Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa
Peter Bridges, Donn Piatt: Gadfly of the Gilded Age. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-60635-116-1, 269 pp., $28.00.
Peter Bridges, a retired foreign service officer, has written a thoughtful and balanced biography of a largely forgotten figure of American diplomacy, politics, and journalism during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.*
Donn Piatt was a well-known Washington insider from the 1850s to the 1880s. During his career, he knew and interacted with the likes of Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Salmon P. Chase, Edwin Stanton, James Garfield, and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Piatt trained as a lawyer and practiced law in Ohio before being elected to a county judgeship. He backed Franklin Pierce for the White House in 1852 and was rewarded with a diplomatic post in Paris as deputy to the U.S. Minister, John Y. Mason. As Mason's deputy, Piatt had limited involvement in formulating the Ostend Manifesto which warned Spain that its continued misrule in Cuba might force the United States to intervene (foreshadowing the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine). He also reported to his State Department superiors about the Franco-British alliance against Russia in the Crimean War. During a brief time period when Mason was ill, Piatt ran the Paris legation.
Piatt, a staunch abolitionist, supported the new Republican Party in the 1856 election and backed Lincoln in 1860. He failed to get a sought-after position in the Lincoln Administration, so he joined the Union army, serving honorably for three years. He fought at both battles at Bull Run and later served on separate commissions to investigate the surrender of more than 12,000 Union forces at Harper's Ferry in September 1862 and to inquire about General Don Carlos Buell's failure to take Chattanooga and failure to prevent Confederate General Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky.
After the war, he briefly served in the Ohio state legislature, but by 1868 he had found his true calling as a muckraking journalist. He became a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial and later founded and edited The Capitol. As a member of the Washington press corps, he was both admired and detested for his sometime scathing attacks on those in power. Bridges notes that Piatt's articles and editorials were frequently reprinted in newspapers across the country.
Piatt, who thought Ulysses S. Grant overrated as a general, was highly critical of Grant as President both for his drinking and the corruption in his administration. But Piatt also criticized his friends, such as Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield, when they were in power. Bridges describes him as a "national gadfly, mocking powerful men and digging into evils in high places." "He was," writes Bridges, "a muckraker a quarter century before Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell were given that name for blasting abuses and corruption in America." Bridges notes, however, that Piatt had his own ethical lapse when in the 1870s he combined lobbying and journalism.
Piatt's single most important written work, according to Bridges, was his book on the Civil War entitled Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union (1887). He gave high marks to Lincoln, Chase, Seward and Stanton as political leaders. He broke with conventional wisdom, however, in his estimate of the Union's military leadership. Grant and Sherman, he wrote, were overrated, and both of them sought to downplay the merits of General George H. Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," who Piatt believed was the ablest Union general during the war.
Piatt spent his last three years editing Belford's Magazine in New York City and writing articles for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He also renewed his faith in the Catholic Church. He died in 1891 at the age of 72.
With this new and interesting biography, Peter Bridges has reintroduced a new generation of readers to "a once famous man with an always rare name."
*[Contributing Editor’s Note: See also Peter Bridges 2007 article in the pages of this journal “Donn Piatt: Diplomat and Gadfly” http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/2007/0103/life/bridges_piatt.html for a look at what later evolved into the book reviewed here. It is a rare opportunity to see the acorn from which the oak has grown.]