The legend, and the true life story, of the American “Robin Hood”, Jesse James, were forged in an era when Missouri’s Civil War had become the most brutal form of warfare visited on the continent. The James boys, Frank and Jesse, and Cole Younger and his brothers, carried their form of war on well past Appomattox.
Roots of the James legend extend back to the days of “Bloody Kansas,” which helped produce perhaps the most famous figure identified with Missouri’s Civil War, William Clarke Quantrill. The evolution of Quantrill’s Partisan Rangers, more often referred to as “Bushwackers,” was a result also of atrocities practiced by Union troops and militia in the early years of the war. Many of the famous Confederate irregulars, the Jameses and the Youngers and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson included, could trace their motives to violence against family members.
The first general atrocity to occur in Missouri after the start of war was a Union one, when in 1862 more that 30 Confederate soldiers captured during Porter’s Raid were executed in Northeast Missouri. On August 13, 1863, a building collapsed in Kansas City. It had been used as a jail housing female family members, wives and sweethearts of Western Missouri irregulars, in an effort by the federal commander in Kansas City, Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing, to flush the irregulars out of hiding. Four young women died in the collapse, including the teenage sister of “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
Four days later, from the vicinity of Warrensburg, Quantrill launched his infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, arguably the war’s worst atrocity. Frank James and Cole Younger (whose cousin died at Kansas City) rode with Quantrill. It is said that the Kansas City jail collapse precipitated, or at least set the tone for, the Lawrence Raid. It most certainly contributed to Anderson’s character.
The Union’s retribution for Lawrence: Ewing issued his Order No. 11, which depopulated several counties in the Kansas City vicinity and which has been termed the “harshest military measure directed against civilians . . . in American history” before WWII. In a twist of historic fate, the building that was the Kansas City jail was owned by the wife of George Caleb Bingham, a Unionist and then Missouri treasurer. Dissatisfied with Union response to his claims for compensation, Missouri’s most famous artist produced the most famous painting of the Civil War era. Bingham’s Order No. 11 is on display at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia.
In 1864, Quantrill was usurped as leader of the Partisan Rangers in Western Missouri and replaced by the more violent Anderson. Anderson cooperated with Price’s Expedition by mounting a series of eastward diversionary raids.
The first of these raids started at Rocheport and wound its way north and then east to Centralia, where Anderson, with 300 troops (including 17-year-old Jesse James) arrived on September 27, 1864. Coincidentally, this was the same day the Battle of Pilot Knob closed. There resulted, in Centralia and in a field several miles south of town, a massacre of surrendering federals that ranks among the Civil War’s most gruesome events. Several companies of the 39th Missouri Volunteers, mustered into service in Hannibal the previous month, were destroyed. Anderson raided eastward a second time in October 1864, traveling as far as High Hill in Montgomery County. During his third raid, on October 27, 1864, Anderson was killed near Richmond, Missouri.