Notable Visitors: Donn Piatt (1819-1891)

Donn Piatt

Ohio Lawyer turned army officer who had repeated interactions with President Lincoln in his role as an aide to a prominent general operating in Maryland. Piatt angered President Lincoln by promoting policies that agitated Maryland citizens in 1864. According to Piatt, his own behavior in recruiting black slaves for the Union Army caused President Lincoln to lose his temper – a rare occurrence for the chief magistrate.

As a prominent attorney and judge in Ohio before the Civil War, Piatt had developed friendships with several even more prominent men who played important parts in the Civil War – including Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. When the Civil War commenced, Piatt entered the army as a private, but was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel and adjutant to General Robert E. Schenck, also of Ohio. Piatt visited Lincoln late in the 1860 campaign after campaigning in southern Illinois for the Republican ticket. Piatt remained somewhat critical of Lincoln, according to his memoirs, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union. Of this first meeting, he wrote: “I soon discovered that this strange and strangely gifted man, while not at all cynical, was a skeptic. His view of human nature was low, but good-natured. I could not call it suspicious, but he believed only what he saw. This low estimate of humanity blinded him to the South. He could not understand that men would get up in their wrath and fight for an idea. He considered the movement South as a sort of political game of bluff, gotten up by politicians, and meant solely to frighten the North.”1

During the Civil War, he sometimes reported in person or by telegram to President Lincoln. On July 2, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg, he responded to a telegram the President had sent General Schenck: “Nothing today– Two (2) of Reynolds staff passed through with body. Gave details of fight yesterday which were encouraging Genl Schenck not here to answer so I respond for him.”2 He developed a sense of Lincoln’s character that was at variance to many contemporaries: “There never lived a man who could say ” no ” with readier facility, and abide by his saying with more firmness, than President Lincoln. His good-natured manner misled the common mind. It covered as firm a character as nature ever clad with human flesh, and I doubt whether Mr. Lincoln had at all a kind, forgiving nature. Such traits are not common to successful leaders. They, like Hannibal, melt their way through rocks with hot vinegar, not honey. And that good-natured way covers a selfish more generally than a generous disposition. Men instinctively find it easier to glide comfortably through life with a round, oily, elastic exterior, than in an angular, hard one. Such give way in trifles and hold their own tenaciously in all the more serious sacrifices demanded for the good or comfort of others. If one doubts what I here assert, let such turn and study the hard, angular, coarse face of this great man. Nature never gave that face as an indication of a tender, yielding disposition. Nor had his habits of life in any respect softened its hard lines.”3

Piatt testified to Lincoln’s strong character. Regarding requests for favors, Piatt wrote that Lincoln “would refuse so clearly and positively that it left no doubt and no hope, and yet in such a pleasant manner that the applicant left with no ill feeling in his disappointment. I heard Secretary Seward say, in this connection, that President Lincoln ‘had a cunning that was genius.'” As for his steady refusal to sanction the death penalty in cases of desertion, there was far more policy than kind feeling in this course. To assert the contrary is to detract from Lincoln’s force of character as well as intellect. As Secretary Chase said at the time, “Such kindness to the criminal is cruelty to the army, for it encourages the bad to leave the brave and patriotic unsupported.”4

As a judge advocate, Piatt was the War Department’s prosecutor in a court of inquiry into the leadership of General Don Carlos Buell. “Stanton had expected Piatt to act as his prosecutorial agent, and at the outset he obliged. But as the trial proceeded, his conduct of the hearing changed. In Buell, he recognized an able general who had simply made mistakes; in Thomas, a figure of huge potential for the war,” wrote Benson Bobrick. “Piatt remained in the War Department for a time, but his role of dutiful servant soon came to an end. He was an ardent reformer (‘If there’s any rotten apples in the barrel, he can be counted on to hook ’em out,’ said Lincoln, with some annoyance, who felt you had to leave some in); and too much of an abolitionist for Lincoln’s taste. Piatt had tried to push the process along in Maryland (prematurely, in Lincoln’s view) and when his name came up for promotion from colonel to brigadier general, Lincoln drew his pen through it, saying, ‘Knows too much.'”5 Piatt recalled an interaction with President Lincoln at the War Department:

I was sitting with General Dan. Tyler, of Connecticut, in the ante-chamber of the War Department, shortly after the adjournment of the Buell Court of Inquiry, of which we had been members, when President Lincoln came in from the room of Secretary Stanton. Seeing us, he said:

“Well, gentlemen, you did not survive the war, and now have you any matter worth reporting, after such a protracted investigation?”

“I think so, Mr. President,” replied General Tyler. “We had it proven that Bragg, with less than 10,000 men, drove your S3,000 under Buell back from before Chattanooga down to the Ohio, at Louisville, marched round us twice, then doubled us up at Perryville, and finally got out of Kentucky with all his plunder.”

“Now, Tyler,” said the President, “what is the meaning of all this; what is the lesson? Don’t our men march as well, and fight as well, as these rebels? If not, there is a fault somewhere. We are all of the same family—same sort.”

“Yes, there is a lesson,” replied General Tyler. “We are of the same sort, but subject to a different handling. Bragg’s little force was superior to our larger number, because he had it under control. If. a man left his ranks, he was punished; if he deserted, he was shot. We had nothing of that sort. If we attempt to shoot a deserter, you pardon him, and our army is without discipline.”

The President looked perplexed.

“Why do you interfere?” General Tyler continued. “Congress has taken from you all responsibility.”

“Yes,” answered the President, impatiently, “Congress has taken the responsibility, and left the women to howl about me,” and so he strode away, and General Tyler remarked that as it was not necessary for the President to see one of these women, to jeopardize an army on such grounds was very feeble. The fact was, however, as I have said, the President had other and stronger motives for his conduct.6

Stories of the President Lincoln’s wrath are few. Piatt recalled: “I never saw him angry but once, and I had no wish – to see a second exhibition of his wrath. We were in command of what was called the Middle Department, with headquarters at Baltimore. General Schenck, with the intense loyalty which distinguished that eminent soldier, shifted the military sympathy from the aristocracy of Maryland to the Union men, and made the eloquent Henry Winter Davis and the well-known jurist Judge Bond our associates and advisers. These gentlemen could not understand why, having such entire command of Maryland, the Government did not make it a free State, and so, taking the property from the disloyal, render them weak and harmless, and bring the border of free States to the capital of the Union. The fortifications about Baltimore, used heretofore to threaten that city, now under the influence of Davis, Bond, Wallace, and others, had their guns turned outward for the protection of the place, and it seemed only necessary to inspire the negroes with faith in us as liberators to perfect the work. The first intimation I received that this policy of freeing Maryland was distasteful to the Administration came from Secretary Stanton. I had told him what we thought, and what we hoped to accomplish. I noticed an amused expression on the face of the War Secretary, and when I ended, he said dryly:

“You and Schenck had better attend to your own business.”

I asked him what he meant by “our business.” He said, “Obeying orders, that’s all.”7

Lincoln’s annoyance with Schenck had consequences. “The President never forgave me. Subsequently, when General Schenck resigned command to take his seat in Congress, the Union men of Maryland and Delaware, headed by Judge Bond, waited on the President with a request that I be promoted to brigadier-general, and put in command of the Middle Department. Mr. Lincoln heard them patiently, and then refused, saying: ‘Schenck and Piatt are good fellows, and if there were any rotten apples in the barrel they’d be sure to hook ’em out. But they run their machine on too high a level for me. They never could understand that I was boss.'”8

Still, Piatt admitted in his memoirs, “President Lincoln’s patriotism and wisdom rose above impulse, or his positive temperament and intellect kept him free of mere sentiment. Looking back now at this grand man, and the grave situation at the time, I am ashamed of my act of insubordination, and although it freed Maryland, it now lowers me in my own estimation. Had the President carried his threat of punishment into execution it would have been just.”9

Piatt’s observations of prominent Cabinet members could be pungent. In his memoirs, he wrote: “Salmon P. Chase was anything but a solemn ass. His intellectual attainments put him at the head of his profession, that of lawyer, before they made him conspicuous as a politician. He was a hard student, and his thoughtful processes assimilated, well and rapidly, the information he acquired.”10

Piatt was a witness to the evolving relationship between Edwin M. Stanton and Abraham Lincoln. Piatt recalled: “I happened to be at Washington when Stanton was called to the Cabinet of President Lincoln. It was a strange event. Stanton was not only a Democrat of so fierce a sort that his democracy seemed his religion, but he felt, and had openly expressed, his contempt for Abraham Lincoln. I remember an instance of this last that is a painful memory, looking back, as I do, with loving admiration for both these great men. Stanton had won his way to the front as an able advocate, and found himself leading counsel in an important case involving millions. He learned, a few moments before going to trial, that Lincoln had been retained, and expected to make an argument. He told me of this, and described, in wrath, the long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat, on the back of which the perspiration had splotched two wide stains that, emanating from each arm-pit, met at the centre, and resembled a dirty map of a continent.

“I said,” snorted Stanton, “that if that giraffe appeared in the case I would throw up my brief and leave.”

Lincoln was ruled out, and the worst part of the transaction was that he knew of the insult. Nothing has so impressed the belief I hold in the greatest of all Presidents as this utter ignoring of a brutal affront. It was no assumption of Christian forgiveness. Lincoln could hate with an intensity known only to strong natures, and when just retribution demanded it he could punish with an iron will no appeals for pity could move. But he possessed that strange sense of power that lifted him above personal insult. In a word, he could not be insulted. In his quiet dignity he put shame on the aggressor. He illustrated this in his own humorous way, when told by a friend that Horace Greeley was abusing him in a most outrageous manner.

“That reminds me,” he said, “of the big fellow whose little wife was wont to beat him over the head without resistance. When remonstrated with, the man said, * Let her alone. It don’t hurt me, and it does her a power of good.’ “I do not wonder at President Lincoln selecting Stanton to control, at the time, the most important arm of the Government, but I was amazed at Stanton’s acceptance.

He was wont to pass some time, almost daily, at our room in the hotel, where, in the society of my dear wife, he seemed to relax from the sombre reserve of busy life. It was a relaxation quite removed from the kindly, impulsive nature of early youth. There was the same sense of humor, but it was cynical, and stung, as well as amused. Some days before he entered upon his new duties, I asked him, in the privacy of our room, if the strange report was true.
“Yes,” he responded, “I am going to be Secretary of War to Old Abe.”

“What will you do ?” I asked, meaning as to how he could reconcile his contempt for the President, and their widely dissimilar views, with his service under him. His reply ignored my meaning.

“Do?” he said; “I intend to accomplish three things. I will make Abe Lincoln President of the United States. I will force this man McClellan to fight or throw up; and last, but not least, I will pick Lorenzo Thomas up with a pair of tongs and drop him from the nearest window.”

Strange as it is, this last and apparently easiest task was the one he did not accomplish. Lorenzo defied him, and, as Sumner wrote Stanton, ” stuck ” to the last.
To appreciate the change wrought in the appointment of Mr. Stanton, one has to understand the condition of the Government at the time the Hon. Simon Cameron was retired. The war that so unexpectedly broke upon us—so unexpectedly that the Government itself could not believe in its existence until the roar of Confederate artillery rung in its ears, found a people at the North not only unprepared, but in profound ignorance of all that was necessary to carry on an armed conflict. All the wars that went to make up our history, as wars are wont to do, had been fought out in skirmishes that left the Government and the body of the people unenlightened as to the necessities of a great conflict, such as the rest of the world is taught and trained through experience to understand.

The volunteers, accepted from the States, elected their officers, and were, in consequence, constituents instead of privates, and these officers studied, overnight, all they attempted to practise the next day ; and while the awkward drill went on, of discipline, the soul and body of an army, there was none.

Two facts alone saved us: one was the strange adaptability of our people to any emergency, and the other, that our enemy was in as bad condition as ourselves.11

Before the Civil War, Piatt served as a lawyer and judge – and as a prominent Democrat, sought a diplomatic post from President Franklin Pierce, who named him consul at Paris in 1854.

Piatt came back to the nation’s capital after the war – this time as a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial. He became a noted writer, playwright and humorist. After he founded his own magazine, The Capital, he gained a reputation as a muckracker and opponent of official corruption.


  1. Donn Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 30.
  2. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Telegram from Donn Piatt to Abraham Lincoln, July 2, 1863).
  3. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 36.
  4. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 37.
  5. Benson Bobrick, Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas, p. 140
  6. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, pp. 37-39.
  7. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 44.
  8. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 46.
  9. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 48.
  10. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 95.
  11. Piatt, Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, p. 55-58.


Donn Piatt
Edwin M. Stanton
Lorenzo Thomas
Robert Schenck
Abraham Lincoln and Maryland
Abraham Lincoln and Ohio