January 12, 1865 – Prominent statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. visited Confederate President Jefferson Davis at Richmond and proposed a possible peace settlement between North and South.
Blair had obtained a pass from President Abraham Lincoln in late December to go through the Federal military lines. Blair then wrote to Davis asking permission to come to Richmond to retrieve papers that Confederate troops had stolen from his Maryland home in July. But he added that his real reason for wanting to go there was to discuss the possibility of ending the war.
Davis received Blair’s letters on the 3rd and granted him permission to come to the Confederate capital. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles chartered the flagship of the Potomac River naval flotilla to transport Blair from Washington to Aiken’s Landing on the James River. From there, a flag-of-truce vessel brought him to Richmond.
When word spread that the navy helped Blair get into the Confederacy, many believed that Lincoln endorsed the statesman’s visit. This drew mixed reactions in the North, as some hoped for peace as soon as possible, regardless of who helped negotiate it, while others wanted the war to end only when the South was truly defeated. And still others wanted to keep fighting to ensure that slavery was permanently abolished.
Blair anonymously checked into Richmond’s Spotswood Hotel before visiting Davis and his wife Varina at the Executive Mansion on the night of the 12th. The attendees exchanged pleasantries, after which Varina left and the two men got down to business. Blair explained that he could not speak for the Lincoln administration, confessing that his ideas “were perhaps merely the dreams of an old man.” He then read from a paper he had written that outlined these ideas.
Blair proposed an armistice period, during which the Federals and Confederates would join forces to oust the French government from Mexico. France had violated the Monroe Doctrine by invading Mexico and installing a puppet regime led by Archduke Maximilian, a relative of Napoleon III. Blair intimated that perhaps Davis himself could lead the southern contingent of the united force.
According to Davis, “it was evident that he (Blair) counted on the disintegration of the Confederate States if the war continued, and that in any event he regarded the institution of slavery as doomed to extinction.” Noting that the Confederate Congress was likely to approve a bill recruiting slaves into the military (and ostensibly grant them freedom after service), Blair believed that slavery “no longer remains an insurmountible (sic) obstruction to pacification.”
Blair also asserted that Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction and his recent message to Congress showed that he would be willing to talk peace. Joining forces to oust the French from Mexico could unite Americans in a common cause, leading to reunion. Blair was confident that Federal troops would join the Confederates for this cause, and he even pledged to send his son, Frank, Jr., to command a portion of the force. Blair suggested that once the French were overthrown, Davis might install himself as Mexican ruler.
Regarding European colonization of the West, Davis replied that “no circumstances would have a greater effect… than to see the arms of our countrymen from the North and the South united in a war upon a foreign power assailing principles of government common to both sections and threatening their destruction.” However, Davis argued that the Mexicans had to topple the French regime on their own because “no one can foresee how things would shape themselves” in Mexico.
The president then said that reconciliation “depended upon well-founded confidence” in the good faith of both North and South. Before the war, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward had first suggested fighting the French in Mexico to keep North and South united. Davis, assuming that Seward would be the North’s chief negotiator, declared that he distrusted him.
Blair did not defend Seward, instead telling Davis that this would not be handled by the State Department. He said that “this matter, if entered upon at all, must be with Mr. Lincoln himself… The transaction is a military transaction, and depends entirely on the Commander-in-Chief of our armies,” and Lincoln could be trusted.
Davis wrote that Blair hoped to exchange “reason for passion, sense of justice for a desire to injure, and that if the people were subsequently engaged together to maintain a principle recognized by both, if together they should bear sacrifices, share dangers, and gather common renown, new memories would take the place of those now placed by the events of this war and might in the course of time restore the feelings which preexisted.”
Blair then stated that Lincoln was not as sympathetic with the Radical Republicans in Congress as the southern press believed. The Radicals demanded the South’s unconditional surrender, but Blair thought that Lincoln would be willing to negotiate a more lenient settlement. However, Blair warned that time was running out because the next Congress taking office later that year would be dominated by Radicals intent on stopping any negotiations with the South.
“Throughout the conference, Mr. Blair appeared to be animated by a sincere desire to promote a pacific solution of existing difficulty, but claimed no other power than that of serving as a medium of communication between those who had thus far had no intercourse and were therefore without the co-intelligence which might secure an adjustment of their controversy.”
Davis remained skeptical, especially since the Lincoln administration had insisted on unconditional submission to the national authority since the war began. However, he believed that if he expressed a willingness to negotiate, and Lincoln did not reciprocate, it might show southerners that the Federals only wanted to subjugate them, and they would therefore fight even harder for independence. Thus, Davis wrote a letter for Blair to deliver to Lincoln:
“Sir: I have deemed it proper and probably desirable to you to give you in this form the substance of remarks made by me to be repeated by you to President Lincoln, etc., etc. I have no disposition to find obstacles in forms, and am willing now, as heretofore, to enter into negotiations for the restoration of peace, am ready to send a commission whenever I have reason to suppose it will be received, or to receive a commission if the United States Government shall choose to send one. That, notwithstanding the rejection of our former offers, I would, if you could promise that a commissioner, minister, or other agent would be received, appoint one immediately, and renew the effort to enter into conference with a view to secure peace to the two countries.”
The last two words in Davis’s letter ensured that a peace settlement could not be reached. Davis refused to discuss peace without southern independence, while Lincoln had insisted since the day he took office that North and South must be of one country. Nevertheless, Blair returned north to deliver the letter to the White House.
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