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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Jesse James. Last Rebel of the Civil War.

I had - intelligently enough I know - forgotten this book on the subway once (just btw, I don't think that had ever happened to me before, that I lost a book that is), but someone (thank you someone, you are always on my mind) got it for me again. It took me a while, but I picked it up the other day (more like week, considering the amount of academic stuff I read nowadays) and started from the beginning again.

Well, the book is wonderful, T. J. Stiles does a great job of not only describing the outlaw Jesse James' life, but also places him in a broader historical context, that most people are hardly aware of. - A completely unrelated sidenote at this point, Lucky Luke comics are historically super accurate, it is quite stunning. The more I find out about American history, the more I realize how many minute and truthful details Goscinny and Morris included in their comics. The portrayal of Jesse James in their version is the most accurate one I have ever seen anywhere in a fictionalized format - Basically, Jesse James was not just a Bandit of the Wild West, like Billy the Kid (and even he was part of a politicized struggle) or Butch Cassidy, but instead he was really a rebel who could not stop fighting once the Civil War was over.

Stiles places James in the context of a militarized Missouri, where neighbors and families drift to differing political camps (mainly based on their ownership of and economic dependence on slaves). While the Civil War in Missouri was not as bloody as Sherman's march through Georgia or Gettysburg, while it did not involve massive armies fighting the first modern war, it pitted guerilla units from Kansas (the Jayhawkers), against those from Missouri (the Bushwackers) as well as Unionist militias (who in fact won the bloody war against the Bushwackers). Both sides massacred and robbed families and farms sympathizing with the other side indiscriminately, while - of course - claiming to fight for the worthier cause.

After the war, the Radicals (basically the most extreme wing of the Republican Party and ironically dominated by German immigrants) took over the Missouri government and enacted wide-sweeping reforms, emancipating slaves and disempowering Confederate veterans - sound policy from today's point of view really. This did lead to Southern sympathizers' embitterment of course, something which the James (Frank and Jesse) and Younger brothers gave impression too. They simply kept on robbing trains and banks, limiting their escapades (not solely, but mostly) to governmental or Northern company owned assets, and considered this the continuation of war with other means (not my idea of a joke, this is from Stiles).

In the end, they simply outlived themselves, after 1876, reconstruction was over, the Democrats had a majority in Missouri and were instrumental in Washington again, the Lost Cause was not as lost at it had seemed (see black emancipation and legal rights). The bandits who had missed their opportunity to become regular citizens lost support in the population as they were not considered allies in a fight against the oppressor anymore.

Jesse James finally, can be understood only in the context of the Civil War, in the fight of Southerners against Northern aggression (or - and more accurate aside from historical glorifications and my personal affinity for the American South - in the fight of Southerners for the preservation of slavery). He was not just a criminal, he shaped political debate, through his letter-writing, through his newspaper consumption, through the choice of his targets and it can be argued that he was on the winning side, except that his erstwhile allies didn't want any part of him anymore after their victory at the polls was secured.

He died, shot in the back by members of his own band. Times had moved on, the money on his head had become more important than his cause to Robert Ford (the coward according to popular myth).


Korene said...

Keep up the good work.

richard said...

My impression was always that the James brothers were scumbags who used their Southern sympathies as an excuse to rob banks and go apeshit. Frank James and a band of his raiders stopped a train carrying wounded Union soldiers going home in 1865 in Centralia, MO (11 miles north of Columbia) and lined them up and murdered them, unarmed, in cold blood.