Remembering the Confederate dead

Civil War,civil war, ConfederateNext year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. As state and local planning committees gear up for a host of events, a quiet spot in western Missouri has been commemorating the war for more than a century.

The Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville, 53 miles east of Kansas City, opened as a retirement home for Confederate veterans in 1891. More than 1,600 former soldiers and their families lived amid quiet forests and placid lakes. Remarkably, the last one didn’t die until 1950. John T. Graves was a veteran of General J.O. Shelby’s Iron Brigade, the best cavalry raiders west of the Mississippi. The Iron Brigade saw countless battles throughout the war but Graves survived them all, to die in the modern world at the age of 108.

Today the Confederate Memorial is still a peaceful spot. You can stroll through the woods where old men once hobbled along swapping war stories, or fish in lakes that fed more than a regiment of veterans. The chapel is open to visitors, as is the cemetery, where the tombstones preserve the names of some of the best, and worst, men who fought for the South.

The most notorious rebel to be buried here is William Quantrill. A bandit turned Confederate guerrilla, Quantrill was the terror of the border states, looting and burning civilian homes as much as he fought Union troops. A young Frank James, brother of Jesse James, rode with Quantrill and participated in his biggest atrocity–the burning of Lawrence, Kansas, where Quantrill’s band killed about 200 mostly unarmed men and boys. Quantrill was killed in the last days of the war in Kentucky. Part of his body is buried in Louisville, some of his remains are interred in his hometown of Dover, Ohio, and the Higginsville memorial has three arm bones, two leg bones, and a lock of hair.

More honorable soldiers are also here, including several from the Iron Brigade as well as other units that saw action in every theater of the war. In fact, every Confederate state but one is represented here. Many veterans moved to Missouri after the war to farm its rich, underpopulated land, so a wide cross-section of the Confederacy ended their days at the home.

So if you’re driving through Missouri on I-70, take a quick detour and check out a piece of history. And keep an eye out next year for lots of Civil War articles here on Gadling to mark the 150th anniversary.

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Jesse James’ greatest escape

Jesse James, Northfield, old west, wild westJesse James was riding high. After the end of the Civil War he had rocketed to fame by committing a string of daring robberies in Missouri and neighboring states. In a region where ex-Confederates still felt bitter over losing the war, this former Confederate guerrilla earned sympathy and support. One of their own was striking back at the Yankees, and it didn’t matter that some people got hurt in the process.

The James gang is an early example of political spin. Jesse James wrote angry letters to the press, claiming he had been persecuted by the government and forced into a life of crime, while at the same time insisting he was innocent. He was helped by newspaperman John Newman Edwards, a former Confederate officer who wrote laudatory articles about the James boys and their friends.

So as the James gang robbed trains, banks, and stagecoaches, part of the population cheered. Soon dime novel writers began to write books about them, describing exploits that never occurred, and their fame grew even higher. But in 1876 Jesse James finally went too far.

He had a bold plan. The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, was supposed to have a lot of money, but even more important was that it held the savings of Adelbert Ames, a former Union officer and Northern politician who had tried (and failed) to give blacks equal rights in Mississippi during Reconstruction. Ames was the kind of Yankee Jesse and his friends hated.

Jesse and Frank James set out with a group of fellow ex-guerrillas: Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and the Younger brothers Cole, Jim, and Bob. After riding hundreds of miles from Missouri to Minnesota, they scouted the area and on September 7 they struck. Frank, Jesse, and one other entered the bank while the rest guarded the entrance. One robber, probably Jesse, vaulted over the counter and pulled a gun on the three employees.

%Gallery-108420%Then everything went wrong. The bank employees insisted the safe was locked with a time lock and couldn’t be opened. Actually it was unlocked, but the bandits never checked. Instead they rummaged around the counter and found less than thirty dollars.

Meanwhile, the guards outside stopped a citizen from going into the bank, roughing him up in the process. Another man saw this, put two and two together, and started shouting that the bank was being robbed.

Now the James gang’s own fame defeated them. Everyone in those days feared the gang would come to their town and so kept their guns handy. Soon the bank robbers standing guard outside found themselves being sniped at from windows and doorways. Miller and Chadwell fell mortally wounded, and the others got shot as well. They opened up with their six-shooters, but the citizens kept firing. The local sheriff, caught without a weapon, even threw rocks. As a group of drunks fled a nearby saloon, one of the robbers took careful aim and killed one of them.

The fight set off a panic inside the bank. One cashier got shot in the head, and another ran for a side door and got away with only a minor gunshot wound. The robbers ran out to their friends outside and galloped off.

Soon several posses were in hot pursuit. In a running battle that lasted more than a hundred miles and several days, the James gang tried to shake off their pursuers, but the telegraph sent the news all around the countryside and everyone kept watch. Frank and Jesse split off from the rest of the group. The stole a series of horses and at one point had to crawl across a railroad bridge right under the noses of a posse that was guarding it. Eventually they got away, but the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts got cornered in a stand of trees by a large posse. In a furious gunfight Pitts was killed and all the Younger brothers seriously wounded. Half dead and low on ammunition, they gave up. Luckily for them Minnesota didn’t have the death penalty. All received long prison sentences.

Every year, on the weekend after Labor Day, Northfield celebrates The Defeat of Jesse James Days with reenactments, a rodeo, parade, and carnival. The citizens of Northfield are as caught up with Jesse James fever as much as the modern-day rebels of rural Missouri, but in a very different way. They’re proud of their motto, “Jesse James slipped here”.

It was the second-to-last time he slipped.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The assassination of Jesse James!

[Photo courtesy user Elkman via Wikimedia Commons]

Jesse James robs his first bank

Jesse James, Liberty bank, James gang, Frank James, jesse jamesThe Civil War was over. In Missouri, defeated Confederate soldiers trudged home and tried to pick up their lives. This was harder in Missouri than many states. Many discovered their land had been seized during the war for nonpayment of taxes, and now Union veterans farmed their fields. New Missouri laws forbade ex-Confederates from voting, holding public office, teaching, or even preaching. Former rebels were left bitter and marginalized.

Former guerrillas like Frank and Jesse James felt even more bitter. Their war had been more brutal than most people’s, and adjusting to defeat and peacetime wasn’t in their nature. Jesse bore at least three wounds from the war. The tip of the middle finger of his left hand had been shot off. The most accepted story of how this happened was that he shot it off himself while loading a pistol. Being a good Baptist, Jesse wouldn’t swear even in this situation, and shouted out “Dingus!”, which became his nickname for the rest of his life. The second injury was a bullet through the chest courtesy of a German immigrant who objected to having his saddle stolen.

The third injury is a source of mystery. In 1865, as the war was winding down, Jesse got shot through the lung. Some reports say he got this in a gunfight, but Jesse himself later spread the story that he was shot by Union troops while trying to surrender at the end of the war. This story served two purposes: it made him look like the victim of Yankee oppression, and it acted as an alibi for the first daylight bank robbery in the United States in peacetime.

At 2pm on February 13, 1866, it was snowing in Liberty, Missouri. The Clay County Savings Association was open as usual. The bank’s cashier, Greenup Bird, sat at his desk. His son William sat at another desk to his left. Nobody else was in the bank when two men wearing Union army overcoats walked in and warmed their hands by the stove. After a moment one went up to the counter and asked for change for a ten-dollar bill. William got up to help the customer and was greeted with a pistol pointed at his face. The other man also drew his revolver and both leapt over the counter, telling the astonished father and son that they better be quiet or else.

%Gallery-108291%One robber gave William a smack with his gun and pushed him into the vault, demanding the money. Meanwhile the second robber told Greenup to give him the cash on his desk. Once they’d taken all the money, the robbers pushed the two bank workers into the vault and shut the door. They neglected to lock it, however, and after a few tense moments Greenup and William came out, opened a window, and shouted that the bank had been robbed.

At that moment a group of about a dozen mounted men galloped past. One fired at a pedestrian who was also sounding the alarm. This was George Wymore, a student at Liberty College. Ironically, one of the founders of this college was none other than Robert Sallee James, Frank and Jesse’s father. The bullet tore through George’s body and he fell to the sidewalk dead.

Townspeople quickly formed a posse, but the robbers got away. Back at the bank, Greenup and William tallied their losses: almost $60,000, more than $3.5 million in today’s value. There was no insurance in those days, no FDIC. Many farmers and merchants lost their life savings. Greenup and William lost their jobs when the bank failed.

Everyone thought that ex-guerrillas had done the deed. The robbers’ trail led to a crossing of the Missouri River frequently used by bushwhackers during the war. Plus everyone knew the guerrillas rode fine horses and carried revolvers just like the robbers had. Several suspects were named, all former members of the bushwhacker band of Bloody Bill Anderson. Frank and Jesse were part of that band too. Most scholars of the James gang are convinced that Frank helped rob the bank that day, but did Jesse? The two leading James biographers disagree. Ted Yeatman, author of Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, thinks Jesse was still bedridden from his lung wound. T.J. Stiles, author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, thinks Jesse exaggerated the seriousness of his injury in order to have an alibi for his early crimes.

Whatever the truth, the robbery has become part of the Jesse James legend. The Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty has restored the bank to what it was like in 1866, complete with the original vault and safe. An easy day trip from Kansas City and the Jesse James farm at Kearney, it offers a glimpse into a time when the wounds of the Civil War were still raw.

So what was the war like for Frank and Jesse James? We’ve already looked at Jesse James in the Civil War, but what was it like for his older brother Frank, who was in the war from the very beginning? Come back tomorrow for that part of the story.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Frank James: the war years!

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]