Robert Cumming Schenck (October 4, 1809 – March 23, 1890)

Updated: August 27, 2012

Robert Cumming Schenck was an eight-time United States Congressman from Ohio and a major general in the Union army during the American Civil War.

Robert Cumming Schenck was born in Franklin, Ohio, in Warren County, on October 4, 1809. He was the son of Elizabeth Rogers Schenck and William Cortenius Schenck, a surveyor, land speculator, and prominent early Ohio settler. Schenck's father founded the town of Franklin, and he served as a general in the War of 1812. The elder Schenck died in 1821, and twelve-year-old Robert was placed under the guardianship of General James Findlay.

As a young man, Schenck enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he graduated with honors in 1827. He then took up teaching while pursuing a graduate degree at Miami. In 1830, Schenck earned a Master of Arts Degree. Upon completing his graduate work, he studied law under future Ohio Governor Thomas Corwin at Lebanon, Ohio and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1831. Schenck then formed a successful law partnership with Joseph Halsey Crane in Dayton, Ohio.

Schenck married Renelsche W. Smith at Nissequogue, Long Island, New York, on August 21, 1834. The marriage produced six girls, three of whom survived to adulthood.

In 1838, Schenck first entered the political arena, running unsuccessfully for the Ohio General Assembly. Two years later, he was elected to the state legislature as a member of the Whig Party. In 1842, voters of Ohio's Third Congressional District elected Schenck to represent them in the Twenty-eighth U.S. Congress (1843-1845). Schenck's constituents subsequently reelected him to serve in the Twenty-ninth through Thirty-first Congresses (1845-1851). During his tenure in Congress, Schenck played an active role in repealing the "gag rule" that prevented antislavery petitions from being read on the floor of the House. Schenck also opposed the Mexican-American War as a war of aggression to extend slavery in the United States.

In 1850, Schenck declined to run for reelection, largely for personal reasons (his wife had died from tuberculosis in 1849). After returning home and arranging for the care of his daughters, Schenck accepted an appointment from President Millard Fillmore as Minister to Brazil in March 1851. Schenck served successfully in that capacity until the end of Fillmore's tenure in 1853. In 1854, Schenck returned to his law practice in Dayton. During the years prior to the American Civil War, Schenck was busy promoting the construction of the Fort Wayne Western Railroad and serving as president of the company. In addition, he formed a partnership with Thomas Corwin and William B. Webb to practice law in the court of claims and before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Although he held no political office in the years immediately before the Civil War, Schenck was an early and ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln's presidential candidacy. When the War Between the States began, President Lincoln rewarded Schenck by commissioning him as a brigadier-general in the volunteer army on June 5, 1861, (to rank from May 17), despite the fact that Schenck had no prior military experience. Years later, Schenck gave the following account of his discussion with Lincoln regarding his appointment.

“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.”

During his military career, Schenck saw action at the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861), the Battle of Cross Keys (June 8, 1862), and the Battle of Bull Run II (August 28, 1862-August 30, 1862). During the latter engagement, Schenck was severely wounded by three bullets, permanently disabling his right arm and hand. During his recuperation, Schenck was promoted to the rank of major general on September 18, 1862 (to rank from August 30, 1862).

Upon returning to active service, Schenck was assigned to the command of VIII Army Corps and the Middle Department of the Army, with headquarters at Baltimore, Maryland, on December 22, 1862. An ardent Unionist, Schenck proved to be unpopular with Maryland residents, many of whom had Southern sympathies. His suppression of newspapers and interference in the 1862 Maryland state elections proved to be especially controversial.

While Schenck was serving in Maryland, Ohio Republicans were busy trying to unseat U.S. Congressman Clement Vallandigham, who was an outspoken opponent the war, in general, and the draft, in particular. Following the 1860 census, Republicans redrew the boundaries of Ohio's Third Congressional District in a manner more favorable to their own party. During the 1862 mid-term elections the Republicans nominated Schenck to oppose Vallandigham. In November, voters from the freshly-gerrymandered district chose Schenck over the Peace Democrat. After his victory at the polls, Schenck resigned his commission in the army on December 5, 1862, to assume his seat in Congress. Reelected for three subsequent terms, Schenck sat in the Thirty-eighth through Forty-first Congresses from 1863 through 1871. During his tenure, Schenck served as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs (Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth Congresses), and Committee on Ways and Means (Fortieth and Forty-first Congresses). On issues regarding Reconstruction, Schenck sided with the radical elements of the Republican Party.

In November 1870, Schenck lost his bid for reelection to Democrat Lewis D. Campbell. One month later, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Schenck as Minister to England. Schenck was a popular figure at the Court of St. James and introduced the British aristocracy to the game of draw poker. His popularity eventually contributed to an unfortunate episode of public and personal tribulation however. Schenck allowed his name to be used in a brochure promoting the sale of stock in an American silver mine, prompting many British aristocrats to invest heavily. When the mine did not produce well initially, Schenck faced disgrace, and authorities recalled him to Washington. A subsequent investigation cleared Schenck of any wrongdoing, but he resigned his ambassadorship in 1875.

Schenck split the remainder of his life between Washington and Dayton. In 1880, he published a short book titled Draw. Rules for Playing Poker, which drew condemnation from social reformers. In 1887, Schenck suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.

Schenck died of pneumonia on March 23, 1890, at his residence on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. He was interred in Woodland Cemetery at Dayton, Ohio.

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