An American Terrorist

Eric Foner is the author of "The Story of American Freedom" and "Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World."

During the 1960s, when I was a college student caught up in the folk music craze, one of my favorite songs was “The Ballad of Jesse James.”

“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” is the one line I now remember. Like many other things I thought I knew about America’s most famous outlaw, James’ reputation as a latter-day Robin Hood is far from the truth. Midway through “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” T.J. Stiles notes rather laconically that there is no evidence that the James gang “did anything with their loot except spend it on themselves.”

Nonetheless, the image of Jesse James is as important as the man himself. Hundreds of outlaws robbed banks and committed murders in the post-Civil War era, but virtually all except James are now forgotten.

And one of the major contentions of this new biography is that James’ enduring renown rests not so much on his considerable success as a bandit as on his mastery of public relations. James, Stiles shows, was a publicist for himself. He forged a close working relationship with a newspaper editor who penned laudatory accounts of his exploits, and he wrote numerous letters to the press. On one occasion he even distributed what Stiles calls “a prepared press release” to startled train passengers during a robbery that not only exaggerated his height but offered a detailed apologia for his actions.


Stiles effectively places James’ career of crime in the context of the turmoil in Civil War-era Missouri, a state on the border between slavery and freedom and internally divided among the industrial city of St. Louis, a large area of small farms using free labor and a string of slaveholding counties known as Little Dixie. In a violent era, Missouri was an especially violent place. Before the Civil War, its “border ruffians” poured into Kansas to take part in the battles between pro-and anti-slavery settlers. During the war, Missouri remained within the Union, but pro-Confederate guerrillas murdered slaves and unarmed pro-North civilians and Unionist bands preyed on Confederate sympathizers.

Jesse James was born in 1847 in Clay County, a stronghold of slavery in western Missouri. His father, a Baptist preacher, died three years later in California, where he had gone in an effort to bring religion to participants in the Gold Rush. James was raised by his mother, Zerelda, a resourceful and strongly pro-slavery woman. Young Jesse grew up alongside slave children and was raised, in part, by a slave woman. But this does not seem to have affected his outlook. Rather than a romantic outlaw, Stiles argues, James was a pro-slavery murderer, a forerunner of what we would today call a terrorist.

In 1864, at the age of 17, Jesse joined the guerrilla band of “Bloody Bill” Anderson, “the personification of horror,” as Stiles calls him, who tortured prisoners and murdered more than 20 unarmed Union soldiers after seizing them from a train. After the surrender at Appomattox, while most Confederate veterans integrated themselves back into peaceful life, James formed a gang that assassinated civilians who had supported the Union. Then, in 1869, he embarked on a series of daring and usually successful bank and train robberies.

Stiles is not the first scholar to link James’ crimes to the volatile environment of wartime Missouri. But more than any previous writer, he places the emergence of James as a larger-than-life figure, a hero in the eyes of Missouri’s ex-Confederate Democrats, in the context of the divisive politics of Reconstruction. For a time, radical Republicans controlled the state. They enhanced the rights of the emancipated slaves and imposed loyalty oaths to keep ex-Confederates from power. Democrats, who soon regained power in Missouri, were themselves divided between Unionists and former supporters of the Confederacy.


Stiles contends that, rather than a common criminal or a “pre-political” outlaw of the type depicted by the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm in his influential book “Bandits,” James was an ideologically committed political partisan who was bitterly opposed to emancipation and Reconstruction. In one robbery, the gang even wore masks modeled on those of the Ku Klux Klan. John N. Edwards, the newspaper editor who promoted his image, was a shrewd publicist who made James a “symbolic hero” as part of a campaign to place the state under ex-Confederate control and return blacks to a position of subordination.

Even as rewards for his capture mounted, James became an active participant in Missouri politics. During the presidential campaign of 1872, he wrote a letter to the press denouncing President Grant. After one bank robbery, his gang shouted “Hurrah for Hildebrand!” as they rode out of town, referring to former Confederate guerrilla Sam Hildebrand, who was killed by a lawman not long before. Meanwhile, Edwards published piece after piece lauding James and his gang, including a 20-page supplement to the St. Louis Dispatch in 1873, which glorified the Confederate guerrillas of wartime Missouri and explained that it was the excesses of Unionists and postwar radicals that drove James to crime.

When James started robbing trains, Edwards tied his crimes to widespread resentment over railroad behavior--rate discrimination, policies that provoked labor strife and pools among rival companies that limited fair competition. Edwards added that James and his gang “rob from the rich and give to the poor,” although, as noted above, they did no such thing.

It was hatred of Reconstruction that led James into his greatest blunder, the 1876 raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn. Why travel so far from home to rob a bank? Because Adelbert Ames, a Union general who championed the rights of the former slaves and served as governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, had moved to Northfield after Democrats ousted him in the violent election of 1875.

Ames reportedly had deposited $75,000 in the bank; robbing it would be payback for the alleged horrors of Reconstruction. Ironically, Ames himself became part of a group whose gunfire pinned the bandits inside the bank building. Three robbers were killed and three captured. Only James and his older brother, Frank, escaped, but not before murdering in cold blood the bookkeeper who steadfastly refused to open the safe for them.

After Northfield, James retired temporarily from his career as a bandit. When he resumed it in 1880, with a series of robberies in Tennessee and Alabama, he was no longer glorified in the Democratic press. With ex-Confederates having won control of Missouri politics, James had become expendable. He died in 1882, killed by Robert and Charles Ford, two members of his gang.

Stiles has combed a wealth of contemporary sources and imbues this story with the drama it deserves. James himself, however, remains something of an enigma. Intent on delineating the context of Civil War-era Missouri, Stiles sometimes loses sight of James altogether.

Until he developed his talent for self-promotion, moreover, James was a man of action, not words, which poses a problem for the biographer. His motives frequently must be inferred from events leading to sometimes unpersuasive psychological speculations, such as that “Bloody Bill” Anderson was an authority figure to replace the father James had never known. Nonetheless, Stiles persuasively links James to the legacy of slavery, the Civil War and the politics of Reconstruction.


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” that targeted Unionist civilians and slaves. If he were alive today, Stiles adds, James would be called a terrorist. 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’s terrorists. 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 the mass killing of civilians or those who make heroes of murderers.