Fiction May 1999

Combinations of Jacksons

IT MAY BE that by 1943 Uncle Alec was just bored with all that, as with many other things, all cold potatoes now, but the memories hadn't evaporated. Long after his death I heard a few things he had told the men in the family, now a little garbled in the retelling by second and third parties. One said that he had joined a Jefferson County militia unit at the age of sixteen or seventeen, after his brother Joseph was killed fighting in Georgia, and that he remained with that unit until the war ended. Another one said no, that was only partly true, that he and another boy had later left the militia to ride with what Uncle Alec called "a company" (troop) of partisan cavalry, raised and commanded by a shadowy Captain Jonas (or Jonus) Webb, from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County).

This Webb, all business, not much in the chivalry line, carried on a rough and semi-private little campaign of his own across southern Arkansas. He did on occasion, at his own convenience, work with the official C.S.A. command, as at Jenkins' Ferry. A Confederate soldier named Fine Gordon, in a reminiscence after the war, mentioned Webb in passing, and darkly enough, as "a mean captain of the Southern Army at Camden."

Webb's troop and similar bands roamed freely in that last, lawless year of the war, and were something of a nuisance to both armies, to say nothing of the local farmers, who were being bled white by foraging parties demanding food, fodder, livestock, and whatever else they fancied, at gunpoint. Brigadier General Joseph O. (Jo) Shelby, commanding a C.S.A. brigade (and sometimes a division) of Missouri cavalry in Arkansas, regarded the guerrillas as little better than slackers and highwaymen, and became so furious with them as to publish a general warning: "I will enlist you in the Confederate army; or I will drive you into the Federal ranks. You shall not remain idle spectators of a drama enacted before your eyes." Here again, I think, we see the hand of a literary adjutant.

The general did, however, have a soft spot for Quantrill's bushwhackers, and for one in particular, Frank James, who had saved Shelby from capture earlier in the war at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas. Some twenty years later, in August of 1883, Jo Shelby appeared as a defense witness for Frank, at his murder trial in Gallatin, Missouri. The charge was that in July of 1881, while robbing a Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific train with four other men, Alexander Franklin James had shot and killed a passenger named Frank McMillan. One of the bandits, Dick Liddil, characterized by the prosecutor as "the least depraved" member of the James Gang, identified Frank in court as the killer. Perhaps he was, or it may have been his brother Jesse who did the deed; it was almost certainly Jesse who shot and killed the conductor of the train, one William Westfall. But in 1883 Jesse James was beyond the grasp of the court, having been murdered himself the year before—shot in the back of the head by Bob Ford, of ballad infamy.

It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he does feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then he laid Jesse James in the grave.

Frank was found not guilty, and there followed an uproar in Republican newspapers over what was seen as a scandalous verdict. It isn't clear how much influence General Shelby had on the jury, if any. Not that it mattered. The defense attorneys, in connivance with the sheriff, had packed the jury with twelve Democrats. And Jo Shelby wasn't at his best on that day. He—who had refused to surrender in 1865 and rode to Mexico City on horseback with his brigade, fighting his way through bandits and Juaristas, to offer his saber, in the service of another lost cause, to Maximilian, the young Hapsburg Emperor of Mexico—came to the Missouri courtroom a little drunk and unsteady on his feet.

He had to be guided to the witness chair, and, once seated, had some trouble locating the judge and jury. Twisting about in his seat, he tried to address first one and then the other. He argued with the lawyers and abused Dick Liddil. "God bless you, old fellow," he said to Frank, catching sight of him at the defense table. The judge wasn't amused. He found the general in contempt for coming to court "in a condition unfit to testify" and fined him $10.

That was more punishment than Frank got, or was to get the next year, when he was tried in Huntsville, Alabama, for the 1881 robbery of a Federal paymaster. Once again, a jury with Confederate sympathies found him not guilty.

Other charges against him here and there, such as the one in Hot Springs, Arkansas, near which he and Jesse and the Younger brothers had robbed a stagecoach in January of 1874, were dropped or simply not pressed. (All the coach passengers were robbed. One, a G. R. Crump, of Memphis, got his watch and money back when Cole Younger learned that he had been a Confederate soldier—or so one story has it.) The State of Minnesota might also have made a claim on him, for the Northfield bank raid in September of 1876, but didn't bother to pursue it.

The law, for all practical purposes, was now finished with Frank. An old friend advised him to go back home to the farm in Missouri, to keep his head down and stay away from low company and fast horses. He had already surrendered his cartridge belt and his Remington .44 revolver. That was the end of the James Gang, and in a sense, in a kind of inglorious coda, the end of the end of the war, too, at long last. Or, no, that sounds pretty good, "coda," almost convincing, but it's wrong. The real end of the war came twenty years later, in 1904, in the very heart of the country, far from Fort Sumter, at a reunion of Quantrill's guerrillas in Independence, Missouri. There, in that election year, Frank brazenly announced that his choice for President was the sitting one, Theodore Roosevelt—the New York Republican. This didn't go down well, and he almost came to blows with his old hard-riding comrades. Unseemly spectacle, coots flailing away.

Unless there was another, better ending still later. For more than a century now, at intervals of about five years, southern editorial writers have been seeing portents in the night skies and proclaiming The End of the War, at Long Last, and the blessed if somewhat tardy arrival of The New South. By that they seem to mean something the same as, culturally identical with, at one with, the rest of the country, and this time they may be on to something, what with our declining numbers of Gaylons, Coys, and Virgils, and the disappearance of Clabber Girl Baking Powder signs from our highways, and of mules, standing alone in pastures. Then there is the new and alien splendor to be seen all about us, in cities with tall, dark, and featureless glass towers, though I'm told that deep currents are flowing here, far beyond the ken of editorial wretches in their cluttered cubicles. A little underground newsletter informs me that these peculiar glass structures are designed with care, by sociologists and architects working hand in glove with the CIA, as dark and forbidding boxes, in which combinations of Jacksons are thought least likely to gather, combine further, smoke cigarettes, brood, conspire, and break loose again out of a long lull.

Unlike the border ruffians Jesse (who sometimes called himself J. T. Jackson) and his brother Frank, Uncle Alec taught school for a while after the war, in cahoots with a carpetbagger from Indiana, one of the dumber ones, come south with his roomy bag to get in on the political plunder, to make his fortune in impoverished and all but depopulated Grant County, Arkansas. They were a pair of unlikely pedagogues. Uncle Alec could read and write and do his sums, which is all you need to know, but he was a very young man. The carpetbagger was older but illiterate. Uncle Alec, then, did the teaching, probably of a more basic and effective nature than is common today in public schools, and the carpetbagger did nothing except collect the monthly salary, of something like $20, which they split down the middle. The victor's spoils came to around thirty cents a day.

It was the carpetbaggers, of course, who named the county—a new one, formed largely from the western end of Jefferson County—for General Grant. Rubbing a little more salt in the open wound, they called the county seat Sheridan. That postbellum movement into the South of all the pale cranks in the Midwest, similar to one of those sudden squirrel migrations in the woods, has been overlooked, I think, as a source of some of the weirdness to be met with in our region.

I never knew my paternal great-grandfather, Colonel John W. Portis, who was a much older man (1818-1902) than Uncle Alec. He commanded an infantry regiment, the 42nd Alabama, was wounded in the Battle of Corinth, and was starved out in the siege of Vicksburg. I have the surrender parole he signed there on July 10, 1863 (the garrison had actually surrendered on the fourth), in which he gave his "solemn parole under oath that I will not take up arms again against the United States . . . until duly exchanged."

Some Uncle Sat of the day, looking up from his maps, could have told him and President Davis (shouted it, more likely) that with the fall of this city fortress on the bluffs of the Mississippi, and the simultaneous disaster at Gettysburg, in distant Pennsylvania, President Lincoln's re-election was pretty well assured, and the war lost. They wouldn't have listened. One more good push or two and the weary Yankees—"Those people," General Lee called them (graceless humanoids?)—must lose heart, flinch, and cut their losses. Enough of these Jacksons! Great God almighty! Let them go and be done with them! Such were the hopes. The next summer, duly exchanged, Colonel Portis was back in the field, at the Battle of Atlanta, and he didn't sign his final surrender parole until June 2, 1865, at Citronelle, Alabama, some two months after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox. This parole document gives a physical description: six feet tall, gray eyes, white hair. In three years of war he had gone white.

Presented by

Charles Portis, a novelist and journalist who lives in Arkansas, is the author of the book True Grit.

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