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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Today is the birthday of one Jesse Woodson James.

Poor Jesse. The son of a Baptist preacher who comes of age in the midst of war and terrorism. He is shaped by both. A boy who does not swear but whose blood runs cold with thoughts of those who have wronged his family. He is one of the most famous people of the 19th century and beyond. So much has been written of Jesse's short life; he is the subject of books, films, numerous television plots. His fame is so enduring that we forget what a sad life he had.

When a young boy, Jesse's dad went off to California...perhaps to seek fortune and more probably to escape Jesse's mother, Zerelda. (She had more balls than Frank & Jesse put together.) As war came closer and closer to the Missouri border, the Jameses were drawn in. Frank joined the army leaving Jesse to help run the farm with his step-dad and a younger disabled brother. In one of those pivotal moments where the decisions of a few men may have altered history forever, Yankees visited the farm and horsewhipped Jesse and hanged his step-father over and over until he was senseless. As the irregular warfare escalated, Jesse became a guerrilla. He rode with Bill, as in Bloody Bill, Anderson. He learned terrorism from the expert.

When the Civil War ended, it did not end for the Jameses or a lot of other families. Frank James, in an 1894, explained why they kept fighting:

They wouldn't let us quit! It was after the war was over that the Pinkertons threw a hand grenade in my mother's house one night, killing my 7-year-old brother and tearing my mother's right arm from her shoulder. There is two sides to this quitting question.

Indeed, Jesse had planned to surrender and as he was riding into town to do so, he was shot.

Jesse's life was one chain of violent events after another, some his doing, some not. He was not able to live the life of the simple farmer he was raised to be, and probably would have been, at any other time in history. He had no normal time with his wife or children, no time, no place where he was safe. The war had warped his time and it had warped him.

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Action Before Westport

John Monnett reports that his father's excellent book,  Action Before Westport 1864 was re-published with a new foreword by the University of Colorado Press. Howard Monnett's book is still considered the definitive discussion of this battle for control of Missouri.

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