March 2, 1865 – Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee proposed to meet with Federal General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant to discuss the possibility of “a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention…”
In late February, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of Lee’s First Corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, met between the lines with Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding Grant’s Army of the James. Longstreet and Ord were meeting ostensibly to discuss the illicit trading that was going on between the lines. Having been friends before the war, other topics were brought up, among them the subject of peace. The two men agreed that since the political leaders had failed to reach a peace agreement, maybe the military leaders could negotiate a settlement. According to Longstreet:
“(Ord) thought the war had gone on long enough; that we should come together as former comrades and friends and talk a little. He suggested that the work as belligerents should be suspended; that General Grant and General Lee should meet and have a talk; that my wife, who was an old acquaintance and friend of Mrs. Grant in their girlhood days, should go into the Union lines and visit Mrs. Grant with as many Confederate officers as might choose to be with her. Then Mrs. Grant would return the call under escort of Union officers and visit Richmond; that while General Lee and General Grant were arranging for better feeling between the armies, they could be aided by intercourse between the ladies and officers until terms honorable to both sides could be found.”
Longstreet presented this idea to Lee, who forwarded it to President Jefferson Davis. Lee warned Davis that Grant “will consent to no terms unless coupled with the condition of our return to the Union. Whether this will be acceptable to our people yet awhile I cannot say.” Davis had consistently refused any peace agreement that meant reunion, but with the Army of Northern Virginia on the brink of collapse, Davis wrote:
“If you think the statements of General Ord render it probably useful that the Conference suggested should be had, you will proceed as you may prefer, and are clothed with all the supplemental authority you may need in the consideration of any proposition for a Military Convention, or the appointment of a Commissioner to enter into such an arrangement as will cause at least temporary suspension of hostilities.”
Lee wrote to Grant on the 2nd:
“Lieut. Gen. Longstreet has informed me that, in a recent conversation between himself and Maj. Gen. Ord, as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a Military Convention, General Ord stated that if I desired to have an interview with you on the subject, you would not decline, provided I had authority to act.
“Sincerely desirous to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of War, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that, upon an interchange of view, it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a Convention of the kind mentioned. In such event I am authorized to do whatever the result of the proposed interview may render necessary or advisable. Should you accede to the proposition I would suggest that, if agreeable to you, we meet at the place selected by Generals Ord and Longstreet for their interview at 11 a.m. on Monday next (the 6th).”
Grant received Lee’s letter during dinner on the night of the 3rd. He read it and then forwarded it to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with a covering note: “I have not returned any reply but promised to do so at noon tomorrow. I respectfully request instructions.”
Stanton brought the messages to President Abraham Lincoln, who was at the Capitol signing bills into law before Congress adjourned. Lincoln and Stanton concluded that allowing a military convention to take place would not only undermine the terms Lincoln had given for peace at Hampton Roads, but it would indirectly recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. Thus, Stanton responded:
“The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army, or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.”
Grant then responded to Lee:
“In regard to meeting you on the 6th instant, I would state that I have no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed. Such authority is vested in the President of the United States alone. General Ord could only have meant that I would not refuse an interview on any subject on which I have a right to act, which, of course, would be such as are purely of a military character, and on the subject of exchanges which has been intrusted to me.”
Thus, neither political nor military leaders would negotiate an end to the war. The end would only come on the battlefield.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 500-01; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 423-24; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541; 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 16923-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560-61; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8191; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-27; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 645-47