January 22, 1865 – Elder statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. returned to Richmond to deliver President Abraham Lincoln’s letter regarding potential peace negotiations to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
By this time, Blair’s peace initiative had attracted attention throughout the North. The Washington National Intelligencer reported “that the Blair Mission has become the national excitement is evident enough from the leading press of the country.” According to the New York Herald, Washington “has been under an intense excitement during the last few days over the question of peace. All manner of probable and improbable, possible and impossible stories have been in circulation. We have had the rebellion closed up, Jeff. Davis flying towards Mexico, and the bulk of the rebel Congress marching for Washington to apply for admittance here.”
Rumors spread that Secretary of State William H. Seward “had decided to make peace on the best terms possible.” President Abraham Lincoln maintained “a reticence of the strictest kind,” but indicated that Blair’s peace effort “was far more successful than he anticipated… and that peace is much nearer at hand than the most confident have at any time hoped for.”
In Richmond, Confederate officials noted Blair’s not-so-secret return to the capital. Vice President Alexander Stephens wrote, “Blair is back again. What he is doing I do not know but presume the President is endeavoring to negotiate with him for negotiation…” Blair arrived on the 21st and met with President Davis that night.
Blair delivered Lincoln’s letter and specifically pointed out that Lincoln would only talk peace on the basis of North and South being “one common country,” not “two countries” as Davis had stated. Lincoln later wrote about this: “Mr. Davis read it over twice in Mr. Blair’s presence, at the close of which he, Mr. B remarked that the part about ‘our one common country’ related to the part of Mr. D’s letter about ‘the two countries’ to which Mr. D replied that he so understood it.”
Blair then brought up his idea of Federals and Confederates calling an armistice and joining forces to oust the French from Mexico. Lincoln had not endorsed this idea, Blair explained, but he had not rejected it either. Blair then told Davis that Lincoln was being pressured by the Radical Republicans, “who wished to drive him into harsher measures than he was inclined to adopt.” Therefore, in Blair’s opinion, “If anything beneficial could be effected, it must be done without the intervention of the politicians.” Perhaps Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee “might enter into an arrangement by which hostilities would be suspended and a way paved for the restoration of peace.”
Davis said that he would trust Lee to engage in peace talks with Grant. But after returning to Washington, Blair notified Davis that the Lincoln administration did not like the idea of a military convention. This meant that if peace talks were to take place, they would have to be based on Lincoln’s letter alone.
Over the next few days, Davis consulted with Confederate Congressman William Rives of Virginia. Rives had opposed secession but went with his home state out of the Union. Davis told him that Richmond was filled with “Despondency and distrust… We are on the eve of an internal revolution.” According to Rives, Davis had made up his mind that a peace convention was needed to stop the dissent, and such a convention would likely result in reunion.
A few days later, Davis summoned Vice President Stephens to his office to discuss “special and important business.” The men were not on friendly terms, and they had not spoken since the Confederate capital moved to Richmond in 1861. Davis shared Blair’s proposals and Lincoln’s letter, and then asked Stephens for his opinion.
Stephens recommended pursuing the matter, “at least so far as to obtain if possible a conference on the subject.” But he disliked Blair’s idea of a military convention because it might result in the Confederacy either joining with the Federals against the French in Mexico or reunion. Instead, Stephens suggested that Davis and Lincoln discuss the matter themselves.
Davis replied that it would not be proper for him to go to Washington, and he knew that Lincoln would not come to Richmond. He would therefore create a commission of political leaders that would try gaining admission to Washington to negotiate a possible peace. Stephens recommended John A. Campbell, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the highest-ranking Federal official to join the Confederacy. He also named Henry Benning, a politician-turned-general, and Thomas Flournoy, “a gentleman of distinguished ability, and well known personally to Mr. Lincoln.” Davis agreed.
The president discussed the matter with his cabinet and shared the names of the potential peace commissioners. They agreed with picking Campbell, but they opposed Benning and Flournoy. The members preferred Robert M.T. Hunter, a former U.S. senator and Confederate secretary of state, and current Confederate Senate pro tempore. The third man would be Stephens himself. Davis made the changes and notified the vice president that he would be sent to Washington. Stephens later wrote:
“I urged and insisted upon the impropriety of myself and Mr. Hunter being on the Commission, for my absence, as the Presiding Officer of the Senate, would, of course, be noticed, and inquiries would almost certainly be made as to where I was (even though he had been in ill-health and often took longs leaves of absence). My efforts to have it changed, however, were of no avail. The President and Cabinet persisted in the selection of the Commissioners, which they had agreed upon; so in this instance… my judgment was yielded to theirs.”
Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin wrote a letter for the commissioners to present to Federal officials. Benjamin made it “as vague and general as possible, so as to get at the views and sentiments of Mr. Lincoln and test the reality” of a possible peace without divulging that Davis truly wanted an armistice. It read: “In compliance with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are hereby requested to proceed to Washington City for conference with him upon the subject to which it relates…”
But Davis insisted that the talks had to be based on Confederate independence. He therefore changed the letter to read:
“In conformity with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are requested to proceed to Washington City for informal conference with him upon the issues involved in the existing war, and for the purpose of securing peace to the two countries.”
This almost ensured that peace negotiations would stop before they even started.
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