The Generals and Admirals: Robert A. Schenck (1809-1890)
Political general from Ohio who was closer to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase than to President Lincoln. Elected to Congress in 1862, he continued to serve in the army until his congressional term began in December 1863.
Robert A. Schenck, who had served in Congress with Mr. Lincoln in the1840s and as a diplomat prior to the Civil War, was advanced in the pre-inauguration period as a possible representative of Ohio in the Cabinet. As a successful lawyer, former Whig turned Republican, Schenck and Mr. Lincoln had much in common. At President Lincoln’s invitation, he campaigned in Illinois in October 1860. Schenck friend Donn Piatt, himself a former diplomat, recalled that "Schenck and I had been selected to canvass Southern Illinois in behalf of free soil and Abraham Lincoln. That part of Illinois was then known as Egypt, and in our missionary labors we learned there that the American eagle sometimes lays rotten eggs. Our labors on the stump were closed in the wigwam at Springfield, a few nights previous to the election. Mr. Lincoln was present, and listened with intense interest to Mr. Schenck's able argument. I followed in a cheerful review of the situation, that seemed to amuse the crowd, and none more so than our candidate for the Presidency. We were both invited to return to Springfield for the jubilee, should success make such rejoicing proper. We did return, for this homely son of toil was elected, and we found Springfield drunk with delight. On the day of our arrival we were invited to a supper at the house of the President-elect. It was a plain, comfortable frame structure, and the supper was an old-fashioned mess of indigestion, composed mainly of cake, pies and chickens, the last evidently killed in the morning, to be eaten, as best they might, that evening."1
At the outset of the Civil War Schenck received a military commission as a brigadier general. As Schenck, recalled his visit with President Lincoln. “Lincoln sent for me and asked, "Schenck what can you do to help me?" I said, "Anything you want me to do. I am anxious to help you." He asked, "Can you fight?" I answered, "I would try." Lincoln said, "Well, I want to make a general out of you." I replied, "I don't know about that Mr. President, you could appoint me as general but I might not prove to be one.’ Then he did so and I went to war.”22
Schenck served courageously, if not always wisely, in battles at the beginning of the Civil War. He received a severe wound at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, leaving one arm permanently disabled. President Lincoln did not have a very high regard for Schenck’s military skills or political sensitivity. He told John Hay in mid-July 1863 that General Henry W. Halleck “thinks Schenk never had a military idea & never will learn one. Thinks Schenck is somewhat to blame for the Winchester business. President says, however you may doubt or disagree from Halleck he is very apt to be right in the end.”3
After recuperation, Schenck was named in December 1862 to succeed General John Wool as commander of the Middle Department in Maryland. Schenck served for virtually all of 1863. Despite their past friendship, President Lincoln had a troubled relationship with General Schenck in his role as commander of the Middle Department. The proximity of Maryland to Washington meant that complaints about Schenck quickly reached the President, who was sensitive that Maryland remain loyal and tranquil. And Schenck was easily accessible to the White House. President Lincoln once told Schenck: “You have little idea of the terrible weight of care and sense of responsibility of this office of mine. Schenck, if to be at the head of Hell is as hard as what I have to undergo here, I could find it in my hart to pit Satan himself.”4
Historian Fred B. Joyner wrote: “Schenck's new duties required the utmost tact and firmness. Quick decisions were called for. His duties were largely administrative. Some newspapers had to be suppressed which did not please the fiery Marylanders. He received the following letter dated June 22, 1863: "I see you have suppressed several newspapers. Let me tell you that you are a d---d old ass and I only hope Lee will take you to the Libby prison at Richmond. You merit the utter contempt of every gentleman, and if I had you by a gallows I would pull a rope d---d quick on you."5 Unfortunately, Schenck and Piatt his aide did not always exercise the requisite tact.
Historian Barbara J. Fields wrote: "General Schenck...did not need to be told to exert his authority on behalf of the Unconditional faction of the Union party. Taking over in December 1862, he declared that there could be 'no middle-ground' for true patriots and, in a speech at the Union league rally in April 1863, suggested that those pretending to strike a middle position would do better to join the rebellion openly rather than 'sneak about and crawl upon the ground, leaving a slimy path wherever [they] go, and biting the heels of patriotic men. Before relinquishing command in December 1863 to take a seat in congress, Schenck had thrown conservatives into a frenzy."6
Unrest in Maryland kept Mr. Lincoln concerned. On February 14, 1863, President Lincoln wrote Schenck: “I hear of some difficulty in the streets of Baltimore yesterday. What is the amount of it?”:77 Apparently, convalescent soldiers had taken out their frustrations by beating former slaves. There is no doubt that Schenck’s command was tough on any perceived collaboration with the Confederates. Historian Robert J. Brugger noted that General Schenck had little tolerance for what he viewed as subversive actions. Brugger wrote that Schenck "went so far as to round up women who seemed to be spying on Union movements and send the ladies to Confederate lines" Brugger wrote that "on 3 July 1863 Schenck issued an order 'requesting and recommending' that every house display the American flag on the fourth. Police took down the numbers of flagless residences. After the battle of Gettysburg....Baltimoreans were forbidden to receive or entertain wounded from Lee's army."8
Schenck’s command became very important in late June 1863 as Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army passed through Maryland on the way to the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3. Piatt wrote: "Previous to Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania, rumors of which reached Washington in advance of that suicidal movement on the part of the Confederates, General Halleck issued one of his non-committal orders to General Schenck, then in command at Baltimore, advising the concentration of our troops at Harper's Ferry. This referred especially to General [Robert] Milroy's 10,000 men at Winchester. I was sent [in September 1863], as Chief of Staff, to look into Milroy's condition, and empowered to let him remain or order him back, as I might see fit. Winchester, as a fortified place, was a military blunder. It covered nothing, while a force there was in constant peril. I had learned enough in the service to know that a subordinate should take no chances, and I ordered Milroy back to Harper's Ferry. General Schenck, at Milroy's earnest request, countermanded my order, and three days after, Milroy found himself surrounded by Lee's entire army. The gallant old soldier cut his way out, with his entire command. Of course there was a heavy loss of material. For this, Milroy was put under arrest by Secretary Stanton, and court-martialled by Halleck. Milroy shielded himself behind Schenck's order, so that the court convened was really trying my general without the advantages given him, as defendant, of being heard in his defence. General Schenck was summoned to appear, and, instead of appearing, drew up a protest, that he directed me not only to take to the President, but read to him, fearing that it would be pigeon-holed for consideration when consideration would be too late. It was late in the afternoon, and riding to the White House, I was told the President could be found at the War Department. I met him coming out, and delivered my message. 'Let me see the protest,' said the President, as we walked toward the Executive Mansion."
"General Schenck ordered me, Mr. President, to read it to you."
But contrary to Piatt’s recollections, the Milroy inquiry did hand its findings over to General Joseph Holt, the judge advocate general of the War Department. In his report to President Lincoln, he wrote: “General Milroy was under orders from his commanding officer, General Schenck, not to retreat at once, but to hold his post until further orders.”10 President Lincoln wrote on October 27 regarding judgment on Milroy: “In June last a Division was substantially lost at, and near Winchester, Va. At the time it was under Gen. Milroy as immediate commander in the field Gen. Schenck as Department commander at Baltimore and Gen. Halleck as General-in-Chief at Washington. Gen. Milroy, as immediate commander, was put in arrest, and subsequently a Court of Inquiry examined, chiefly with reference to disobedience of orders, and reported the evidence. The foregoing is a synoptical statement of the evidence, together with the Judge Advocate General's conclusions. The disaster, when it came, was a surprize to all. It was very well known to Gen. Schenck and Gen. Milroy for some time before that Gen. Halleck thought the division was in general danger of a surprize at Winchester, that it was of no service there commensurate with the risk it incurred, and that it ought to be withdrawn; but although he more than once advised it's withdrawal he never positively ordered it. Gen. Schenck, on the contrary, believed the service of the force at Winchester, was worth the hazard, and so did not positively order it's withdrawal, until it was so late that the enemy cut the wire and prevented to [sic] order reaching Gen. Milroy. Gen. Milroy seems to have concurred with Gen. Schenck in the opinion that the force should be kept at Winchester at least till the approach of danger, but he disobeyed no order upon the subject. Some question can be made whether some of Gen. Halleck's despatches to Gen. Schenck, should not have been construed to be orders to withdraw the force, and obeyed accordingly; but no such question can be made against Gen. Milroy. In fact the last order he received, was to be prepared to withdraw, but not to actually withdraw till further order, which further order never reached him. Serious blame is not necessarily due to every serious disaster, and I can not say that in this case, any of their officers is deserving of serious blame. No Court-Martial is deemed necessary or proper in the case.”11
Mr. Lincoln had tried to be sensitive to Schenck’s feelings. On July 23, 1863, President Lincoln had written his erstwhile colleague: “Returning to the Executive Room yesterday, I was mortified to find you were gone, leaving no word of explanation. I went downstairs, as I understood, on a perfect understanding with you that you would remain till my return. I got this impression distinctly from 'Edward,' whom I believe you know Possibly I misunderstood him. I had been very unwell in the morning and had scarcely tasted food during the day, till the time you saw me go down." He concluded: " I beg you will not believe I have treated you with intentional discourtesy."12 Schenck responded: `I did not for a moment suppose there was any discourtesy intended me. But I left your Ante-room without waiting longer, because I was hurried by the approach of the hour when I was to take a little dinner with a friend, & get ready for the train by which I was to return to Baltimore. I left this explanation with Edward [McManus], who seems to have failed a little in making either of us clearly understood by the other. I do want to see you for a few minutes; & will call the next time I can find leisure to go over.''13
General Schenck was involved in two connected controversies that autumn that drew in President Lincoln. The first was the aggressive recruitment of Maryland blacks for the army – regardless of their status as free blacks or slaves. As the Confederate army entered Maryland, Schenck wired Mr. Lincoln that 4,000 blacks were at work on fortifications and urged that they be mustered into the Union army. On July 4, 1863, President Lincoln wrote Schenck: “Your despatches about negro regiment are not uninteresting or unnoticed by us, but we have not been quite ready to respond. You will have an answer to-morrow.”14 In the following months, Schenck and more especially Piatt facilitated the recruiting of slaves to the outrage of Maryland slaveholders – which in turn made President Lincoln furious, according to Piatt, who had ordered the recruitment of a brigade to be composed exclusively of slaves.1515 Historian Robert Brugger wrote: "Masters missing slaves alleged that their men had been impressed. Reports or irregularities in Maryland grew so numerous that Lincoln in September suspended black recruitment there and negotiated with [Governor Augustus] Bradford and other state leaders. In early October, by General Order 329, the administration established a plan that became the model in other border states. Lincoln agreed not to enlist Maryland slaves unless free blacks failed to fill assigned draft quotas. After a thirty-day grace period, however, recruiting officers would take slaves regardless of whether they had their master's permission, the federal government paying loyal slaveholders three hundred dollars a head for their lost property. To collect, they had to produce papers freeing the recruits."16
President Lincoln worried about violence and unrest in Maryland. On October 21, President Lincoln wrote Schenck: "A delegation is here saying that our armed colored troops are at many, if not all the landings on the Patuxent River, and by their presence with arms in their hands are frightening quiet people and producing great confusion. Have they been sent thereby any order, and if so, for what reason?"17 The next day, President Lincoln wrote Schenck: “Please come over here. The fact of one of our officers being killed on the Patuxent, is a specimen of what I would avoid. It seems to me we could send white men to recruit better than to send negroes, and thus inaugerate homicides on punctillio. Please come over.”18 The next day, President Lincoln met with Schenck concerning his recruitment techniques.
The other Schenck problem that autumn was that Maryland was in the middle of a state legislative election in which Schenck tilted strongly toward his favored Unconditional Unionists. Lincoln aide John Hay wrote in his diary on October 22, 1863: “Schenck is complicating the canvass with an embarrassing element, that of forcible negro enlistments. The President is in favor of the voluntary enlistment of negroes with the consent of their masters & on payment of the price. But Schenck’s favorite way (or rather [William] Birney’s whom Schenck approves) is to take a squad of soldiers into a neighborhood, & carry off into the army all the ablebodied darkies they can find without asking master or slave to consent....’The fact is,’ the President observes, ‘Schenck is wider across the head in the region of the ears, & loves fight for its own sake, better than I do.”19
Schenck was unrepentant. Governor Augustus Bradford objected to Schenck's order detailing provost-marshals to the polls with authority to arrest persons of doubtful loyalty. Bradford thought this was unwarranted military interference in the election. Historian William E. Gienapp noted: “Complaints of federal interference in elections in Maryland were endemic during the war. A good example was the dispute between Governor Bradford and commanding general Robert C. Schenck over the latter's order imposing a test oath for voting in the 1863 election. Federal officials were irritated at the state's failure to enact an oath for voters, so Schenck announced that the army would enforce one he promulgated at the polls. Schenck, who had been elected to Congress from Ohio, claimed that his purpose was to prevent disloyal elements from voting, but he was equally interested in assisting the antislavery forces in the state. Bradford immediately protested to Lincoln about military interference with the election. After conferring with the general, the president modified Schenck's proclamation, designated General Orders No. 53, concerning the arrest of disloyal individuals, but let the oath stand.”21 On November 1, 1863, President Lincoln met with General Schenck and two congressmen regarding the November 4 elections. The next day, President Lincoln wrote Governor Augustus W. Bradford who had complained about Schenck’s plans:
“Yours of the 31st ult. was received yesterday about noon, and since then I have been giving most earnest attention to the subject matter of it. At my call Gen. Schenck has attended; and he assures me it is almost certain that violence will be used at some of the voting places on election day, unless prevented by his provost-guards. He says that at some of those places Union voters will not attend at all, or run a ticket unless they have some assurance of protection. This makes the Missouri case, of my action in regard to which, you express your approval. The remaining point of your letter is a protest against any person offering to vote being put to any test not found in the laws of Maryland. This brings us to a difference between Missouri and Maryland. With the same reason in both States, Missouri has, by law, provided a test for the voter, with reference to the present rebellion, while Maryland has not. For example, Gen. Tremble, captured fighting us at Gettysburg is, without recanting his treason, a legal voter by the laws of Maryland. Even Gen. Schenck's order, admits him to vote, if he recants upon oath. I think that is cheap enough. My order in Missouri, which approve, and Gen. Schenck's order here, reach precisely the same end. Each assures the right of voting to all loyal men; and whether a man is loyal, each allows that man to fix by his own oath. Your suggestion that nearly all the candidates are loyal, I do not think quite meets the case. In this struggle for the nation's life. I can not so confidently rely on those whose elections may have depended upon disloyal votes. Such men, when elected, may prove true, but such votes are given them in the expectation that they will prove false.
Schenck’s resignation from the army took effective on December 5, 1863 in order that Schenck could take his place in the Congress then convening. Historian Fred Joyner wrote that in Congress, Schenck’s “first objective was to push the war as vigorously as possible and bring it to a quick and successful conclusion. Most of the war plans had been made by December 1863. In the main Schenck saw eye to eye with Lincoln as to the best way to win the war.”23 Maine Congressman James G. Blaine had a better opinion of Congressman Schenck, for whom a district had been reshaped in 1862 in order to defeat the Copperhead Democrat incumbent, Clement Vallandigham. Blaine noted that Schenck's "canvas was so able and spirited that though in other parts of the State the Democrats captured eight Republican districts, he defeated Vallandigham in a Democratic district...He was at once placed at the head of the Committee on Military Affairs, then of superlative importance, and subsequently was made chairman of Ways and Means, succeeding Mr. [Thaddeus] Stevens in the undoubted leadership of the House. He was admirably fitted for the arduous and difficult duty. His perceptions were keen, his analysis was extraordinarily rapid, his power of expression remarkable. On his feat, as the phrase went, he had no equal in the House."24
One journalist described Schenck in April 1864 as "Short in statue, rather small than otherwise, but firmly and strongly made, with his fair, beardless, German features, soft, light hair, and complexion as delicate as a girl’s."252 President Lincoln reported to the House of Representatives on the status of Schenck and Frank Blair in April 28, 1864, after Blair delivered one of a series of speeches attacking Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on the House floor:
Prior to, and at the meeting of the present Congress, Robert C. Schenck, of Ohio, and Frank P. Blair, Jr. of Missouri, members elect thereto, by and with the consent of the Senate, held commissions from the Executive, as Major Generals in the Volunteer Army. Gen. Schenck tendered the resignation of his aid commission and took his seat in the House of Representatives, at the assembling thereof, upon the distinct verbal understanding with the Secretary of war and the Executive, that he might, at any time during the session, at this own pleasure, withdraw said resignation, and return to the field. Gen. Blair was, by temporary assignment of Gen. Sherman, in command of a corps, through the battles in front of Chattanooga, and in the march to the relief of Knoxville, which occurred in the latter days of November, and early days of December last; and, of course was not present at the assembling of Congress. When he subsequently arrived here, he sought, and was allowed by the Secretary of War and the Executive, the same conditions, and promise as allowed and made to Gen. Schenck. Gen. Schenck has not applied to withdraw his resignation; but when Gen. Grant was made Lieut. General, producing some change of commanders, Gen. Blair sought to be assigned to the command of a corps.”26
In June 1864, Schenck’s actions almost derailed a peace mission which President Lincoln was considering. Illinois Colonel James Jaquess, also a Methodist minister, wanted to go on a second peace mission to Richmond. President Lincoln had granted him leave and he met journalist James R. Gilmore in Baltimore about being rebuffed at the White House. The two men went to Washington at the beginning of July 1864: “I called at once upon Mr. Lincoln,” wrote Gilmore. “About his first remark was that on the very day he had told [Ohio Congressman James] Garfield to write me that he would see Jaquess, General [Robert C.] Schenck [another former Ohio general turned congressman] had called upon him with some volunteer advice as to the terms he should offer the rebels through Colonel Jaquess. On subsequent inquiry the President had learned that Schenck had spoke of the subject freely and everywhere. ‘This,’ he said, ‘may greatly embarrass me. I therefore refused to see Jaquess, and shall countermand his furlough and send him back to his regiment.”27 Only with difficulty did Gilmore get presidential agreement for Jaquess and himself to go on an ill-fated peace mission to Richmond.
Schenck’s lack of diplomacy showed itself again seven months later. When Schenck heard of the Hampton Roads peace conference in early February 1865, he became violently abusive. He “spoke in the most bitter and denunciatory terms of Seward and said he hoped the rebels would catch him and put him in Libby prison.” After it proved that the Lincoln administration had entered into agreement, Schenck repeated his position. According to Interior Secretary John Palmer Usher, “When Lincoln brought forward that compensation message (a few days after the Conference) in Cabinet, I remembered what Schenck had said. I then thought, that if he should send that message to Congress, extreme and radical men of the character of Schenck would make it the occasion of a violent assault on the President and perhaps thus weaken his influence to procure men and money to prosecute the war.”28 Nevertheless, noted historian James G. Randall, “On the eve of his assassination [President Lincoln] penned a note to the secretary of the treasury in which he said he ‘would like to oblige Gen. Schenck by the appointment of his nephew’ to a collectors’ job in California.”29
Before the Civil War, Schenck was an attorney and state legislator in Ohio. After Mr. Lincoln spoke to a Republican rally in Dayton in September 1859, Schenck spoke that night after Mr. Lincoln had departed. Schenck continued his service in Congress until 1870. He was then named U.S. Minister to England, where he used his diplomatic skills to write a book on poker.