It is impossible to consider the life, crime, and times of Jesse James without first considering the historical context within which he was situated. In a biography of Jesse James by T.J. Stiles  “Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War”, both the historical, social, and political factors that influenced James and his life as a bandit are detailed and integrated to form a cogent picture of the man versus what popular legend states.

The thesis of Stile’s book is best put one scholar who summarizes that, “Jesse James was an intensely political postwar neo-Confederate terrorist rather than a social bandit or just a plain thug” (Fellman 1485). According to T.J. Stiles in his biography of Jesse James,  “Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War”, the banditry and “Robin Hood” image that has come to be associated with Jesse James was the result of careful media manipulation both by Jesse James himself and a fellow Confederate sympathizer, the journalist John Newman Edwards.

In Stile’s view, there was little to be found innocuous about Jesse James, particularly in terms of the reasons for his violence. He was not out to steal from the rich and give to the poor but was instead focused on furthering his ideas about slavery and the Confederate cause, even though the Civil War had ended. The fact that he was born and raised in Missouri, which was the center of great (and often violent) conflict about Confederate versus Union ideology had much to do with his later actions. His older brother, Frank joined the Bushwhackers and then later took part in the massacre in Kansas in which many lives were lost on both sides. Like his brother, James felt there was enough at stake in Missouri to kill over and took part in the bloody Centrailia Massacre, during which several Union soldiers on their way back to the North were slaughtered. With these facts in mind, it is impossible to see Jesse James as a hero bandit of the West, but rather as a violent and merciless killer for Southern causes. His story, at least as related by T.J. Stiles in “Jesse James : Last Rebel of the Civil War”, demonstrates how there was still a vital population of people in Missouri and elsewhere who were not ready to see the conclusion and aftermath of the Civil War.

It is most revealing to consider Jesse James in context of his position as a Confederate sympathizer living in a Missouri that was heavily divided. As James came of age, the Confederacy had admitted defeat and the slow first stages of Reconstruction were getting underway. Though the Union troops may have been notorious for being savage in battle, the Confederates fought honorably although, “the one great exception was the fighting in Missouri, the ‘border state’ which had a powerful pro-Confederate minority. There the fighting was irregular, brutal, and internecine” (Hall 315). Shortly after the war, the Radicals, who were an aggressively anti-Confederate party, took control of the state of Missouri and refused to allow any Confederates from taking part in elections or from having a political seat. Naturally, this infuriated Confederate sympathizers and it was around this time that Jesse James began his career as a bandit. Aside from robbing banks and committing acts that history has seen as a more general form of banditry, Jesse James had the kind of political slant to his actions that have caused writers such as Stiles to call him a “terrorist” as opposed to a common bandit.

The ideology behind many of the crimes Jesse James and his fellow “terrorists” was fiercely Confederate and with the help of journalist John Newman Edwards, James was able to express the political motivations behind his acts. This is significant because it showed how the media was being used to serve particular political ends and shape one’s image, even in early post-Civil War America. The same “spin” is created today and serves much the same purpose. Stiles is careful to discuss the way James and Edwards created a public image and constantly reminds readers of the differences between the “real” versus constructed Jesse James.

          In this biography of Jesse James,  “Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War” T.J. Stiles seems obsessed with the notion that a terrorist who is no different than Osama Bin Laden has been given such credence in popular American culture as a bandit with a heart of gold. He goes out of his way to show how Jesse James was a product of a legacy of violence which was spawned first by his slaveholding Confederate family and extended by the aftermath of the Missouri Compromise. As a matter of fact, the Missouri Compromise,Bloody Kansas, and other major events that followed only served to heighten sectional violence and hatred. Although Stiles does not state it directly, one of the underlying ideas about the book in terms of history is that James was merely a product of a series of failed efforts to bring Union and Confederates together. James, like many of his fellow criminals (and certainly his brother Frank who saw more of the War firsthand) was representative of the ineffectiveness of the final peace at Appamatox. Simply by declaring the war as over did not ensure that the country would settle into the Reconstruction era peacefully. James and his comrades represented those Confederates who were not ready to admit defeat. In sum, his image as a hero or at least notorious outlaw of the Old West is shot down as mere legend which has, at least in part, been constructed by early journalists and writers. In fact, as Stiles reveals in “Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War” , Jesse James had nothing to do with cowboys and Indians but had everything to do with attempts to secure slavery in Missouri.

Other essays and articles in the History Archives related to this topic include :  The Kansas-Nebraska Act Controversy  • American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends  •    Overview of the Reconstruction Era   •  Slavery in America’s South : Implications and Effects


Fellman, Michael. “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.” Journal of American History 91.4 (2005): 1485.

Hall, M. “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (Book).” Contemporary Review 282.1648.

Stiles, T.J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York; Vintage. 2002.