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Bitterness Survived

Quantrill fled into Texas and resumed his raiding from there. But his force was less an army than a loose assembly of killers, too undisciplined to remain together long. Once in Texas, Quantrill found that he was beginning to lose control over his men. Some of them had not liked what had happened at Lawrence and at Baxter Springs. Others had just become unhappy with Quantrill as a leader. Some of the guerrillas, like Cole Younger, decided it was time to join the regular Confederate army. Others, like George Todd and "Bloody Bill" Anderson, formed their own guerrilla gangs and made plans to return to Missouri in the spring to fight the enemy in their own way.

Apparently psychotic, riding into battle with a necklace of Union scalps around his horse's neck, laughing as he helped gun down unarmed Yankee captives, then encouraging his men to scalp and mutilate their corpses. "If you proclaim to be in arms against the guerrillas, I will kill you," Anderson wrote to one newspaper. "I will hunt you down like wolves and murder you. You cannot escape." In 1864 Frank James temporarily left Quantrill's command and joined a guerrilla band led by Bloody Bill Anderson. Jesse was the live-wire leader of the two brothers. Also blue-eyed, with an upturned nose and thin, mobile lips, he was said to have the face of a schoolgirl, and he often batted his eyes like one - the result of a childhood eye affliction. He was slightly shorter and sturdier than Frank, and he had the sudden energy of a coiled spring. Anderson said of him: "He is the keenest and cleanest fighter in the command."

Jesse James turned sixteen in the fall of 1863, and in the spring of 1864 he left home to join the guerrillas. He had been wanting to join his brother Frank and the other guerrillas for over a year, but his mother thought he was too young to go to war. She and her husband, Dr. Samuel, also needed help on the family farm. Then something happened that changed their minds.

One day a group of Union soldiers came riding up to the James farm looking for Frank. They tried to get Dr. Samuel to tell them where Frank was, but he wouldn't tell them anything. They tied his hands, put a rope around his neck, threw it over the limb of a tree, and pulled him up off the ground.

Then they saw young Jesse and went to get him. While they were trying to get Jesse to tell them where Frank was, Zerelda cut her husband down and took him in the house. He was still alive, but he was badly hurt. The soldiers beat Jesse, but he wouldn't tell them anything. Finally they left. After the soldiers were gone, Jesse told his mother he was going to join the guerrillas and get revenge on the Union soldiers for what they had done to him and to his stepfather.

Jesse James joined the guerrilla gang led by "Bloody Bill" Anderson in the spring of 1864 when the guerrillas began returning to Missouri from Texas, where they had spent the winter. Soon after Jesse joined Anderson's guerrillas he got a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. The nickname was "Dingus." He got this nickname after he accidentally shot off the tip of the third finger on his left hand while he was cleaning his pistol. Jesse did not like to use curse words so he just shook his hand and said, "That's the dod-dingus pistol I ever saw." The other guerrillas thought this was so funny that from then on they called him "Dingus."

Jesse took part in several guerrilla raids during the summer and fall of 1864 and got wounded in one of those raids. In August 1864 he was with Bill Anderson at Rocheport, Missouri, on the Missouri River. Anderson's gang stayed in Rocheport for several days shooting at steamboats passing by and making life miserable for the people living in the town.

The supreme moment of the James boys' wartime service came when Anderson's 225 guerrillas raided Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864. After pillaging the town, they halted a train of the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railroad, took $3,000 from the small packages stacked in the express car, then gunned down 25 Union soldiers who were aboard as passengers. Later that day the guerrillas rode against 200 Union troops that had set out after them, and in a single charge up a grassy ridge slaughtered the enemy force almost to the last man. Jesse James shot the commander of the Union troops, and Frank James would remember the charge as one of the great events of his life. "The only battles in the world's history to surpass Centralia," he said years later, "are Thermopylae and the Alamo."

Anderson was killed when he and his men were ambushed in southern Ray County. A large force of Union militia finally cornered Anderson and seventy of his followers in northwestern Missouri. True to form, the guerrilla leader charged into them, a pistol in each hand, and even managed to make it through the Federal line before he was shot twice through the back of the head. Jesse James was with Anderson when the ambush took place, but he escaped.

Early in March 1864 Sterling Price, who also had decided that the bushwhackers did more harm than good, ordered Quantrill to reduce his band to eighty-four men and send the remainder into the regular service. Quantrill complied; indeed, already many of his men, among them Cole Younger, had left him because they resented the way in which he had divided the spoils from operations.

Under the new organization Quantrill retained his shadowy title of "colonel," George Todd became captain of the band as such, and "Bloody Bill" Anderson was first lieutenant. Leader of a gang from Clay County, Missouri, which included Frank James, Anderson had joined Quantrill just before the Lawrence raid. The death of one of his sisters and the mangling of another in the collapse of the women's prison in Kansas City had transformed him into a veritable homicidal maniac whose main object in life was to kill Yankees, and who fought with the abandon of a man who did not care if he died himself. According to some accounts he often rode into battle sobbing with sheer blood lust.

At about the same time Quantrill was reorganizing his band; he received a letter from Thomas C. Reynolds, the highly intelligent Confederate governor of Missouri in exile:

... a man of your ability should look forward to a higher future. You must see that guerrilla warfare, as an honorable pursuit, is pretty nearly "played out," and if you wish to rise, you should acquire a regular command and enter the regular Confederate service. All authority over undisciplined bands is short-lived. The history of every guerrilla chief has been the same. He either becomes the slave of his men, or if he attempts to control them, some officer or private rises up, disputes his authority, gains the men, and puts him down. My opinion of you is that you deserve a better fate ...

Reynolds' warning proved prophetic. First Todd, whose reckless bravery had made him the favorite of the younger, wilder bushwhackers, openly defied Quantrill, with the result that the two exchanged pistol shots before the other bushwhackers intervened to stop the fight. Then, a few days later, Quantrill had one of Anderson's men shot for having robbed and killed a farmer. Anderson thereupon angrily declared that he no longer would serve in "such a damn outfit" and rode off with twenty of his men to Bonham, where he told McCulloch that Quantrill was responsible for the marauding around Sherman.

McCulloch at once ordered Quantrill to come to Bonham. He did so, accompanied by most of his remaining force. As soon as he saw the guerrilla chieftain, McCulloch (who long had desired such an opportunity) placed him under arrest. But a few minutes later Quantrill got the drop on his guards and fled with his men to the camp near Sherman.

McCulloch sent a company of militia in pursuit with instructions to bring back Quantrill dead or alive. However, Todd and nine other guerrillas scared off the militiamen, prompting McCulloch to remark in disgust that he could do nothing about the "Captain Quantrill command" because he lacked troops with the "physical and moral courage to arrest and disarm them." Todd also encountered Anderson's gang, which had followed the militia, but after firing a few shots at long range both groups retreated.

Several days later Quantrill crossed to the north side of the Red River beyond McCulloch's jurisdiction. Early in April he set out for Missouri. Finding conditions in Jackson County "too squally," he moved east into Lafayette County. There his long-simmering quarrel with Todd boiled over. The two were playing cards in a farmhouse. Quantrill accused Todd of cheating. Todd made a threatening remark. Quantrill replied that he was not afraid of any man. Instantly Todd whipped out a revolver and shoved it into Quantrill's face. "You are afraid of me, aren't you Bill?" he snarled. "Yes," Quantrill choked out the words, "I'm afraid of you."

Todd lowered the pistol, a smile of triumph on his face. He had humiliated Quantrill before the other bushwhackers, not one of whom moved to back him. Silently Quantrill walked out of the house, mounted his horse, and rode away. Picking up his mistress Kate King on the way, he crossed over into north Missouri where with a few followers he hid out for the rest of the spring and summer.

Organized Confederate resistance in Missouri ended, but the bitterness inspired by the bloody warfare that went on there survived intact long after the war. For years, two of Quantrill's veterans, Frank and Jesse James, were able to survive and prosper as outlaws in the Burnt District, fed and sheltered from government pursuers by families who never forgot being forced from their homes by blue-coated soldiers.

The James Boys were innovators, but in a sense they were merely applying to private ends the wartime lessons they had learned as guerrilla fighters in Missouri and neighboring states and territories. Missouri's Confederate troops had crumbled early, and Union forces ruled the state after 1862; but guerrilla bands harassed the occupiers and raided unguarded towns until the war's end. In one notably bloodthirsty action, in August 1863, four hundred fifty raiders under the command of William Clarke Quantrill descended at dawn on Lawrence, Kansas. Among those taking part in the assault, which was unparalleled in its savagery, was Frank James.

Frank was 20 at the time, a hawk-nosed, blue-eyed, sandy-haired young man with a square jaw and distinctively wide ears. He was about five feet ten inches tall, slender in build, slow in movement, laconic in speech; and he already had the scholarly turn of mind that made him an avid reader of Shakespeare and Francis Bacon.

At the war's end, the Missouri guerrillas were denied amnesty; unlike regular Confederate soldiers, they went home as outlaws. Three and a half months after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Frank James gave himself up at a federal army depot and was soon paroled. Jesse also tried to surrender but was shot in the chest by federal soldiers as he rode toward Lexington, Missouri, carrying awhite flag to signal his intentions. Badly wounded, he escaped into a stand of woods. A farmer brought him into Lexington, where the federal commander in local charge paid a wagon driver to cart him home to die in peace. Back in Kearney, however, Jesse gradually healed. Within a few months he was attending Sunday services with his mother (even as a child he had a religious bent, once rising in church to ask the congregation to pray for his brother's soul). On weekdays Jesse passed the time with other guerrilla veterans, nursing grievances against the former enemy, telling tales of wartime daring - and planning a career of crime.

The three topics seemed to be related. The sense of grievance was deep-seated, for Union rule had been harsh in western Missouri. To rid the region of guerrillas, the Union commander had issued his notorious Order No. 11, giving Confederate sympathizers in four border counties 15 days to quit the region. In their absence, their houses were razed, their crops burned and their possessions destroyed.

Yet the guerrillas had survived these drastic measures. Operating hundreds of miles from the nearest Confederate lines, outnumbered and ruthlessly hunted by Union troops, they had staged one successful raid after another. Recalling those exploits, the James boys and their friends realized that the same tactics could be put to the uses of an outlaw gang in peacetime.

Quantrill and Anderson had been masters of guerrilla warfare. Recruiting country boys already familiar with horses and guns, they had drilled their irregulars relentlessly in riding and marksmanship. Quantrill and Anderson had maintained elaborate intelligence networks to spot the enemy's concentrations and movements. And the basic method of executing a guerrilla raid proved ideally suited to bandits on horseback: hit the target by surprise, with lightning swiftness, then scatter into the surrounding countryside and hole up in refuges that had been scouted in advance. After the James boys embarked on their career in crime, they never forsook their guerrilla habit of searching for hidden valleys where hunted men could pasture horses, and they kept an eye out for caves in which bands of men could, if necessary, live concealed for weeks.

Perhaps the most important requisite for guerrilla warfare was to win the support of people in the countryside - and the James brothers were to enjoy such support in abundance. Not only were they farm boys themselves, but they seemed to the Southern farmers to stand for the lost Confederate cause, gallant and defiant. The postwar years found these farmers desperately in need of loans to restore their ravaged lands; they came to hate the town bankers for tight money policies and high interest rates. When the James boys rode out against the banks, the best wishes of many Missourians went with them.

Robert L. Dyer. Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri (MISSOURI HERITAGE READERS) . University of Missouri Press. 1994.


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