Reconstruction in Virginia

April 12, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln revoked his plan to restore Virginia to the Union after facing heated opposition from his cabinet.

When Lincoln visited Richmond the previous week, he had informed John A. Campbell, the last top Confederate official still in the city, that he would consider ousting Virginia’s feeble, illegitimate pro-U.S. legislature in favor of the popularly elected body if its members affirmed allegiance to the U.S. and acknowledged the end of slavery. Campbell had pledged to work with the legislators to obtain their affirmation.[1]

On April 6, Lincoln wrote to Major General Godfrey Weitzel, commanding Federal occupation forces in Richmond:

It has been intimated to me that the gentlemen who have acted as the Legislature of Virginia, in support of the rebellion, may now now (sic) desire to assemble at Richmond, and take measures to withdraw the Virginia troops, and other support from resistance to the General government. If they attempt it, give them permission and protection, until, if at all, they attempt some action hostile to the United States, in which case you will notify them and give them reasonable time to leave… Allow Judge Campbell to see this, but do not make it public.[2]

In this message, Lincoln maintained his consistent assertion that the Confederacy was not a legitimate nation, but merely a region of the U.S. in rebellion. Secretly showing the message to Campbell intended to encourage him to garner support for the U.S. among the Virginia legislators without obligating Lincoln to grant anything in return.[3]

Lincoln forwarded this message to General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, whose forces were in the process of finishing off the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln added a note: “I do not think it very probable that anything will come of this, but I have thought it best to notify you, so that if you should see signs you may understand them. Nothing I have done, or probably shall do, is to delay, hinder, or interfere with you in your work.”[4]

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

At the April 11 cabinet meeting, nearly all cabinet members opposed Lincoln’s plan. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton led the opposition, declaring “that to place such powers in the Virginia legislature would be giving away the scepter of the conqueror; that it would transfer the result of victory of our arms from the field to the very legislatures which four years before had said, ‘give us war’; that it would put the Government in the hands of its enemies; that it would surely bring trouble with Congress.”[5]

Attorney General James Speed and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles also voiced disagreement with Lincoln. Welles feared that “the Rebel legislature… once convened… would with their hostile feelings be inclined perhaps, to conspire against us.” Welles noted that none of the cabinet members though it prudent to risk having the legislators propose reasonable terms for returning to the U.S. just so the Lincoln administration could reject them.[6]

Lincoln still maintained that if “prominent Virginians” would unite, they would “turn themselves and their neighbors into good Union men.” But after thinking the matter over, he met again with Stanton on April 12. Stanton repeated his opposition, warning that allowing former Confederates to govern Virginia would affect “the fate of the emancipated millions” and the legislature, “being once assembled, its deliberations could not be confined to any specific acts.”[7]

This, along with a telegram warning that Campbell may be helping the legislature to exceed its authority, persuaded Lincoln to issue a new directive to Weitzel. Lincoln wrote: “Do not now allow them to assemble; but if any have come, allow them safe-return to their homes.” He also used legal language to assert Campbell had wrongly assumed that Lincoln allowed the pro-Confederate legislature to assemble in the first place: “I have done no such thing. I spoke of them not as a Legislature, but as ‘the gentlemen who acted as the Legislature of Virginia in support of the rebellion.’”[8]

Thus, Lincoln revoked the order for the legislature to assemble despite his earlier promise to Campbell. Lincoln reasoned that he had encouraged the legislature to assemble primarily to help disperse Confederate forces in Virginia. But because Robert E. Lee had surrendered since Lincoln first suggested it, assembling the legislature was no longer so important.[9]

—–

[1] McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 215

[2] 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 18934-18944; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 667-68

[3] 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 58777-58780

[4] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18934-18944

[5] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 20255-20265; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 729-30

[6] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 20255-20265; Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 729-30

[7] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 20255-20265; Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 729-30

[8] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 20255-20285; Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 730; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 673-75

[9] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 20255-20285

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2 thoughts on “Reconstruction in Virginia

  1. […] Lincoln revoked permission for the pro-Confederate Virginia legislature to assemble at […]

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