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Robert Cumming Schenck



IT has been for many years the fashion to berate our Government on its diplomatic appointments. Our leading reviews and magazines have frequently indulged in language something like this: "A diplomatist is not, like a poet, born, not made; to the highest success in diplomacy, a life-long training is indispensable. In all the European Courts, the young men of the highest ability, who propose to make diplomacy their life work, begin as attaches to some foreign legation, and proceeding through all the stages of Assistant-Secretary, Secretary of Legation, Charge, and Minister Resident, finally arrive at the high dignity of Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to some court, thoroughly qualified for their work." "With the United States," they continue, "there is nothing of this sort attempted. Diplomatic appointments are made without any reference to the qualifications of the appointee. Very seldom has he any knowledge of the language of the country to which he is sent, still less frequently does he know anything of its history, policy or customs; but he has been efficient in training in, or driving to the polls, a large number of voters for the Administration now in power, and therefore he is to be appointed our representative to some country, where he will be a laughing stock and disgrace to our nation."

There is just a spice of truth in this statement, so far as some few of our appointments of Ministers Resident, Consuls, etc., to the minor Powers are concerned. But in the higher appointments, such as those to Great Britain, France, Germany (or, before the late Franco-German war, to Prussia), Austria, etc., whether it was due to our statesmen having a natural talent for diplomacy, or to the skill of the Presidents and their Cabinets, the fact is palpable that we have been represented at these Courts uniformly by men who were the peers of the ablest ambassadors from other Courts. Such men as Mr. Stevenson, Mr. Everett, Mr. Dallas, Mr. Buchanan, Mr. C. F. Adams, Mr. Motley, or our present representative, General Schenck, at the Court of St. James, were, in no respect, the inferiors of the ablest men England, France or Germany have sent out as their ambassadors. Nor have our Ministers to France or Germany been behind these in ability. Gen. Cass, Mr. Rives, J. Y. Mason, Mr. Dayton, General Dix, Mr. Bigelow, Mr. Washburne, and in Germany, Messrs. J. Q. Adams, Wheaton, Wright, Judd and Bancroft, have all done honor to the nation, and they could not have done better had they been trained all their lives in the art of using language to conceal its true meaning," which was Talleyrand's definition of diplomacy.

The statesman who now represents us near the British Court, has the attainments and experience which should qualify him for this important post, but his frank, blunt ways, his utter fearlessness, and his incapacity for any of the arts of concealment or double-dealing, will introduce a new phase in English diplomacy, though possibly a successful one for him; since Bismarck, one of the most adroit of statesmen and diplomatists, has declared, "that he had always adopted the plan of telling the exact truth and the whole truth, because it puzzled the diplomatists so much."

ROBERT CUMMING SCHENCK was born in Franklin, Warren county, Ohio, October 4, 1809. His ancestry, on his father's side, were of Dutch origin, though his father was, we believe, horn in this country. He served in the War of 1812, and rose, like his son, to the rank of General. He died when Robert was but twelve years old, and the boy was put under the guardianship of General James Findley. In 1824, he entered Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, a year in advance, and graduated with honor in 1827. He studied law with Tom Corwin, and was admitted to the bar in 1828, though but nineteen years of age. He removed to Dayton, and there, in the next ten years, by diligent study and careful preparation of his cases, rose to a commanding position in his profession. He first entered upon political life in 1838, by running as a candidate for the State Legislature. In the Presidential campaign of 1840, he acquired the reputation of being one of the ablest speakers on the Whig side, in the canvass, and, in 1841, was elected a Representative in the State Legislature, from Dayton, and became at once a leader of his party in the house. After another year in the Legislature, he was elected to Congress from his district in 1843, and re-elected in 1845, 1847 and 1849. He declined a re-election in 1851, and was appointed by President Fillmore, Minister to Brazil, in March. 1851. In Congress, he was eminently efficient and practical. He displayed rare abilities and a thorough understanding of every subject on which he spoke, and, when occasion required, was quick of repartee, pungent and satirical. His nature was one of great intensity, and he always was so profoundly in earnest in his convictions, that he made warm friends and bitter enemies. As minister to Brazil, he acquitted himself with high honor, and was directed by the Government to visit Buenos Ayres, Montevideo, and Asuncion, and make treaties with the republics around the La Plata and its affluents. He obeyed, and negotiated treaties which would have been of great advantage to us, but their ratification was neglected by the Senate.

In 1854, Mr. Schenck returned to Ohio, and though sympathizing generally in the views of the Republican party, his personal antipathy to Colonel Fremont was so strong, that he took no part in the canvass, and, we believe, did not vote. He was building up, at this time, a fine and lucrative business in his profession, and was also connected as President with one or two prominent railroad companies. In 1859, he came into more active and direct sympathy with the Republican party, and in September of that year, was the first man in the country to suggest Abraham Lincoln to a public meeting as a candidate for the Presidency. He supported Mr. Lincoln with great ardor and warmth at the Chicago Convention, in 1860, and in the subsequent canvass of that year.

When the attack was made on Fort Sumter, Mr. Schenck promptly tendered his services to the President, and was commissioned Brigadier-General of Volunteers. As he had not been known as a military man, though he had, as afterward appeared, been a diligent student of military science, his enemies, and they were numerous and bitter, determined at once that the opportunity of being revenged on him, and of ridiculing every movement he might make, was too good to be lost. Many of the West Point graduates, full of their importance, sneered at political generals, and were very glad of the opportunity to sneer at them. In General Sehenck's case the opportunity soon came, though not through any fault of his, but rather through the blundering carelessness of a West Pointer. It was what was known for a time, till more important matters drove it out of the public mind, as "the Vienna (Va.) affair." In a reconoissance by railroad cars, his troops were fired upon and several wounded, and as the plucky General disembarked his soldiers and "went for" the enemy, the cowardly engineer ran off with the train, and left his little handful of men at the mercy of four or five times their number. But thanks to his firmness, the enemy believed these troops the advance-guard of a large force, and they ran, instead of capturing the Union troops. This whole affair, which was, in reality, as General Scott reported. highly creditable to General Schenck, except the railroad part, which was not his device, but General Daniel Tyler's (a West Point officer), was, by his enemies, used greatly to his discredit.

General Schenck's next appearance was at Bull Run, where he stood his ground, though his subordinates, several of them graduates of West Point, ran, and afterwards got promoted for doing so. He was subsequently in command under Rosecrans, in West Virginia, and under Fremont in the Luray Valley, and after the battle of Cross Keys was, for a time, commander of the First Army Corps, in General Sigel's absence. Ordered to join the Army of Virginia, then under General Pope, fighting at heavy odds against Lee's large army, he joined it just before the second Bull Run battle, and was in the thickest of the fighting of the two days that followed, being severely wounded on the second day, and his right arm permanently injured. He was unfit for field duty for six months, but was assigned to the command of the Middle Military Department, embracing the turbulent Rebels of Maryland, over whom Butler and Banks and Dix had held sway. He ruled them with a firm hand, but with perfect and exact justice, repressing all turbulence and acts tending to the manifestation of disloyalty or any complicity with treason. The "woman difficulty," which had troubled Butler in Baltimore, and led to his famous order in New Orleans, was to be met in Baltimore by General Schenck. He settled it effectually and by a very simple but characteristic manoeuvre.

The Rebel women of Baltimore were particularly virulent and ingenious in their methods of annoying the Union soldiers and Union citizens. At last they began to wear the Rebel colors, displaying them flauntingly, and taking care to promenade the streets in great numbers, thus arrayed, whenever this display would particularly annoy the Union troops and their commander. General Schenck made no public demonstration, but directed that a number of the most noted women of the town should be selected, and brought to his headquarters for instruction. Each was instructed to array herself as elegantly as possible, to wear the Rebel colors conspicuously displayed upon her bosom, and to spend her time in promenading the most fashionable streets of the city. Whenever she met any one of the ladies of Baltimore, wearing the same badges, she was to salute her affectionately as a "Sister in the Holy Cause." For these services she was to be liberally paid. The effect was marvellous. In less than a week, not a respectable woman in Baltimore dared to show herself in public ornamented by any badge of the rebellion.

General Schenck was not popular with the disloyal portion of the inhabitants of Maryland. His own loyalty was too decided and earnest to permit him to trifle with them or allow them to trifle with him. In December, 1863, he resigned his commission to take his seat in Congress, to which he had been elected over Mr. Vallandigham, from the Third (Dayton) Congressional District of Ohio. He was at once made House Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, at that time, perhaps, the most laborious Committee of Congress. He was re-elected to the Thirty-Eighth, Thirty-Ninth, Fortieth and Forty-First Congresses, and, from his position, was the leader of the House. In military matters he was laborious and vigilant ; the firm friend of the volunteer, as against what he thought the encroachments and assumptions of the regulars; the remorseless enemy of deserters; a vigorous advocate of the draft, and the author of the disfranchisement of those who ran away from it; the champion of the private soldiers and subordinate officers. He cared little or nothing for personal popularity, and would fight to the death against anything which he believed to be wrong, or which covered even the slightest suspicion of fraud. He often opposed the Administration, but he was so thoroughly honest, so fearless in his advocacy of what he believed to be right, and so able in his arguments for it, that he almost always carried his point. 

He would have been elected Senator, but that the people of Ohio felt that he could not be spared from the House. When Mr. Motley was recalled from the ambassadorship to Great Britain, President Grant offered the place to General Schenck, and, after much hesitation, he accepted it, and sailed for England in July, 1871. He has done honor to his position, though he has been placed in circumstances of great embarrassment and difficulty, in consequence of the hitch in regard to the arbitration of the Alabama Claims. General Schenck is a ripe and accomplished scholar, thoroughly informed on international and constitutional law, well versed in political history, and familiar with the whole range of modern literature, English, French and Spanish.

In person he is about of the middle height, square, compact, broad-chested and rugged-featured. His face indicates his Dutch ancestry, and quite as strongly his vehement passions and his inflexible will. To his enemies he is terrible: the burning, stinging eloquence of his invective comes hissing hot from his lips and scorches whatever it touches. To his friends he exhibits an entirely different phase of character, being generous, kindly, and affectionate. He can hardly be called ambitious, but with all his foibles, is one of our best and soundest statesmen.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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