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Early Settlers in Walla Walla

"Neighborly Dispute: Soldiers and Citizens at Odds"

by Shaun Reeser


The month of April in 1862 was extremely eventful for the residents of Walla Walla. As discussed in the essay “Fraud!,” the citizens held their first city election on April 1. This resulted in E.B. Whitman becoming the first elected mayor of the young city. These results of the election were certified by the City Council on April 10, who then adjourned until the next day. The city, however, experienced a great disturbance the night of the 10th; a riot broke out between soldiers visiting from nearby Ft. Walla Walla and the citizens of the city.

An event such as this clearly necessitated reconciliation between the two neighbors, but some of the soldiers marched into town on April 13th and arrested the sheriff. This was unacceptable behavior on the military’s behalf and Mayor Whitman demanded clarification from the post commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee. The exchange of letters was heated and the matter was not resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. In order to gain a greater understanding of this situation, one must examine the details of the events.

On April 10, J.B. Robinson held a benefit at his theater for the Union Hook and Ladder Company of the county fire department.(1) In attendance were townspeople and soldiers from nearby Ft. Walla Walla. It is likely, but not supported in the historical records, that some of the wives and children of officers and men at the fort also attended the benefit.(2) During the event, it is reported that one of the soldiers had “been drinking too freely [and] marred the pleasure of the occasion by boisterous conduct.”(3)

The town marshal, George H. Porter, tried to calm the soldier and was rebuffed. Porter decided to enlist the help of a few of the townsfolk in removing the soldier from the theater. Unfortunately, a general brawl soon commenced between soldiers on the one side and civil authorities and citizens on the other. In the scuffle, pistols were drawn and fired. The result was that one soldier, Private John Lotzenheiser, was killed instantly, another suffered a fatal wound, and still others of the military company were injured. Marshal Porter received a gunshot in his leg and deputy Sheriff L.W. Greenwell, was critically injured by a bullet that shattered his hip.(4)

Three days later, on April 13, a large body of armed soldiers marched into the city of Walla Walla in the early hours of morning and arrested the Sheriff. This matter was brought before Mayor Whitman that afternoon and the citizens demanded that the matter be resolved. Thus, Mayor Whitman wrote an official letter of protest to Lt. Col. Lee. The following information is drawn from Whitman’s letter, Lee’s reply, and a further rebuttal by Whitman to Lee. All of these were published in the April 19 issue of the Washington Statesman.

Mayor Whitman wrote that the soldiers who entered the town claimed that they were acting under Lt. Col. Lee’s orders, a charge that the mayor did not believe. He asked Lee to investigate the matter fully and assured him that the city would fully and fairly investigate the affair at the theater. The commander replied to Whitman that the “premeditated murder of one, and the probably fatally wounding of another, of the most peaceable soldiers” was what drove the “excitement on the part of [the] soldiers.”(5) Lee went on to assert that a famous criminal, Cherokee Bob, was responsible for the murder of his soldier, and that it was the city’s fault for not having arrested this individual previously. Lee continued that he would answer for the good behavior of his soldiers and that he would punish any of their transgressions. However, he also admonished Whitman that it would be the responsibility of the military, not the civil government, to decide the fate of soldiers.(6)

This reply clearly angered Mayor Whitman, so he sent one more letter to the post commander. In it, Whitman accused Lee of not possessing the facts of the events on that day and that the military man was “indirectly excus[ing] the soldiers for their demonstrations made on the morning of the 13th.(7) Whitman continued by saying that it was the responsibility of civilian authorities to maintain order, even over soldiers, as they were within the jurisdiction of city officials when the brawl at the theater occurred. Regardless of what occurred, Whitman asserted that the soldiers had no excuse to enter the city of Walla Walla on April 13. Whitman also emphatically stated, “The most charitable view I can take of the unprecedented outrage committed by the soldiers under your command is, that a state of insubordination exists, and a remedy is conclusively beyond your [Lee’s] control.”(8) This unequivocal insult apparently received no reply, or at least the Statesman did not publish one.
A clear resolution to this matter was not addressed in the following issues of the newspaper. In the April 26 edition, however, it was reported that Lee had “been ordered to San Francisco [and that] Capt. Rowell is left in charge of the post.”(9) Perhaps Lee’s reassignment was the result of Mayor Whitman petitioning the territorial governor to remove the apparently inept commander from his post. It is unclear if this was indeed the case, but the editors of the Statesman hoped that Lee’s departure would mean a return to good relations between the military post and the city.

This return of amiable affairs would not happen if historian W.D. Lyman’s understanding of the area’s history were true. Lyman wrote that while the Washington Statesman clearly held Unionist views (this was during the first half of the Civil War), a large part of the town’s population were Southern sympathizers, thus the citizens would view the “soldiers as representatives of the National Government.”(10) This would necessarily change the interpretation of the riot and its consequences. A need reading might be that the townspeople started the brawl at the theater in order to take aggression caused by sectional sympathies out on the soldiers. A further exploration of the attitudes of the townspeople may confirm this hypothesis, but there in not room here to do so.

These events undoubtedly showed that there were unresolved issues between the two Walla Walla’s. While the city’s survival in some ways depended on the fort, notably with any Indian troubles, the military post did not necessarily need the town. Regardless of this fact and underlying tensions, the two did exist side by side for decades until the fort closed in the 1930s. Now only the city remains, although the fort is currently museum and national historic site within the municipal limits. Thus, in a way, the two eventually reconciled, even if it was one's abandonment and the other's absorption of it.

Endnotes:
1. “Riot at the Theater,” Washington Statesman (hereafter WS), April 12, 1862, p. 2, col. 3
2. Lawrence Hussey, “Fort Walla Walla Excavations, 1975.”
3. WS, Ibid.
4. It was supposed that Greenwell would die from his wounds, but the April 26, 1862 Statesman reported that he was “in a fair way for recovering.” (p. 2, col. 4)
5. WS, April 19, 1862, p. 2, col. 3.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid, p. 2, col. 4
8. Ibid.
9. “Military,” Washington Statesman, April 26, 1862, p. 2.
10. William Denison Lyman, History of Old Walla Walla County Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1918), p. 130.