Jesse James

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I'm having such a hard time with Civilization on King, that I've gone through Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial via audiobook, and have moved on to James McPherson's This Mighty Scourge. 


Wow.

As somebody in comments said of Lincoln a few days ago, "Motherfucker can write." Scourge is a collection of essays by McPherson on the Civil War ranging from Grant to The Lost Cause to the War's historiography. Probably my favorite, so far, is McPherson's evisceration of the Jesse James myth. Enlisting the biographer T.J. Stiles, McPherson methodically attacks the notion of James as "social bandit" and places him in the context of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and consequently, (you guessed it) slavery and white supremacy:

Stiles also disposes easily of the image of social bandits defending the peasentry. The James family owned seven slaves and a substantial farm grew hemp and tobacco for the market before the Civil War. Most of the other outlaws came from a similar background in Missouri's "Little Dixie," the prosperous  counties bordering the Missouri River and containing the greatest concentration of of slaves in the state. Rather than being "primative rebles" the bandits "families had owned a larger-than-average number of slaves" and "their familes and supporters were among the most market-minded farmers in the state..."

A study of the social origins of Missouri's Confederate guerrillas shows that they came from families (like the James family) that were three times more likely to own slaves and possessed twice as much wealth as the average Missouri family. The Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, Bob and John) who formed the core of the postwar James gang along with Jesse and Frank, were the sons of Jackson County's richest slaveowner. One of the motifs of Jesse James's life grew out of this context. "His entire existence," writes Stiles. "was tightly wrapped around the struggle for--or rather, against--black freedom." He fought during the war against emancipation and after the war against the Republican Party that freed and enfranchised the slaves.

McPherson ends the chapter with a portrait of James final job. He targets a bank in Northfield, Minnesota where one Adelbert Ames was rumored to have deposited $75,000. Ames was a former a Civil War general, and governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction. During his governorship he was a staunch defender of black Civil Rights. He was pushed out of office during a campaign of terrorist violence perpetrated by Red Shirts and White Leagues. Ames pleaded for federal intervention, but was denied, and left office on this chilling note:

Election day may find our voters fleeing before rebel bullets rather than balloting for their rights. They are to be returned to a condition of serfdom--an era of second slavery. It is their fault (not mine, personally) that this fate is before them. They refused to prepare for war when in times of peace, when they could have done so. Now it is too late. The nation should have acted but it was "tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South"...The political death of the negro will forever release the nation from the weariness from such "political outbreaks" You may think I exaggerate. Time will show you how accurate my statements are.

From the perspective of an old Confederate like James, Adelbert Ames had to be got. The robbery was "the worst disaster of James's career as the self-proclaimed Napolean of crime." The banker (a Union army veteran) refused to open the bank and was killed. The town rose up and shot back, wounding James and his brother and capturing some of the Younger brothers. Jesse James was never the same.

Here is Eric Foner on Stiles' biography:

Overall, this is the biography of a violent criminal whose image was promoted and actions extenuated by those who saw him as a useful weapon against black rights and Republican rule. To his credit, Stiles does not shy from employing stark language rarely encountered in American historical writing. During the Civil War, he writes, James was a member of a "death squad" (96) that targeted Unionist civilians and slaves. If he were alive today, Stiles adds, James would be called a "terrorist." (6) Such language is, of course, anachronistic. But it reminds us that the Klan and kindred groups during Reconstruction killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden. At a time when it has become fashionable to attribute terrorism and the support it engenders to some timeless characteristic of "Islamic civilization," it is worth remembering that our own history does not lack for the mass killing of civilians or for those who make heroes of murderers.

I grew up, like all kids, admiring the Dukes of Hazzard, thinking the General Lee was cool, and loving Jesse James. It is beyond creepy to be repeatedly confronted with the meaning of so many symbols, and so many people I once admired. I had no idea that Jesse James was, essentially, a white supremacist. I never even considered it. I was just dimly aware that he was a rebel fighting against some ill-defined, hazy order. 

But he was fighting against me.

I'm not saying that anti-black racism is the whole of American history. But it runs all through the entire narrative. As a young person, it would have never occurred to me that there was some relation between Jesse James and slavery.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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