The Hampton Roads Conference: Southern Reaction

February 6, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis submitted his report on the Hampton Roads peace conference to the Confederate Congress, along with his denunciation of the Federals’ insistence on reunion.

The three Confederate envoys (Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter) returned to Richmond on the 4th following their meeting with U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward at Hampton Roads. They met with President Davis that night and briefed him on what had been discussed.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

The Confederates got nothing they had hoped for in the talks, and Davis asserted that Lincoln had “acted in bad faith” by rejecting Francis P. Blair, Sr.’s plan to unite Federals and Confederates against the French in Mexico. But according to Stephens, “the publicity of the Mission was enough to account for its failure, without attributing it to any bad faith, either on the part of Mr. Blair or Mr. Lincoln.”

Stephens wrote that even though the Confederate cause seemed lost, Davis believed “that Richmond could still be defended, notwithstanding Sherman had already made considerable progress on this march from Savannah; and that our Cause could still be successfully maintained…” Hunter agreed with Davis, but Campbell later wrote, “I recommended the return of our commission or another commission to adjust a peace. I believed that one could be made upon the concession of union and the surrender of slavery, upon suitable arrangements.”

Davis refused. According to Campbell, Davis argued that “the Constitution did not allow him to treat for his own suicide. All that he could do would be to receive resolutions and submit them to the sovereign States; that his personal honor did not permit him to take any steps to make such a settlement as was proposed.”

J.A. Campbell | Image Credit:

Campbell opined that the peace effort “failed, principally through Mr. Davis, who had no capacity to control himself to do an irksome, exacting, humiliating, and, in his judgment, dishonoring act, however called for by the necessities of his situation. He preferred to let the edifice fall into ruins, expecting to move off with majesty before the event occurred.”

The next day, the commissioners submitted their formal report on the Hampton Roads conference to Davis. It stated in part:

“… A conference was granted… We understood from him (Lincoln) that no terms or proposals of any treaty or agreements looking to an ultimate settlement would be entertained or made by him with the authorities of the Confederate States, because that would be recognition of their existence as a separate power, which, under no circumstances, would be done… During the conference, the proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States adopted by Congress on the 31st ultimo was brought to our notice…”

Davis forwarded the report to the Confederate Congress with a presidential message:

“I herewith submit for the information of Congress the report of the eminent citizens above named, showing that the enemy refused to enter into negotiations with the Confederate States, or any one of them separately, or to give to our people any other terms or guarantees than those which the conqueror may grant, or to permit us to have peace on any other basis than our unconditional submission to their rule, coupled with the acceptance of their recent legislation, including an amendment to the Constitution for the emancipation of all the negro slaves, and with the right on the part of the Federal Congress to legislate on the subject of the relations between the white and black population of each State. Such is, as I understand, the effect of the amendment to the Constitution which has been adopted by the Congress of the United States.”

Virginia Governor William Smith organized a meeting at Richmond’s Metropolitan Hall to condemn the Hampton Roads results. Hunter attended the meeting and spoke for the Confederate envoys:

“If anything was wanted to stir blood, it was furnished when we were told that the United States could not consent to entertain any proposition coming from us as a people. Lincoln might have offered something… No treaty, no stipulation, no agreement, either with the Confederate States jointly or with them separately; what was this but unconditional submission to the mercy of the conquerors?”

On the 9th, Davis and other high-ranking Confederate officials attended a day-long rally at the African Church, which was borrowed for the occasion for its spaciousness. Hunter delivered another speech, this time declaring that Lincoln “turned from propositions of peace with cold insolence. I will not attempt to draw a picture of subjugation. It would require a pencil dripped in blood.” Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin said, “Hope beams in every countenance. We know in our hearts that this people must conquer its freedom or die.”

Davis hoped that news of the failed peace conference would galvanize southerners to fight even harder for their independence. He announced that he “would be willing to yield up everything he had on earth” before submitting to Federal authority. Davis asserted that the Confederate military was in excellent condition, and “Sherman’s march through Georgia would be his last.”

He predicted that the Federals would seek peace terms by summer, and declared, “I can have no ‘common country’ with the Yankees. My life is bound up in the Confederacy; and, if any man supposes that, under any circumstances, I can be an agent of reconstruction of the Union, he has mistaken every element of my nature!”


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21852-68; 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 16270-330; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 551; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 692-93; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 635; 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. 823-24; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 468, 470-71

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