Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Peace Talks: Lincoln Responds to Davis

January 18, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln met with statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. and responded to Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s offer to negotiate an end to the war.

Blair had been given a pass through the Federal lines to meet with Davis at Richmond and discuss a possible peace between North and South. After returning to Washington, Blair met with Lincoln on the night of the 16th and delivered Davis’s letter expressing his willingness to “secure peace to the two countries.”

Pres. Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lincoln remained silent as Blair described his visit to Richmond, writing on the back of Davis’s letter that he “had no intimation as to what Mr. Blair would say or do while beyond our military lines.” Blair described his plan of calling a ceasefire so that Federals and Confederates could join forces to oust the French from Mexico. He made it clear that he divulged his plan to Davis “with the express understanding by the other party that it was to be confined to you.”

Blair then sparked Lincoln’s interest by saying that nearly every Confederate official he had spoken with while in Richmond believed their cause to be lost. This meant that if peace negotiations were to take place, Lincoln would have the upper hand. The meeting ended, and, after consulting with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln met with Blair again on the 18th. Lincoln allowed Blair to return to Richmond to deliver a reply to Davis’s letter:

“You having shown me Mr. Davis’s letter to you of the 12th instant, you may say to him that I have constantly been, am now, and shall continue, ready to receive any agent whom he, or any influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me with a view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.”

Lincoln made it explicit that negotiations could only take place if they were based on reuniting North and South. He drove this point home by referring to the Confederate president as “Mr.” (not President) Davis, and by inviting “any influential person” to talk peace, which implicitly included any of Davis’s many political opponents in the South.

Meanwhile in the North, word that Lincoln allowed Blair to meet with Davis did not sit well with the Radical Republicans in Congress. The Radicals argued that there was no need to negotiate peace because total victory was at hand. They also distrusted Blair because of his former ties to Davis and the Democratic Party. With Blair’s influence, the Radicals feared that Lincoln might agree to grant amnesty to the Confederates and return their property, including slaves.

Leading Radical Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan said, “Blair is an old fool for going to Richmond upon a peace mission & the Administration is little better for permitting him to go… Nothing but evil can come of this nonsense.” For the Radicals, nothing less than the Confederates’ unconditional surrender would suffice.

Conservative Republicans generally supported Lincoln, but they questioned the legality of allowing a private citizen to negotiate on the nation’s behalf. An article in the New York Times read:

“None but national authorities can wage war or make for peace; and the moment we enter into negotiations with the rebel Government for terms of peace, that moment we have actually and legally conceded everything for which they have been making war.”

A writer for the Boston Advertiser stated that he had “unbounded confidence in the President,” but “the loyal masses revolt at the idea of treating with Jeff. Davis and his confederates in despotic government.” Confederate officials “are usurpers in their present position, having no right whatever to stand between our government and the people of the insurgent States… negotiation will mar the close of the war, and damage the future welfare of both sections of the country… Let our conquering generals be the only negotiators of peace.”

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton opposed Lincoln’s decision to send Blair back to Richmond. Stanton argued that since the Confederacy was on the brink of defeat, the Federals had no need to offer any terms besides unconditional surrender. He also feared that the idea of peace talks might hamper military recruiting and demoralize the troops in the field.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles also questioned Lincoln’s decision, writing in his diary: “The President, with much shrewdness and much good sense, has often strange and incomprehensible whims; takes sometimes singular and unaccountable freaks. It would hardly surprise me were he to undertake to arrange terms of peace without consulting anyone.”

Regardless of anybody’s opinion on the matter, Blair was soon on his way back to Richmond.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21804-09; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 518-19; 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 16133-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 544-45; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 690-91; Harris, William C., “The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln’s Presidential Leadership” (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2000), p. 30-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 625-26

Special Field Orders Number 15

January 16, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman issued directives for Federal troops to seize abandoned land along the Atlantic coast and redistribute it to newly freed slaves.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

As Sherman’s armies conducted their march from Atlanta to Savannah, they were inundated by thousands of slaves fleeing from nearby plantations. Sherman had complained that his men should not be responsible for taking care of these refugees because they impeded his military progress. Sherman wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “The South deserves all she has got for her injustice to the negro, but that is no reason why we should go to the other extreme.”

Sherman’s troops routinely mistreated the refugees, and in Washington rumors spread that Sherman “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the Negro.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton headed south, ostensibly for health reasons, but really to discuss the matter with Sherman. (President Abraham Lincoln also asked Stanton to urge Sherman to hurry and launch a new campaign, explaining that “time, now that the enemy is wavering, is more important than ever before. Being on the downhill, and somewhat confused, keep him going.”)

Stanton met with Sherman and a delegation of black preachers who testified that the general was a “friend and a gentleman.” The delegation’s spokesman said, “We have confidence in General Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be in better hands.” When Stanton asked how best to transition from slavery to freedom, he said, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor… We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own.”

The preachers stated that recruiting black men for the army did not actually grow the army as much as it allowed white men to let the blacks take their place. The leader also opined that if the Confederates recruited blacks into their armies, “I think they would fight as long as they were before the ‘bayonet’, and just as soon as they could get away they would desert, in my opinion.”

Sherman later wrote that Stanton was skeptical about his handling of fugitive slaves, “but luckily the negroes themselves convinced him that he was in error, and that they understood their own interests far better than did the men in Washington, who tried to make political capital out of this negro question.”

After Stanton left, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, which authorized the redistribution of confiscated land to former slaves. The land included a strip of coastline from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, Georgia’s Sea Islands, and the mainland 30 miles in from the coast. Approved by both Stanton and Lincoln, this was the most radical military order of the war.

The order served two military purposes:

  1. It gave the refugees their own land so they would no longer rely on Sherman’s army for protection and subsistence
  2. It encouraged freed slaves to join the Federal army as soldiers so they could fight to maintain their new liberty

The order also served two political purposes:

  1. It offered Washington politicians a solution to the problem of what to do with the millions of new free southern laborers
  2. It blunted the perception in Washington that Sherman and his armies were callous toward blacks

Each slave family was to receive “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” This order became the basis for the slogan “forty acres and a mule,” or the notion that Federal authorities should forcibly seize land from southern planters and redistribute it to former slaves. Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, a Massachusetts abolitionist who had previously overseen black recruitment into the army, was assigned to enforce Sherman’s order.

Under this directive, some 40,000 former slaves and black refugees temporarily received “possessory title” of land until Congress “shall regulate the title.” Once on their land, “the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations” and “no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority, and the acts of Congress.”

Like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, this measure was imposed based on the executive’s supposed “war powers.” Sherman also issued a proclamation regarding the treatment of former slaves:

“By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro is free, and must be dealt with as such. He cannot be subjected to conscription, or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share toward maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.”

Later this year, President Andrew Johnson revoked Special Field Orders No. 15, citing the constitutional ban on confiscating private property without due process.

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References

BlackPast.org-Special Field Orders No. 15; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 406; 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 15336-46, 15684-704; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 540-41, 544; GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org-Sherman’s Field Order No. 15; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 237; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 619; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 683; 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. 841; Wikipedia.org-Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15

Peace Talks: Blair Arrives in Richmond

January 12, 1865 – Prominent statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. visited Confederate President Jefferson Davis at Richmond and proposed a possible peace settlement between North and South.

Francis P. Blair, Sr. | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Blair had obtained a pass from President Abraham Lincoln in late December to go through the Federal military lines. Blair then wrote to Davis asking permission to come to Richmond to retrieve papers that Confederate troops had stolen from his Maryland home in July. But he added that his real reason for wanting to go there was to discuss the possibility of ending the war.

Davis received Blair’s letters on the 3rd and granted him permission to come to the Confederate capital. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles chartered the flagship of the Potomac River naval flotilla to transport Blair from Washington to Aiken’s Landing on the James River. From there, a flag-of-truce vessel brought him to Richmond.

When word spread that the navy helped Blair get into the Confederacy, many believed that Lincoln endorsed the statesman’s visit. This drew mixed reactions in the North, as some hoped for peace as soon as possible, regardless of who helped negotiate it, while others wanted the war to end only when the South was truly defeated. And still others wanted to keep fighting to ensure that slavery was permanently abolished.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Blair anonymously checked into Richmond’s Spotswood Hotel before visiting Davis and his wife Varina at the Executive Mansion on the night of the 12th. The attendees exchanged pleasantries, after which Varina left and the two men got down to business. Blair explained that he could not speak for the Lincoln administration, confessing that his ideas “were perhaps merely the dreams of an old man.” He then read from a paper he had written that outlined these ideas.

Blair proposed an armistice period, during which the Federals and Confederates would join forces to oust the French government from Mexico. France had violated the Monroe Doctrine by invading Mexico and installing a puppet regime led by Archduke Maximilian, a relative of Napoleon III. Blair intimated that perhaps Davis himself could lead the southern contingent of the united force.

According to Davis, “it was evident that he (Blair) counted on the disintegration of the Confederate States if the war continued, and that in any event he regarded the institution of slavery as doomed to extinction.” Noting that the Confederate Congress was likely to approve a bill recruiting slaves into the military (and ostensibly grant them freedom after service), Blair believed that slavery “no longer remains an insurmountible (sic) obstruction to pacification.”

Blair also asserted that Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction and his recent message to Congress showed that he would be willing to talk peace. Joining forces to oust the French from Mexico could unite Americans in a common cause, leading to reunion. Blair was confident that Federal troops would join the Confederates for this cause, and he even pledged to send his son, Frank, Jr., to command a portion of the force. Blair suggested that once the French were overthrown, Davis might install himself as Mexican ruler.

Regarding European colonization of the West, Davis replied that “no circumstances would have a greater effect… than to see the arms of our countrymen from the North and the South united in a war upon a foreign power assailing principles of government common to both sections and threatening their destruction.” However, Davis argued that the Mexicans had to topple the French regime on their own because “no one can foresee how things would shape themselves” in Mexico.

The president then said that reconciliation “depended upon well-founded confidence” in the good faith of both North and South. Before the war, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward had first suggested fighting the French in Mexico to keep North and South united. Davis, assuming that Seward would be the North’s chief negotiator, declared that he distrusted him.

Blair did not defend Seward, instead telling Davis that this would not be handled by the State Department. He said that “this matter, if entered upon at all, must be with Mr. Lincoln himself… The transaction is a military transaction, and depends entirely on the Commander-in-Chief of our armies,” and Lincoln could be trusted.

Davis wrote that Blair hoped to exchange “reason for passion, sense of justice for a desire to injure, and that if the people were subsequently engaged together to maintain a principle recognized by both, if together they should bear sacrifices, share dangers, and gather common renown, new memories would take the place of those now placed by the events of this war and might in the course of time restore the feelings which preexisted.”

Blair then stated that Lincoln was not as sympathetic with the Radical Republicans in Congress as the southern press believed. The Radicals demanded the South’s unconditional surrender, but Blair thought that Lincoln would be willing to negotiate a more lenient settlement. However, Blair warned that time was running out because the next Congress taking office later that year would be dominated by Radicals intent on stopping any negotiations with the South.

Davis noted:

“Throughout the conference, Mr. Blair appeared to be animated by a sincere desire to promote a pacific solution of existing difficulty, but claimed no other power than that of serving as a medium of communication between those who had thus far had no intercourse and were therefore without the co-intelligence which might secure an adjustment of their controversy.”

Davis remained skeptical, especially since the Lincoln administration had insisted on unconditional submission to the national authority since the war began. However, he believed that if he expressed a willingness to negotiate, and Lincoln did not reciprocate, it might show southerners that the Federals only wanted to subjugate them, and they would therefore fight even harder for independence. Thus, Davis wrote a letter for Blair to deliver to Lincoln:

“Sir: I have deemed it proper and probably desirable to you to give you in this form the substance of remarks made by me to be repeated by you to President Lincoln, etc., etc. I have no disposition to find obstacles in forms, and am willing now, as heretofore, to enter into negotiations for the restoration of peace, am ready to send a commission whenever I have reason to suppose it will be received, or to receive a commission if the United States Government shall choose to send one. That, notwithstanding the rejection of our former offers, I would, if you could promise that a commissioner, minister, or other agent would be received, appoint one immediately, and renew the effort to enter into conference with a view to secure peace to the two countries.”

The last two words in Davis’s letter ensured that a peace settlement could not be reached. Davis refused to discuss peace without southern independence, while Lincoln had insisted since the day he took office that North and South must be of one country. Nevertheless, Blair returned north to deliver the letter to the White House.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 209-10; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21747-65, 21804; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11860; 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 16108-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 541; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 690-91; Harris, William C., “The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln’s Presidential Leadership” (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2000), p. 30-61; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 616, 622-23; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 198; 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. 821; 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), Loc Q165

The Thirteenth Amendment: Debate Begins

January 9, 1865 – The U.S. House of Representatives opened debate on a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery that had been defeated last year.

The abolition amendment had passed the Senate in 1864 but failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to pass the House. In his December message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln declared that since the newly elected Congress made passage of the amendment “only a question of time,” the current lame-duck Congress should revisit it. This would demonstrate northern solidarity against the Confederacy and show that the border states would no longer side with the South on the slavery issue.

Rep. J.M. Ashley of Ohio | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Republican Congressman James M. Ashley of Ohio reintroduced the amendment on the House floor in early January, announcing, “Mr. Speaker, if slavery is wrong and criminal, as the great body of enlightened Christian men admit, it is certainly our duty to abolish it, if we have the power.” Republicans generally supported the amendment, especially the Radicals who sought more punitive measures against the South. Most Democrats opposed the measure, and a contentious debate took place throughout the month.

Democrats warned their fellow party members there would be political fallout if they supported the amendment. However, a significant change occurred when Moses F. Odell of New York announced he would change his previous “no” vote to “yes,” declaring, “The South by rebellion has absolved the Democratic Party at the north from all obligation to stand up longer for the defense of its ‘cornerstone.’”

The New York Times reported that Odell gave “a convincing argument in favor of this measure, and an able appeal to the Democratic party to throw aside all partisan feeling and sustain it, thereby setting at rest forever the subject which has caused so much agitation and excitement in our national counsels.” Lincoln rewarded Odell with the lucrative political job of New York navy agent.

Other Democrats remained opposed. Robert Mallory of Kentucky said that “the Constitution does not authorize an amendment to be made by which any State or citizen shall be divested of acquired rights of property or of established political franchises.” Unionist John A. Kasson of Iowa countered, “you will never, never, have reliable peace in this country that that institution exists, the perpetual occasion of moral, intellectual, and physical warfare.”

Democrat Samuel S. Cox of Ohio declared, “Whatever it may be termed, I am opposed to compounding powers in the Federal Government.” This amendment “sought to consolidate the powers of the States, and tended toward monarchy and despotism… it would tend to disturb the balance of power between the States, and destroy our peculiar representative system.”

Charles Eldridge of Wisconsin warned that “the adoption of the amendment would afford the rebel leaders another topic to arouse the lukewarm, raise additional armies and prolong the war.” This measure would best be “made in time of calmness, in a fraternal spirit and with kindness, with a view to the establishment of the peace of the Union in all its parts.”

Another Democrat agreed:

“When the sky shall again be clear over our heads, a peaceful sun illuminating the land, and our great household of states all at home in harmony once more, then will be the time to consider what changes, if any, this generation desire to make in the work of Washington, Madison, and the revered sages of our antiquity.”

Fernando Wood of New York opposed the amendment on racial grounds:

“The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races; the Almighty has made the black man inferior, and, sir, by no legislation, by no partisan success, by no revolution, by no military power, can you wipe out this distinction. You may make the black man free, but when you have done that what have you done?”

Unionist Austin King, a Missouri slaveholder, declared support for the amendment:

“Slavery had been the cause of disturbance for the last thirty years, and if it must perish, slaveholders could not, complain, as they had been the architects of their own ruin. Slavery has been the means by which the Southern leaders have wheeled into the line of insurrection, and for this reason, it has lost the support and sympathy it once possessed. Slavery had been a constant source of irritation, and in order to secure the blessings of peace, the great question of its further continuance should be submitted to the people for their decision.”

Another Missouri congressman and former slaveholder, James Rollins, declared:

“I am no longer the owner of a slave, and I thank God for it. If the giving up of my slaves without complaint shall be a contribution upon my part, to promote the public good, to uphold the Constitution of the United States, to restore peace and preserve this Union, if I had owned a thousand slaves, they would most cheerfully have been given up. I say with all my heart, let them go; but let them not go without a sense of feeling and a proper regard on my part for the future of themselves and their offspring… the peculiar friends of slavery have controlled the government for much the greater part of the time since its establishment, and but for their own wickedness and folly might have saved the institution, and had their full share in its management for many years to come… we can never have an entire peace as long as the institution of slavery remains as one of the recognized institutions in this country.”

John McBride of Oregon said, “Slavery, too long pursuing its criminal practices, demanded sentence and execution, without benefit of clergy.” Republican (and future President) James A. Garfield announced, “Mr. Speaker, we shall never know why slavery dies so hard in this Republic and in this Hall, till we know why sin outlives disaster, and Satan is immortal…” Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania argued that slavery was “the worst institution upon earth, one which is a disgrace to man and would be an annoyance to the infernal spirits.” He added:

“We have suffered for slavery more than all the plagues of Egypt. More than the first born of every household has been taken. We still harden our hearts, and refuse to let the people go. The scourge still continues, nor do I expect it to cease until we obey the behests of the Father of men. We are about to ascertain the national will by an amendment to the Constitution. If the gentlemen opposite will yield to the voice of God and humanity and vote for it, I verily believe the sword of the destroying angel will be stayed, and this people be reunited. If we still harden our hearts, and blood must still flow, may the ghosts of the slaughtered victims sit heavily upon the souls of those who cause it.”

Debate continued throughout the month, leading to the final vote on the last day of January.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 211-13; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 512-13; 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 15635-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 606-07, 620-23, 630; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-90; McGinty, Brian, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 752-53; 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. 839

Butler Finally Removed

January 7, 1865 – The controversial military career of Federal Major General Benjamin F. Butler finally came to an end.

Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Butler commanded the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. This included the Army of the James, which was working with the Army of the Potomac to lay siege to Richmond and Petersburg. He had recently commanded army troops in the failed assault on Fort Fisher, off the North Carolina coast. Two days later, another Butler-led project ended ignominiously when explosives failed to open the Dutch Gap Canal.

President Abraham Lincoln had employed Butler because, as a former Democrat, he held significant influence over fellow Democrats to support Lincoln’s Republican policies. But Lincoln had been recently reelected, so Butler’s usefulness was finished. When a group of Kentucky Unionists lobbied Lincoln to put the politician-turned-general in charge of their state, Lincoln told them:

“You howled when Butler went to New Orleans. Others howled when he was removed from that command. Somebody has been howling ever since at his assignment to military command. How long will it be before you, who are howling for his assignment to rule Kentucky, will be howling to me to remove him?”

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, thought little of Butler’s military ability. It especially concerned Grant that Butler was next in line to command both the Armies of the Potomac and the James if Grant left the Richmond-Petersburg theater. From a practical standpoint, Grant needed someone more trustworthy for such an important assignment. Therefore, Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on the 4th:

“I am constrained to request the removal of Maj. Gen. B. F. Butler from the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. I do this with reluctance, but the good of the service requires it. In my absence General Butler necessarily commands, and there is a lack of confidence felt in his military ability, making him an unsafe commander for a large army. His administration of the affairs of his department is also objectionable.”

Grant mailed the letter on the 5th but found out the next day that Stanton had left for Savannah to meet with Major General William T. Sherman. So Grant moved the request up to Lincoln: “I wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, which was mailed yesterday, asking to have General Butler removed from command. Learning that the Secretary left Washington yesterday, I telegraph you asking that prompt action may be taken in the matter.” Lincoln obliged by quickly issuing General Order Number 1 on the morning of the 7th:

“By direction of the President of the United States, Maj. Gen B.F. Butler is relieved from the command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia. Lieutenant-General Grant will designate an officer to take this command temporarily. Major-General Butler, on being relieved, will repair to Lowell, Mass., and report by letter to the Adjutant-General of the Army.”

Butler claimed that he had no idea he was being ousted. He later wrote:

“Everything of the official correspondence in relation to the current movements of the Army of the James went on without any intimation to me of any change of our official relations, and without any information as to any comment by Grant upon my report of the operations against Fort Fisher. I noticed nothing except, perhaps, a want of cordiality in his manner.”

But around noon on the 8th, Butler “received, through the hands of Colonel (Orville) Babcock, a crony of W.F. (“Baldy”) Smith, and a member of Grant’s staff, who I had always known was bitterly opposed to me, a sealed envelope” containing Lincoln’s directive. This ended the military career of the most controversial Federal commander in the war.

In 1861, Butler had refused to return fugitive slaves to their masters, calling them “contraband of war” and creating the first major controversy within the Lincoln administration over slave policy. In 1862, Butler earned the scorn of southerners for his dictatorial rule over New Orleans. Confederates called him “Beast” Butler in reference to the biblical Antichrist, and President Jefferson Davis had charged Butler with war crimes and authorized his immediate execution if captured (ironically, Butler had backed Davis for president at the contentious Democratic National Convention of 1860).

The Lincoln administration had used the Confederates’ hatred of Butler to their advantage by appointing him top Federal prisoner exchange agent in 1863. Since the Confederacy had branded Butler an “outlaw,” they refused to deal with him, giving the Federals a propaganda edge by declaring that the Confederates refused to exchange prisoners.

Some in the Federal high command feared that Grant had blundered by pushing Butler’s removal at a time when he was becoming increasingly scrutinized because he still had not captured Richmond. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife:

“Grant undoubtedly has lost prestige, owing to his failure to accomplish more, but as I know it has not been in his power to do more I cannot approve of unmerited censure, any more than I approved of the fulsome praise showered on him before the campaign commenced.”

Meade believed that removing Butler could be the final insult to Butler’s allies in Congress, especially those on the powerful Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Meade told his wife that the committee would hold hearings on the Fort Fisher debacle and Butler’s removal, and they would probably take Butler’s side. Meade predicted, “This is the beginning of a war on Grant.”

But the ousting of Butler did not cause as much of a stir in Washington as expected, mainly because by this time it was clear that the Federals were winning the war, and the Fort Fisher defeat would soon be avenged by a new expedition that finally captured it. And since Butler was not well liked among the rank and file, none raised a fuss when he left.

Major General E.O.C. Ord became the new commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, which included the Army of the James and the new expedition being fitted out to try capturing Fort Fisher again. And Butler went on to resume a political career that would become just as controversial as his military one.

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References

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 402, 408; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 512; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 533; 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 15439-59; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 539-40; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 368-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 55-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 77-78, 206, 210, 211-12, 300, 616, 618, 620-21; McFeely, William S., Grant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 197-98; 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. 820; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 393; Wagner, Margaret E., The American Civil War in 365 Days (Abrams, NY: Library of Congress); Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 59-60; 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) Q165

Fort Fisher: Who to Blame

December 30, 1864 – The Federal high command prepared for a second effort to capture Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast and tried to determine why the first effort failed.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, spent two days bombarding Fort Fisher, which guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina. Porter was softening the fort for an infantry landing, but when the infantry commander, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, decided to withdraw rather than risk an attack, an enraged Porter had no choice but to follow.

The Federal warships withdrew very slowly to avoid appearing defeated; along the way they picked up the Federal soldiers stranded on the shore when their transports left without them. The final insult to the Federals came when they failed to notice the C.S.S. Chameleon (formerly the Tallahassee) slipping out of Wilmington and running the blockade. Colonel William Lamb, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Fisher, reported, “This morning, December 27, the foiled and frightened enemy left our shore.”

Butler returned to his headquarters at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula and reported the details of the operation to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant, who had ordered Butler to lay siege to Fort Fisher if it could not be captured by assault, was appalled that Butler had withdrawn without a fight. Porter was appalled as well, and he vented his frustration to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“My dispatch of yesterday… will scarcely give you an idea of my disappointment at the conduct of the army authorities in not attempting to take possession of the forts, which had been so completely silenced by our guns… There never was a fort that invited soldiers to walk in and take possession more plainly than Fort Fisher, and an officer got on the parapet even, saw no one inside, and brought away the flag we had cut down… If General (Winfield Scott) Hancock, with 10,000 men, was sent down here, we could walk right into the fort.”

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

After reading this letter, Welles noted in his diary:

“The information is not altogether satisfactory. The troops are said to have disembarked above Fort Fisher, to have taken some earthworks and prisoners, and then to have reembarked. This reads of and like Butler.”

When Major General William T. Sherman learned about this expedition, he told Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I take it for granted the present movement on Wilmington will fail, because I know that gun-boats cannot take a fort, and Butler has not the force or the ability to take it.” Halleck replied, “Your anticipations in regard to the Wilmington expedition have proved so correct that your reputation as a prophet may soon equal that as a general.” Actually Sherman underestimated the power of gunboats, but he was quite accurate in his assessment of Butler.

Word of the fiasco quickly reached President Abraham Lincoln, who turned to Grant for an explanation: “If there be no objection, please tell me what you now understand of the Wilmington expedition, present and prospective.” Not having gathered all the facts yet, Grant replied:

“The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure. Many of the troops are now back here. Delays and free talk of the object of the expedition enabled the enemy to move troops to Wilmington to defeat it. After the expedition sailed from Fort Monroe three days of fine weather was squandered, during which the enemy was without a force to protect himself. Who is to blame I hope will be known.”

Porter went to Beaufort to refuel his ships and replenish his ammunition. He wrote Grant, whom he respected from working with him on the Vicksburg campaign, to send another army force with a different commander to try taking Fort Fisher again. Grant replied on the 30th: “Please hold on where you are for a few days and I will endeavor to be back again with an increased force and without the former commander.” Even without collecting all the facts, Grant could already see that Butler was to blame.

Welles shared Porter’s assessment of the operation with Lincoln, who advised Welles to ask Grant to try a second attack. Welles wrote, “The largest naval force ever assembled is ready to lend its co-operation,” but if Grant did not send Porter an army force soon, “the fleet will have to disperse, whence it cannot again be brought to this coast.”

Grant forwarded Welles’s message to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, adding, “I do not propose to correspond with the Navy Department about military operations except through you.” Grant explained that he was already fitting out another force, but he wanted it done in complete secrecy. He wrote:

“When all is ready, I will send the troops and commander selected to Fortress Monroe and out to sea with sealed instructions not to be opened until they pass the Heads. I am in hopes by secrecy the enemy may be lulled into such security as to induce him to send his Wilmington forces against Sherman, or bring them back here by the time we are ready to start.”

Stanton advised Grant to share his plans with Porter only, and he warned Grant that his request for transports “will, of course, set… all the thousand and one guessers at work to nose out the object.” Moreover, Stanton wrote, “You cannot count upon any secrecy in the Navy. Newspaper reporters have the run of that Department.” Grant then wrote Porter:

“I took immediate steps to have transports collected, and am assured they will be ready with the coal and water on board by noon of the 2nd of January. There will be no delay in embarking and sending off the troops. The commander of the expedition will probably be Major-General (Alfred) Terry. He will not know of it until he gets out to sea. He will go with sealed orders. It will not be necessary for me to let troops or commander know even that they are going any place until the steamers intended to carry them reach Fortress Monroe, as I will have all rations and other stores loaded beforehand.”

Terry had worked with Porter in conducting amphibious operations before; together they had captured Hilton Head and Fort Pulaski. Terry was also a volunteer officer like Butler, therefore Grant thought one volunteer should have the chance to redeem another’s failure. Thus, a second effort would be made in the coming new year.

Meanwhile, bickering over the failed first effort continued in Washington. Welles argued that Grant should bear some responsibility for entrusting the army part of the expedition to someone as incompetent as Butler. Stanton did not defend Butler, but he asserted that Porter had ruined the element of surprise before Butler arrived. Lincoln outlined the pros and cons of both Butler and Porter, and he indicated that Butler would most likely be removed from command. Butler had been given a top command because of he was an influential politician, but now that Lincoln had been reelected, Butler’s political usefulness had run out.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 162; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 509-10; 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 15102-32; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 536-37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 616; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 99-100; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 216; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 441

The Blair Peace Initiative

December 30, 1864 – Francis P. Blair, Sr., a 74-year-old political advisor to every president since Andrew Jackson, wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis asking permission to come to Richmond and discuss the possibility of ending the war. This was the most notable of many efforts to negotiate peace between North and South.

Francis P. Blair, Sr. | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Blair had been a Jacksonian Democrat before helping form the Republican Party in the 1850s. One of his sons, Montgomery, had served in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet as postmaster general, and another, Frank, Jr., was a Federal major general and former congressman. Blair had been good friends with Jefferson Davis before the war, and with the state of the conflict shifting decidedly in the Federals’ favor, he concluded that the time had come to use his friendship to persuade Davis to negotiate a peace.

Blair met with Lincoln on the 28th and requested a pass through Federal lines to Richmond. He explained that he wanted the pass to search for personal papers that Confederate troops had seized when they raided his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, last summer. Blair then tried explaining his real reason for wanting to go to Richmond, but Lincoln stopped him. The president would grant the pass, but he would not sanction any effort by an unofficial civilian to negotiate peace. The failed Niagara conference had taught Lincoln to be cautious on this issue.

Blair then wrote two letters to Davis. The first, which Blair intended to be made public, requested permission to come to Richmond to look for his missing papers. The second letter was private:

“The main purpose I have in seeing you (is) to submit to your consideration ideas which in my opinion you may turn to good and possibly bring to practical results, (repairing) all the ruin the war has brought upon the nation.”

Blair sought to “unbosom my heart frankly and without reserve” regarding the “state of affairs of our country.” He assured Davis that he would come “wholly unaccredited except in so far as I may be by having permission to pass our lines and to offer to you my own suggestions–suggestions which I have suggested to none in authority on this side (of) the lines.”

However, Blair gave no indication that Lincoln opposed the visit, which implied that Lincoln may have endorsed it. Since discussing peace might reveal that the Federals refused to recognize Confederate independence (the only term upon which Davis insisted), it could embolden wavering southerners to continue fighting. Davis would consider the matter and respond in the first week of January.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21742; 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 16108-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 537; Harris, William C., “The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln’s Presidential Leadership” (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2000), p. 30-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 616