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239: This Week: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Grant, Lincoln

On this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Grant and Lincoln.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

April 3, 1882. St. Joseph, Missouri.

We see a man operating a hand pump, water splashing out into a bowl he has sitting beneath the pump. He looks up and sees another man. He’s just sitting there on the other side of tall grass.

“Mornin’,” the man at the pump calls out.

The other man looks up but doesn’t reply.

“Charley,” the man says again. Again, no reply, just a stern look.

The man at the hand pump is Casey Affleck’s character, Robert Ford, while the other man sitting behind the grass and not replying is Robert’s brother, Charley Ford, and he’s played by Sam Rockwell in the movie.

Robert splashes some water on his face.

The scene cuts to a father and son walking down a dirt road. As they get closer, Robert makes a comment to the father—asking him if it’s a good idea to go out like that so everyone can see his guns. In a defiant but wordless reply, the father tucks his jacket coat behind the gun so it’s even easier to see.

The two pass through a gate behind Robert and, after playing with his daughter who runs around the house to greet her father, the father and two children walk inside the house. Robert stays outside for a moment before going inside, too.

The father is Brad Pitt’s character in the movie, Jesse James.

Inside, Robert notices the headlines of a newspaper that Jesse threw on the sofa when he entered. Looking closer, we can see the words “The arrest and confession of Dick Liddil.”

Robert’s mouth opens slightly as he reads it. He glances to the other room where we can see Jesse going about getting ready for breakfast with his wife, Mary-Louise Parker’s character, Zee James.

She calls to Robert, saying everything is getting cold. We can see him putting on a gun belt in the other room. Then, in the next shot, we can see Robert sitting down at the kitchen table with Jesse, Charley, and Jesse’s son.

Jesse gets up for a moment to get the paper from the other room. Back at the table, Jesse stirs his coffee while reading the morning paper. He notices the headline about Dick Liddil.

Charley and Robert appear to be rather nervous as they chuckle, pretending not to know about it.

Robert gets up and goes into the other room. He seems to be sweating a little bit. His breath shakes, he’s obviously nervous. Charley enters the room and looks at his brother. Then, Jesse enters the room and asks if they’re both about ready. Charley says he will be by noon and looks out the front door.

Jesse is looking out at his daughter playing in the front yard. He seems to be lost in thought as he dryly says he’ll take his guns off so no one can see them, alluding to what Robert said earlier. Jesse lays his gun belt on the sofa. Then, he turns over and notices a photograph hanging on the wall. He comments something about how dusty the picture is, and gets on a chair to clean it.

Then, behind him, Robert stands up behind Jesse. Charley moves slightly, looking at his brother. Charley pulls out his pistol.

Even though Jesse is facing the wall, the camera makes it obvious that Jesse can see Robert’s reflection. He can see that Robert is holding his pistol now and pointing it at Jesse. He does nothing.

A single gunshot and Jesse’s head smashes against the picture frame before he falls to the ground.

This scene comes from the 2007 movie called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…which, as you can probably guess, is exactly the event that happened this week in history: The assassination of Jesse James.

The way the movie portrays it happening is pretty accurate, although there’s one major thing to keep in mind: There were only three people in that room, and only two of them walked out. So, the story we know is based on the recollection of Charley and Robert Ford, the two people who killed Jesse James.

With that said, though, it’s not like the Ford brothers were trying to hide what they did. We know this because they told the authorities themselves what happened and then later, just like we see in the movie, Charley and Robert Ford would go on to re-enact the assassination for paying audiences who wanted to see how Jesse James was killed.

According to their version of the story, it was in the morning of April 3rd when Charley and Robert Ford sat down to breakfast with Jesse James—although he was going by the name Thomas Howard so no one would know his true identity.

But, of course, Charley and Robert Ford had helped the James gang with their safe houses for over a year—Robert Ford met Jesse James in 1880—so they knew his real identity.

The plan was for the brothers to help robbing the bank in Platte City, Missouri. That’s about 30 miles, or a little less than 50 kilometers, from Jesse James’ home in St. Joseph, Missouri. At least, that was the plan that Jesse James had in mind. The Ford brothers, however, had a different plan in mind.

To lay down a little historical context, the Ford brothers’ plan was to kill Jesse James and get the $10,000 reward being offered by the governor, Thomas Crittenden.

In the movie, Brad Pitt’s version of Jesse James reads the newspaper and notices a mention of Dick Liddil being arrested. He looks at Robert Ford and says that he must’ve been around when Liddil was arrested. Although Casey Affleck’s version of Robert Ford doesn’t admit to it in the movie, and for good reason, it is true that Robert Ford was there when Liddil was arrested. Actually, both Liddil and Ford surrendered to the sheriff because Liddil had killed Jesse James’ cousin, a man by the name of Wood Hite.

All these men were a part of the James gang, and the law knew it.

Robert Ford was allowed to go free on the condition that he kill Jesse James—something that Governor Crittenden said he’d pardon Ford for doing.

That’s why the Ford brothers had a different plan in mind than Jesse James did that April morning. After breakfast, they went into the living room to talk about the bank robbery plan. And just like we see in the movie, Jesse James went to go dust off a picture. That’s when Charley pulled out his gun, but it was Robert Ford who pulled the trigger first. James was hit in the back of the head, killing him immediately.

In the movie, we kind of get the idea that Jesse James might’ve known something was going on. Why would he take off his guns? Why would he dust a picture? We even see James looking at Robert Ford with his gun pulled in the picture’s reflection and he doesn’t do anything.

Did he know he was about to be killed?

That’s something historians have debated ever since that day. We’ll never really know for sure, but some have suggested that he knew his time was nearing an end. He also was wary of the Ford brothers, not quite trusting them fully, so he must’ve found it suspicious they didn’t mention the arrest of Dick Liddil.

How much Jesse James knew about the Fords’ plan died with him a few moments later.

If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 2007 movie called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The text letting us know it’s April 3rd, 1882 starts at about two hours, two minutes and 54 seconds into the movie.

We learned more about the real history on episode #166 of Based on a True Story.


April 6th, 1862. Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee.

Rows of white tents line either side of a small, dirt road that runs through a clearing. From inside the woods nearby, we can see a bunch of soldiers with guns sneaking by. The camera focuses on one soldier inside the woods. He’s wearing a gray uniform and slowly, he lifts a rifle and raises it to his eye. We can see who he’s aiming at; it’s another soldier—this one is wearing a blue uniform as he watches the woods from the clearing.

He seems to be part of a line guarding the camp from the woods, although it’s obvious he hasn’t seen the soldiers hiding in the woods yet.

That changes when the soldier in the woods fires. A soldier falls just behind the soldier the camera was focused on.

Then, all hell breaks loose as the Confederate soldiers in the woods start firing on the Union soldiers who are now running away from the edge of the trees.

At first, reports come back that it’s just a skirmish, but it quickly becomes clear there’s something more to this fight. Calls to hold the line are made as more and more Confederate troops charge the defending soldiers.

This is just the start of a longer sequence that comes from the 2020 miniseries simply called Grant, and it’s depict something that happened this week in history: The Battle of Shiloh. It actually took place over the course of two days, April 6th and 7th, in 1862.

One of the first questions you may be asking yourself is why it’s called the Battle of Shiloh when I mentioned Pittsburg Landing at the beginning of the event. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing. But the more common name is the Battle of Shiloh because even though the battle took place near the town of Pittsburg Landing, the closest landmark was actually a church called, well, Shiloh Church.

Ironically, the word Shiloh in Hebrew means “peace” … and the Battle of Shiloh would turn out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

In a nutshell, the battle started in the early morning hours of April 6th as the Confederate soldiers opened fire on Union soldiers camped in a cotton field. From there, the battle only grew in size as both sides started to realize this was more than just a little skirmish.

Basically, Confederate General Johnston was leading over 44,000 soldiers in an attempt to wipe out Union General Grant’s 49,000-strong army before Grant could team up with General Buell—who commanded another 17,000 or so Union soldiers.

It didn’t go according to the Confederate’s plans.

Throughout the first day of the battle, the fighting was intense but because the Union troops were the ones attacked they first had to stop the Confederate offensive. Then, on the second day, the Union started their offensive. It was helped by those 17,000 soldiers under the command of General Buell.

As a little side note, that wasn’t the entirety of Buell’s armies, but those were just the ones who made it to the battle before it ended. Oh, and while I’m adding in some details, it was actually 17,918 soldiers from Buell’s Army of Ohio while Grant’s Army of Tennessee had 48,894 soldiers and the Confederates had 44,699 soldiers.

By the end of the second day, the battle was a decisive victory for the Union Army.

It was also the bloodiest battle on American soil up until that point with an estimated 23,746 casualties—a little over 10,000 on the Confederate side and a little over 13,000 on the Union side. Up until that point in 1862, it was the deadliest battle in the Civil War.

If you want to see the battle portrayed on screen, check out the docudrama series called Grant and the Battle of Shiloh starts at about an hour, one minute and 18 seconds into the first episode.


April 9, 1865. Appomattox County, Virginia.

We’re at a two-story brick building. The front porch has six columns with a wide staircase in the center. Although it’s a brick building, any wood trim on the porch, railings for the stairs and on the balcony above the porch all adds a white trim to the building.

On the porch, we can see a bunch of men in the Union’s dark blue uniforms. At the foot of the stairs is a single man wearing a gray Confederate uniform. He’s wearing a hat, sporting a white beard. Another Confederate soldier leads an elegant white horse and the officer gets on.

The camera cuts to the front of the building now where we can see a character we talked about in our last event: General Ulysses S. Grant. This time, though, he’s played by Jared Harris.

Grant stands at the top of the stairs, surrounded by six other soldiers in Union blue. He looks at the man on the horse: Christopher Boyer’s character, General Robert E. Lee.

The two foes look at each other without saying any words for a moment.

Then, Grant steps down from the front porch and walks over to General Lee’s horse. The two men look at each other, then, General Grant takes off his hat. Back on the porch, the rest of the Union officers follow, taking off their hats in a gesture that I can only assume is out of respect for General Lee.

Lee looks at the men for a moment, then tips his hat as his horse backs away. Turning around, two other Confederate soldiers on horseback follow Lee as they walk away from the building.

This scene comes from the 2012 movie called Lincoln and it depicts another event from the American Civil War that happened this week in history: The surrender of General Robert E. Lee.

But in the true story, there was a battle that took place before the event we saw in the movie.

The building we see in the movie is near the Appomattox Court House and before surrendering, General Lee’s army of about 28,000 soldiers fought with General Grant’s armies. While a large number, they weren’t well-equipped. Some estimate only about 10,000 of them even had rifles.

At the Appomattox train station, Lee was expecting a train with supplies. But, on April 8th, there was a battle at the station that saw the Union cavalry burning the supply train.

On the other side, the Union army had over 60,000 soldiers who were well-supplied and closing in on General Lee’s soldiers.

In the early morning hours of April 9th, Lee’s chances of escaping were slim. But, he held on hope. Near the Appomattox Court House, Lee’s men battled with Union troops in what Lee hoped would be a thin line that he could get through easily. He’d hoped that once his men broke through Union lines, they could escape to North Carolina where they could resupply and continue fighting.

But, that was a lot of hoping.

General Lee sent a note to General Grant to discuss surrender.

The actual meeting itself took place in the home of a man named Wilmer McLean.

While it’s impossible to know for sure what was on General Lee’s mind, some sources suggest he let his staff know he was wearing his finest uniform that day on the chance he might be taken prisoner. He wanted to look his best if that would happen. On the other hand, General Grant rode for miles around his armies to arrive at the meeting. His uniform was muddy compared to General Lee’s uniform.

Lee arrived at McLean’s home at about 1:00 PM. Grant arrived at about 1:30.

And at first, General Grant wasn’t really sure how to approach the topic of surrender—so they talked about the Mexican-American War for about 25 to 30 minutes or so.

That topic was brought up because it was the last time Grant and Lee met face-to-face. It was before the American Civil War, but it was a time when Lee and Grant were both in the United States Army. It was before Lee turned down President Lincoln’s offer to command the U.S. Army and instead resigned to take a commission from the Confederate Army.

Finally, General Lee suggested they change topics to the matter at hand: Surrender.

The basic terms of the surrender amounted to the Confederate soldiers being allowed to go home without being pursued or prosecuted as long as they didn’t take up arms again. Officers were allowed to keep their horses and side arms, which usually amounted to their sword. That was a move that many think was to help the surrender go over smoothly by avoiding embarrassment for the Confederate officers.

So, when Grant’s terms basically meant they could go home if they laid down their arms and stopped fighting, that was acceptable. At about 3:00 PM, the meeting was over. Grant made his way to the Appomattox Station where he sent a telegram to President Lincoln letting him know about Lee’s surrender.

While it wasn’t officially the end of the war, General Lee was the overall commander of the Confederate Army so when he surrendered it triggered more surrenders. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 2012 movie simply called Lincoln and the scene with General Lee surrendering takes place at about two hours, 13 minutes and five seconds into the film.

And if you want to learn more about the true story behind that movie, we covered that with Lincoln scholar Dr. Brian Dirck over on episode #170 of Based on a True Story.



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