April 18, 1865 – Both Joseph E. Johnston and William T. Sherman exceeded their authority by agreeing in principle to a peace between not only their own armies but all other armies still in the field.
Major General William T. Sherman returned to the Bennett house at noon on the 18th to resume the peace talks that had begun yesterday with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. When Johnston arrived, he reiterated that he had authority from the Confederate government to negotiate a peace on behalf of all remaining armies, not just his own. However, Johnston wanted some kind of assurance that the Confederates would regain their rights as American citizens.
Sherman referred Johnston to President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, issued in December 1863 as a guarantee that Confederate rights would be respected. He also cited the terms that Ulysses S. Grant had given to Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Johnston asked to bring Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge into the discussion, but Sherman objected to having a civilian involved. Sherman relented when Johnston assured him that Breckinridge, a major general, would negotiate from a military, not a political, point of view.
Sherman wrote out the terms he was willing to offer Johnston and the Confederates. He later admitted that they reflected his fear of driving “General Johnston’s army into bands of armed men.” In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, Federal commanders were terrified that the Confederate armies would disperse and wage guerrilla warfare throughout the South. Sherman’s terms were also inspired by the conference he had with Lincoln, Grant, and Rear Admiral David D. Porter at City Point in late March, in which Lincoln expressed a desire for leniency toward the Confederates.
With Johnston offering more than Sherman had expected, Sherman reciprocated by proposing better terms than Grant had given Lee. In fact, the terms exceeded anything Sherman had permission to offer. The document, called “Memorandum, or Basis of Agreement,” contained seven paragraphs:
- All armies would stop fighting
- All Confederate soldiers would surrender their arms at local arsenals
- All Confederates would agree to stop making war and accept Federal authority
- The president would recognize existing state governments when their officials swore allegiance to the U.S.
- Federal courts would resume operations in the South
- Southerners would be guaranteed the rights of person and property
- Federal authorities would not disturb southerners if they lived in peace
- All Confederates would receive a general amnesty
Ironically, the Federal commander responsible for the most destruction in the South offered the most generous peace terms to the Confederates. On the other side, Johnston’s surrender of all armies completely disregarded President Jefferson Davis’s instructions to only suspend hostilities until civil authorities could negotiate a peace. It was one thing for Lee to surrender because his army was trapped; Johnston was surrendering all remaining armies even though they all could still operate.
This agreement proved very controversial because Federal generals had only been authorized to discuss military matters with the enemy, not political issues such as restoring states to the U.S. or granting amnesty. Lincoln made this clear in a message to Grant in early April, but Grant had not shared that message with Sherman. Therefore, Sherman’s document went well beyond Grant’s terms by calling for readmitting the conquered states to the Union with the people retaining full citizenship rights without prosecution.
At the City Point conference, Lincoln had impressed Sherman with his desire to make the Confederates fellow countrymen again. But while Sherman attempted to carry out Lincoln’s wishes by showing as much benevolence as possible, Lincoln’s assassination had sparked a firestorm of rage and vindictiveness against the South in Washington.
The signatories to this agreement acknowledged that it would require approval from the civil authorities before it could go into effect. Sherman and Johnston agreed to honor their ceasefire until that approval was granted. In the meantime, Sherman recommended that Breckinridge beat a hasty retreat because, being such a high-ranking Confederate politician (as well as a former U.S. vice president), he might face execution if captured.
Sherman sent the signed document to Washington requesting approval and even adding: “If you can get the President to simply indorse the copy and commission me to carry out the terms, I will follow them to the conclusion.” But both Sherman and Johnston would soon be disappointed by the Federal response.
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