to say, as a historian, that Yeatman's book is far shallower in its research and its judgments. Stiles has written the definitive book, one that forces us to rethink both Jesse James and his times in a wonderfully fast-reading manner.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2006

    Great History

    If you are interested in reading ONLY about the derring-do of Jesse James and his gang, Bill Anderson and the bushwackers, this is not the book for you. Mr. Stiles has packed his book with the history of the War between the States, the causes, the impact of Reconstruction, and Missour's plight during this entire period of American history. It is intense reading, but well worth the effort.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2002

    Will the real Jesse James please stand up!

    Jesse James by T. J. Stiles attempts what others have tried and failed: an accurate portrait of one of Americas largest legends. In doing so he greatly succeeds as no other author has quite done before him. The book is riveting. A good storyteller with an academician's research ability, Stiles seemingly has found the core of this elusive man, his brother,cousins and the times that tore Missouri and Kansas apart. His ability to set the stage in the proper historical context is one of the things that has eluded most biographers. They either succumb to the legend or wanted to debunk the legend; both lead an author astray. Interestingly, most previous attempts have betrayed either pro Northern or pro Southern biases and ignorances that Stiles has been able to avoid. As one who comes from "this neck of the woods" and whose family friends knew and lived next to Frank James at the end of his life, I am aware of all the views pro and con. This biography lays out the story from both viewpoints. He is able to explain without justifying or making excuses. Stiles sets the historical stage so one can understand the vicousness and hatred on both sides. The most interesting and revealing truth is Siles's discovery and understanding that Jesse James was, in fact, larger and more politically relevant than the legend he became; how he was, in fact, the prototype of what has come upon us today. For any student of western history this book is a MUST.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 11, 2014

    Outstanding book about this Legend !

    Outstanding book about this Legend !

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2013

    I am half way done with this book and only about 2% of it is abo

    I am half way done with this book and only about 2% of it is about Jesse James the other 98% is about Missouri history. I am from Missouri so i don't mind the history about my home state. However if i wanted a book about Missouri history i would of bought one. I bought a book about Jesse James.

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  • Posted April 12, 2013

    Recommended

    Nearly half of the book deals with the general history of Missouri. As a native of the state, I found this informative and fascinating. Others might feel this was a digression and wandered from the topic of the book. The book ends rather abruptly with Jessee's death. I would like to have read more about the influence of his life and the legacy of the outlaws.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2012

    Lykki

    I haven't read this yet,but I might, for it might be mr. Jesse James is a distant cousin by marriage to me!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2012

    i am

    I am like 5% jessie james

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I%27m+related+to+jessie

    This+book+rocks

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 31, 2011

    Excellent book

    This book gave me a greater feel for the western area of conflict leading up to and beyond the American Civil War than any Civil War book that I've previously read. Stiles book is factual and certainly no dime store account of James life. I previously read The Devil Knows How to Ride about the life of William Quantrill but this book is by far an easier read and far more interesting. I can recommend Ron Hansen's novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as a companion to this fine work of nonfiction. The Assassination book has far more detail than the movie. Sure, Hansen's book is fiction but as to events involving robberies and ongoings in James life he is amazingly factual.

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  • Posted May 23, 2011

    Best book

    good

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2011

    person

    IT WAS AWESOME

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  • Posted October 23, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War

    The one thing that usually comes to mind when the name Jesse James comes up is; ruthless outlaw who murdered and robbed banks out of shere boardom. We dont really like to see him as someone who was truely a troubled person to begin w/ but one who did the kinds of things that he did in his lifetime as a way of protest through terror. When we think of Jesse James we don't think of him as someone who was on the same ranks w/ Osama Bin Ladin back in his day. For Jesse James, the Civil War never ended. If he were to be still alive today he would continue to fight his Civil War by useing terrorist tactics. You get a very different perspective of the South that Jesse James was born in through this book. Lots of history.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2008

    Historically Accurate

    TJ Stiles did a wonderful job researching this biography. This book depicts what James' life was like growing up in Missouri during the Civil War and what made him the man he was. It is a history lesson on the real Jesse James, not the glorified version. Highly Recommended

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2008

    The real deal

    I read the one star review here and was skeptical when it was hard going for the first 80 pages or so BUT THIS BOOK IS SENSATIONAL. It is not about the Jesse James I thought I knew but about the real James. At the same time fascinating, pitiable, crazed and reprehensible. He is no heroic figure. If you have any interest in either James or AMerican History read this book now.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2004

    Jesse James . . . Disappoints

    How sad that a book that pretends that it will be a biography of an historical individual instead turns into a polemic against the Confederacy prior, during and after the civil war. No attempt is made to put into context those events during his life (lynching of his step father, an attack on his mother's home with the intent to burn it to the ground, the fact that his mother lost an arm due to vigilanty gunfire, etc., etc.) Most alarming is the fact that there is absolutely no real comment as regards the fact that James was assassinated by the most cowardly of 'friends' an Stiles makes absolutely no judgement regarding this personal traitorship. No mention of the song - Jesse had a wife, the love of his life, the children they were brave, but that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and put poor Jesse in his grave'.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2002

    One of the most infomative books pertaining to the reconstructive period in Missouri Kansas after the civil war

    The most informative story of the outlaw Jesse James.What created the legend and the people southern sympatizers and radical republicans whose political views on the reconstrution after the Civil War helped him terrorize Missouri and the surrounding states.A product of the violence in Missouri during the war. James and the bushwackers around him were raised in violenc at a young age and this violence after the war under the idealistic view that the radical republicans were changing there way of life.The book is fast reading and quite interesting it gives a lot of infomation about what happened in the south after the war.A must read for all history buffs.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2002

    The definitive biography, a good read and good history

    I've read just about everything published on Jesse James, and this is easily the best book ever written about him. It is easily the definitive biography. The usual books about Jesse read like a report to a committee of buffs, focusing on pointless minor details, and giving "Uncle Ned" stories, as Allen Barra calls them in his praise of this book on Salon.com. They're old family stories or childhood recollections, and Stiles never relies that kind of thing. Instead, this is a biography the way it should be written. The author gives us his version of events, then leaves it to his long, detailed footnotes to tell us how he came to that conclusion. It's rock-solid, but vivid and entertaining, too. He's not content to simply do another run-through of the famous robberies. Instead, he really explains Jesse James by taking a fresh look at the world he lived in. Stiles doesn't just take for granted the conventional wisdom about the Civil War and the James-Younger gang. He offers new insights that really make sense out of what happened to Missouri during the war and afterward, which completely changes the way Jesse himself looked. He shows that the guerrilla war in Missouri was a lot more complicated than simply Missourians vs. Kansans, the way it's usually explained. This book explains why Jesse stood out from Frank and the Youngers, because he was so political, and wanted to take part in the politics of the Reconstruction period. This is not a writer who simply wants to tell the same old stories again. He has really thought about it from every angle, bringing in politics and economic analysis and military history, but he's never dull for a moment. In the acknowledgments, Stiles says that the manuscript was reviewed by William Parrish, who wrote all the main histories of Missouri during the Civil War period and after, along with other historians. It shows, because this is amazing stuff. A good read and good, thought-provoking history don't often come along in one package.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2002

    Fascinating history, great read

    T.J. Stiles¿s excellent new biography on Jesse James--gripping from beginning to end--makes a compelling case that James, no Robin Hood, was a publicity-hungry terrorist who embarked on a killing spree to avenge the lost Confederate cause. The book is packed with fascinating accounts not just of James, his family, and his gang, but of the times that shaped him. Especially interesting are Stiles¿s accounts of slave life and the fratricidal struggles that characterized Missouri¿s politics leading up to and during the Civil War. Though it is clear Stiles spent a great deal of time researching his subject, he wears his scholarship lightly. The book reads very well, almost like a novel, and is not larded down with mundane details that seem to diminish the power of so many biographies written today. Highly recommended!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2002

    Excellent example of revisionist history

    "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War" is an excellent example of what revisionist history should and can be. James and his cohorts have been portrayed by some historians as Robin-Hood type figures, misunderstood men who were unable to readjust to civilian life after the Civil War. Stiles uses excellent research to not only expose a truer portait of the James-Younger Gang, but also the times and places that shaped them. The Jesse James that stands revealed at the end of this superb book is still an enigma of sorts, but he is an enigma that is better defined. This shadowy figure's edges are sharper. Jesse James was not a Confederate hero but a thief and murderer who stole because he wanted the money. He did not fight to preserve a way of life, but to line his own pockets. This book will shake the cages of neo-confederates who would like to lionize figures like Jesse James. It is just this sort of book that is a tonic for the lies these people perpetuate.

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