William E. Sims was born and raised at Woodlands Plantation in the community of Sligo, just south of Woodville, Mississippi, the hometown of Jefferson Davis. He attended Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, was graduated in 1861, and returned home immediately to enlist in the 21st Mississippi Infantry (see his military records), which was eventually led by his older brothers Dr. John Sims (commander) and Robert Sims (adjutant). Young “Willie” was eventually promoted to Sergeant Major, wounded twice, briefly held as a prisoner of war, and (according to his own account) appointed a colonel of the home guards in Mississippi during his recuperation.
The fall of 1865 found “Col.” Sims (or “Willie”) in Chatham, Virginia, where he married Matoaka Whittle. Sims was taken under the wing of his prominent father-in-law James Whittle, who brought him into his own law practice, arranged his appointment as lay reader of the local Episcopal church, and introduced him to the workings of the state Democratic Party (young Sims served briefly on the state central committee). In 1875 James Whittle also set about constructing a suitable “mansion house” (as he called it) for Matoaka and Willie, within convenient walking distance from both the courthouse and the Whittle-Sims law offices.
Sims became prominent among the Virginia Democratic Party's “readjustors,” who advocated reneging on a portion of the state's war indebtedness, so that public projects such as schools and roads could be funded. (James Whittle was a staunch “redeemer,” holding out for full payment of the war bonds.) Sims was credited with leading a number of the former Confederate Army officer “readjustors” of the area into a coalition with black voters which eventually merged with the national Republican Party. As a result, Sims was labeled a “scalawag.” In the process of his political reformation he was appointed by the Federal government to be one of two trustees of the newly-mandated public Pittsylvania County schools. He also ran unsuccessfully for several public offices, and developed a reputation nationally as a fiery orator and locally as utterly fearless, and even a courthouse brawler. James Whittle apparently disapproved: rather than simply giving the new “mansion house” to Willie and Matoaka, he placed the property in a trust for Matoaka and her children, thus attempting to prevent Willie's control of the property.
William Sims' controversial political career reached its greatest visibility when he ran as a Republican in 1883 for his father-in-law's old State Senate seat, at that time held by Democrat John L. Hurt. According to undocumented local folklore, the rhetoric of the campaign became so heated that Hurt felt it necessary to carry firearms at all times, even on the Senate floor in Richmond. Finally, in racially-tense Danville in November, during the week before the election, Sims delivered a passionate speech to a large gathering of his black followers, during which he read an incendiary document circulated by his opponents, who were attempting to suppress the black vote. The speech was followed the next day by a violent riot, probably precipitated by Sims' opponents, who then blamed Sims, both locally and nationally (a Congressional investigation ensued). Racial fears fanned by news of the Danville Riot resulted in the turning out of office of the Readjuster/Republican political machine in Virginia, and was a significant factor in precipitating the eclipse of the Republican Party in the South for nearly a century, and the widespread introduction of Jim Crow segregation laws and practices.
Sims was warned not to return to Chatham, and even his own hometown in Mississippi made it known that he was not welcome there. Sims therefore took his family to Washington, D.C., where he had found work as a bookkeeper in the Senate printing room.
While they were in Washington, Willie challenged James Whittle's intention for the house in Chatham by renting it to his friend, local Republican Party chairman David Pannill (a first cousin of Gen. Jeb Stuart). In response to the rental, James Whittle's appointed trustee Isaac Coles (nephew of Whittle's first wife Mary Coles) sued Pannill for dealing with Sims (husband of the trust's beneficiary) rather than the appointed trustee. The case made its way to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, where it was judged in favor of Coles (and Whittle) and against Pannill (and Sims). (See Coles vs. Pannill, 1886.)
In Washington, Willie Sims continued to look for a better appointment, which he finally found as consul to Colon, Colombia (now Panama). His old acquaintance James Blaine was Secretary of State, and apparently did not forget that Sims had labored in his behalf during his unsuccessful 1884 bid for the U. S. Presidency. (Sims had delivered a nominating speech for Blaine at the Republican convention, resulting in his ejection from the Virginia Republican Party by political boss Gen. William Mahone, who supported Chester Arthur.) Sims went to Colon in 1890, but managed to travel back to the States to visit his family at Christmas. Upon his return to Colon, he found that his acknowledgedly ambitious assistant, a career diplomat, had read his personal mail while he was away. Sims proceeded to verbally reprimand the man, then to banish him from his job. An investigation ensued, the assistant charging that he had been abused and physically threatened with an umbrella, but before the incident could be resolved Sims succumbed to an attack of cerebral meningitis during July 1891.
Note: Portrait of William E. Sims is the property of Mark E. Waldo, Sr., descendant.
Copyright © 1999–2012 Patricia B. Mitchell.