In Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, writer/historian T.J. Stiles has produced what must be considered the definitive James biography of this generation. Unlike previous authors who emphasized James as the daring train and bank robber, Stiles seeks to understand the world of rural western Missouri, into which Jesse Woodson James was born in 1847. His family lived in a section of the state later dubbed Little Dixie" where slaves constituted fully 25 percent of the population. At age three Jesse suffered the loss of his father, a Baptist preacher who died in California during the Gold Rush. Jesse's widowed mother, the six-foot-tall Zerelda Cole James, imbued in her sons, Jesse and his brother Frank, a passionate devotion to slavery, the Southern cause and, eventually, secession.
When war came in 1861, Frank James, 18 years of age, volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. Because he was only 15, Jesse was prevented from joining his brother. As Stiles makes clear, a turning point in the life of the James family occurred in 1863, when pro-Union state militiamen, in search of Frank, stormed the family farm, took Zerelda into custody and forced her to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States. An enraged Jesse immediately joined other Confederate bushwhackers in guerrilla actions against their pro-Union neighbors. In short order they looted stores, killed an abolitionist minister and wreaked terror and mayhem in Clay County and beyond.
Outraged by such Union atrocities" as the Emancipation Proclamation, James and his comrades refused to surrender and acknowledge Confederate defeat in 1865. Chaos continued to ravage Missouri in the postwar years, when retribution hung in the air," and neighbors persisted in settling scores with neighbors. War had torn apart the state's political landscape, and new factions and parties sought favor. As Stiles demonstrates, Jesse James was among those who attempted to influence the course of state politics. Although ever the outlaw, robbing banks and railroads from Iowa to Kentucky, James was motivated by politics, as well as plunder. He sent intensely partisan and articulate letters to newspapers in which he condemned Republicans and deplored the Radical Reconstruction of the South. All the while, the American public devoured stories of James' narrow escapes and epic adventures. By 1882, when he was gunned down in St. Joseph, Missouri, he was a figure as publicized as the president."As gracefully written as a novel, and convincingly argued throughout, this is biography at its finest. Dr. Thomas Appleton is professor of history and associate director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University.