February 2, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln accepted a suggestion to meet with Confederate envoys in person to discuss possible peace.
Three Confederate envoys waited at City Point, Virginia, for permission to discuss peace with members of the Lincoln administration. The envoys were Vice President Alexander Stephens, Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell. They were made guests of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, while they waited.
Major Thomas T. Eckert, head of the War Department telegraph office, had been dispatched from Washington to open preliminary talks with the envoys. Eckert was to obtain a written pledge that negotiations would be based on the notion that North and South were “one common country.” If the envoys agreed, they would be allowed to proceed to Fort Monroe, where Secretary of State William H. Seward would talk with them.
While Eckert was in transit, President Lincoln wired Grant: “Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder or delay your military movements or plans.” Grant answered, “There will be no armistice in consequence of the presence of Mr. Stephens and others within our lines. The troops are kept in readiness to move at the shortest notice if occasion should justify it.” The envoys told Grant that they accepted the conditions listed in Lincoln’s letter of January 18 to Francis P. Blair, Sr., “without any personal compromise on any question in the letter.”
Eckert arrived on the afternoon of the 1st, where he informed the envoys of the written pledge and then left them alone to discuss it. When he returned that night, he found that their response did not specifically repudiate President Jefferson Davis’s insistence that peace talks proceed only on the basis of “two countries.” Eckert therefore deemed their answer “not satisfactory,” and at 9:30 p.m., he reported: “I notified them that they could not proceed.”
But Grant did not want the peace talks to break down, and so he interceded with a message of his own an hour later:
“Now that the interview between Major Eckert, under his written instructions, and Mr. Stephens and party has ended, I will state confidentially, but not officially to become a matter of record, that I am convinced, upon conversation with Messrs. Stephens and Hunter, that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union. I have not felt myself at liberty to express even views of my own or to account for my reticency. This has placed me in an awkward position, which I could have avoided by not seeing them in the first instance. I fear now their going back without any expression from any one in authority will have a bad influence. At the same time I recognize the difficulties in the way of receiving these informal commissioners at this time, and do not know what to recommend. I am sorry, however, that Mr. Lincoln cannot have an interview with the two named in this dispatch, if not all three now within our lines. Their letter to me was all that the President’s instructions contemplated, to secure their safe conduct, if they had used the same language to Major Eckert.”
On the morning of the 2nd, Lincoln received a wire from Seward, who was expecting the envoys at Fort Monroe: “Richmond party not here.” Lincoln then received Eckert’s message explaining why he did not let them proceed. The president decided to recall both Seward and Eckert, but then Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton arrived with Grant’s message. Lincoln authorized the envoys to proceed to Fort Monroe and wired Seward: “Induced by a despatch of Gen. Grant, I join you at Fort-Monroe as soon as I can come.” He then wired Grant: “Say to the gentlemen I will meet them personally at Fortress Monroe, as soon as I can get there.”
Travel arrangements were made within two hours. He could not get to Chesapeake Bay in the usual way due to ice on the Potomac River. Lincoln therefore took a special train to Annapolis, walked a half-mile to the landing, and then boarded the steamer Thomas Colyer. Just one aide accompanied him. Word quickly spread that the president had left the capital, and many were not happy about it.
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote that the cabinet viewed it “unfavorably that the Chief Magistrate should have gone on such a mission.” The Radical Republicans in Congress feared that Lincoln might give up too much in exchange for a speedy end to the war. They threatened “hostile investigation and hostile resistance” to the peace effort, but no measures were passed. Nevertheless, the New York Tribune reported that “radical War men made no concealment of their anger and their apprehensions.”
Charles Francis Adams, Jr. wrote to his father, the U.S. minister to Great Britain, that Lincoln’s trip was “a step forward, an indispensable first step.” He spoke for many by adding, “As for dignity, I do not look to President Lincoln for that… I do look to him for honesty and shrewdness and I see no evidence that in this matter he has been wanting in these respects.”
Lincoln arrived at Hampton Roads that night and met with Seward, who was aboard the River Queen. The peace conference would begin the next day.
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