As I wrote last week, we have a Civil War case exhibit up in Local History Room at the Dayton Metro Library (Main) right now. One part of the case exhibit focuses on Robert C. Schenck (below, upper left) and Clement Vallandingham (below, upper right):
Robert C. Schenck and Clement Vallandingham were important public figures in Dayton during the Civil War era. (Hence, their inclusion in our exhibit!) As a matter of fact, many eyes were on these men — not just in Dayton, but (in the case of at least one of them) across the country.
By the Fall of 1862, Vallandingham had served as U.S. Congressman for Ohio’s Third District, which included (and still does) Dayton, for more than 4 years. Vallandingham’s name was quite well-known throughout the country, as he was one of the leaders of the “Peace Democrats,” more commonly known as “Copperheads” — Democrats who opposed the Civil War.
In 1862, Schenck was a former U.S. Congressman (Whig) for the Third District and was serving as a Union general. That fall, he ran for re-election (as the Republican candidate) for Third District Congressman against the incumbent Vallandingham.
According to Wikipedia, Schenck was “elected by a large majority.” While that may be true (I could not lay hands on the complete election returns), the majority of Montgomery County actually supported Vallandingham, 4972-4607 (a difference of 365 votes). Just an interesting tidbit. Some have said that Schenck only won because Warren County (mostly Republican and also Schenck’s home county) had recently been added to the Third District. It has also been claimed that the Republicans cheated in various ways (see Kokkinou, pp. 138-139).
In any event, the short version is that Schenck defeated Vallandingham for the Congressional seat. (But if you’re reading me, you didn’t honestly expect just the “short version,” did you?)
I recently found a few interesting references to the 1862 election in the collection I am processing (MS-018, Forrer-Peirce-Wood — hopefully to be completed and ready for use very soon!).
Henry Eugene Parrott, age 23 and one of the youngest in a reasonably well-off Dayton family (and whose brother Edwin was a colonel commanding the 1st O.V.I. at the time), wrote in his diary on election day, October 14, 1862:
Spent the day pretty closely in the office, and the evening on the street gathering news about the election. Somebody is elected now, and for the honor of the third district I hope it is Gen. Schenck.
The following day, October 15, 1862, Parrott wrote:
The district has come out nobly, and repudiated the traitor Vallandingham, by 1000 to 1200 or more votes. Warren helped us out handsomely. We hoped to beat Val in his old district, but are glad to beat him under any circumstances…
Parrott mentions Schenck a few other times during the course of his year-long diary. It seems that he knew the Schenck family fairly well, on multiple occasions he mentioned that he had visited them or attended a party at their house.
Other sources from the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection mention General Schenck but not in such a favorable light.
On September 21, 1862, Sarah Forrer wrote to her grown daughters Mary and Augusta about Schenck’s recent injury (his right arm was seriously wounded in the Second Battle of Bull Run, Aug. 30th.):
Lucky hit, was it not? to gain him a seat in Congress and a Major Gen’s commission. I am sorry I feel so cross but I cannot well help it when I see how artfully he keeps himself before the public.
Ouch! Those are definitely the words of someone who strongly dislikes the guy. Schenck did receive a commission to major general after that battle (on Sept. 18th), and he also received the Republican nomination for Third District Congressman, over (Sarah writes) a man named Craighead [probably Dayton attorney Samuel Craighead] who apparently expected to get it.
She goes on:
In the mean time, our people seem to have grave fears that Vallandingham will be re-elected. So many of our men are away.
Several members of Sarah’s family were serving in the Civil War, including a son, a son-in-law, and a nephew. When she says “our people” she must mean those who support the war. And when she says “our men,” I assume she is referring to the fact that so many war supporters are soldiers who are away and might not be able to vote.
In a letter to her daughter Mary on October 15, the day after the election, Sarah wrote:
This evening the town is full of bonfires and there is great rejoicing over Val’s defeat. I too am glad he did not succeed, but sorry we had not a better man to vote for. I believe we might have elected another as easily perhaps more so. Uncle John [Sarah's brother John Howard, a Dayton lawyer] worked pretty hard, and Father [Sarah's husband Samuel Forrer] voted the whole [Republican] ticket. It was a bitter pill, but he swallowed it. And now, the scoundrel [Schenck] has got in to warm by the fire, after being ‘out in the cold’ so long. I feel we shall never get shot of him. Brooks came to John, and said, ‘You won’t vote for S. [Schenck] after his telling you so many lies and treating Mr. F. [Forrer] in the way he did?’ John answered, ‘I will not vote for any man who is opposed to the war.’ I hear they calculated on John and Father too. Ann says Mr. Odlin did not vote for S. and would not help either by speaking or by money. He says S. has treated him meanly, and he cannot do anything for him. I would tell you much more than I can write. I thought Luther would like to hear a little of the news. I was glad he did not have to vote for the scamp.
Sarah’s son-in-law, Luther Bruen, was stationed in New York with the 12th U.S. Infantry at the time, which – as Sarah points out – made him blissfully free of the need to decide whether to vote for the Copperhead Vallandingham or for the “scamp” Schenck.
It is interesting the way she writes of their family’s dislike for Schenck. It seems to stem from some personal offense, but unfortunately she does not elaborate about what the offense actually was.
I thought perhaps it might have something to do with Schenck’s previous terms in Congress, in relation to the the Miami-Erie Canal, of which Samuel Forrer was one of the main engineers (from the 1820s-1870s). Schenck had previously chaired the U.S. Congress Committee on Roads and Canals from 1847-1849 and was involved in some other canal-related matters. However, all the sources I’ve found show Schenck as a supporter of the canals.
I do suspect the offense is probably related in some way to Schenck’s and Forrer’s interactions regarding the canals. There are a few letters between the two in the collection, but nothing to shed any light on any sleight or disagreement. I’ll probably never know what it was. But it definitely piqued my curiosity, that’s for sure!
The last thing I want to point out about Sarah’s letter is the quotation she attributes to her brother John Howard, when asked how he could vote for Schenck after what he’d done (whatever it was) to the Forrers. He essentially stated that he did not support Schenck so much as he opposed Vallandingham: “I will not vote for any man who is opposed to the war.”
John’s eldest son William, a young man of about 21 years old, had recently enlisted in the 17th Ohio Light Artillery Battery. About the same time, Sarah’s only son Howard began recruiting with the 112th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and her son-in-law Luther Bruen was already serving in the 12th U.S. Infantry. Another Howard cousin had died from his war wounds earlier in the year.
Then, as now, families with loved ones in the service find it pretty difficult to support candidates who don’t support “the war”. In their eyes, not to support the war, is not to support the soldiers, their sons (and today, also daughters). They have to believe that their sacrifices are for a good cause.
So, to the Forrer and Howard families, to vote for Schenck might have been “a bitter pill” (for reasons I may never know!), but to vote for Vallandingham was simply not an option.
Vallandingham was eventually arrested (on grounds of “disloyalty”) by General Burnside in May 1863, prompting an angry mob (presumably of Vallandingham-supporting Democrats) to burn down the Dayton Journal office (the Republican newspaper in town). Val (as many called him) was exiled to Canada, where he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Ohio in 1863. He did eventually return to the U.S., dying in Lebanon, Ohio, in 1871. If you are interested in the details about Vallandingham, I recommend Frank Klement’s The Limits of Dissent (which you can also see is in our exhibit case).
Schenck remained in Congress until he lost the 1870 election. In 1871, he was made U.S. Minister to England. He was involved in a bit of a scandal in regards to that position, which caused him some shame, but unfortunately that does not explain why the Forrer family already disliked him (for seemingly personal reasons) in 1862. If you are interested in Schenck’s life, you should definitely come down to the Dayton Metro Library and look at The Political Career of Robert Cumming Schenck, a master’s thesis by Epiphanie Kokkinou, or at our Robert C. Schenck manuscript collection (MS-032).
Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (MS-018). Dayton Metro Library, Dayton, Ohio.
Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandingham & the Civil War. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.
Kokkinou, Epiphanie Clara. “The Political Career of Robert Cumming Schenck.” Thesis (M.A.), Miami University, 1955.
Schenck, Robert C., Collection (MS-032). Dayton Metro Library, Dayton, Ohio.
The manuscript collections discussed here are publicly available for research at the Dayton Metro Library, Main Library, Local History Room, 215 E. Third St., Dayton, OH 45402. For more information on the collection, contact the library, or feel free to leave a comment on this blog.