July 16, 1864 – Two Federal operatives were permitted to go to Richmond to negotiate a possible peace with President Jefferson Davis.
While Federal and Confederate agents discussed peace at Niagara Falls, a more clandestine meeting took place in Richmond for the same purpose. Colonel James F. Jaquess of the 78th Illinois Infantry and New York merchant James R. Gilmore were allowed through the Federal lines by President Abraham Lincoln to discuss the possibility of ending the war with Confederate officials in Richmond.
The Federals had no official authority, “but were fully possessed of the views of the United States government, relative to an adjustment of the differences existing between the North and the South.” They sought to learn specifically what terms the Confederates wanted for peace.
Judge Robert Ould, the Confederate commissioner for prisoner exchange, met the two men and escorted them to the Confederate capital, where they stayed at the Spotswood Hotel on the night of the 16th. The next day, they met with Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. President Davis joined them at the State Department that night, where they discussed the terms.
Davis said that the war could end “In a very simple way. Withdraw your armies from our territory, and peace will come of itself.” When the Federals suggested that the Confederates could return to the Union under Lincoln’s amnesty program, Davis said:
“Amnesty, sir, applies to criminals. We have committed no crime… At your door lies all the misery and crime of this war… We are fighting for INDEPENDENCE and that, or extermination, we will have… You may ‘emancipate’ every negro in the Confederacy, but we will be free. We will govern ourselves…if we have to see every Southern plantation sacked, and every Southern city in flames.”
Gilmore proposed a ceasefire while a popular referendum was held on the matter. Davis said that this would result in southern defeat because northerners outnumbered southerners. He said, “That the majority shall decide it, you mean. We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority, and this would subject us to it again.” Gilmore declared that the issue involved simply “Union or Disunion,” and Davis countered that it involved “Independence or Subjugation.” Davis explained:
“I tried in all my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for 12 years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. And now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight his battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government… We are fighting for independence–and that, or extermination, we will have.”
When Jaquess and Gilmore mentioned slavery, Davis argued that it was not an “essential element… only a means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination.” Davis also maintained that he had no authority over slavery because it was a state, not a national, issue. He concluded, “Say to Mr. Lincoln, from me, that I shall at any time be pleased to receive proposals for peace on the basis of our independence. It will be useless to approach me with any other.” With this, the meeting ended and the Federals were sent back north.
Lincoln allowed an edited version of this meeting to be published in the Boston Evening Transcript. This convinced many northerners, including the Copperheads working with Confederate agents to negotiate a peace, that the Confederate government would not accept any peace terms except those that granted their independence. Lincoln summed up his interpretation of this by stating that Davis–
“… does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.”
Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21709-27; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9749-801; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 541-42; 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. 766-68