Washington Rejects the Sherman-Johnston Convention

April 21, 1865 – The peace agreement between William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston arrived in Washington, and it quickly became apparent that administration officials would not endorse such a magnanimous document.

Generals W.T. Sherman and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Following the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, received a dispatch from Major General William T. Sherman dated the 17th. Sherman told Grant that General Joseph E. Johnston seemed willing to surrender and added, “Johnston evidently seeks to make terms for Jeff Davis and his cabinet.”

Sherman also acknowledged that “there is great danger that the Confederate armies will dissolve and fill the whole land with robbers and assassins, and I think this is one of the difficulties Johnston labors under. The assassination of Mr. Lincoln shows one of the elements in the Rebel army which will be almost as difficult to deal with as the main armies.”

Once Sherman and Johnston signed their peace agreement, Sherman dispatched Major Henry Hitchcock to personally deliver the documentation to Washington. Hitchcock went to Morehead City and boarded a steamer bound for the capital. Sherman demanded that he maintain strict secrecy and show the documents to nobody except Grant, Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, or Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

While Sherman waited for a response, he sent newspapers to Johnston reporting that “in Virginia the State authorities are acknowledged and invited to resume their lawful functions.” This was consistent with the peace agreement, but Sherman did not know that Lincoln had changed his mind and issued orders prohibiting the Virginia legislature from assembling.

Sherman assured Johnston that “we will have no trouble on the score of recognizing existing State governments.” He also saw no problem with restoring civil, political, and property rights to former Confederates, but he conceded that “lawyers will want us to define more minutely what is meant by the guarantee of rights of person and property.” Sherman opined:

“I believe if the south would simply and publicly declare what we all feel, that slavery is dead, that you would inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity that would soon efface the ravages of the past four years of war. Negroes would remain in the south, and afford you abundance of cheap labor, which otherwise will be driven away; and it will save the country the senseless discussions which have kept us all in hot water for 50 years.”

On the 20th, Hitchcock arrived at Fort Monroe and wired Grant that he was on his way. Grant postponed a weekend trip with his family in New Jersey and awaited Hitchcock, who arrived the following afternoon and presented the “Memorandum, or Basis of Agreement” to him.

In a cover letter, Sherman wrote that this agreement, “if approved by the President of the United States, will produce peace from the Potomac to the Rio Grande… You will observe that it is an absolute submission of the enemy to the lawful authority of the United States, and disperses his armies absolutely, and the point to which I attach most importance is that the dispersion and disbandment of these armies is done in such a manner as to prevent their breaking up into guerrilla bands.”

Grant immediately saw that these accords went far beyond President Lincoln’s directive prohibiting generals from addressing political and civil issues such as amnesty, restoration of rights, and reconstruction with Confederates. He sought to discuss the agreement with his superiors before responding and therefore sent a message to Stanton:

“I have received and just completed reading the dispatches brought by special messenger from General Sherman. They are of such importance that I think immediate action should be taken on them and that it should be done by the President in council with his whole cabinet. I would respectfully suggest whether the President should not be notified, and all his cabinet, and the meeting take place tonight.”

The cabinet assembled at the White House by 8 p.m., and Grant read the peace agreement to them. The reaction was decidedly hostile. Lincoln’s recent death had also killed off any hope of a benevolent reconciliation. The administration wanted to exact harsh retribution on the South, and an agreement allowing Confederates to simply return their weapons to state arsenals and go home as if nothing ever happened was completely unacceptable.

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet unanimously rejected the agreement. Stanton angrily denounced it and insisted that Sherman give Johnston the same terms that Grant had given Robert E. Lee. Stanton even intimated that Sherman had committed treason by overstepping his bounds as an army commander. Grant strongly defended his close friend and fellow officer, but he agreed that Sherman’s proposal could not be approved.

Once the meeting adjourned, Grant wrote an official letter that he would personally deliver to Sherman:

“The basis of agreement entered into between yourself and General J. E. Johnston for the disbandment of the Southern army and the extension of the authority of the General Government over all the territory belonging to it, sent for the approval of the President, is received. I read it carefully myself before submitting it to the President and Secretary of War and felt satisfied that it could not possibly be approved. My reasons for these views I will give you at another time in a more extended letter. Your agreement touches upon questions of such vital importance that as soon as read I addressed a note to the Secretary of War notifying him of their receipt and the importance of immediate action by the President, and suggested in view of their importance that the entire cabinet be called together that all might give an expression of their opinions upon the matter.

“The result was a disapproval by the President of the basis laid down, a disapproval of the negotiations altogether, except for the surrender of the army commanded by General Johnston, and directions to me to notify you of this decision… Please notify General Johnston immediately on receipt of this of the termination of the truce and resume hostilities against his army at the earliest moment you can, acting in good faith.”

Grant then left for North Carolina.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 594; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 479-83; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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 20937-67; Gates, Arnold, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 683; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 155-60; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 736; McFeely, William S., Grant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 229; Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1889, Kindle Edition), Loc 12367-76

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