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]

Two other anniversaries: the first Civil War battle and first Western gunfight

The whole world is celebrating yesterday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and while that amazing event deserves all the press it gets, there’s just one problem–you can’t walk around where it actually happened! Luckily there are two events that happened on this date that you can actually see where it all took place–the first major battle of the American Civil War and the first Old West standoff between two gunfighters.

On July 21, 1861, the United States had been in a Civil War for three months, but there had been very little real fighting. Both sides were busy recruiting men and training them, and except for a small battle in Carthage, Missouri, and a few skirmishes, the Union and Confederacy had not really tested each other, or themselves. That was about to change.

President Lincoln decided to act, and ordered the huge army guarding Washington, DC, to move south and defeat the Confederate army camped at Manassas Junction, Virginia, just 25 miles south of the capital. The Union troops marched out in a festival-like atmosphere and many wealthy citizens followed them in carriages, hoping for a good show.

The two armies clashed on July 21. At first things went well for the larger Union army and they pushed the Confederates back, but the rebels launched a counterattack that smashed the Union lines. Panicked, the undisciplined Union troops began to flee. The civilians who had come to watch abandoned their picnics and fled too. A disorganized mob of civilians, wounded, and soldiers who had ditched their weapons hurried all the way back to Washington. The Union had been thoroughly beaten and lost almost three thousand men killed, wounded, or captured. The Confederate army, while scoring the first major victory of the war, had suffered terribly too, losing two thousand killed and wounded. Despite the urging of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Confederate commander didn’t follow up his victory by attacking Washington. Perhaps he was shocked by the huge losses, something neither side expected. Everyone now realized it would be a long, bloody war.

The Battle of Manassas (also known as the First Battle of Bull Run) is memorialized by an excellent National Battlefield Park. The visitor center has an interactive electronic map that shows you how the battle progressed. Several interpretive trails take you around the major sights, but if you have the time, reserve a park ranger tour. I’ve been on several of these at various Civil War battlefields and they’re always good. The park rangers really know their stuff and bring the battles alive.

A little bit of trivia: the Battle at Manassas was the first time the Confederates used the famous rebel yell. This YouTube clip takes a recording of a Confederate veteran and multiplies it so you can hear what it would have sounded like to have a whole regiment of these guys charging at you. Intimidating to say the least.

If you like Westerns, you’ll be interested in the other historic event that happened on this date.

By July 21, 1865, the Civil War was over, but the bloodshed hadn’t stopped. Wild Bill Hickok, a former scout for the Union army, and Davis Tutt, a Confederate veteran, were both gamblers in Springfield, Missouri. They had fallen out over an alleged affair Hickok had with Tutt’s sister. One day Hickok was playing cards with a group of Tutt’s friends and winning big. Tutt was hanging around, lending his friends money in the hopes that Hickok would lose. When Hickok kept winning, Tutt grew angry and demanded he pay back $35 from a previous game. Hickok claimed it was only $25 and wouldn’t pay any more than that. Tutt grabbed Hickok’s gold pocket watch and said he would keep it as collateral. Hickok was furious, but sitting in a room full of Tutt’s friends, there was nothing he could do. He stormed off, warning Tutt not to wear the watch. Tutt laughed and said he’d show it off on the town square the next morning. An appointment had been set.

Tutt showed up on Springfield’s town square the next morning just as he promised, and so did Hickok. Some townspeople intervened and tried to settle the dispute. Tutt now wanted $45, and Hickok insisted he only owed $25. They had a drink over it, but nothing was resolved. At just before 6 p.m. they were both back on the square, this time ready to fight. They faced off for a moment, then drew their weapons and fired at the simultaneously. Tutt missed, but Hickok plugged Tutt in the side. Tutt shouted “Boys, I’m killed!” and ran around a bit before dropping dead.

This was the first time that a proper Western-style gunfight had ever occurred and it captured the public imagination. Similar fights have been played out in books and movies thousands of times, but in reality few gunfighters actually fought this way. Even Jesse James didn’t die in a proper showdown. He got shot in the back of the head by someone who was supposed to be his friend.

Two plaques on Springfield’s town square show where the gunfighters stood for their epic duel. Also take time to visit another plaque that marks the spot where three black men were lynched on April 14, 1906, for allegedly assaulting a white woman. A mob of two thousand people forced their way into the town jail, dragged them to the square, and hung them from a tower that contained a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Lynching was all too common in the United States at that time and even today people try to forget it ever happened. A former employee at the state’s historical society, now thankfully retired, once told me there were “hardly any” lynchings in Missouri. The historical record shows otherwise. It’s good that Springfield owns up to the darker aspects of its past. The local paper did an investigative report on the incident.