Northfield – Tales of a Citizen Militia

It would seem from the history books that most veterans of the Civil War settled down to something resembling a normal 19th century civilian life without too much trouble. One can only suppose that those who survived the experience without suffering incapacitating physical or emotional trauma were enormously grateful to have done so. Union veterans additionally must have been also glad to have won the war, close-run thing that it appeared to have been at times. Confederate veterans had to be content with merely surviving. Not only did they have to cope with the burden of defeat, but also with the physical wreckage of much of the South… as well as the wounds afflicted upon experiencing the severe damage to that  whole Southern chivalry-gracious plantation life, fire -eating whip ten Yankees with one arm tied behind my back-anti-abolitionist mindset. But most Confederate soldiers laid down their arms and picked up the plow,  so to speak fairly readily… if with understandable resentment.  In any case, the still-unsettled frontier west of the Mississippi-Missouri basin offered enough of an outlet for the restless, the excitement-seekers and those who wanted to start fresh.

 But the war had been conducted with more than the usual brutality in the mid-west: in Bleeding Kansas and even Bloodier Missouri, where the dividing line between murderous vigilante bandit-gangs and well-disciplined mobile partisan units was considerably more blurred than elsewhere. Some individuals who had participated in warfare on that basis were even more reluctant to shake hands like gentlemen and go back to a peaceable life when it was all over.

 Such were men like the James brothers, Jesse and his older brother Frank, and their friends, Cole and Jim Younger. Jesse and Cole Younger had both ridden with the Confederate partisans led by the notorious William Clarke Quantrill. The Coles and the Youngers were so disinclined to give peace a chance that they hardly waited a year before holding up the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri. Over the next decade, they hit banks from Kentucky to Iowa, Kansas and West Virginia, varying the program occasionally with robbing trains. By  July of 1876 they appear to have made Missouri too hot to hold them, even though they had sympathy and  quiet support among kinfolk and local residents who gave them the benefit of the doubt for having fought for the Confederacy.

Casting around for a new and profitable target for robbery which would get them away from Missouri, the James-Younger gang may have taken up the suggestion of one of the gang members: Minnesota. Not only was gang-member Bill Chadwell a native, and presumably familiar with the lay-out… but no one would be expecting such an organized gang so far off their usual turf. And robbing a bank in Minnesota would have the added piquancy of taking money from the hated “Yankees.” 

In August of 1876, eight members of the gang, Frank and Jesse James, Jim, Cole and Bob Younger, Clell Miller, Bill Chadwell  and Charlie Pitts all arrived in Minnesota… by what exact means is not certain. They pretended to be legitimate businessmen, and scouted various locations in southern Minnesota, in groups of two and three. They spent some time shopping for horses and equipment in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and did some gambling, drinking and recreating. Although they gave false names, they wore long linen dusters, to conceal their weaponry, and this had attracted notice. After some weeks of careful consideration, they settled upon robbing the First Commercial Bank in Mankato. On the day of the planned robbery, they noted a large crowd in the vicinity of the bank, and wisely decided on turning their attentions upon their second choice, the First National Bank of Northfield. They split up into two groups, to travel to Northfield, and arrived there on the morning of September 7th…where an alert citizen noticed that two of them had passed through Northfield and cashed a large check at the bank, some ten days earlier.

Three of the gang waited with their horses,  a little way down Division Street from the bank to guard the getaway route. Two more, Clell Miller and  Cole Younger posted themselves directly in front.  At 10 minutes before 2, with everyone in place, Bob Younger, Frank and Jesse James entered the bank and informed Joseph Lee Heywood, the acting cashier, teller Alonzo E. Bunker and bookkeeper Frank J. Wilcox that the bank was being robbed. Unfortunately for the gang, the citizens of Northfield were not as unobservant as had been expected. The owner of the hardware store directly across the street, J.A. Hill came across the street, accompanied by a young medical student named Henry Wheeler and accosted Clell Miller, who was covering the bank entrance and demanded to know what was going on. Miller’s response, which was to shove Hill off the sidewalk and tell him to get out of there only confirmed suspicions among the Northfield townsfolk that all these strangers in long dusters, standing around nervously, or sitting on their horses,  were up to no good. Especially as young Wheeler had looked in through the window, and realized immediately what was going on. Instead of forcing him into the bank, Miller only threatened him, telling to keep his mouth shut and go about his business. Both Wheeler and Allen walked a few steps away, and then began shouting that the bank was being robbed. And then when Clell Miller fired at the fleeing Wheeler and missed… that was the moment when the Northfield bank robbery went pear-shaped.

 Miller and Cole Younger mounted their horses and began riding up and down the street, firing into windows and into the air, and shouting for people to get inside, while the three other robbers joined them in attempting to keep the citizens properly terrorized and off the street long enough for all of them to make their usual getaway.

Inside the bank Joseph Heywood was adamantly refusing to open the bank vault in spite of being punched and threatened with a gun held to the side of his head … which he had been able to slam closed, nearly catching Frank Younger inside. Finally he revealed that there was a time-lock on it:  It could not be re-opened. There was the modern equivalent of nearly a quarter million dollars inside of it, but the James-Younger gang would have to content themselves with the cash in the till. Bob Younger was gathering up loose bills, while Frank James guarded two bank employees and Jesse continued trying to force Heywood to open the vault. While they were distracted, Alonzo Bunker made a dash for the back door, and although clipped in the shoulder by a shot from Bob Younger, began shouting for help, that the bank was being robbed.

But the alarm was already sounded: A.J. Allen had run to his hardware store, and begun loading all the weapons he had in stock and handing them out to all and sundry, while other citizens ran for their own weapons… and a position on a roof, in an upstairs window, or a balcony. The five men riding up and down the street came under a hail of gunfire from all directions, and Cole Younger finally screamed, “They’re killing our men! Let’s get out of here!” Before the three robbers in the bank left with a sack of small cash, one of them shot Joseph Heywood with a bullet through his head. Another Northfield citizen, a Swedish immigrant who probably could not understand English was dead also, caught in the crossfire in the street. Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell— who was supposed to have been their guide —  were also dead in the dust of Division Street. Only Jesse James himself was unscathed. All the other surviving gang-members were wounded, and two of them were doubled up on a single horse. Supposedly as they fled Northfield some of the citizens threw rocks and pitchforks after them.

They escaped with $26.70. Within two weeks, all but the James brothers would be captured, or dead. It is one of those little ironies of history to know that the most notorious bandit outlaws of the decade following the Civil War were taken down… not by lawmen, not by Texas Rangers, or Pinkertons,  a sheriff or marshal… but by citizens and businessmen, responding on their own.

(This is the anniversary month of the Northfield Bank Robbery, and the downfall of the James Gang. There was one big movie made about this in the early 1970s, whose writers and producers unfortunately had deeply imbibed the revisionist Koolaid, and felt obliged – in spite of some very good starring performances, including the late Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger – to paint the good and self-organizing citizens of Northfield as corrupt, venial and incompetent – and the bank robbers as flawed heroes. Thanks, Hollywood – you’re the gift that keeps on giving. Better than indy writers like me take custody of our national narratives, hey? Crossposted at my book-blog, here.)

19 thoughts on “Northfield – Tales of a Citizen Militia”

  1. I’ll bet they harbored no more feelings about going back to Northfield. Always remember something I read about Louis L’Amuor said about the west. Many people tend to be disdainful of him saying he was a writer of “pulp novels” but I read that prior to each book he did a lot of research.

    And he is attributed as saying that they myth of the wild west gunfight was just that….largely a myth started by Hollywood.

    Sure there were gunfights and gun fighters – but not to the scale the Hollywood Western perpetuated (an exception might be made of the town of Bodie – on the CA-NV border – and today a state park kept in “arrested decay”. A little girl moving out there wrote a letter to her grandfather back east saying “Good Bye God – I’m going to Bodie”

    There it was said that a man would die every day – but I digress….

    Most of the settlers of these western towns were Civil War veterans – who were certainly comfortable with firearms.

  2. Clinton Portis knew what he was doing when he made the Rooster Cogburn character in True Grit a veteran of Quantrill’s outfit. If you know your history it tells you a huge amount about the character. But then, the history in that book and both movies made from it is very good.

    The Northfield raid story also reminds me of the scene in the 1998 film The Newton Boys where the boys have the bright idea to pull off a robbery in Toronto in the early 1920s. Nobody is fazed by them, and everybody resists. Of course quite a few of the men on the street then would have been veterans of the trenches of WWI .

  3. Sgt Mom – you have from time to time stopped at Robert Avrech’s site – and he recommended a Toby Maguire movie called Ride With The Devil – about those days in Kansas and Quantrill – it was an excellent movie –

    Forgot to mention that in my last post…

  4. I don’t know about Hollywood creating the myth about the gunfights-in-the-streets myth. I believe a lot of the popular beliefs about violence in western settlements came from contemporary newspaper and dime novels, working off of very reall events, such as rivalries between the small railway towns that were the various termination points for the long-trail cattle drives: Elsworth, Abilene, Dodge City, etc. They were all in economic competition with each other, and any sort of barroom brawl and fisticuffs in the streets would have been magnified by the rival town’s newspaper report, and magnified yet again when picked up by an eastern newspaper.

    Then, there were ongoing feuds in various places throughout the west over thirty or forty years, isolated incidents which turned exceedingly violent and drew much newspaper interest: the Mason County Hoo-Doo War, the Graham-Tewksbury feud, the Johnson County War, etc. That skewed perceptions considerably … even though it has been argued that western settlement towns were generally a good bit safer than eastern cities at the time.

    Regarding Quantrill … yes, a piece of work, and his sidekick, Bloody Bill Anderson was pretty much a psychopath. Quantrill may even have been a murderer before the Civil War. His gang was even run out of Texas, for committing abuses and murders: some of his men were involved in the notorious Hanging Band, which targeted Unionists in the Hill Country in the last years of the war. They got so notorious that the commander of the Texan frontier defenses, General Ben McCulloch, attempted to arrest Quantrill personally. (Quantrill and his men legged it in a cloud of dust.)

  5. The Long Riders is a notable film in part due to Hill’s decision to cast four sets of actor brothers as the real-life sets of brothers:

    The Keaches: Jesse James (James) and Frank James (Stacy)
    The Carradines: Cole Younger (David), Jim Younger (Keith) and Bob Younger (Robert)
    The Quaids: Ed Miller (Dennis) and Clell Miller (Randy)
    The Guests: Charley Ford (Christopher) and Robert Ford (Nicholas)

    A 1980 flick.

  6. There is a bushwhacker museum in Nevada, MO.

    I used to work with a guy who had his office there. We took a walk over but the museum was closed. The Union Army came through that area, heavy Confederate guerrilla country, and burnt down everything but the jail, which was brick. The old brick jail is now the museum.

  7. Sgt – I remember driving through that area of New Mexico where Billy the Kid used to hang out – walking into an old hardware store (with the old creaky wooden floors) that he undoubtedly visited – and I am thinking but for circumstances he wasn’t a bad guy. Just caught up in the Lincoln County War.

    Of all the frontier characters I think the one I’d most like to meet would be Doc Holliday. Genteel southerner – I think the movie Tombstone portrayed him well.

    And on the writers of that era who romanticized the West, thank you for showing me that angle. You mustn’t forget Karl May, who got generations of Germans interested in the West with his tales of adventure. And May had never been here.

  8. Bill, I am working up a post on Karl May even as I speak! One of my book ambitions is to have my Trilogy translated into German, because I am certain that I’d clean up from all the Karl May fans.

    There is a very good novel just out, about Doc Holliday – “Doc” by Mary Doria Russell, which is about as good a way as I can think of to “meet” him, and to come to know what a cattle town was like, behind the false-front buildings and the wooden sidewalks. From the authors’ notes, she also took inspiration from Val Kilmer, in “Tombstone.”

  9. Sgt Mom…..Karl May,,,,in Remarque’s book The Road Back, two German veterans of WWI are reminiscing about all the time they spent playing cowboys & Indians games modeled on May’s stories.

    Another veteran brags to his clueless girlfriend about the (wholly imaginary) incident in which he rescued a comrade from “three Negroes who were about to butcher Herr Homeyer with their tomahawks.”

    European perceptions of American in the early 1900s must have been….interesting.

  10. “…tomahawks …”

    Maybe they were Senegalese? And the troops carried all kinds of coshes, knuckledusters, clubs, knives, maces and other low-tech implements for trench fighting, see, e.g. this, about the “trench raiding club,” which expressly mentions the troops on raids carrying “hatchets.” So maybe the German veteran really had encountered negro troops on a trench raid armed with Tomahawks?

    I think it is in one of Evelyn Waugh’s books, there is an old WWI veteran, a retired officer, who has a club on his mantlepiece which still has some blood and hair encrusted on it.

  11. Senagalese….interesting possibility. The character in question was a major bullshitter, so I just assumed he was talking about American black and Indian soldiers and didn’t bother to get his ethnicities and weapons straight.

  12. Sgt. Mom, the book Hitler’s Table Talk ( tends to support the allegation that Hitler derived almost all of his opinions about the USA from the Karl May books, of which he seems to have been a devoted fan. Combined with the fact that he seems to have derived most of his opinions about English from films, this explains some of his expectations about his opponents in WWII. In comparison, Churchill had studied German history in great detail for his books on Marlborough’s European campaigns and had traveled extensively in Germany between the wars. The shade of Sun Tzu must have been amused.

  13. Hitler also had this idea that the Germans would have their (American) West in the (European) East, saying that the Volga would be their Mississippi, etc. He said that the Slavs were to be treated as “redskins.” Except, small problem, Crazy Horse did not have T-34 tanks. D’oh!

  14. Hitler also thought that <Lives of a Bengal Lancer should be shown to all his SS officers to learn how to manage colonial subjects. The problem there was that British officers in the Indian Army had far more respect for their Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim subordinates, and vice versa, than the SS men had for Slavs.

  15. David Foster – “European perceptions of American in the early 1900s must have been….interesting.”

    They’re still … interesting, David. In a “twenty-car pileup on the interstate” interesting, and seemingly based on what they have read or seen on TV or in the movies. At least Karl May did do research, but never having actually visited the far west, left a lot of scope for misinterpretations.

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