THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Monday, October 28, 2013


This is a review of two books: Wildwood Boys: A Novel by James Carlos Blake and Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla by Albert Castel and Thomas Goodrich.


Here we have a novel and a biography that cover the same historical territory.  Assuming that the reader is interested in the subject, which should he/she read first? 

For someone who is not very familiar with the history surrounding William T. Anderson, it probably would be more enjoyable to read the novel and then follow-up with the biography.  Since the biography goes into more detail and provides more historical context, it could serve as a reality check to see how far the novelist departed from the historical record by interjecting his imagination into the story.  Of course, it is his right and his duty as a novelist to do just that.  Otherwise, we would just set his novel aside and read the biography, because it shouldn’t stray from the historical record.  And this one doesn’t.  Despite its short length (144 pages), it is thoroughly researched and well written.  After all, as the subtitle indicates Anderson did not live a long life.

It has been argued that geography is destiny, that where we are born and where we live shapes our fate more than we can ever imagine.  Today, greater mobility and mass communication has lessened the impact of geography on our lives, but have not removed it entirely.  However, in the 19th century (and earlier) it was a powerful influence on where and how people lived.

Geography certainly played its role in the lives of the Anderson brothers, William and Jim, as it did in the lives of two other sets of brothers, the Youngers and the Jameses.  They found their lives and those of their respective families enmeshed in conflict in the border war between Missouri and Kansas six years before the firing on Ft. Sumter officially touched off the beginning of the Civil War.  After the war began, all three sets of brothers eventually became members of irregular Confederate guerrilla bands, which the Unionists referred to as “bushwhackers.” The war continued along the border and spilled over into the area north of the Missouri River in the state of Missouri.  All of the brothers, except for Jesse, fought in the band commanded by the most famous of the Missouri guerrilla leaders, William Clarke Quantrill.  When William Anderson, who had been one of the chief lieutenants in the band, quarreled with Quantrill, he and his followers broke away and formed their own band.  Frank James and Cole Younger elected to follow Anderson.  Jesse, who became a guerrilla fighter at age sixteen, may have later joined Anderson’s band, or maybe not.  That he became a guerrilla fighter is documented, but he never fought under Quantrill, despite what some novelists have written and what Hollywood has produced, and the evidence is sketchy regarding whether or not he was ever a member of Anderson’s band.
William Clarke Quantrill

Anderson earned the nickname “Bloody Bill” after his rampaging depredations became even more violent and more deadly after the death of his favorite sister.  I will leave the details to the reader as to the cause of death, but whether or not it was their fault, Federal authorities were blamed.  To this point Anderson was not all that well-known by the Federal and state forces that were attempting to control the guerrilla bands.  However, the murderous rampage that followed his sister’s death made him and his band the most feared guerrilla fighters in Missouri and Kansas, even eclipsing Quantrill’s reputation.

William T. Anderson
As Castel and Goodrich wrote, “[n]ow he had become the ‘devil incarnate,’ the most ferocious and feared bushwhacker of all – and for Federal troops, the one they wished most and tried hardest to kill.  Scarcely a day passed without the commander of the Union District of North Missouri, Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, telegraphing one or more of his officers to ‘exterminate’ Anderson.  But his soldiers rarely so much as engaged him, or if they did, usually it was they, not he, who got the worst of it.

To begin with, they had trouble locating him.  He knew where he was going; they didn’t.  He had plenty of sympathetic civilians willing to shelter and feed his men and provide information about the ‘bluebellies’ – where and how many.  The Federals had their sources of aid and intelligence also, but not as many or as reliable.  Consequently, in this particular chase the fox enjoyed an advantage over the hounds.

And this fox, if brought to bay, turned into a wolf – with deadlier fangs.”

Federal and state forces attempting to control the guerrillas also committed their share of atrocities.  Moreover, bands of marauders from Kansas, known as “Jayhawkers,” crossed the border to engage in the burning and pillaging of the property of Missourians and did so without making much if any distinction between the property of Unionists and that of secessionists.  The losers in this internecine conflict, as always in civil conflicts, were the civilians that were caught in the middle.  Guerrillas had to have the support of the rural inhabitants in order to survive and the Union forces had to neutralize that support in order to prevail.  Therefore, both sides were guilty of using violence and intimidation in an effort to win support for their cause.  In the process, the citizens of the area feared both sides, but neutrality wasn’t an option.  It was a dirty, violent, uncivilized conflict in which all the rules of war were ignored.

If it is true that the Civil War began on the Kansas-Missouri border six years before the rest of the country entered the conflict, it could also be said that in some respects that it did not end with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.  For after the war many of the ex-guerrillas took the tactics they had learned during the Civil War and applied them to the art of robbing trains and banks.  The most notorious gang was that led by the Jameses and the Youngers.  There is no doubt that had William Anderson survived the war he too would have become one of the prominent outlaws.  In fact, his brother Jim did become an outlaw.  Therefore, in some ways the war did not end until Frank James was tried and acquitted almost two decades after the war officially ended. 

Castel and Goodrich, both natives of Kansas, have written a fair and objective account of the man who became the “devil incarnate” in a civil struggle that in many cases destroyed the cohesion that had united families, communities, and the society at large.  Both historians are considered the leading authorities on the Kansas-Missouri border war and the guerrilla conflict that plagued both states during the Civil War.

Castel’s other books include: Civil War in Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind; General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West; and William Clarke Quantrill: Terror of the Border.

Among Goodrich’s books are Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865 and Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre

James Carlos Blake is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico.  When he was six-years old, his family moved to Brownsville, Texas.  As a novelist Blake is, much like Cormac McCarthy, drawn to the subject of evil.  He is fascinated with the lives of outlaws and, as one reviewer noted, he “explores human nature at its worst.”  Obviously then, one of the common threads running through his novels is violence, whether the subjects are historical figures such as John Wesley Hardin, Pancho Villa, 1930’s gangster Harry Pierpont, “Bloody Bill” Anderson or fictional characters such as the Wolfe brothers.

In an interview in GQ, Blake said that he was interested in [historical] outlaws, but that his real interest is in their private lives.  He went on to say, “These guys all had childhoods, families, lovers, interests other than crime and where there is no historical record of those things, I enjoyed inventing their interior lives without violating any of the factual evidence.”

In fact, Blake found himself, intentionally or unintentionally, humanizing Anderson.   Many people believe that Anderson was a violent, cold-hearted murderer, an example of “human nature at its worst,” whose character was totally devoid of human compassion and therefore beyond redemption – even at the hands of a skilled novelist.  Ironically, Anderson’s behavior was even more brutal in real life than in Blake’s portrayal.  It is a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction.

Blake also said in the GQ interview, “Violence is the most elemental truth of life.  It’s the central shaper of history, the ultimate determiner of whether A or B is going to get his way…. At its core, history is a story of violence at work.”

I must confess that although it was hard for me to accept some of the sections of the book where he invented “interior lives without violating any of the factual evidence,” overall Blake does generally stick to the known historical record and in the process of writing a gritty, brutally realistic novel he also passes along a lot of interesting history about a very unfortunate period in the life of our nation.

After all, as Oakley Hall wrote in the introduction of his best-known novel, Warlock, a thinly disguised treatment of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday friendship, “By combining what did happen with what might have happened I have tried to show what should have happened….The pursuit of truth, not of facts, is the business of fiction.”  

James Carlos Blake

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