Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri

Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri


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The Civil War in Missouri was a time of great confusion, violence, and destruction. Although several major battles were fought in the state between Confederate and Union forces, much of the fighting in Missouri was an ugly form of terrorism carried out by loose bands of Missouri guerrillas, by Kansas "Jayhawkers," or by marauding patrols of Union soldiers. This irregular warfare provided a training ground for people like Jesse and Frank James who, after the war, used their newly learned skills to form an outlaw band that ultimately became known all over the world.

Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri discusses the underlying causes of the Civil War as they relate to Missouri and reveals how the war helped create both the legend and the reality of Jesse James and his gang. Written in an accessible style, this valuable little book will be welcomed by anyone with an interest in the Civil War, the legend of Jesse James, or Missouri history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826209597
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 05/01/1994
Series: Missouri Heritage Readers Series , #1
Pages: 104
Sales rank: 547,341
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 9 - 18 Years

About the Author

Robert Dyer is a historian, poet, songwriter, folklorist, teacher, and performer, as well as the author of several books, including Boonville: An Illustrated History. He also has released two recordings of original songs, and he recently participated in a project to record Civil War music from the Missouri area. In addition, he travels throughout the state presenting programs on Missouri history and folklore to elementary school students as part of the Missouri Arts Council's Artist-in-Education program.

Read an Excerpt

Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri

By Robert L. Dyer

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 1994 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-0959-7


Jesse James and Robin Hood

Jesse James is one of the most famous outlaws in American history. Many people think of him as an outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, a hero like Robin Hood. But was Jesse James really a "Robin Hood"?

The popular stories about Robin Hood are set in England in the thirteenth century. In the stories, Robin Hood does not like the way the poor people in England are treated by the king. Robin Hood and his "Merry Men" set poor people free when they are put in jail for hunting the king's deer. They also steal back money and property taken from the poor by the evil sheriff of Nottingham. The stories make Robin Hood a hero rather than a bad man, and many songs were made up about him.

What about Jesse James? Was he a hero? Or was he just a common thief and a cold-blooded killer? How did he become such a famous person?

Livin' in Missouri was a bold bad man
Known from Seattle down to Birmingham
From Denver, Colorado, right across the state
From Boston, Massachusetts to the Golden Gate.

Vance Randolph, Ozark Folksongs (University of Missouri Press, 1980), vol. 2

Jesse James was born in 1847 on a small farm near the town of Kearney, in Clay County, Missouri. He grew up during the troubled years just before and during the American Civil War. When the Civil War began in 1861, Jesse was fourteen years old. He left home to fight in the war when he was sixteen years old. When the war ended in the spring of 1865, Jesse was seventeen years old. That was when he and his older brother, Frank, along with some of the men who fought with them during the Civil War, became outlaws.

Between 1866 and 1882 the James gang robbed banks and trains in Missouri and several other states. Most of the banks and railroads were owned by people who had been on the Northern, or Union, side during the Civil War. The banks charged high interest rates on loans to people trying to rebuild their farms and businesses after the war was over. People were forced to pay taxes to support the railroads. Then the railroads charged high freight rates to farmers trying to ship livestock and crops to market after the war.

People living in Missouri were unhappy with the way they were treated by the banks, the government, and the railroads. Many of these people had been on the Southern, or Confederate, side during the war, so they were not very upset when the James gang robbed a bank or a train. Some people even helped the gang hide when they were being hunted by lawmen.

Because of the James gang, Missouri was called the "Robber State" or the "Outlaw State." Missouri's governor, Thomas T. Crittenden, a former Union officer, did not want the state to have a bad name, so in 1881 he offered a big reward for Jesse's capture. Finally, in 1882, Jesse was killed by one of his own men. Jesse was thirty-five years old when he was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri. Not long after Jesse was killed, his brother Frank surrendered and the career of the James gang ended.

But this was not the end of the James legend. Soon after Jesse's death, songs were written about him. The songs spread all over America. Many different songs were sung, and many stories about Jesse James were told. Many magazine and newspaper articles, as well as books, have been written about Jesse James over the last hundred years. Movies and TV shows have been made about him.

People in rural areas of Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee still tell Jesse James stories handed down to them by their grandparents and great-grandparents. He has become an American folk hero. Because of this it is not easy to know what is true and what is not true in the stories about his life.

Even while Jesse was still alive it was hard to learn the truth about him. He and his gang were often blamed for robberies and killings they had nothing to do with. One well-known Missouri newspaper editor and writer, John Newman Edwards, wrote stories about Jesse James that made him seem like a hero. Edwards compared Jesse James to Robin Hood. Jesse and Frank James also compared themselves to Robin Hood and to Dick Turpin, a famous English outlaw of the early 1700s.

To understand the legend of Jesse James we need to look more closely at the American Civil War and especially at what happened in Missouri during the war.


How the Civil War Came to Missouri

Slavery was not the only cause of the Civil War, but it was one of the main causes. During the eighteenth century more than half a million Africans were brought to America and sold into slavery to work on big farms, called plantations, in the Southern states. One of the main crops grown on the plantations was cotton. The Southern states were sometimes called "The Cotton Kingdom." Other important plantation crops were tobacco, rice, and sugar.

Growing and harvesting plantation crops was hard work and took a large number of strong, cheap laborers. That is why plantation owners wanted slaves. The wealth and power of the Southern states were based on slave labor.

In the Northern states most of the wealth and power was based on manufacturing, or the making of things. Slave labor was not as important for manufacturing as it was for plantation farming, so slavery did not become a part of life in the Northern states. In fact, slavery was not allowed in the Northern states.

By 1819 political power in America was divided between an equal number of Southern slave-owning states, where plantation farming was the main way of life, and Northern states, where manufacturing was becoming more important than farming. When settlers formed new territories in the lands west of the Mississippi River, politicians on both sides saw a chance to get more power. When these new territories started asking to be admitted to the Union as states, the question of whether they would be slave states or free states became important.

The first test came in 1819 when the Missouri Territory asked to be admitted to the Union as a state. At that time there were twenty-two states, eleven slave and eleven free. Most of the people who settled the Missouri Territory came from Southern states, and some of these people brought slaves with them. They wanted Missouri admitted as a slave state. But admitting Missouri as a slave state would upset the balance between slave and free states.

At the same time Missouri was asking to be admitted as a state, the territory of Maine in the northeast also asked to be admitted as a state. To solve the problem of balancing slave and free states, Congress decided in 1821 to admit Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Congress also decided that from then on no other western territories north of a line that ran along the southern border of Missouri would be admitted as slave states. This ruling by Congress was known as the Missouri Compromise. It solved the problem for a while.

The problem of balancing slave states and free states came up again in the 1850s when the Kansas and Nebraska territories along the western borders of Missouri and Iowa asked to be admitted to the Union. Both of these territories were north of the line that had been set by the Missouri Compromise. If they were both admitted as free states, then the balance between free and slave states would be upset. If one were admitted as a free state and the other as a slave state, there would be a balance, but the Missouri Compromise would be violated.

Congress decided to repeal the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The government said that from then on the question of whether territories would be admitted to the Union as free states or slave states would be left to a vote of the people living in the territories.

Everyone knew Nebraska would vote to come into the Union as a free state, but Kansas was another matter. Slave owners in Missouri, especially those living near the border of the Kansas Territory, did not want to see Kansas come into the Union as a free state. Many of these Missourians began to move into Kansas so they could vote for slavery in the upcoming election.

Although many people in the free Northern states were not against the idea of slaves being kept in the Southern states, they were upset that the government had made it possible for slavery to spread north of the Missouri Compromise line and into the Western territories. They thought this would give the slave states too much political power. Some people in the Northern states wanted to get rid of slavery altogether. These people were called "Abolitionists." After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed, Northerners who wanted to stop the spread of slavery and Abolitionists, who wanted to get rid of slavery altogether, began moving into Kansas to vote against slavery in the election.

At the first election in 1855 the people in favor of slavery won. But the people who were against slavery said the election was unfair. As a result of this argument over the election, two different state governments with two different constitutions were set up in Kansas.

The arguments between the people who were for slavery and the people who were against slavery became louder and more violent. It wasn't long before fighting began. Between 1856 and 1860 pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters fought a bloody war along the Kansas and Missouri border for control of the Kansas Territory.

The federal government finally said the free state government in Topeka, Kansas, would represent the state when it was admitted to the Union in 1861. This decision made people in Missouri and the other slave states angry. But this was only one of many decisions by the federal government during this time that angered people in the slave states. More and more of the slave states were saying it was time to leave the United States of America and form their own nation.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Lincoln represented the newly formed Republican Party. This political party was made up of people who were against the spread of slavery beyond the Southern states.

When Lincoln was elected, Southern states began leaving the Union. They formed the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis as president. He had been the United States senator from Mississippi before he was elected president of the Confederacy.

Davis ordered federal troops to get out of all the Southern states. When federal troops would not leave Fort Sumter, in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina, Davis ordered Confederate troops to attack the fort. On April 12, 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter. This caused Lincoln to take action against the Confederacy and was the real beginning of the Civil War.

The Civil War lasted for four long years. Most of the major battles in the war took place in the Southern states east of the Mississippi River, but states that bordered on this area, like Missouri and Kentucky, also saw their share of fighting and suffering.

Before we look at how the Civil War was fought in Missouri, and what this had to do with Jesse and Frank James, we need to take a closer look at the Border War between Kansas and Missouri in the years before the Civil War. The Border War made a strong impression on the James boys and on many other young men from both Kansas and Missouri who later fought in the Civil War.


Blood on the Border

The parents of Jesse and Frank James came to Missouri from Kentucky in 1842. The father, Robert James, was a well-educated, soft-spoken Baptist minister. The mother, Zerelda, was a tall, strong woman who was not afraid to speak her mind.

Robert and Zerelda James owned a few slaves and bought a small farm near Kearney (then called Centerville) in Clay County. Clay County is a Missouri county that touches the Kansas border. Robert and Zerelda raised sheep and cattle. Frank, their first child, was born in 1843. Jesse, their second child, was born in 1847. Susan, their third child, was born in 1849.

Robert James went to California in 1850, along with many other Missourians, to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. But soon after he got to California, he got sick and died. Zerelda then married a man named Benjamin Simms, but they separated a few months later. Shortly after that he died, and in 1855 Zerelda married a doctor named Reuben Samuel. She stayed with him for the rest of her life. The children liked Dr. Samuel, and he raised them as if they were his own.

In 1856, when the Border War between Kansas and Missouri began, Frank was thirteen and Jesse was nine. They grew up hearing their neighbors talking angrily about being raided by gangs of anti-slavery "Jayhawkers" and "Redlegs" from Kansas. These gangs of men would ride up to a pro-slavery farm, beat and sometimes kill the owner, steal his livestock, take any slaves he had, and often burn his house and barns.

The name Jayhawker came from a kind of bird that killed another bird by "playing" with it as a cat plays with a mouse until it is dead. The most dangerous Jayhawker band was led by Jim Lane. He was also a U.S. senator and a powerful politician in Kansas.

The other name commonly used for the gangs from Kansas was Redlegs. This name came from the fact that some gang members, especially those who rode with a man named Jim Montgomery, wore red leggings over the tops of their boots.

But the most hated of all the anti-slavery gang leaders was a wild-eyed, Bible-quoting Abolitionist named John Brown. Stories were told about John Brown and his sons hacking pro-slavery farmers to death with swords.

Frank and Jesse James, along with other children of pro-slavery families, played a game called Old John Brown. Someone would take the part of John Brown and someone else would be his victim. The other children would come to the rescue of the victim, and together they would drive John Brown back into Kansas, swearing to get revenge on him some day.

Some Missourians actually did form gangs to get revenge for the raids by the Jayhawkers and Redlegs. People in Kansas called these Missouri pro-slavery gangs "Border Ruffians." A ruffian is a rough and tough person. The anti-slavery people in Kansas used this word to give the pro-slavery people a bad name. One of these Border Ruffians was a strange young blue-eyed man named William Clarke Quantrill.

Quantrill came to Kansas from Ohio in 1857 as a school-teacher. At first he was on the side of the anti-slavery people in Kansas, but something caused him to change his mind. He told people later that he changed his mind after a group of anti-slavery men killed his brother and almost killed him. This story was not true, but at the time everyone believed it.

Quantrill changed sides in December 1860. He was with some anti-slavery men from Kansas who were planning a raid on a pro-slavery farm owned by Morgan Walker near Blue Springs, Missouri. Before the raid began, Quantrill went to the Walkers' farm and told them what was about to happen. He agreed to lead the anti-slavery men into a trap set by the Walkers. One of the Kansans was killed, and another one was wounded when they were surprised by the Walkers.

From this time on Quantrill was a strong pro-slavery man. When the Civil War began in 1861 he became one of the main leaders of a gang of "bushwhackers" who fought on the Southern, or Confederate, side in Missouri. They were called "bushwhackers" because they lived in the "bush," or country, and their legs "whacked" the bushes as they rode.

The Jayhawkers in Kansas joined forces with the Union army during the Civil War and continued to fight the Missouri bushwhackers just as they had done before the war began. But for the first several months of the Civil War in Missouri, the main fighting was between Missouri State Militia troops (known as the State Guard) and Union army troops.


Opening Guns

Missouri's governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, wanted Missouri to join the Southern states when those states began to leave the Union in early 1861. Other people in the Missouri government wanted to keep Missouri in the Union. A state convention was held in March 1861 to decide what to do. The people who attended the convention decided that Missouri should stay in the Union.

Governor Jackson did not agree with the decision of the convention. He began working on a secret plan to get control of the guns and ammunition stored at the U.S. Arsenal in St. Louis. He wanted to take control of those arms so the State Guard would have the power to help him take Missouri out of the Union. He ordered the State Guard to meet at a place in St. Louis called Camp Jackson. They planned to march on the arsenal and capture it.

Jackson's plan might have worked if Union Captain Nathaniel Lyon had not found out what was about to happen. Captain Lyon acted quickly. He surrounded the camp with several thousand of his men and forced the State Guard to surrender.

Then Lyon made the mistake of marching the captured State Guard troops through the streets of St. Louis. Crowds of angry people gathered and began shouting and throwing rocks at Lyon and his Union army troops. Shots were fired. Several soldiers and more than twenty people in the crowd were killed. Other people were injured.


Excerpted from Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri by Robert L. Dyer. Copyright © 1994 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Jesse James and Robin Hood,
How the Civil War Came to Missouri,
Blood on the Border,
Opening Guns,
The Battle of Wilson's Creek,
The Battle of Lexington,
The Battle of Pea Ridge,
Guerrilla War,
Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence and Order No. 11,
Jesse James Goes to War,
The Last Great Rebel Raid in Missouri,
The War Ends and the James Gang Is Born,
The First Bank Robberies (1866–1872),
Trains and Pinkerton Men (1873–1876),
The Final Years (1877–1882),
The Legend of Jesse James,
The Civil War as Living History,
For More Reading,

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