July 4, 1863 – Confederate officials arrived off Hampton Roads, Virginia, to negotiate prisoner exchange terms with the Federals. They were also unofficially authorized to negotiate a possible end to the war.
President Jefferson Davis instructed Vice President Alexander Stephens to “proceed as a military commissioner under flag of truce” to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and then, if the Federals permitted, on to Washington. Robert Ould, the Confederate agent in charge of prisoner exchange, accompanied Stephens.
The men were to try renegotiating the violated prisoner exchange cartel, as the Confederates accused the Federals of keeping officers and men in confinement even after being exchanged. But Stephens was also authorized to entertain offers to end the war if the subject came up.
Stephens and Ould boarded the flag-of-truce steamer Torpedo at Richmond on the 3rd and proceeded down the James River to the Federal lines at Norfolk. Davis hoped to time the journey so that Stephens would arrive at Washington around the same time as General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
The Torpedo reached Hampton Roads on the morning of Independence Day. Stephens sent a request to the Federal admiral stationed there to be allowed to continue to Washington. The admiral instructed Stephens to wait while he notified his superiors.
When President Abraham Lincoln received the request, he favored the idea of talking with Stephens, his old friend from Congress. But news of the Federal victory at Gettysburg arrived around the same time, and Lincoln’s cabinet argued that negotiating peace now would give the Confederacy false hope that it still may gain independence. Lincoln ultimately acknowledged that once the Federals destroyed the Confederacy’s ability to wage war, southerners “would be ready to swing back to their old bearings,” without negotiations on ending the war, or even on prisoner exchange.
Stephens and Ould waited for two days aboard the Torpedo before Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton telegraphed a response to the Federal commanders at Fort Monroe: “Until you receive (Lincoln’s) instructions hold no communication with Mr. Stephens or Mr. Ould, nor permit either of them to come within our lines. Our victory is complete. Lee’s in full retreat.”
The Federals informed Stephens and Ould, “The request is inadmissible. The customary agents and channels are adequate for all needful military communications and conference between the United States forces and the insurgents.” The Confederates returned to Richmond the next day, unable to discuss either prisoner exchange or peace with the Federals.
Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21469-75; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 300, 302; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9671; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 652-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 323; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 376, 379; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 650, 664; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363