April 24, 1865 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at the headquarters of Major General William T. Sherman to inform him that the peace agreement he reached with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had been rejected by Washington.
Grant, the overall Federal commander, went to Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula on the 22nd. From there he intended to continue south to meet with Sherman, who commanded Federal forces in North Carolina. Grant wanted to personally deliver the bad news that President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet had unanimously rejected his treaty with Johnston.
The danger of Johnston’s army breaking up and waging guerrilla warfare throughout the countryside worried the Federal high command. This danger would increase once Johnston learned that Washington had rejected the peace terms. To prevent this, Grant wrote to Major General Henry W. Halleck, now commanding Federal forces in Virginia:
“The truce entered into by General Sherman will be ended as soon as I can reach Raleigh. Move (General Philip) Sheridan with his cavalry toward Greensborough as soon as possible. I think it will be well to send one corps of infantry with the cavalry. The infantry need not go farther than Danville unless they receive orders hereafter.”
Meanwhile, Sherman continued corresponding with Johnston as he waited for word from Washington. Sherman had initially been confident that the peace agreement would be approved, but the northern newspapers arriving at his Raleigh headquarters began reporting deep resentment toward the South following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Sherman voiced his concern about this in a letter to Johnston:
“I fear much the assassination of the President will give such a bias to the popular mind which, in connection with the desire of our politicians, may thwart our purpose of recognizing ‘the existing local governments.’… I believe this assassination of Mr. Lincoln will do the cause of the South more harm than any event of the war, both at home and abroad, and I doubt if the Confederate military authorities had any more complicity with it than I had.”
Sherman also learned that Federal officials had barred the Virginia legislature from assembling. He and Johnston had based their peace agreement on the fact that Lincoln had allowed the legislators to gather and repudiate secession. But Lincoln had changed his mind and refused to recognize the legitimacy of pro-Confederate state governments. This led Sherman to believe that the agreement might not get approved after all.
Grant reached Beaufort on the 23rd and telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Have just reached here and will start for Raleigh as soon as a train can be obtained. No news here from Sherman. I shall not telegraph to him that I am on the way.” Grant was traveling in secret, hoping to cause his good friend Sherman the least amount of embarrassment in the press.
Grant reached Sherman’s headquarters at Raleigh around 6 a.m. the next morning. He handed Sherman the official letter he had written and explained that the peace agreement had been rejected. Sherman did not seem annoyed by the rejection, but he was clearly upset that some officials (especially Stanton) and the northern press had accused him of having treasonous motives. Nevertheless, Sherman complied with Grant’s instructions and wrote to Johnston:
“You will take notice that the truce or suspension of hostilities agreed to between us will cease in 48 hours after this is received at your lines, under the first of the articles of agreement. I have replies from Washington to my communications of April 18th. I am instructed to limit my operations to your immediate command, and not to attempt civil negotiations. I therefore demand the surrender of your army on the same terms as were given to General Lee at Appomattox, April 9th instant, purely and simply.”
Grant reported to Stanton:
“I reached here this morning and delivered to Gen. Sherman the reply to his negociations with Johnston. He was not surprised but rather expected this rejection. Word was immediately sent to Johnston terminating the truce and information that civil matters could not be entertained in any convention between army commanders.
“Gen. Sherman has been guided in his negociations with Johnston entirely by what he thought was precedents authorized by the President. He had before him the terms given by me to Lee’s army and the call of the Rebel legislature of Va., authorized by Weitzel, as he supposed with the sanction of the President and myself. At the time of the Agreement Sherman did not know of the withdrawal of authority for the meeting of that legislature. The moment he learned through the papers that authority for the meeting of the Va. legislature had been withdrawn he communicated the fact to Johnston as having bearing on the negociations here.”
Sherman also wrote to Stanton explaining that he used Grant’s terms to Lee and Major General Godfrey Weitzel’s interactions with the Virginia legislature as the basis for his peace agreement. Referring Stanton to their meeting in Savannah in January, Sherman added:
“I admit my folly in embracing in a military convention any civil matters, but, unfortunately, such is the nature of our situation that they seem inextricably united, and I understood from you at Savannah that the financial state of the country demanded military success, and would warrant a little bending to policy.”
He assured Stanton that he had no intention of involving himself in political matters, but he concluded, “I still believe the General Government of the United States has made a mistake, but that is none of my business–mine is a different task…”
Meanwhile, Johnston received word that President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had approved the Sherman-Johnston agreement, but only if Washington would approve as well. An hour later, Johnston received Sherman’s message that the convention had been rejected. He notified Davis, who instructed him to do just what Grant and Sherman feared most: disperse the army so it could be reorganized farther south and continue the fight.
Johnston had a momentous decision to make: should he obey his commander in chief and wage guerrilla warfare, or should he admit defeat and surrender as Lee had done?
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