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Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War Hardcover – September 17, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

Probably no American outlaw has attracted more attention--much of it flattering--than Jesse James. This revisionist biography by T.J. Stiles delves into the exciting life James led--"a tale of ambushes, gun battles, and daring raids, of narrow escapes, betrayals, and revenge." Yet it also places James within a specific political context, showing why it was possible for this murderous bandit to emerge as a folk hero among Southern sympathizers following the Civil War (in which he fought as a teenager). James is often grouped with famous frontier criminals like Billy the Kidd and Butch Cassidy, but he's best understood as a Southerner who forged partisan alliances in postwar Missouri and promoted himself as a latter-day Robin Hood. Stiles describes James as "a foul-mouthed killer who hated as fiercely as anyone on the planet" and places his life in the context of "the struggle for--or rather, against--black freedom." Stiles's fundamental point about James is as startling as it is convincing: "In his political consciousness and close alliance with a propagandist and power broker, in his efforts to win media attention with his crimes ... Jesse James was a forerunner of the modern terrorist." Tough words, but also deserved. --John J. Miller

From Publishers Weekly

In a lucid reexamination of one of the nation's most notorious outlaws, independent historian Stiles argues that Jesse James (1847-1882), like his fellow "bushwhackers," had a political agenda and that this made him more terrorist than bandit, and more significant than we credit. "He was," Stiles says, "a political partisan [wh0] eagerly offered himself up as a polarizing symbol of the Confederate project for postwar Missouri." By the age of 16, James was engaged in guerilla warfare against Union forces; when the war was over he remained a staunch and outspoken ex-Confederate. His letters to friend and newspaper editor John Newman Edwards, in which he described himself as "the target of unjustified, vindictive persecution," and exonerative articles published about him after the war, show that James used and was used by the newspapers to further Missouri's opposition to Reconstruction. White-supremacist bushwhackers targeted Unionists as well as institutions that benefited the Union. Political posturing aside, though, James and his ilk used the booty to line their own pockets and if James mirrored the bigger picture of a society that pushed him into a life of crime, he also embraced that life without remorse. That said, Stiles's painstaking research has produced a compelling book that recreates, sometimes graphically, the ruthlessness that prevailed in Missouri, where neighbor fought neighbor and nobody was safe. He also offers a critical understanding of how deep-seated hatred breeds self-righteous fanatics, who can justify violence against anyone deemed an enemy. 16 pages of illus. and six maps.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (September 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375405836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375405839
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #372,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

T. J. Stiles has held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, taught at Columbia University, and served as adviser for the PBS series The American Experience. His first book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship, and was a New York Times Notable Book. His book The First Tycoon won 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. He has written for The New York Times Book Review,, Smithsonian, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in San Francisco.

Photo credit: Joanne Chan

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

90 of 93 people found the following review helpful By M. Vitale on October 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have just finished a careful reading of this book, and it is one of the most remarkable books on American history I have ever read. Instead of being simply a compilation of facts and speculations about someone who lived underground for his entire life, this beautifully written book is a sweeping story of how the United States went through the Civil War and the years that followed. The author knits together the lives of one remarkable person after another, including Jesse and Frank James, their larger-than-life mother, Zerelda, the outlaws' friends and enemies (such as John Edwards and Allan Pinkerton), together with the story of the community the James family belonged to, as it was torn apart during the war. The most astonishing thing this book reveals is how important Jesse James was in the politics of his times, and how he understood that and tried to use his fame to promote the Confederate cause.
I frankly don't understand the angry reviews that some have posted on Amazon. This is a very careful, thoughtful book, with almost 100 pages of endnotes (and bibliography) that explain the author's reasoning as well as sources. Clearly he's telling us what he thinks, but he never goes overboard. So who gets to decide what an "error" is? Were they videotaping robberies, so we know exactly what happened? Some of the critics seem to think they have special, secret knowledge. One thing that is especially silly is that the people who are attacking Stiles's book go on and on about the fact that the endnotes mention Michael Bellesiles, a historian who is now the subject of an academic investigation. I was curious, and I checked: I found only a couple of mentions of Bellesiles in the notes, and they say things like, "Bellesiles's work has come under harsh criticism.
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Alexander Halstad on November 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book. I have had a fascination with the Civil War in Missouri, and Jesse James, for many years, and I have to say that this is far and away the best thing ever written on either topic.
The book is brilliantly written, but it is also packed with new insights and new reseach. For example, the author uses probate records and newly discovered letters from Watkins Mill State Park to put new light on Jesse and Frank's father, Robert James, and on the hardships faced by Zerelda, his widow, after he died in the Gold Rush. Stiles does something that no one else has done before when he looks at the family's slaves, trying to understand their lives and how slaveowning made the James and Samuel family what it was. And the portrait of the Civil War in Missouri is genius. Stiles shows us that there was a lot more going on that simply Missourians fighting invading Kansans. He uses new sources, including a report by the Missouri state legislature and reports by the provost marshals (including some reports missed by everyone else who has written about Jesse James) to show how much the war there was a real neighbor-against-neighbor struggle that the James boys plunged into wholeheartedly. I could go on and on about the new insights Stiles has, such as the way he explains the differences between the various state militia forces as no one else has. When he gets to Jesse's bandit years, he uses governors' papers in the Missouri State Archives to show that the first bank the bandits robbed, in Liberty, was owned by the Radical Republican officials of Clay County where Jesse lived.
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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Mark Dworkin on October 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
T. J. Stiles has written an important and challenging new biography of Jesse James, a book that I believe will be the definitive biography of James for a long time to come. Although a short review here cannot do the book justice, Stiles approaches the Missouri bandit in a different manner from previous biographers, including Ted Yeatman who wrote an excellent and detailed biography of both James brothers. While Yeatman's book will satisfy those who want to know every detail of the James brothers careers, Stiles is a more interpretive history, placing Jesse James squarely within the era in which he lived, and assessing his role as an American legend.
Stiles places Jesse James in historical context like no one else has before, making a strong case for James as an integral part of the post-Civil War fight against Reconstruction in deeply divided Missouri. This is indicated by the title of the book. He eschews comparisons of James with bandits like Butch Cassidy and other western outlaws, who had no social program or cause other than enriching themselves. James was a precursor of the modern terrorist, in Stiles' analysis, a political partisan engaged in manipulating the media and carrying out lawless acts while gaining maximum publicity for his white supremacist cause.
For those who place Jesse James in the context of the Old West, as an outlaw on the lawless frontier, Stiles persuasively argues James never looked west, always south, and saw himself as part of the traditional slave-holding class of southern farmers, the class from which he hailed.
This is a work of professional history, and not a book for buffs. If you want to know the minutae of every robbery, Yeatman's will be more satisfying.
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