Yelm During Reconstruction
By Ed Bergh
Charles Wheeler rode into Olympia in June to stand against Gov. Stevens. Wheeler was a W. H. Wallace man. In Yelm he was a faint voice among the chorus of Stevens’ supporters that lived there. At the convention he ran into his old commander, Gilmore Hays. Hays and Elwood Evans teamed up to give their best arguments for Wallace. The response to their speeches was unbridled enthusiasm. Catching his attention was the demise of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican Party. Republicans, soon to be the party of Lincoln, were pretty sparse on the Yelm Prairie. Men there were Stevens’ men who defended his Indian policies and nationally they supported states’ rights and limited government. When Abraham Lincoln won the four way presidential race of 1860 the southern states started seceding from the union. Inspired in part by their unwillingness to experience the Republicans use of power when it came to national economic and race policy these predominately Democratic states formed their own nation, the Confederate States of America.
Thousands of miles removed from this increasingly bellicose debate, most Democrats on the Yelm Prairie remained pro-union, but not without a critical eye on the Lincoln presidency and its policies. Though Wheeler did not join with many of his neighbors in contributing money to provide care to disabled soldiers, he did name a son born in 1863, Abraham Lincoln Wheeler, an obvious compliment to the President. When President Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864, the Republican strategy was to form a coalition between their party and pro-war Democrats to represent a bi-partisan front in tamping out the fires of secession. Support for the war had waxed and waned with the report of each battle or the sacking or appointment of some military man, though by 1864 the Confederacy had been reduced to half of its original size.
The cost, however, had been far beyond the realm of the imaginable just three years before. Now Gen. Ulysses Grant was leading his army into a brutal and bloody war of attrition that was intended to simply wear down the Confederate Army through constant battle. Grant’s more numerous, better fed, and better equipped army could better withstand the losses than its southern counterpart. The cost of the war in terms of proscribed civil liberties and its endless grim reality discouraged many who wanted to end the war, maybe even let the south leave and simply be done with them.
Men who did not share such sentiments rallied in a Thurston County schoolhouse on May 14, 1864. Two men from the Yelm Prairie showed up the Union Convention, Charles Wheeler and James Burns. One of the resolutions passed summarized their purpose, “it is the sacred duty of every citizen to sustain and aid the Government in its efforts to crush the rebellion.” To their way of thinking there was no middle ground. They were Lincoln men. At the meeting they reiterated their support for the President’s use of power to save the Union. They supported his suspension of the writ habeas corpus, better to lose the constitution than the country. The attendees probably thought about the implications of black equality, but they did rally behind the Emancipation Proclamation and concurred with the President’s decision to enlist black troops. They had no problem with the Confiscation Act, but agreed with the outreached hand contained in an amnesty program. Yet make no mistake about it, all slavery must be extinguished. It was a violation of God’s law and man’s. From their point of view there was no going back. The war was to be fought until the “last vestige of treason” was rubbed out. By holding such views Wheeler and Burns were in a distinct minority in Yelm, but their faith in the President was rewarded with his victory in November. By the spring of 1865 the war was over.
Abraham Lincoln had died a little over a year in May 1866. Andrew Johnson, a pro-union Tennessee Democrat, fiery tempered man with a drinking problem, was President. Congress was controlled by the Republican Party which was increasingly dominated by men referred to as “Radicals.” Slavery had been ended, but the battle over the protection of freedmen sharply divided Congress and the President. Another divisive issue was how to treat the traitors. The principle of “malice toward none and charity for all” had been espoused by Lincoln, but that was no longer the case.
Interestingly, Washington territorial politics, thousands of miles away was dominated by these same issues. This was particularly true for the Democrats of Thurston County. They met at the Democratic and Conservative County Convention early in May. Levi Shelton and F. Goodwin were delegates from the Yelm Precinct. Lewis Barnard, now living on Chambers Prairie, was also in attendance. Shelton was named to the Credentials Committee.
Their concern focused less on the needs of the territory, but wanted to make their voices heard regarding national issues. They had supported the war, but they rejected Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and his silencing of newspapers. They worried about increased federal power and the corruption that grew with it. States’ rights had always been part of the Democratic Party. Democrats similarly concerned about the expanded power of the military in the nation, called for demobilization. In the fight between Johnson and Congress they were Johnson men.
Much of their discontent with the national government centered on race. James Longmire was no friend of the black man. Although not as outspoken than his Copperhead friends Levi Shelton and William Packwood, Longmire nonetheless resisted and possibly resented government help to freedmen. He applauded President Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau and civil rights laws. When the Thurston County convention passed a resolution calling for the “jealous care of the elective franchise,” the message was clear, no votes for blacks. Longmire stood against black suffrage. Longmire and these like-minded Democrats also insisted on the immediate re-admission of southern states to the U.S. which would mean more Democrats in Congress to tempter Republican majorities. This convention chose Longmire as one of their nominees for legislator and in the summer election he once again was voted to represent Thurston County.
In the 1866 election the Republicans lost their majority in the House. The Democrats in the majority, however, were deeply divided. Being pro-Union was now a moot point. The dividing line was now over race and Reconstruction. These were, in a sense, philosophic debates with little direct impact on the territory. This discord among Democrats made the House, on many issues, a three party body with shifting alliances. For historian, Donald Brazier, the House was “hard to define in partisan terms.” He concluded, the “session may have been the least productive up to that date.”
Guns had been silent for over a year when men traveled to Olympia to participate in the Democratic and Conservative Convention in 1866. Union had been restored, but President Lincoln had been murdered. Now a war of words was being fought through speeches, laws, and written commentary. Spared the destructive forces of the war in the east, the men in Thurston County now squared off over race and politics.
Levi Shelton made sure he was at the convention and found a place on the credentials committee. Coming in from Yelm with him was Frank Goodwin. Once there, they
met former Yelm resident L. D. Barnard representing Chambers Prairie. They were Johnson men. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, Democrat, a southerner, and unabashed racist had assumed the presidency when Lincoln had died. Being unable to constructively channel his sense of social inferiority nor understand the political realities of the war just ended, Johnson quickly alienated potential allies within the Republican Party. He rejected that party’s philosophy of an expanded role for the federal government, but it was in the realm of civil rights that Johnson was heard loud and clear. He opposed civil rights for former slaves. This was exactly what Levi Shelton wanted to hear.
Shelton and the other men gathered in Olympia that week, applauded Johnson’s veto of the Freedman’s Bureau and other civil rights legislation. They yelled their support for the President, the force that stood between them and the “amalgamation” of the races. There was no support in this assemblage for the granting of suffrage to blacks. They demanded the immediate restoration of southern representation in Congress. The convention looked back at the usurpations of power by Lincoln, the suspension of habeas corpus, censorship of speech, profligate spending, and to these vowed never again. The Washington Standard rated Levi Shelton as one of the more staunch copperheads (a term used to identify anti-war northern Democrats during the Civil War) in the county. For Shelton that was a badge of honor. He was quite pleased when James Longmire, who shared these beliefs, was elected to the territorial legislature.