Robert C. Schenck, a prominent lawyer from Dayton, Ohio, served four terms as a Whig in the U.S. House of Representatives and then went abroad as the U.S. minister to Brazil from 1851 to 1854.
Returning to Dayton and the law, Schenck took on an additional job as president of the Fort Wayne Western Railroad. He also joined the new Republican Party. In September 1859, in a speech in Dayton, he urged the Republicans to nominate for the presidency another lawyer, an Illinoisan who had been a fellow Whig congressman: Abraham Lincoln. It probably was the first public endorsement of Lincoln for the presidency.
The following year, as a delegate to the Republican convention in Chicago, Schenck strongly supported Lincoln. After Lincoln was nominated, Schenck campaigned for him across southern Illinois with another Ohioan, an ex-judge and ex-diplomat named Donn Piatt who had long been involved in politics.
By the time he won the November election, Lincoln realized that he would need in his Cabinet someone from the key state of Ohio. He briefly considered both Schenck and Piatt, taking them with him to Chicago that December to meet with his new vice president, Hannibal Hamlin. In the end, he named another Ohioan, Salmon P. Chase, who had challenged him for the Republican presidential nomination, as secretary of the Treasury.
War came in the spring of 1861, and the Union Army began to multiply in size. Lincoln initially called for 75,000 volunteers; by July, an army of a half-million had been authorized. Experienced officers, mostly graduates of West Point, were in critically short supply.
The president sent for Robert Schenck and asked, “What can you do to help me?” Anything Lincoln wanted, Schenck replied. “Can you fight?” He would try, Schenck said. “Well,” Lincoln said, “I want to make a general out of you.”
Schenck was one of a number of Northerners without military experience who were made senior officers. He was commissioned as a brigadier general that May and put in command of the 1st Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, while a brigade was being formed for him.
A scant month later, having completed all the training they were to receive, Schenck and the new regiment were in Washington. Across the Potomac, the city of Alexandria had been seized by Union forces. It was decided that Schenck should station companies of the 1st Ohio along the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad, which stretched from Alexandria out into the countryside of Northern Virginia. (The rail line, abandoned in the 1960s, has been made into a paved recreational trail, the 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park.)
The Union intelligence was not good, but there were reports of Confederate forces somewhere out on the line, which ended at Leesburg. Schenck’s superior officer, Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler, decided to go see for himself, and with several staff officers, he took a train on the line through the hamlets of Falls Church and Vienna, the latter 15 miles from Alexandria. They stopped three miles beyond Vienna, having seen no sign of the enemy, and then returned to Alexandria. They could not, in fact, have gone much farther; the Confederates had torn up the track.
The following day, June 17, Schenck and his regiment boarded a train in Alexandria and headed out. The engine was at the rear, pushing a half-dozen cars. It was the railroad’s only remaining engine; the Confederates had taken the other two south when they had pulled out of Alexandria.
The train stopped to leave six companies along the line near Falls Church and then continued west. As it was nearing Vienna with Schenck and the remaining 180 men, it was fired on by both a Confederate artillery battery and a sizable infantry unit from South Carolina, hidden behind foliage near the track.
The train halted quickly, the troops disembarked, and Schenck sent word that the engineer should pull the train back beyond range of enemy fire. Someone or something — one report said a cannonball — uncoupled the engine and one car from the rest of the train. The engineer started moving.
Instead of stopping down the track, the engineer ran the truncated train all the way to Alexandria, leaving Schenck and his men stranded and forced to retreat on foot. A number of men were lost to enemy fire, but the Confederates did not pursue the Ohioans, believing they were the vanguard of a larger force coming at them.
It was hardly Schenck’s fault that the locomotive engineer, no doubt fearing the loss of the line’s last engine, had fled the scene. Nevertheless, the new general quickly became the butt of comments about his inexperience. These came in part from career officers and also from the press.
The New York Times said of Schenck, with reference to the “unfortunate encounter” near Vienna, that “his Brigadier-Generalship seems to be the only qualification which entitles him to lead troops to battle.”
On July 16, a month after the Vienna ambush, Schenck and his men were part of the 26,000-man Army of Northeastern Virginia that marched westward from Washington into Virginia, intent on striking a crippling blow at the Confederate army camped near Manassas Junction. Despite the Vienna affair, Schenck had, as planned earlier, been given a larger command, a brigade in the division commanded by Tyler.
Schenck’s brigade comprised the 1st and 2nd Ohio, the 2nd New York Militia and a battery of light artillery. Schenck had by then been joined by his fellow campaigner from 1860, Donn Piatt, who at the age of 41 had enlisted as a private, received a commission and then accepted Schenck’s invitation to become his adjutant general and chief of staff.
When the two armies met at Bull Run on July 21, both Schenck and Piatt acquitted themselves well. Their brigade stood most of the day, at times under heavy fire, by the stone bridge, still standing today, that took the Warrenton turnpike across Bull Run. Piatt wrote later that at 4 in the afternoon he convinced Schenck to cross the bridge westward to go to the relief of the Union force that by then had failed to outflank the Confederate left wing.
The brigade was hardly across the bridge when the order came to retreat. Schenck’s fellow brigade commander, E.D. Keyes, remembered how, when the Union forces began to flee the field in disorder, Piatt had stood his ground and tried to collect officers and men to stay the panic. (Keyes admitted that he himself had kept on eastward, “at a moderate pace.”)
The next year, Schenck and Piatt were together at the second battle of Bull Run, where Schenck’s wrist was shattered by a minie ball. In 1863, Schenck, by then a major general, was made commander of the Middle Department at Baltimore, with Lt. Col. Piatt still his deputy.
That summer, Lincoln finally agreed to the recruitment of black troops in Maryland despite his worries about the allegiance of the white population in a key border state. (In 1860, he had gotten just 2.3 percent of the Maryland vote.) Piatt, always strongly against slavery, wrote years later that when Schenck went on a short trip to Boston, leaving him in charge, he had ordered that only slaves should be recruited for the new black units.
Maryland slave owners were upset, and an angry Lincoln thereafter refused to honor recommendations for Piatt’s promotion to general, made by loyal Marylanders and seconded by the governor of Delaware.
Piatt’s and Schenck’s careers diverged after the war. Schenck returned to Congress in 1864, and in 1870, former commanding general, now president, Ulysses S. Grant appointed him U.S. envoy to the United Kingdom. There he became known for introducing draw poker to polite society. He also was strongly criticized in London for helping publicize sales of a Utah mining company of which he was a director.
Schenck returned to America in some disgrace (over the shares, not the poker) and resumed the profitable practice of law. When he died in 1890, his friend Piatt wrote a long article in his praise that ignored the furor over the Utah company — and the ambush near Vienna.
As for Piatt, after the war, he was for a decade editor and proprietor of a Washington weekly, the Capital, and became famous across the country for his fierce attacks on Grant and his corrupt administration.
Piatt had other favorite targets as well, including West Point, which he said produced gentlemen rather than soldiers; he could never forget how career officers had blamed Schenck for the Vienna ambush. Grant, as his administration was ending in 1877, had Piatt jailed for inciting riot and rebellion after an editorial in the Capital charged that the election of Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes — who had been Piatt’s friend and wartime comrade — was illegal.
Hayes dismissed the charges, and in subsequent years, Piatt was on close terms with both Hayes and his successors in the White House, James A. Garfield and Grover Cleveland.
Peter Bridges, author of “Safirka: An American Envoy” and “Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel,” is working on a biography of Donn Piatt.