President Jefferson Davis had instructed Vice President Alexander Stephens to “proceed as a military commissioner under flag of truce” to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and then, if the Federals permitted, on to Washington. Robert Ould, the Confederate agent in charge of prisoner exchange, accompanied Stephens. The men were to try to renegotiate the prisoner exchange cartel, as the Confederates accused the Federals of keeping officers and men in confinement even after being exchanged. But Stephens was also authorized to entertain offers to end the war if the subject came up.
Stephens carried a letter from Davis in which the president referred to himself as “commander-in-chief of the land and naval forces now waging war against the United States.” Davis was well aware that the Lincoln administration did not recognize him as the president of an independent nation, and he was therefore willing to forego that title for the purpose of negotiating a peace.
Stephens and Ould boarded the flag-of-truce steamer Torpedo at Richmond on July 3 and proceeded down the James River to the Federal lines at Norfolk. Davis hoped to time the journey so that Stephens would arrive at Washington around the same time as General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. If Lee’s army was victorious, the Confederates could have considerable leverage in peace talks.
The Torpedo reached Hampton Roads on the morning of Independence Day. Stephens sent a message to Federal Rear-Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, requesting to be allowed to continue to Washington. Lee instructed Stephens to wait while he notified his superiors. The message was forwarded through Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln reviewed this request from his old friend (he and Stephens had served in Congress together as fellow Whigs). He then brought it up for discussion at the cabinet meeting on the 5th. Lincoln said that his first reaction was to ignore the request, but upon reflection, he felt that while the Confederates should not be allowed to come to Washington, perhaps a Federal official (even Lincoln himself) should go to Hampton Roads and hear what they had to say.
Some cabinet members were alarmed by this proposal. According to Welles, Secretary of State William H. Seward “considered Stephens a dangerous man, who would make mischief anywhere.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton “was earnest and emphatic against having anything to do with Stephens, or Jeff Davis, or their communication.” Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase “was decided against having any intercourse with them.” Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair recommended receiving Stephens’s proposals.
News of the Federal victory at Gettysburg arrived around the same time, and many in Lincoln’s cabinet feared that negotiating peace now would give the Confederates false hope that they still might gain their independence. Lincoln ultimately acknowledged that once the Federals destroyed the Confederacy’s ability to wage war, southerners “would be ready to swing back to their old bearings,” without negotiations on ending the war, or even on prisoner exchange.
The next day, Seward presented a telegram to the cabinet that Lincoln had asked him to compose. It read in part, “The request is inadmissible. The customary agents and channels are adequate for all needful military communications and conference between the United States forces and the insurgents.” Stanton notified the Federal commander at Fort Monroe: “Until you receive instructions hold no communication with Mr. Stephens or Mr. Ould, nor permit either of them to come within our lines. Our victory is complete. Lee’s in full retreat.”
The Confederates returned to Richmond, unable to discuss either prisoner exchange or peace with the Federals. Stephens confided in a friend, “The prospect before us presents nothing cheering to me.”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.