Wednesday, May 13, 2015

George Helm Yeaman

George Helm Yeaman 

           This posting is a bit of a stretch for my Ohio County History blog, but you will find a connection below.  I think Mr. Yeaman is an interesting subject because he was a principal character in the recent movie “Lincoln” that most of us saw and enjoyed (2012).

            There is a little “cross-roads” town named Yeaman about 14 miles NE of Beaver Dam, as the crow flies, near the Ohio – Grayson border, and actually located in Grayson County.  This town was probably named for George Helm  Yeaman, a U. S. Congressman from Kentucky (November 1, 1829 – February 23, 1908) (please note that this little town might also be named for a Postmaster’s son).  I guess the name of the town is not important, but I find it interesting.

           George Helm Yeaman was born in Elizabethtown, Hardin County, Kentucky, the son of Lucretia Sneed (Helm) and Steven Minor Yeaman. George  completed preparatory studies and studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1852 and commenced practice in Owensboro, Kentucky. He served as judge of Daviess County in 1854, and served as member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1861.

            Yeaman was elected as a Unionist to the Thirty-Seventh Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of James S. Jackson, who had resigned his seat and been killed at the Battle of Perryville. Yeaman was reelected to the Thirty-Eighth Congress and served from December 1, 1862, to March 3, 1865. He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1864 to the Thirty-ninth Congress; losing the election he became a lame duck representative when the 13th Amendment was being debated in late 1864 and early 1865. He apparently had little to lose by switching his vote to outlaw slavery in the United States and he was most probably promised his next job in return for his vote, although today no one actually knows whether or not Yeaman was promised an appointment in exchange for his vote.

            In any event, Yeaman was appointed and served as the United States Minister to Denmark from 1865 – 1870. He resigned in 1870 and settled in New York City. He then served as a Lecturer on constitutional law at Columbia College. He served as president of the Medico-Legal Society of New York.

            Yeaman died in Jersey City, New Jersey, on February 23, 1908. He was interred in Hillside Cemetery, Madison, New Jersey.


Tom Eblen: In 'Lincoln,' forgotten Kentucky congressman plays a pivotal role

Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen, November 25, 2012 

"I hope to have God on my side," Abraham Lincoln remarked in 1861, "but I must have Kentucky."

Indeed, Steven Spielberg's new movie, Lincoln, makes it clear that the 16th president needed his home state up to the very end of the Civil War.

Kentucky is all over this terrific drama. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Lincoln, who was born in what is now Larue County, and Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln of Lexington. Field even spent time in Lexington to prepare for her role.

Early in the film, Lincoln is seen talking with two black soldiers who mention they enlisted at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County. A constant presence in the movie is the ticking of a watch that Lincoln owned — recorded at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, where it is part of the collection.

The movie focuses on Lincoln's quest in 1864 and 1865 to abolish slavery, in border as well as rebel states, by expanding his 1862 Emancipation Proclamation with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. To do that, he needed to get the Senate-passed amendment through a divided House of Representatives.

A pivotal vote Lincoln needs is that of U.S. Rep. George Helm Yeaman of Owensboro, who is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a California-born actor who affects a convincing Western Kentucky accent. At this point, even Kentucky history buffs in the audience are scratching their heads. George Helm Who?

Yeaman, then 35, was born in Hardin County, the nephew of former Gov. John L. Helm. A talented lawyer, Yeaman was Daviess County judge before being elected to the General Assembly and then Congress.

Yeaman was a Unionist. But the two major parties in Congress were Republicans and Democrats, although their personalities were the opposite of what they are today. Democrats were more conservative, Republicans more liberal.

Many Democrats supported slavery, while most Republicans, including Lincoln, opposed it. The so-called "radical Republicans" even believed in racial equality; at the time, no political idea was more radical than that.

Yeaman disliked slavery, but he feared that abolition would destroy Kentucky's economic and social structure. On Dec. 18, 1862, he gave a lengthy speech in the House denouncing Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

"I protest against it as a violation of the Constitution and the liberties of my country," Yeaman said. "I protest against it as unwise, uncalled for, tending to widen the breach rather than to hasten the conclusion of this war."

"Yeaman was reflecting the views of his constituents," said Aloma Dew, who taught Civil War and Reconstruction history at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro and wrote The Kentucky Encyclopedia's entry about Yeaman.

Most of Yeaman's constituents supported both the Union and slavery. "He felt that the power to confiscate private property was unconstitutional," Dew said, adding that he also thought blacks were unprepared for freedom.

In the movie, Yeaman, serving as a lame duck after being defeated for re-election in 1864, is first shown giving a speech against the proposed 13th Amendment. He warns that ending slavery could eventually extend the vote to blacks and, even more horribly, to women. The House erupts in jeers.

This speech leads Lincoln's operatives to think Yeaman can't be bribed with a government job, which they were using to win the votes of other lame duck opponents. But the president decides to try to persuade him anyway.

Calling Yeaman to the White House, Lincoln tells him how his father, Thomas Lincoln, moved the family from Kentucky to Indiana and then Illinois because "he knew no small-holding dirt farmer could compete with slave plantations."

"I hate it too, sir, slavery," Yeaman tells Lincoln. "But we're entirely unready for emancipation."

Lincoln replies that the nation is unready for peace, too, but will have to figure it out when the time comes.

Days later, when called upon to cast his vote, Yeaman first mumbles, then shouts his "Aye!" to the shock of amendment opponents. He becomes a key swing vote for abolishing slavery.

After Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson appointed Yeaman as ambassador to Denmark. In that role, he negotiated the sale of the Virgin Islands to the United States, only to have it rejected by Congress. (The sale was later consummated in 1917 at more than three times the cost.)

Yeaman resigned his ambassadorship in 1870 and settled in New York. The former congressman who had opposed the Emancipation Proclamation on constitutional grounds wrote several books about law and government and taught constitutional law at Columbia University.

President James Garfield reportedly offered Yeaman an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was assassinated in 1881 before he could follow through. With his wife in failing health, Yeaman moved to a country home in Madison, N.J., where he died in 1908.

Spielberg's movie offers insight into the central role of Kentuckians in the Civil War, including a nod to a reluctant hero who might otherwise have been forgotten.


"Lincoln" Kentucky Representative has historians excited

By: Berry Craig, West Kentucky Journal
Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 3:11 pm.

(Mayfield, KY - December 4, 2012) -    Kentucky history buffs are abuzz over an all-but-forgotten Owensboro congressman who is featured in Lincoln, the new Steven Spielberg movie.

     On Jan. 31, 1865, George H. Yeaman cast a key vote for the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. With his timely help, the Republican-majority House passed the amendment by the necessary two-thirds majority.

     (The 13th Amendment had won Senate approval in 1864, though Unionist Kentucky Senators Lazarus W. Powell of Henderson and Garrett Davis of Paris voted against it.)

     Before Lincoln, Yeaman, played by actor Michael Stuhlbarg, was largely unknown in the Bluegrass State.

     Anyway, Yeaman wasn't the only Kentucky congressmen who was for the amendment. Lucian Anderson of Mayfield, William H. Randall of London and Green Clay Smith of Covington also voted "aye."

     Kentucky's five other representatives voted "nay": Henry Grider of Bowling Green, Aaron Harding of Greensburg, Robert Mallory of New Castle, Brutus J. Clay of Paris and William Henry Wadsworth of Maysville.

     The Kentucky congressmen were elected as Unionists in 1863. By then, relations between border slave state Kentucky and the Lincoln administration had gone from bad to worse.

     Almost every white Kentuckian hated the anti-slavery "Black Republican" president and his Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, though it didn't apply to their state. While most citizens were pro-Union, they were also pro-slavery.

     Fearing Unionist candidates might lose to conservative, anti-Lincoln Democrats, state authorities denied the vote to anybody suspected of disloyalty. (Suspected Unionists were disfranchised in the Confederacy.)

     Anderson could never have been elected otherwise. Though occupied by Yankee soldiers, deep western Kentucky remained defiantly Rebel.

     Likewise, Yeaman would have had a harder time winning had Southern sympathizers been allowed to vote.

     On the other hand, Randall and Smith probably would have been elected, no matter what. Their bailiwicks were staunchly Unionist.

     At any rate, the 13th Amendment became part of the constitution in December, 1865, after the requisite three-fourths of the states -- Kentucky not among them -- ratified it. "The next year, in a senseless act of defiance, the Kentucky House of Representatives refused to ratify the amendment," Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter wrote in A New History of Kentucky. 

     Neither Anderson nor Yeaman, who joined Randall and Smith in the fledgling Kentucky GOP, returned to Washington.

     A Conservative-Democrat defeated Yeaman in 1865. Anderson knew he couldn't win another term, so he chose not to seek reelection. A Conservative-Democrat took his seat, too.

     On the other hand, Randall and Smith were reelected in 1865.

     -- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at


            The other interesting thing about George Yeaman was that his election to the U. S. House of Representatives was contested by his opponent, John H. McHenry, Jr.,  who was born in Hartford, Ohio County, 21 February 1832 and who served as Commander of the 17th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry (Union).

            McHenry filed the documents for contest on December 9, 1863, with the House of Representatives in Washington, stating that the election held August 3, 1863 (Thirty-Eight Congress), was unconstitutional.  McHenry asked the House of representatives to vacate the election and that another election be held. 

            The specific grounds for the contest were that shortly before the election Yeaman conspired with Colonel John W. Foster, 65th Indiana Volunteers, with the conspiracy leading to Foster issuing “General Order No. 12” which prescribed an oath to be taken at the election; that the oath was unconstitutional; that General Order No. 12  was distributed to the general public before the election; that Foster had no right to issue General Order No. 12; that various other Orders were issued concerning the election; that armed soldiers were placed at the polls to intimidate voters; that said soldiers required voters to take the oath and threatened to arrest voters; and finally, generally alleging fraud in the election. 

            While the Yeaman connection to Ohio County is weak (although McHenry was born in Ohio County), this election contest may be is interesting to those of you related to McHenry or those of you that are also addicted to the history of Daviess County or those of us addicted to general Kentucky history.  If you have further interest, you can read the official documents, many of which are sworn depositions of Daviess County citizens and officials, in an online book that is free:

           If that link fails to work, search for Google Books (a separate web site) and then search for the following: Yeaman The House of Representatives. The First Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress.1863-'64   The first item listed is the book that includes the McHenry v. Yeaman documents, which cover more than 100 pages of material.

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