On December 7, 1869, two men attacked the Daviess County Savings and Loan in Gallatin, Missouri. One of them murdered the cashier and grabbed a metal box (which turned out to be full of worthless documents). They fled riding double, as one of their horses had run off. On the way out of town they stole a farmer’s horse to make a successful getaway.
The lost horse was quickly identified. It was a blooded Kentucky thoroughbred, well known as belonging to one Jesse Woodson James. This was Jesse’s first identified post-Civil War crime, and a Kansas City newspaperman named John Newman Edwards took interest. He began writing laudatory articles, sparking what would become an American legend.
The Gallatin raid has traditionally been viewed as a botched bank robbery. But lawyer James P. Muehlberger, author of The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James, has uncovered the original documents of the lawsuit that followed the event, in which a lawyer named Henry McDougal sued Jesse on behalf of the farmer who lost his horse. The evidence he uncovered strongly suggests that this was not a bank robbery at all, but a failed assassination attempt. The outlaws were after another Gallatin man, Major Samuel P. Cox, who had come into possession of a pair of pistols owned by the guerrilla leader Bloody Bill Anderson, killed in the war. Anderson’s brother Jim had written Cox a threatening letter demanding the pistols back. Evidence indicates that the murderers went to Gallatin to kill Cox, but instead shot bank employee John Sheets, who resembled Cox. The other robber, long thought to be Frank James, was probably Jim Anderson.
Muehlberger goes on to give a kind of legal history of the James gang, from McDougal’s original lawsuit up through the murder trials that followed Frank James’ final surrender in 1882, in which he was acquitted and set free.
Muehlberger’s purpose is partly to tell the story and share the fresh information he’s uncovered, and partly to plead his own case – that the James gang was not a romantic band of Southern heroes, oppressed by corrupt carpetbaggers, but a low-life group of thugs, contemptuous of others’ lives and property, who benefited from a positive public relations campaign. Rather than robbing the rich to give to the poor, Jesse’s take tended to go toward paying off his race track gambling debts. Muehlberger also wishes to debunk the whole idea of the “lost cause,” the claim that the Southern cause in the Civil War was not about slavery but about constitutional rights.
I tend to agree with him on that point, though I think it’s overstated. I disagree with those who say that secession had nothing to do with slavery, but I also disagree with those who say it was only about slavery. I think there’s a middle ground there.
I do agree about the James gang, though.
The Lost Cause is a book of considerable interest to anyone curious about that period of American history. The writing isn’t top-notch but it’s not bad. Recommended.