South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860. Four days later, on Christmas Eve, a group of secessionists organized a company of armed of men in Liberty, Missouri, a hotbed for the southern cause, and captured the Federal arsenal. On the other side of the state, militia under the governor Claiborne F. Jackson, a secessionist, established Camp Jackson in St. Louis with the intention of taking the Federal arsenal there, a stronghold of 60,000 firearms. In response to Jackson, Nathaniel Lyon organized and led a makeshift militia of volunteers to defend the arsenal. The mission was successful. When war was declared in April 1861, St. Louis, a strategic port, was kept out of the Confederacy.
Missouri was a divided state during the Civil War, an unusual anomaly among a host of gleaming anomalies. Some were for the Union, some the Confederacy. Most, as always, preferred to have nothing to do with the affair whatsoever. And from this conflicted position arose a chaos of violence and terror.
Jackson’s militia became the Missouri State Guard, its commander Sterling Price. Moving west, they gathered support for the southern cause throughout the summer of 1861. Frank would have joined them at this time. In August, Union commander General John C. Fremont declared martial law in Missouri. In September he moved west from St. Louis with 38,000 professional soldiers to squash the resistance. He captured the capital, Jefferson City, and Lexington, the most important river town between the capital and Kansas City. He pushed the Missouri State Guard and the governor out of the state, extinguishing the rebellious threat.
Fremont’s replacement, Major General Henry W. Halleck, and the new governor of Missouri, Hamilton R. Gamble, organized the Missouri State Militia, comprised of Missourians mostly, to uphold and maintain order. The state was stabilized and secure. But as early as July 1861 small bands of guerillas, without overwhelming force or sophistication, struck out against Union forces sporadically and without clear objective. With no intention of victory or success, the guerillas set out to vandalize and disrupt communications, supply lines and advancement. Killers, thieves and rapists intent on plunder and chaos. They rampaged the countryside with fear, fire and blood. To call them secessionists would give them too much credit. They were more anti-Union than pro-anything. They were underground and vile. Criminals, terrorists, anarchists – the most dangerous incarnations of man. He and his brother, Frank, joined them too.
Coined bushwhackers in the history of iniquity, they were guerilla fighters that specialized in terrorism. Expert horsemen, ambushers, escapists, schemists, gunsmiths, they worked in small groups and avoided open combat at all cost. Their kingdom was the Sni-A-Bar wilderness, the thick, impenetrable forest of western Missouri, the banks and bottoms of the Missouri and Fishing Rivers. Official by no means, sanctioned by no one, not even their own kind – disregarded by the Confederacy even – they killed unarmed citizens, “sympathizers,” indiscriminately; burnt homes and perfectly sown fields; looted towns, warehouses, train depots; raped and plundered. Their flag was black, the dominion death.
2. The Players
There was William Clarke Quantrill, six feet tall with sandy hair, good with people, guns and horses, a natural leader, expert in stealing mail, coaches and horses – only the best – and collecting taxes from train and steamboat passengers, a killer of infinite proportions. He served under Price for a short time, and Frank said he was full of life and fellowship and steady in the heat of battle.
William, “Bloody Bill,” Anderson, one of the worst, a killer and thief of the first order. His sister was killed and two friends injured when a Federal prison, a three story building in Kansas City which housed female rebel sympathizers, collapsed on August 13, 1863. He used the incident to justify the most reprehensible savageries.
Cole Younger, who made a reputation by killing the militiamen responsible for his father’s death, and his two brothers, all of whom excelled in robbery.
John McCorkle, whose sister also died when the Kansas City prison collapsed.
George Todd and David Pool, good fighters and leaders of men.
There was Charles Fletcher Taylor and “Little Archie” Clement, mentors to the brothers.
Hardly any were more than 25-years-old. Most of them were teenagers. They wore loose pullovers with two deep pockets for percussion caps, powder charges and .36 caliber lead balls. On assignment, Union uniforms were worn for disguise. They decorated their horses with the scalps and ears of the men they killed. Pistols, a horse and saddle were all that was needed to enter the fold. One historian wrote, “They had no lines, no objectives, no strategy, no command structure.”
The weapons were carbines, shotguns, long Minié rifles and pistols. The pistol was the weapon of choice. The most popular at the time was Colt’s 1851 Navy model .36-caliber revolver. Each of the six chambers in the revolving cylinder had to be filled with gunpowder and a lead ball, which was then tightly packed and sealed with grease. A percussion cap, containing fulminate of mercury, had to be fitted on a nipple outside each chamber. Struck by the hammer, the cap set off the charge. Some carried as many as six pistols on their person.
On July 22, 1862, the new Union commander in Missouri, Major General John M. Schofield, instructed all men of military age to enlist in the Enrolled Missouri Militia to specifically combat the bushwhackers. 52,000 men enlisted, essentially drawing the line between every last citizen.
The bushwhackers, numbering a few hundred at times, responded in turn. A massacre in Lawrence, Kansas, orchestrated by Quantrill. Random, senseless slaughter. Wholesale murder in Centralia and Kingsville. An onslaught in Parkville and Platte City where the 16-year-old posed for a photograph. Gun in hand, he is poised, self-possessed, confident. There is no smile, and the white shirt beneath his black pullover is hauntingly clean.
3. Paper is Lighter than Gold
Banks operated on the gold standard before the war. Chartered privately or by the state, a bank typically built a reserve gold fund and made loans with its own paper money. Privately printed notes could then be redeemed at the bank for gold, the idea being never to issue more notes than could be covered by the reserve. It was difficult to redeem notes anywhere outside the bank’s sphere of influence, out of state for instance.
All banks in Missouri stopped redeeming gold notes in December 1860. In 1861 the system crashed. The rural, agricultural economy collapsed. Gold and silver went out of circulation. Congress countered the collapse by creating a national paper currency, “greenbacks,” that were not backed by gold and established a system of national banks with federal charters. As a result of this transition and the new bourgeoning economy after the war, banks kept a surplus of physical cash on hand at any given time that, unlike the previous system, could be redeemed anywhere. The new demand required a lot of cash to be transported from city to city, mostly by rail.
4. A Fine Peace
In the summer of 1875 John David Howard moved his family into a small house at 606 Boscobel St. in Edgefield, Tennessee, right across the Cumberland River from Nashville. Howard introduced himself as a wheat speculator and passed time playing cards – he liked faro – and playing the horses. He had money, neighbors noticed, and would occasionally be gone for weeks at a time on business.
A year later he checked into the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota intent on robbing a bank in nearby Northfield. Others were in on it. There was William Stiles, a Minnesota native, Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts, Bob, Jim and Cole Younger and his brother Frank. The result was disastrous. A gunfight erupted in the middle of town. Stiles and Miller were shot dead in the street. All three Younger brothers were hit and severely wounded.
The remaining six escaped riding southwest away from town. They abandoned the horses, too easy to track, and reached Mankato on foot in the rain on September 13th. Crossing the Blue Earth River, they stole corn, potatoes and melons from fields along the way, it being harvest. Suffering from exposure and slowed by the wounded, with posses of about 1,000 men everywhere, the crew split up. He and Frank stole a horse and rode west toward the Dakota Territories where they were spotted and shot by a farmer. Buckshot in his right knee and Frank’s right foot, they abandoned the horse and stole two more, eventually crossing the Des Moines River and reaching Sioux Falls. They commandeered a stagecoach and crossed into Iowa evading still another group of armed men. Exhausted, starved, wounded, sleeping in weeds and rain and heading due west, they reached Sioux City on the 20th and happened to pass a doctor on the road making a house call. They forced him to tend to their injuries then took the doctor’s pants and his horse! They followed the Missouri River back to the family farm.
On the 21st the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts were discovered near Madelia, Minnesota. Pitts was killed during the ensuing gunfight and the brothers surrendered. They were sentenced to life in the penitentiary in Stillwater. Bob died there in 1889; Jim killed himself in 1902; and Cole was paroled in 1901. He and Frank went on to form an unsuccessful traveling show, the “Historical Wild West Show.” Frank and the mother even charged for guided tours of the family farm as the myth bourgeoned. Of the original bunch, Frank and Cole were the only two to grow old and both died in relative obscurity.
After the botched robbery, Frank’s interest in violence and bloodshed waned. Lacking his brother’s enthusiasm, he traded in his revolvers for a plough and found solace in labor, Shakespeare and Christ.
But the brother kept on, in search of new recruits, opportunities. Scouting, stalking, masterminding – a murdering thief to the end.
5. Book of the Gun
The father was educated at Georgetown College in Kentucky. His estate was auctioned off after he died on his way to California during the gold rush. There were 51 volumes in his collection: Dickens, Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, books in Greek and Latin, astronomy and theology, and works on the Baptist faith. John Bunyan’s The Holy War was one of his favorites. He was seen reading Pilgrim’s Progress in adulthood. Passionate about politics and self-conscious of his image, he wrote letters to sympathizing newspaper editors in St. Louis and Nashville when he felt he was being misrepresented. He believed that he was justified, that he was, in fact, exonerating the South and the Confederacy – a way of life. Upholding some bizarre notion of honor.
Twain wrote jokingly that the Civil War was the result of Sir Walter Scott, who wrote tales of inflated morality, phony chivalry and ridiculous notions of manhood and honor. Ridiculous in that anybody would maintain such sensibilities and live according to these principles (think of the concept of the duel). But there is something deeper and more lasting about this man who, as a boy, was accosted and beaten by the militia, dragged by horse to a tree where they’d strung his step-father, the man who raised him, up to hang, though they were both released; who, as an adolescent, rode and fought with the most ruthless men of a most ruthless war; who, as an adult, made a career out of bank and train robberies and endured the death of a sibling and the maiming of his mother during the blunderous Pinkerton fiasco; who, unlike Frank, could not set the weapon down, grow old, leave the war behind and return to the natural course of seasons, farms and children. Something more profound and unsettling about the infamous outlaw notorious, Jesse James.
Brant, Marley. Jesse James: The Man and the Myth. New York, NY: Berkley, 1998.
— . The Outlaw Youngers: A Confederate Brotherhood. Lanham, MD.: Madison Books, 1993.
Edwards, John N. Noted Guerillas, or the Warfare of the Border. St. Louis, MO: H. W. Brand & Co.,1879. Orig. pub. 1877.
— . Shelby and His Men: or, the War in the West. Cincinnati, OH: Miami Printing and Publishing, 1867.
Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Stiles, T. J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., 2002.
Wybrow, Robert J. “From the Pen of a Noble Robber: The Letters of Jesse Woodson James, 1847 – 1882.” Brand Book 24, no. 2 (summer 1987), published by the English Westerners’ Society, 1 – 22.
— . “The James Gang in Kentucky: A Tale of Murder and Robbery in the Blue Grass State.” Brand Book 15, no. 2 (January 1973), published by the English Westerners’ Society, 22 – 34.
— . “‘Ravenous Monsters of Society’: The Early Exploits of the James Gang.” Brand Book 27, no. 2 (summer 1990), published by the English Westerners’ Society, 1 – 24.