Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
A brilliant biography of Jesse James, and a stunning reinterpretation of an American icon. Stripped of the familiar myths surrounding him, James emerges a far more significant figure: ruthless, purposeful, intensely political; a man who, in the midst of his crimes and notoriety, made himself a spokesman for the renewal of the Confederate cause during the bitter decade that followed Appomattox.
Traditionally, Jesse James has been portrayed as a Wild West bandit, a Robin Hood of sorts. But in this meticulously researched, vividly written account of his life, he emerges as far more complicated. Raised in a fiercely pro-slavery atmosphere in bitterly divided Missouri, he began at sixteen to fight alongside some of the most savage Confederate guerrillas. When the Civil War ended, his violent path led him into the brutal conflicts of Reconstruction.
We follow James as he places himself squarely in the forefront of the former Confederates’ bid to capture political power with his reckless daring, his visibility, his partisan pronouncements, and his alliance with a rising ex-Confederate editor, John Newman Edwards, who helped shape James’s image for their common purpose. In uniting violence and the news media on behalf of a political cause, James was hardly the quaint figure of legend. Rather, as his life played out across the racial divide, the rise of the Klan, and the expansion of the railroads, he was a forerunner of what we have come to call a terrorist.
T.J. Stiles has written a memorable book—a revelation of both the man and his time.
Probably no American outlaw has attracted more attention—much of it flattering—than Jesse James. This revisionist biography by T.J. Stiles delves into the exciting life James led—”a tale of ambushes, gun battles, and daring raids, of narrow escapes, betrayals, and revenge.” Yet it also places James within a specific political context, showing why it was possible for this murderous bandit to emerge as a folk hero among Southern sympathizers following the Civil War (in which he fought as a teenager). James is often grouped with famous frontier criminals like Billy the Kidd and Butch Cassidy, but he’s best understood as a Southerner who forged partisan alliances in postwar Missouri and promoted himself as a latter-day Robin Hood. Stiles describes James as “a foul-mouthed killer who hated as fiercely as anyone on the planet” and places his life in the context of “the struggle for—or rather, against—black freedom.” Stiles’s fundamental point about James is as startling as it is convincing: “In his political consciousness and close alliance with a propagandist and power broker, in his efforts to win media attention with his crimes … Jesse James was a forerunner of the modern terrorist.” Tough words, but also deserved. —John J. Miller