Jesse James: the birth of a legend

Jesse James, Wild West. Old West, bushwhacker, guerrilla, Civil WarLegends often start quietly, with ordinary people making ordinary decisions that change history. In 1946 in Tupelo, Mississippi, a working-class mother gave her son a guitar for his birthday. Elvis Presley wanted a bicycle, but he started practicing music anyway. In 1913, an unknown music hall comedian named Charlie Chaplin decided to try his luck with the new medium of motion pictures. His first films were unremarkable. One doesn’t even exist anymore.

The beginning of the legend of Jesse James was anything but quiet.

By 1864 the Confederate cause in Missouri was struggling to survive. The Confederate army had been kicked out of Missouri and the northern half of Arkansas, but while the Union army had captured the region, they had a hard time controlling it. Bands of rebel guerrillas called bushwhackers ambushed Union patrols, attacked isolated outposts, terrorized Unionist civilians, burned bridges, and cut telegraph wires. The bushwhackers bragged that the soldiers only controlled the towns, while they controlled everything else.

One of the toughest bushwhacker bands was led by William T. Anderson, who both friends and enemies called “Bloody Bill”. His heavily armed guerrillas scoured central Missouri, killing civilians and soldiers alike and riding through the land with their victims’ scalps dangling from their saddles. Fighting alongside Bloody Bill were two brothers from Clay County named Frank and Jesse James.

Jesse was only 16, his older brother was 21. The photograph here shows Jesse during that time, cocky and experienced beyond his years, gripping a Colt Navy revolver, the favored bushwhacker weapon. In September of 1864 the guerrillas got an important message from the Confederate army. General Sterling Price was leading an invasion of Missouri from the Confederate-held territory to the south. The goal was no less than to take St. Louis and return Missouri to the Confederacy. The bushwhackers were ordered to wreck as much havoc as they could to disrupt the Union defenses.

%Gallery-108006%Bloody Bill received the order while camping in Boone County near the little town of Centralia, population 100, located on the North Missouri Railroad. At dawn on September 27th, Anderson rode into town with thirty men, whooping and shooting their pistols. Anderson wanted to destroy the railroad and read the newspapers for information on troop movements. His men went from building to building, demanding breakfast and stealing from stores. A lucky bushwhacker found a keg of whiskey and they all started drinking. A stagecoach passing through town was robbed at gunpoint.

At noon the bushwhackers heard the whistle of an approaching train. They piled wood onto the track and fired at the engine, forcing it to stop. On board were 23 unarmed Union soldiers on furlough or sick leave. The guerrillas hustled them out of the train and stole their uniforms. As the men stood there in their underwear, Anderson asked if there was an officer in the crowd. Sgt. Thomas Goodman stepped forward, thinking he was about to die, but the guerrillas shoved him aside and gunned down his comrades instead. They also shot a German man who was unlucky enough to be wearing a blue shirt. One account says the German didn’t speak enough English to convince the guerrillas he was a civilian. It probably wouldn’t have mattered; the rebels hated German immigrants because they were abolitionists.

As one of the bushwhackers tied up Goodman to keep for a prisoner exchange, several men, perhaps even Frank and Jesse James, robbed the train and found a large amount of money on board. This may have been their very first train robbery, and they wouldn’t forget the bundles of cash it earned them. Anderson ordered his men to set fire to the train and send it off down the track. Then the rebels saddled up, filling up some boots with whiskey so they could share it with their friends back at camp.

That afternoon, Union Major A.V.E. Johnson led 158 men of the 39th Missouri Infantry into Centralia. He left some men to restore order in town and headed out in pursuit. Not far outside town he spotted some galloping away. Johnson hurried after them.

That was exactly what the bushwhackers wanted. They drew Johnson over a low rise and into a field surrounded on three sides by woods. At one end of this cul-de-sac stood a line of mounted guerrillas, Bloody Bill and the James brothers among them. Hidden among the trees on either side were more bushwhackers. At an order they converged on the soldiers.

Johnson may have been easily fooled, but he wasn’t easily scared. He dismounted his men, formed them in line, and fired a volley at the approaching horsemen. Only three guerrillas fell, including one man who got shot through the head and splattered his brains on Frank James’ boot. Now the guerrillas closed, firing rapidly with their revolvers, getting off several shots before the soldiers could reload their single-shot muskets.

The guerrillas smashed through the panicked soldiers. Frank recalled in a later interview that Jesse traded shots with Maj. Johnson and killed him. Within moments all the soldiers were down and the bushwhackers set to work collecting scalps. Some of their comrades rode back into Centralia and annihilated Maj. Johnson’s other group of soldiers.

In his memoirs, Sgt. Goodman recalled, “Men’s heads were severed from their lifeless bodies, exchanged as to bodies. . .or sat grinning at each other from the tops of fence stakes.”

The 39th lost 116 killed and only two wounded. Any wounded man the guerrillas came upon was killed. Six other Union soldiers disappeared, probably dying a lonely death in the woods.

Frank and Jesse James continued their rampage through central Missouri and other bushwhacker groups did the same in other parts of the state. One night Sgt. Goodman was able to slip away. He was lucky; many more Union men were killed in the ensuing days. The bloodshed the guerrillas caused didn’t do much to help General Price’s invasion, however. He suffered an early defeat at the Battle of Pilot Knob, which delayed and weakened his force so much that he didn’t try to attack St. Louis. Marching west through the center of the state, he got increasingly hemmed in by gathering Union armies and suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Westport close to Kansas City. His army limped south back to Arkansas, never to return.

Jesse James’ war never stopped, though, and he remained an active guerrilla until the very end. It’s not clear whether he scalped his enemies like many in Bloody Bill’s crew, but he certainly felt no guilt at their fate. An incident two years before left him with the burning conviction that the Yankees had it coming. That earlier incident, almost as brutal as the Centralia Massacre although on a smaller scale, may be the real beginning of the legend of Jesse James.

This is the first of my new series: On the Trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The James farm!

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]