January 30, 1865 – Three Confederate emissaries crossed the siege lines at Petersburg to meet with Federal officials and discuss a possible end to the war.
President Jefferson Davis had dispatched Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter. They were given a letter to present to the Federal authorities requesting a meeting to discuss “securing peace to the two countries.”
Under a flag of truce, the envoys reached the picket line of Federal Major General John G. Parke’s IX Corps and were escorted to the nearest ranking Federal officer, who knew nothing about their visit. When the envoys asked to speak with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the officer cracked that he “was on a big drunk.” (Grant was actually at Wilmington planning an invasion of North Carolina.) The next ranking officer, Major General George G. Meade, was at Philadelphia. This left Major General E.O.C. Ord.
Ord notified the War Department that the commissioners were there “in accordance with an understanding claimed to exist with Lt. Gen. Grant…” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wrote that Grant had not notified the department of any arrangement to bring Confederate officials across the lines. He directed Ord to keep the envoys there and sent Major Thomas T. Eckert, head of the War Department telegraph office, to meet with them.
President Abraham Lincoln instructed Eckert to listen to what the commissioners had to say, and then present them with his letter of the 18th. Eckert was to ask the commissioners if they accepted his condition of “one common country” for peace talks, and then “receive their answer in writing, waiting a reasonable time for it.” If they accepted, Ord would be directed to let the envoys pass through the Federal lines, “without further condition.”
As the commissioners waited for Eckert, they conferred and agreed that if they presented Davis’s letter insisting on two separate countries, negotiations would fail. They therefore drafted a new letter to present to Grant:
“Sir: We desire to pass your lines under safe conduct and to proceed to Washington to hold a conference with President Lincoln upon the subject of the existing war, and with a view of ascertaining upon what terms it may be terminated, in pursuance of the course indicated by him in his letter to Mr. F.P. Blair of January 18, 1865, of which we presume you have a copy; and if not, we wish to see you in person, and to confer with you upon the subject.”
Grant returned to his City Point headquarters knowing nothing about either the envoys’ visit or Eckert’s impending arrival. He read the Confederates’ letter and allowed them through the lines to meet with him at his headquarters. Grant wrote, “Your letter to me has been telegraphed to Washington for instructions. I have no doubt but that before you arrive at my Headquarters an answer will be received directing me to comply with your request.” When Grant forwarded the envoys’ letter to Washington, Lincoln replied that Eckert was on his way, and Grant was to cooperate with him.
Word quickly spread that Stephens, Campbell, and Hunter had come to possibly negotiate an end to the war. Both Federal and Confederate troops came out of their trenches and lined up to watch the envoys’ carriage pass on its way to City Point. Meade, recently returned from Philadelphia, wrote to his wife, “Our men cheered loudly, and the soldiers on both sides cried out lustily, ‘Peace! Peace!’”
The three commissioners met with Grant and Meade on the night of the 31st, where they discussed ways to end the war. Stephens told the generals that he hoped to arrange an armistice before talking peace. Meade told him that “any proposal based on a suspension of hostilities would not be received” by Lincoln unless it would lead to reunion. Grant hoped the commissioners might be flexible on this point.
Grant then arranged for them to be comfortably quartered aboard the steamship Mary Martin while he waited for Eckert to arrive. He assured them that if they were not given safe passage to Washington, he would see to it that they were safely returned to their own lines.
Back in Washington, Lincoln anticipated that Eckert would get a positive response and so he directed Secretary of State William H. Seward to follow him down to Virginia to negotiate “on the basis of my letter to F.P. Blair, Esq., on Jan. 18, 1865.” Seward was to tell the envoys that “three things are indispensable” for peace:
- First, “the restoration of the national authority throughout all the States.”
- Second, “no receding, by the Executive of the United States on the Slavery question” as Lincoln had declared in his latest annual message to Congress “and in preceding documents.”
- Third, “no cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.”
Seward would then inform the men that “all propositions of theirs not inconsistent with the above, will be considered and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality.” Seward was not “to definitely consummate anything,” but instead report to Lincoln what the envoys “may choose to say.” Lincoln issued passes for the envoys to go through the Federal lines to Fort Monroe and meet with Seward, but only if Eckert’s interview proved favorable. Eckert would arrive on the afternoon of February 1.
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