April 12, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln rescinded his plan to restore Virginia to the Union after facing heated opposition from his cabinet.
Since visiting Richmond, Lincoln had deliberately refrained from discussing his plans for Virginia with members of his cabinet. But the ministers had an idea of what those plans were anyway because Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana was at City Point, and he informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that Lincoln had conferred with high-ranking Confederate official John A. Campbell.
Finally, Lincoln assembled his cabinet and officially unveiled his plan: Federal authorities would allow the pro-Confederate legislature of Virginia to assemble at Richmond; the legislators would then vote to repudiate secession and return to the Union. Nearly every cabinet member opposed this plan.
Stanton led the opposition, declaring “that to place such powers in the Virginia legislature would be giving away the scepter of the conqueror; that it would transfer the result of victory of our arms from the field to the very legislatures which four years before had said, ‘give us war;’ that it would put the Government in the hands of its enemies; that it would surely bring trouble with Congress; (and) that the people would not sustain him.” Stanton argued that “any effort to reorganize the Government should be under Federal authority solely, treating the rebel organizations and government as absolutely null and void.”
Attorney General James Speed and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles also voiced their disapproval. Welles “doubted the policy of convening a Rebel legislature… once convened, they would with their hostile feelings be inclined perhaps, to conspire against us.” Even worse, “the so-called legislature would be likely to propose terms which might seem reasonable, but which we could not accept.” Welles noted that none of the cabinet members thought it wise to risk having the legislators propose reasonable terms for returning to the U.S. just so the administration could reject them.
Moreover, Welles had “not great faith in negotiating with large bodies of men,” and he reminded Lincoln that Virginia already had a federally-recognized Unionist government led by Francis Pierpont. Lincoln still maintained that if “prominent Virginians” would unite, they would “turn themselves and their neighbors into good Union men.” But after thinking it over, he met with Stanton again the next day.
Stanton repeated his opposition to “allowing the rebel legislature to assemble, or the rebel organizations to have any participation whatever in the business of reorganization.” He warned that allowing former Confederates to govern Virginia would affect “the fate of the emancipated millions” and the legislature, “being once assembled, its deliberations could not be confined to any specific acts.”
Meanwhile, Campbell had written to Major General Godfrey Weitzel, commander of Federal occupation forces in Richmond, about Lincoln’s proposed arrangement. This indicated to Lincoln that Campbell may be helping the legislature exceed its authority. He therefore telegraphed Weitzel from the War Department: “Do not now allow them to assemble; but if any have come, allow them safe-return to their homes.”
Lincoln used legal language to assert that Campbell had wrongly assumed Lincoln had allowed the Virginia legislature to assemble in the first place: “I have done no such thing. I spoke of them not as a Legislature, but as ‘the gentlemen who acted as the Legislature of Virginia in support of the rebellion,’ having power de facto to do a specific thing.”
Thus, Lincoln revoked the order for the legislature to assemble despite his earlier promise to Campbell. Lincoln reasoned that he had encouraged the legislature to assemble primarily to help disperse Confederate forces in Virginia. But because Robert E. Lee had surrendered since Lincoln first suggested it, assembling the legislature was no longer so important. And since he acknowledged that he may have made a mistake, Lincoln felt no need to keep his promise. Stanton agreed that “was exactly right.”
Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12583-605; 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 20255-85; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 729-30; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 673-75; McFeely, William S., Grant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 222; 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