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David Schenck and the Contours of Confederate Identity by Rodney Steward (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 103-104 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0011

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Rodney Steward provides a useful biography of a secondary figure of the Confederacy. His narrative presents Schenck as a self-serving patriot who lacked personal courage and had flexible moral scruples. Despite the unsavory characteristics of Schenck's personality, he rose to prominence as a lawyer in North Carolina. This early legal experience translated into a position as a low-level Confederate bureaucrat, responsible for seizing the property of southern unionists. As a result, Shenck acquired significant personal wealth without personal exposure to the dangers of camp and conflict. Steward also delves into Schenck's mentality as he prosecuted his duties to the Confederacy, including his religious devotion to the cause of disunion. With the failure of the Confederacy, Schenck continued to brood on his personal fortunes, including the potential of personal liability exposure from his actions as a Confederate receiver. As the battles of Reconstruction waged on, he joined the Ku Klux Klan, and seems to have served as a regional organizer for the group. Steward acknowledges the difficulty of constructing an accurate record of this period of Schenck's life, as he tore large pieces out of his journal that would have covered his Klan activities—likely to cover his tracks as he testified to congress concerning his activities with the Klan, and refused to take personal risks to assist other jailed Klan members. Despite this checkered history during Reconstruction, Schenck emerged from the period as a prominent Democrat and won a seat on the North Carolina Superior Court. His failings of courage caught up with him as he failed to win an election to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. He ended his career as a railroad lawyer and amateur historian of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

Steward's narrative helps fill in some of the historiographical holes in the narrative of Confederate nationalism. Schenck offers an excellent opportunity to understand how a vocal adherent to the Confederate cause coped with the collapse and failure of that cause—and an opportunity for historians to encounter the transition from Confederate nationalism to white supremacy and the final refuge of the Lost Cause historical revision. Schenck's wartime experience also provides a unique reinterpretation of the war's home-front meaning. Steward leaves no doubt that a full biography of Schenck was justified and could offer a useful point of origin for further research.

Schenck's own actions, however, cast doubt on some of Steward's conclusions. Schenck took every opportunity to advance his own status and wealth, while sacrificing little to advance the cause of the Confederacy or to secure the privilege of white power during Reconstruction. Steward presents these causes as coequal to Schenck's Christian identity; however, it is not clear that any of these features of Schenck's worldview eventually overweighed his own sense of self-preservation. Though he may have used the language of devotion, to claim true adherence, action should be required. In terms of understanding self-identity, Schenck's hypocritical streak can perhaps offer historians an opportunity: reunification after the war did happen, and it required significant historical revision on the part of participants. Steward needed to more fully address Schenck's shortcomings and incorporate them into full measure of the work. It must be noted that Steward does conclude his work by criticizing the unsavory aspects of his subject's character. The work would also offer historians a greater significance if it engaged with the larger narratives in Schenck's life. Schenck certainly was not the only Confederate nationalist in North Carolina, nor is it clear that Steward sees him as representative of all Confederates. It would be beneficial and would strengthen the book to include a discussion of how Schenck fit into the larger understanding of the Confederacy in North Carolina.

Steward's work is a useful addition to the understanding of North Carolina's experience in the Civil War. It will take some further effort to position Schenck within the cultural contours of North Carolina during and after the Civil War, but this work nonetheless advances an important historiographical discussion.

Copyright © 2014 The Kent State University Press
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Lucius Wedge. "David Schenck...

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