Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape by Mark Lee Gardner

An excellent addition to the literature surrounding the life of Jesse James and the history of the James-Younger Gang. Very well written, its primary focus is on events leading up to their raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, MN, and the factors that influenced their decision to conduct a raid so far from their Missouri base. It does not claim to be a full biography of James or the James-Younger gang, but it does include enough back story to put their actions into proper context. The book is not perfect for reasons I will mention below, but is well researched, and exceedingly readable.

Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang are one of those historical Rorschach tests that usefully expose the biases of different segments of society. Whether one views the gang as heroes, anti-heroes, or villains often is a function of life experience, education and economic circumstance. For many the gang represents a rejection of political correctness, and of those viewed as elites trying to dictate how people should lead their lives. For others, they are an embodiment of the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War; a committed band of unreconstructed rebels, refusing to concede the end of their dream of an independent confederacy based on states’ rights and slavery. For still others, they represent an American version of the Robin Hood myth (for which there is no evidence). And lastly, for some, particularly descendants of their victims, or those who intellectually reject the notion that robbery and murder are in any way romantic, the James-Younger gang were simply killers, unable to get past Confederate defeat, compelled to continue the terrorism they practiced as bushwhackers under William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War.

For me, they are closer to the latter description. The more I read about them, the less I am inclined to view them as anything other than criminals. I recognize they are products of their experiences, but that does not make them admirable. That isn’t to say however, that I don’t find them fascinating. I think they do embody an aspect of the Civil War South that I think is important to understand. In states like Missouri and Kansas, the Civil War was a guerilla fight, one which pitted neighbor against neighbor in the most brutal way imaginable. In this it was much like the Revolutionary war as experienced in the southern back country – brutal and personal. The legacy of that fight is with us today.

Other than my general interest in virtually anything historical, I also have a personal interest in the James-Younger gang. One of the employees shot by them in the failed raid on the First National Bank in Northfield, MN – Alonzo Bunker – is a branch on my family tree. He was the son of my Great-Great-Great Grandfather. Growing up, we always heard stories about the relative who was shot by Jesse James, and my Great Grandfather who I knew as a child, had met him. Bunker wasn’t actually shot by James, but by gang member Charlie Pitts; still it was close enough to the truth to pique my interest growing up.

Most books on Jesse James and the James-Younger gang tend to take an admiring view of them. Authors invested in “Lost Cause” mythology are more likely to take a charitable view of their criminality, often excusing it as a justifiable response to some wrong they suffered, such as the botched Pinkerton raid on their home that killed their brother Archie, and severely wounded their mother. Other authors, who have a romantic view of the West and Western lore, seem unable to resist the lure of the “brave and daring” Jesse James. This has combined to make the outlaws pop culture heroes. Rarely are movies made about them, for example, that do not depict them as heroes or anti-heroes. A great example of this is the well-made but severely flawed “Long Riders,” produced in 1980. All of this makes it difficult to get to the truth about them and their activities.

There are a few even-handed treatments of them that try to get to the truth about their actions, and that attempt to put them in a political, cultural, economic, and psychological context. One of the best of these is Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles, who does a nice job of digging into the political climate in post war Missouri that allowed the James-Younger gang to operate with virtual impunity.

The subject of this review, falls somewhere in between these types. As the title of the book suggests, with its focus on the escape of Jesse and Frank James, rather than the capture or killing of the other six gang members, the author sometimes betrays a sneaking admiration for the outlaws. On the other hand, he doesn’t shy away from highlighting their brutality, detailing some of the murders committed by them during and after the Civil War. And, it is clear he admires the townspeople of Northfield who did what no one else had done, fought back against the gang. He movingly highlights the heroics of some of the townspeople, particularly Joseph Lee Heywood who was killed by Frank James after he repeatedly refused to open the bank’s safe.

Northfield celebrates this event to this day, with its annual “Defeat of Jesse James Days,” one of the largest town festivals in Minnesota.

Gardner is an excellent writer. The book, written in a narrative style, was at times a real page turner. His research is detailed, and seems spot on, illuminating many aspects of the Northfield raid that I had never read about before. For example, I had always known bystander Nicholas Gustafson was killed in the street outside the bank; shot in the head. What I did not know was that he did not die right away. In fact, he was able to get up, walk away, speak with others, and clean his wound. He actually died several days later as his brain began to swell. Most depictions of the event have him lying dead in the street. It was these kinds of details which really elevated the book. His chapters detailing the raid itself and the subsequent manhunt are among the best I have read. And he does an excellent job of teasing out interesting portraits of some of the lesser known actors in this drama, including 16-year-old Oscar Sorbel, the “Paul Revere of the Northfield Raid,” whose persistence eventually led to the killing of gang member Charlie Pitts, and capture of Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger.

On the other hand, the portions of the book detailing the early days of the James’s and Youngers as Confederate bushwhackers during the Civil War, and their early criminal career, weren’t as detailed. It is adequate to set up the events leading up to the Northfield Raid, but not much more. This doesn’t detract much from the power of the book however. Gardner is not attempting an exhaustive biography of the outlaws and so only provides what is needed to put the Raid itself into some context. He is also not explicitly attempting to put them into a larger political or social context. He does provide some of this though as an organic part of the narrative. What he chooses to highlight and incidents he describes do help one form a rudimentary political and psychological profile of the gang. A good example of this is the gang’s alleged reaction when they found out Adelbert Ames, a Union General, Reconstruction Governor of Mississippi, and son-in-law of the hated Benjamin Butler was living in Northfield, and had considerable holdings with the bank. The desire for sweet revenge against one who they believed had forced Yankee rule on the South and negro equality on the country may have become one reason for choosing Northfield as the target.

There were problems with the book. Occasionally the narrative dragged a bit, particularly when recounting the gang’s robbery of the train at Rocky Cut near Otterville, MO. He occasionally apes conventional wisdom, such as his dismissal of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency as a scandal ridden failure; an assertion that has been cast into significant doubt by Grant scholars.  And, as I noted earlier, he occasionally betrays a sneaking admiration for the outlaws that I find unnecessary. Not enough to cast doubt on the objectivity of his narrative, but worth mentioning. Overall though this is fine reading, a book any history nerd would enjoy.

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