Peace Conference at Hampton Roads

February 3, 1865 – U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward conferred with three Confederate envoys off Hampton Roads, Virginia about a possible end of the war.

Prominent statesman Francis P. Blair, Jr. organized the meeting in hopes it would compel both sides to stop fighting and join forces to confront France for violating the Monroe Doctrine by occupying Mexico. Confederate Jefferson Davis, a friend of Blair, had appointed three envoys (Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, and former Confederate Secretary of State Robert M.T. Hunter) to go to Washington to discuss peace. However, Federal officials detained them in Virginia while awaiting permission for them to go ahead.[1]

While the envoys waited, Lincoln instructed General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant to continue military operations as planned: “Let nothing which is transpiring, change, hinder, or delay your Military movements, or plans.” Grant replied, “There will be no armistice in consequence of the presence of Mr. Stephens and others within our lines. The troops are kept in readiness to move at the shortest notice if occasion should justify it.”[2]

Both U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Major Thomas T. Eckert from the War Department arrived in Virginia with separate missions. Lincoln had advised Seward to speak with the Confederate envoys, while the War Department ordered Eckert not to allow any talks unless the envoys acknowledged the Confederacy did not exist as a sovereign nation. The envoys refused based on Jefferson Davis’s instructions to only negotiate from the standpoint of “two countries.” This threatened to end the talks before they even began.[3]

Seeking to avoid a breakdown, Grant interceded with a message to Washington: “I will state confidentially, but not officially to become a matter of record, that I am convinced… that (the envoys’) intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union… I am sorry however that Mr. Lincoln cannot have an interview with (the envoys)…” Grant then informed the Confederates he would allow them to speak with Seward tomorrow, February 2, even though Eckert “was not satisfied.”[4]

When Lincoln received Grant’s message on the morning of February 2, he modified Eckert’s “one common country” demand by agreeing to join Seward in the discussions: “Say to the gentlemen I will meet them personally at Fortress Monroe as soon as I can get there.” Lincoln arrived off Hampton Roads that evening and boarded the steamer River Queen to consult with Seward before meeting the envoys next morning.[5]

The River Queen | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org public domain

The River Queen | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org public domain

After breakfast on February 3, Lincoln and Seward met with Stephens, Campbell, and Hunter in the salon of River Queen. No secretaries were there to record this informal discussion. The men shared memories of each other before the war, including when Lincoln and Stephens had both opposed the Mexican War as congressmen. This prompted Stephens to suggest that both sides lay down their arms and join forces to expel the French from Mexico. However, Lincoln insisted that no alliance could be made because his administration did not consider the Confederacy to be a sovereign country. For Lincoln, no armistice could be approved unless the southern states returned to the Union.[6]

Lincoln reiterated his three conditions for peace:

  1. “The restoration of national authority…
  2. No receding, by the Executive of the United States on the Slavery question…
  3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war.”

When Campbell asked what terms they could expect if they returned to the Union, Lincoln and Seward responded:

  1. Congress would decide on whether the seceded states would be entitled to federal representation;
  2. West Virginia would remain separated from Virginia;
  3. Congress would likely show leniency toward property claims;
  4. Lincoln would extend executive clemency when possible but would not revoke either the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment, which had been sent to the states for ratification.

Although Lincoln was inflexible on emancipation, he did suggest reimbursing slaveholders for their loss up to 15 percent of the slaves’ 1860 value, amounting to some $400 million.[7]

Based on Lincoln’s conditions and terms, there would be no further negotiation until the southern states agreed to unconditional submission to U.S. rule. Hunter asked, “Mr. President, if we understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government; that we have forfeited our rights, and are proper subjects for the hangman. Is that not about what your words imply?” Lincoln thought then said, “Yes. You have stated the proposition better than I did. That is about the size of it.”[8]

The cordial four-hour meeting ended with no agreements made, mainly because the Confederates insisted on maintaining “two countries” while Lincoln demanded “one common country.” Before leaving for Washington, Lincoln agreed to release Stephens’s nephew, a captured lieutenant in the Lake Erie island prisoner of war camp. Lincoln’s departure left the Confederates to either voluntarily submit to terms they deemed unacceptable or continue fighting until forced to unconditionally submit.[9]

—–

  • [1] Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 632-33
  • [2] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 631-32; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16181-16210
  • [3] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16181-16210; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 202; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 57132-57143
  • [4] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16181-16210; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 204
  • [5] McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 205; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 21-24; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 632-33
  • [6] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16211-16241; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 469
  • [7] Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 690-91, 692-93; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16241-16270; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 132
  • [8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16241-16270; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 469
  • [9] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16241-16270; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 564
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5 thoughts on “Peace Conference at Hampton Roads

  1. […] days after the Hampton Roads Conference, Lincoln met with his cabinet and unveiled a plan proposing that Congress authorize him to allocate […]

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  2. […] Church in Richmond to boost southern morale. Robert M.T. Hunter, who had attended last week’s Hampton Roads conference, declared that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln had “turned from propositions of peace with […]

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  3. […] Church in Richmond to boost southern morale. Robert M.T. Hunter, who had attended last week’s Hampton Roads conference, declared that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln had “turned from propositions of peace with cold […]

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  4. […] 10, 1865 – President Lincoln submitted a report to Congress detailing the proceedings at the Hampton Roads conference of February […]

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  5. […] the last top Confederate official remaining in Richmond. No longer an envoy as he had been at the Hampton Roads Conference, Campbell proclaimed his “submission to the military authorities.” He said, “When lenity and […]

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