University of South Carolina

USC Salk historian sheds light on Civil War figure David Schenck

By Peggy Binette,, 803-777-5400

David Schenck wanted to be accepted and admired, so much so that when he saw the chance, he grabbed power and became a central figure in an intrigue that bilked North Carolinians of their money, land and belongings at a time when they were most vulnerable.

Hidden in plain view within the pages Schenck’s diaries that spanned 50 years, yet under the noses of Civil War historians who have referenced them for decades, are clues to his role as a Confederate receiver.

“I had been laboring under the impression that David Schenck as a receiver under the Confederate Act of Sequestration was some sort of tax collector because everything I could find, which wasn’t much at all, indicated that,” said USC Salkehatchie historian Rodney Steward. “What I found was anything but that.”

Steward’s biography on the Confederate official and lawyer, “David Schenck and the Contours of Confederate Identity,” was released in June by the University of Tennessee Press.

“No one has written about sequestration. I can count on about one hand the number of publications that has dealt with the topic since 1865,” Steward said.

In response to a U.S. Congressional act that allowed Union forces to confiscate property, including slaves, the Confederate Congress passed the Act of Sequestration, which established grand juries and receivers who were charged with ferreting out and seizing the property, debts and anything that was in part or fully owned by a Northerner.

“If you owed money to a Northern factor, you now owed that money to the Confederate government,” Steward said. “It was the only legislation whose jurisdiction was the exclusive domain of the Confederate government. All other policies were delegated to state governments. In this sense, Schenck and other receivers become the face of the Confederate government at the local level.”

While the proceeds of property seized and auctioned were supposed to go to the coffers of the Confederacy, Steward discovered deceit.

“Schenck writes in his diary in 1862 when he first gets started. He makes an entry where he says that he auctioned $22,000 worth of property on a single day. However, the sequestration fund ledger in Richmond indicates that in the month of September 1862 only $3,682 was remitted,” he said. “The district court of North Carolina pocketed or distributed those funds liberally among the various members of the court.”

Steward said its makes a person wonder how much of New South fortunes were the result of this corruption.

“A lot of evidence has been mysteriously scattered,” Steward said. “I’ve found records and court writs in some strange places, including archived records of The Charlotte Observer and a variety of collections in the National Archives. We’re talking about untold amounts of money that I have an idea was upwards of $10 – 20 million.”

Steward became fascinated with Schenck as a Confederate nationalist and how religion, duty and manhood shaped his identity.

“The first story about David Schenck that I connected with was the construction of his Confederate identity,” he said. “Schenck came of age in the antebellum South, which had very rigid social norms in which few were deemed ‘respectable.’ Schenck was part of the small but burgeoning middle class and although he became a lawyer, he remained on the periphery of elite society. His religious training or the lack thereof was an impediment. His father, left in a religious stupor after the death of his wife when Schenck was 2, didn’t provide the spiritual training essential for a young man to being accepted into polite society.”

To overcome social disadvantage, Schenck fashioned a Confederate identity. He became an ardent supporter of the Southern Rights Party of North Carolina, a party Steward describes as “dangerous revolutionaries with violent revolution in mind.”

“They were not hot-headed cotton lovers who wanted to break with the Union and join the secessionist side, and they were definitely not the democracy loving, patriarchal, personal rights individuals that some have portrayed them to be,” Steward said. “These were professional middle-class men who wanted to destroy the state’s Democratic Party and replace it with their new secessionist party and overthrow the popular governance of the state by any means necessary so that North Carolina is removed from the Union. That is what no one has written about.”

The image he fashioned and projected along with his role as a receiver for the Confederacy are among the more compelling aspects of the biography. Another is debunking the notion that those on the homefront were weary loyalists.

“Looking at North Carolina’s homefront through Schenck’s eyes is something more like the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror,” he said. “People were threatened with the loss of their lives, liberty and property.”

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Posted: 07/10/12 @ 4:45 PM | Updated: 07/24/12 @ 10:24 AM | Permalink