The Diaries of David Schenck

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Southern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

David Schenck circa 1889David Schenck was a mid-level North Carolina bureaucrat whose extensive diaries that are a view into the everyday civilian life of the Confederacy in North Carolina. A Confederate nationalist, Schenck’s influence continued after the war as an opponent of Radical Reconstruction and his leadership of the Ku Klux Klan.

David Schenck was born in 1835 to David Warlick and Susan Bevins Schenck in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Schenck was educated in local schools and received his education in law at Chief Justice Richmond Pearson‘s famous “Richmond Hill” law school. He began to practice law in 1857 in Dallas, Gaston County. It was here that he met and married Sallie Wilfong Ramseur. Sallie was the younger sister of Stephen Dodson Ramseur, later a major general in the Confederate Army.

It was during this period that Schenck began his career in government service as a county solicitor for Gaston County. In 1860 David and Sallie returned to Lincolnton where he appointed solicitor for Lincoln County and then elected as the youngest delegate to the Secession Convention.

David chose to remain in civilian life at the start of the war due to ill health and became an official in the Confederate government. It was in this capacity that he became Confederate States receiver, in which capacity he collected large sums of money for the Confederacy. Schenck would typically collect money from confiscated estates of those accused of disloyalty under the Confederate Act of Sequestration.

The seizure of Southern property that was owned by Northerners was widespread in the South. As an example Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello was owned by a captain in the U.S. Navy, Uriah P. Levy of Pennsylvania. Levy had saved the estate from collapse and it was managed by two local agents. Captain Levy as a U.S. citizen was classified as an enemy alien and as such all of his property was seized.

Under the terms of the Act, all of his property located within the borders of the Confederacy was subject to permanent, uncompensated seizure and sale for the benefit of Confederate citizens who had lost property to the Union.

David Schenck was the receiver operating out of Lincoln County who seized the property that Northerners owned in his area of operation. In the process of doing so he was able to enrich himself by buying seized property at favorable prices.

As early as May 6, 1862, Schenck talked about the prospects of success for the Confederacy. “The conscript law too which takes so many producers from the country will reduce the crops one half and a scarcity of Bread stares us in the face.” 

On this date he summarized the Confederacy’s position:

The present situation of our affairs presents a dark and gloomy picture. The fall of “New Orleans” gives the enemy control of the Mississippi and if Fort Pillow falls, he has an unobstructed highway through our country, from which he can move on any point he chooses – It cuts our Confederacy in two and deprives us of immense military resources.

On September 1, 1862, he celebrated the Union defeat at Second Manassas:

A cool autumn day ushers in the Fall the “summer is ended” and the Confederacy still survives the shock of war and the carnage of battle, and finds our armies in hot pursuit of the flying, lying braggart Pope who vaunted that he was “accustomed to look only on the backs of his foes and who wished to know the forward route and not the lines of retreat.

On the same day he wrote about food prices:

The following almost fabulous prices are now current __ Flour $20 per Barrell __ Bacon 35 cts per pound __ Beef $10 cts per pound __ Leather 1.25 to 2.00 per pound __ cotton yarn $5.00 per bunch __ wool $2.00 per pound __ Sugar 60cts __ Molasses 3.00 per gal. __ Salt 10.00 per bushel __

He also wrote about confiscation and resale of property:

I am engaged these days in my duties as Receiver and have recently sold $20,000 worth of real estate confiscated in my district. Lands bring very high prices. Men who have money and do not wish to speculate, fear a depreciation and prefer to invest their funds in permanent property which cannot well be destroyed; and in fact the abundance of money depreciates it and correspondingly increases prices of good property.

Schenck served in an area of southwestern North Carolina where as the war progressed desertion became a serious problem for Confederate authorities. In a diary entry June 11, 1863, Schenck wrote: “…News from all quarters is that desertion is progressing to an alarming extent and disloyalty is every where increasing and growing bolder.” 

Schenck confided to his diary his doubts about the Confederacy’s chances for success. Not only did it face a vastly superior military force, the loyalty of its army and its homefront were in question. Desertion in North Carolina was widespread and on the rise. Deserters in Yadkin and Wilkes counties alone numbered in the hundreds. The home guard had neither the authority nor the public support to enforce the conscription laws and women provided safe harbor to their husbands and sons who deserted.

David Schenck continued to confide his thoughts to his diary throughout the rest of the war and beyond. He opened a window into the heart and soul of the Confederate South’s burgeoning professional middle class and revealed the complex set of desires, aspirations, and motivations that inspired men like him.

After the war Schenck’s law license was reinstated and he returned to the practice of the law. He took an active role in public life, serving as alderman and mayor; in the life of his church, as a Presbyterian elder; and in educational matters, as a trustee of Davidson College and an enthusiastic supporter of better public schools.

A loyal Democrat, he was he was nominated by his party and elected as judge for the Ninth Judicial District. The courts had come into public disrepute during the early Reconstruction period, and Judge Schenck performed notable service in restoring confidence in the sanctity of the law.

His most famous case was one that involved a conflict between state and federal laws. Not surprisingly, he came came down in favor of the state law in the principle of jurisdiction. In 1880 the University of North Carolina awarded him an honorary LL.D. in recognition of his legal services to North Carolina.

Another side of David Schenck’s life was his position of leadership in the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan (also known as the First Klan) was founded primarily by Confederate veterans as an insurgent movement during the Reconstruction era. It sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans. David Schenck probably joined to further his career both locally and statewide.

In 1881 Schenck resigned his position to become general council with the prosperous Richmond and Danville Railroad (later Southern Railway). It was necessary that he move his family to Greensboro where the railroad was headquartered. At some point he was offered an appointment to the North Carolina Supreme Court but he turned it down to remain in private practice.

In Greensboro, he became a town commissioner, a position that allowed to continue his interest in public affairs. Schenck vigorously pushed for modernization of community facilities like paved streets and sidewalks, electric lights, and better schools. Schools were one of his greatest interests, so it was personally gratifying when he dedicated the town’s first brick schoolhouse in 1887.

Schenck also founded and was the prime mover behind the preservation of the Guilford Battle Ground, a Revolutionary war battlefield site. It was also through his support, physical and financial, that land was purchased, money was appropriated by the state legislature for maintenance, and monuments and other markers were erected. His energy and foresight were rewarded in 1917, when the Guilford Battlefield was incorporated into the National Park Service.

Schenck also published a book entitled North Carolina, 1780–81, a study of the Revolutionary War campaigns of General Nathaniel Greene and Lord Cornwallis.

David Schenck died in August 1902 after a debilitating illness. During his lifetime he had been a staunch Confederate nationalist who refocused his loyalties to become a just as loyal North Carolina loyalist.

If you would like to read further about this fascinating individual Rodney Steward has written a book entitled David Schenck and the Contours of Confederate Identity




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