April 5, 1865 – While visiting Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln quickly set about working to restore Virginia to the Union.
On the afternoon of the 4th, Lincoln met with former Confederate Assistant Secretary of War and U.S. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, the highest-ranking Confederate official still in Richmond. No longer an envoy as he had been at the Hampton Roads Conference, Campbell proclaimed his “submission to the military authorities.” He said, “When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”
According to Campbell: “I represented the conditions to him (Lincoln) and requested that no requisitions on the inhabitants be made of restraint of any sort save to police and preservation of order; not to exact oaths, interfere with the churches, etc. He assented to this.” Acknowledging that the war was over, Campbell urged Lincoln to exercise “moderation, magnanimity and kindness” toward the defeated South.
Campbell also recommended that Lincoln meet with Virginia politicians who “were satisfied that submission was a duty and a necessity” and discuss how best to return the state to the Union. Lincoln expressed deep interest in restoring Federal authority, which could best be done by letting “the prominent and influential men of their respective counties… come together and undo their own work.”
Campbell interpreted this to mean that Lincoln would be willing to disband the illegitimate pro-U.S. state legislature of Virginia in favor of the popularly elected body if those legislators willingly submitted to Federal rule and proclaimed loyalty to the U.S. Lincoln told Campbell he would return to Richmond the next day and discuss the matter further. The president retired to the U.S.S. Malvern, which had been brought up after Federals removed the torpedoes and obstructions in the James River.
At 10 a.m. on the 5th, Campbell met with Lincoln aboard the Malvern, anchored off Rockett’s Landing. Campbell had invited several Virginia politicians to accompany him, but only Richmond attorney Gustavus A. Myers accepted. Lincoln was accompanied by Major General Godfrey Weitzel, commanding the Federal occupation forces in Richmond.
Lincoln began by giving Campbell a paper listing the conditions for peace; these were the same conditions that Lincoln had proposed at the Hampton Roads Conference: “restoration of the national authority”; “no receding by the Executive of the United States on the slavery question from the position in the late annual message to Congress and in preceding documents”; and “no cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.”
If the Confederates accepted these terms, Lincoln would address all other issues “in a spirit of sincere liberality.” Lincoln also pledged to use his presidential power to return southern property seized under the Confiscation Acts, but this “remission of confiscation has no reference to supposed property in slaves.” Moreover, Lincoln warned that if the war continued, the Federals would use captured southern property to finance it.
Campbell told Lincoln that southerners would be willing to accept the abolition of slavery, and if Lincoln granted amnesty to Confederates, Virginia would return to the Union. However, nobody had the authority to overthrow the pro-Confederate Virginia government. Lincoln implicitly proposed that if the legislature assembled and voted the state out of the Confederacy, it could then rejoin the Union.
This was legally dubious because it would require Lincoln recognizing the Confederacy as a nation (something he had always refused to do), and it would delegitimize Francis Pierpont’s Unionist Virginia government. However, both Campbell and Myers contended that if Lincoln allowed the legislature to assemble, the legislators would vote themselves out of the Confederacy. Lincoln ended by saying he would make no firm decisions until he returned to the Federal supply base at City Point later that day.
When Lincoln returned to City Point, he read the waiting dispatches and learned that Secretary of State William H. Seward had been seriously injured in a carriage accident in Washington. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton urged Lincoln to return to Washington, and one of Weitzel’s brigade commanders reported that if Lincoln returned to Richmond, he might be assassinated. Lincoln replied, “I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me any harm.” The president resolved to stay and work on the Virginia situation.
The next day, Lincoln wrote to Weitzel in Richmond:
“It has been intimated to me that the gentlemen who have acted as the Legislature of Virginia, in support of the rebellion, may now now (sic) desire to assemble at Richmond and take measures to withdraw the Virginia troops and other support from resistance to the General government. If they attempt it, give them permission and protection, until, if at all, they attempt some action hostile to the United States, in which case you will notify them and give them reasonable time to leave… Allow Judge Campbell to see this, but do not make it public.”
Lincoln also informed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, of his decision, and added:
“Judge Campbell thought it not impossible that the Rebel legislature of Virginia would (assemble) if permitted, and accordingly I addressed a private letter to General Weitzel, with permission for Judge Campbell to see it, telling him that if they attempt to do this to permit and protect them, unless they attempt something hostile to the United States, in which case to give them notice and time to leave and to arrest any remaining after such time.
“I do not think it very probable that anything will come of this, but I have thought best to notify you so that if you should see any signs you may understand them. From our recent dispatches it seems that you are pretty effectually withdrawing the Virginia troops from opposition to the government. Nothing I have done, or probably shall do, is to delay, hinder or interfere with you in your work.”
Lincoln would present this plan to his cabinet when he returned to Washington and to his surprise, he would be met by stern opposition.
Catton, Bruce, Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media, Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 452-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 555; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12319-63; 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 18844-74, 18913-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 578; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 729; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 666-68; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 215; 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. 851; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265