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.)