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Jesse James, The Chivalry Of Crime & The Uses Of Propaganda

January 30, 2018

(One in a series of posts on T. J. Stiles’ biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel Of The Civil War.)

Throughout the Civil War, Jesse James and his brother Frank were “bushwackers”: guerrilla fighters for the Confederacy who largely 1) stayed in their own state of Missouri (except when forced out by Union soldiers and their allies), and 2) fought in small groups, rarely more than a few hundred men.

War ends when the losers stop fighting, and just like zealous Confederates all over the South, the James brothers didn’t stop fighting in 1865. Stiles basically argues that throughout the Reconstruction era, Jesse—partly for ideological reasons, partly because it was the only life he knew—continued fighting “war by other means”. In his case, the “other means” was robbery and the creation of a media myth.

Jesse’s key ally in this effort was John Newman Edwards, a newspaper editor and former Confederate major. “In cultural terms, Edwards had been fighting for a rebel resurgence since his return from Mexico, starting with Shelby And His Men and continuing with editorials, stories, even poems that exalted Confederates.” (p. 216)

Edwards founded the Kansas City Times and published a series of letters from Jesse James, along with Edwards’ own stories and editorials. “It was,” Stiles argues, “the beginning of Jesse’s rise from common criminal to symbolic hero, of a legend that resonated with the lives of Missouri’s secessionists. He and Edwards began to project a glorified version of what all the rebels felt they had endured in war and Reconstruction. The mythical Jesse James they created refused to apologize for fighting for a just cause; he refused to lay down his arms and self-respect, and was being persecuted as a result.” (p. 217)

In September 1872, Edwards wrote an editorial titled “The Chivalry Of Crime”, after the James’ had robbed a large county fair:

“There are things done for money and for revenge of which the daring of the act is the picture and the crime is the frame it may be set in. A feat of stupendous nerve and fearlessness that makes one hair rise to think of it, with a condiment of crime to season it, becomes chivalric; poetic; superb….

There are men…who have carried their lives in their hands so long that they do not know how to commit them over into the keeping of laws and regulations that exist now. And these men sometimes rob. But it is always in the glare of day and in the teeth of the multitude.

The nineteenth century with its Sybaric civilization is not the social soil for men who might have sat with ARTHUR at the Round table, ridden at tourney with Sir LAUNCELOT or worn the colors of GUINEVERE.” (p. 224)

The next month Edwards published an anonymous letter—likely written by Jesse James—from one of the Kansas City fair outlaws.

“Some editors call us thieves. We are not thieves—we are bold robbers. I am proud of the name for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte….

Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is hang them, but Grant and his party can steal millions, and it is all right…. It hurts me very much to be called a thief. It makes me feel like they were trying to put me on a par with Grant and his party. Please rank me with [Alexander the Great and Napoleon] and not with the Grantites. Grant’s party has no respect for any one. They robe the poor and rich, and we rob the rich and give to the poor.” (p. 225)

Stiles writes:

It was a masterful conclusion to a skillfully conducted propaganda effort. First came the dramatic deed, then the steady buildup of the outlaws as noble exemplars of Confederate manhood, and finally an explicit partisan call from the bandit leader to mobilize the rebel vote…. October 15, 1872, marked the maturation of Jesse James into a self-conscious political symbol.” (p. 225)

From → Books, History

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