How the Civil War Shaped Jesse James

The famous outlaw got his start fighting the union.

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One of the enduring myths of American folklore is that Jesse James was a home-grown Robin Hood who "stole from the rich and gave to the poor," in the words of "The Ballad of Jesse James." That legend enjoyed a revived popularity in the 1960s. Supported by movies, pulp fiction, and even serious scholarship, this image has dominated our understanding of the post-Civil War James gang and other western outlaws. Historians have described James as a "primitive rebel" who championed "a special type of peasant protest and rebellion" against modernizing forces by robbing banks and railroads.

But James himself would have considered this notion a great joke. He more likely would have agreed with a famous bandit of a later generation, Willie Sutton. When someone asked Sutton why he robbed banks, he supposedly replied: "Because that's where the money is." The same was true in Missouri after the Civil War. James's robbers went after the express company safes because that's where the money was. As for the Robin Hood theme, there is no evidence the James gang did anything with the cash they stole except to spend it on fine horseflesh and gambling.

The key to understanding the motives of the James gang—besides greed—is the Civil War, especially the vicious guerrilla combat within the larger war that plagued Missouri. Support for the Confederacy was strong in the Little Dixie counties that flanked the Missouri River just east of the Kansas border. In these counties lived most of the men and boys who went into the bush as Confederate guerrillas, including Frank and Jesse James. They learned their trade under the tutelage of such psychopathic killers as "Bloody Bill" Anderson and William Clarke Quantrill, who murdered scores of Missouri Unionists and fought it out with Union soldiers during four years of internecine warfare.

Undermine. These guerrillas were anything but the poor farmers of folklore. Many of them (like James) came from families that were three times more likely to own slaves and possessed twice as much wealth as the average Missouri family. James fought during the war against emancipation and after the war against the Republican Party that freed and enfranchised the slaves. Many of the banks and express companies struck by the James gang were owned by individuals or groups associated with the Republican Party. Like the Ku Klux Klan in former Confederate states, the James gang did its best to undermine the new order ushered in by Northern victory in the Civil War.

When Democrats regained control of Missouri in the 1870s, the James gang looked for greener pastures outside the state. In August 1876, they rode all the way to Northfield, Minn., with the aim of robbing a bank there in which a Union general was reported to have deposited large funds. When the bank cashier—also a Union veteran—refused to open the vault, James shot him in cold blood. The citizens of Northfield fought back, killing two of the bandits before they could flee the town. Jesse and Frank James got away, but this affair was the beginning of the end for Jesse's career as the self-described "Napoleon of crime."

McPherson is author of This Mighty Scourge and Battle Cry of Freedom.