Actor Mitchell McCann as Jesse James

In September 1864, Jesse James rode with Bill Anderson's bushwhackers into the small Missouri town of Centralia. There the 16-year-old James took part in one of the worst atrocities of the Civil War. The Confederate guerrillas executed 22 Union soldiers in what a witness called a "carnival of blood," then ambushed and killed 150 more Federals who set out in pursuit of the guerrilla group.

A panel of experts describe to AMERICAN EXPERIENCE what happened at Centralia and what these guerrilla experiences meant for young Jesse James.

Participants

Fred Chiaventone, Author, Moon of Bitter Cold and A Road We Do Not Know
Michael Gooch, Local Historian
Deb Goodrich, Author, Publisher, Kansas Journal of Military History
Tom Goodrich, Author, Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border 
Christopher Phillips, Historian, Author, Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West
Phil Stewart, Local Historian, Pentagon Corespondent for Reuters, Specialist on Colombia's guerrilla war and Brazilian politics
T.J. Stiles, Author, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War

Was the Centralia attack planned?

T.J. Stiles: Centralia is one of the stories that resulted by accident, in a sense. Just before the battle of Centralia, the Confederate guerrillas under Bill Anderson and Todd and other leaders, had collected into a large force, relatively speaking, by accident, to prepare for the Confederate invasion of Missouri in 1864. It was an unusually large collection of guerrillas, about 400 men or so. Then Bill Anderson led his men into this little railside village of Centralia to get information.

Deb Goodrich: What leads up to Centralia, how the Federal troops were lead into this ambush is one of the most horrific descriptions I've ever read of anything in my life. These men have been looking all over Missouri. They've been hearing reports. There's X number of soldiers here. There's X number there. And every number becomes inflated. And their commander is just sick of it. He's thinking these aren't ghosts that just come in and out of the middle of the night. These are real soldiers. We can beat real soldiers. So that's what they believed. These Federal troops go in believing that they can do this. 

What happened, exactly?

T.J. Stiles: As the guerrillas were looting the town and collecting newspapers, the railroad train rolled up full of 20, I believe it was 21 Union soldiers on leave. They were pulled off the train. They were unarmed. They were stripped of their uniforms so the Confederates could use them as disguises and then they were shot dead, there by the railside. Some civilians who protested or tried to hide their money when they were robbed afterwards were murdered on the spot also. Some of those Union soldiers then were scalped or mutilated on the spot. So it was outright massacre. Helpless, unarmed men who never posed a threat to the Confederate guerrillas were shot down simply for being Union soldiers. 

After that first incident, what happened?

T.J. Stiles: A Union force was nearby and they gave pursuit. Bill Anderson collected with the other guerrilla leaders and they prepared a trap. A small unit of Confederate guerrillas lured them into an ambush and over 100 Union soldiers were then ambushed and killed -- every last man was executed.

Deb Goodrich: [The Union soldiers] went to the top of the hill and here come these guerrillas toward them who then stop. Then they have guerrillas coming from each side who surround them and then they stop. And finally the Federals are yelling at them, "Come on. Let's do it. Let's end it here." The Federals have already dismounted. They were like sitting ducks. So they are just slaughtered. 

What were the atrocities?

Michael Gooch: Immediately after the battle, Bill Anderson's boys went down and started mutilating bodies. I cannot say that there was not a corpse on that field that had the same head on it that it started the day with...

Tom Goodrich: The aftermath of Centralia would have been truly horrific. In the middle of the day, an autumn day, roughly a hundred dead Federals on the ground. They have had their throats slashed and some of them are still being tortured. Many of the guerrillas are drunk. All the emotions are coming out of the guerrillas at this point. This is the chickens of John Brown coming home to roost so to speak. This one of the ultimate atrocities of the Civil War. There are 100 and some men, helpless, disarmed, murdered in their tracks. And it would have been a very terrible thing to see. Beheadings, disembowelments, torture, fiendish torture, men begging for the lives. This is where the emotions finally come and bear fruit in Missouri. This is the place where every man who has felt the oppression of Federal soldiers for the last three years, can finally have his vengeance.

T.J. Stiles: The Union soldiers who came on the scene later described a scene where men were mutilated in the most horrific fashion. In fact, in one case, a man's privates were described as being cut off and being shoved in the man's mouth. And there were scalps taken. There were other acts of mutilation. It was an incredibly brutal day. And, at one point, according to Frank James, Dave Poole, one of their comrades, was jumping from body to body across the battlefield. And when he was asked what he was doing, he said that he was counting them and that was the easiest way to do it. So these were men who were completely hardened... And Jesse James was immersed in the most savage kind of bloodshed conceivable. 

Did Jesse James actively participate at Centralia?

T.J. Stiles: On that day, in that battle, Jesse James was given credit for actually personally killing the Union commander, A. B. E. Johnson. And, I think in a sense, that was probably true. But, later it sort of gave a nice heroic gloss to what was, in fact, a day of slaughter.

After the Centralia massacre, the Union militia captain who was in charge of maintaining order in Clay County began to investigate and look into the families of the guerrillas who had taken part that day. And he later wrote a report that he was certain that both of the James boys had taken part in the Centralia massacre and the battle that followed. 

How did the guerrillas encounter death?

Phil Stewart: Dying became insignificant. It didn't mean anything. People were dying daily. Guys were getting arms blown off. You ride into battle and the guy next to you would be virtually decapitated by either musket balls or cannon balls. These are the things that Jesse James at 14 and 15 years old was seeing on a daily basis. Bloody Bill Anderson was tying human scalps to his bridle. Guys were hung. Guys were decapitated. Both sides had their heads cut off, riding around with them on poles. Some of those guys would cut off ears of the guys that they had killed and would make necklaces out of them. Wearing human body parts around their neck and that has got to affect a 14-15 year old kid. It just does. Life becomes less significant.

Christopher Phillips: If you were a 16-year-old boy like Jesse James, you would have seen a warfare that would have been reminiscent of the frontier fighting that went on between Native Americans and Anglo-Americans on all of the frontiers for 150 or 200 years before this. You would have seen scalpings. You would have seen knifings. You would have seen a type of hit and run warfare that caused more pot shots to be taken than mass fire. You would have seen executions of Federal soldiers. You would have seen people taken off trains. You would have seen people robbed. You would have seen people maimed and you would have seen war at its worst.

Tom Goodrich: Jesse came from the frontier. Don't forget that. He lived with death on a fairly daily basis. They killed their own hogs. They shot squirrels. People died in one's parlors. So, they're familiar with death out here on the frontier. But this would have been like night and day for Jesse to leave the farm one day and be with the guerrillas the next day because this is a brutal condition. This is where people are actually going back into savagery.

Those who win lived to fight another day. Those who lose die right there on the spot. It doesn't matter who gets you. Whether a bushwhacker captures a Federal or a Federal captures a bushwhacker. It's understood, you die on the spot with a bullet in the head maybe after torture.

How did the extreme violence influence Jesse James?

Tom Goodrich: Fearful atrocities were committed. Let's not forget one thing, this is the frontier. This is not the East. This is not Virginia. We don't have Robert E. Lee here. We don't have POW camps. We don't have paroles. We don't have codes of conduct. We've got William Clark Quantrell and Bloody Bill Anderson. We've got scalpings, decapitations, mutilations, mind-boggling atrocities out here. Jesse steps into this and it had to transform him within a matter of weeks to see these atrocities committed.

Fred Chiaventone: One of the things you have to remember about Jesse James is that when he joins the guerrillas, he is a very young man. He's in his formative years. And so when he joins the guerrillas, he's exposed essentially to terrorists. And that's where he really acquires his values and his outlook on life. And he becomes, as I said, a prototypical terrorist. He, there's no value to life. If you are opposed to him, you're opposed to everything he believes in. And there is no reason not to kill your enemies and to do it in the most brutal and horrific way so that you can dissuade other potential enemies from joining your cause.

Was James' life of violent crime inevitable?

Michael Gooch: We don't know how many guerrillas there actually were. Apparently at Lawrence, they assembled between two and three hundred. Yet if you look after the war at how many actually turned outlaw, it's nowhere near that number. It all boils down to individual choice. The James boys chose the lifestyle. They were not forced into anything. It was not easy on any former guerrilla after the war. You had to stay very low key. There was a lot of vengeance taking. But so many of the boys did not resort to outlawry or violence after the war. It clearly had to be an individual choice.

Deb Goodrich: Every man that took part in the Centralia massacre witnessed something that would be impossible to forget. We can imagine the pictures. We can imagine what body parts thrown across the field looked like. It's more difficult to imagine the smells. It's more difficult to imagined what they would have smelled and heard that day. I don't know how they could have not been transformed psychologically. I don't know how they could come home to a normal life after seeing that, after taking part in that.

Was Jesse James' family ashamed of his actions?

T.J. Stiles: When a neighbor confronted Zerelda with the way her boys had been behaving, she said that she was proud of her boys and that she prayed to God every day to protect them in their work. So this was a family which had been driven to the extreme and Zerelda... approved of the most horrific atrocities that they took part in.

Michael Gooch: I would not think so. No, they had done their best. They did everything they could. One could argue it was a losing fight from the start. And I imagine they knew that. They were there to protect the people of Western Missouri. That's pretty well how they viewed themselves as protectors. And no, I don't think they would have been ashamed.

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Since 1921, dozens of movies have featured a character based on Jesse James, depicting him in very different lights. Which portrayal do you think is the most historically accurate? Do you have a favorite?