Tag Archives: Francis P. Blair Sr.

Peace Talks: Blair Returns to Richmond

January 22, 1865 – Elder statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. returned to Richmond to deliver President Abraham Lincoln’s letter regarding potential peace negotiations to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

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

By this time, Blair’s peace initiative had attracted attention throughout the North. The Washington National Intelligencer reported “that the Blair Mission has become the national excitement is evident enough from the leading press of the country.” According to the New York Herald, Washington “has been under an intense excitement during the last few days over the question of peace. All manner of probable and improbable, possible and impossible stories have been in circulation. We have had the rebellion closed up, Jeff. Davis flying towards Mexico, and the bulk of the rebel Congress marching for Washington to apply for admittance here.”

Rumors spread that Secretary of State William H. Seward “had decided to make peace on the best terms possible.” President Abraham Lincoln maintained “a reticence of the strictest kind,” but indicated that Blair’s peace effort “was far more successful than he anticipated… and that peace is much nearer at hand than the most confident have at any time hoped for.”

In Richmond, Confederate officials noted Blair’s not-so-secret return to the capital. Vice President Alexander Stephens wrote, “Blair is back again. What he is doing I do not know but presume the President is endeavoring to negotiate with him for negotiation…” Blair arrived on the 21st and met with President Davis that night.

Blair delivered Lincoln’s letter and specifically pointed out that Lincoln would only talk peace on the basis of North and South being “one common country,” not “two countries” as Davis had stated. Lincoln later wrote about this: “Mr. Davis read it over twice in Mr. Blair’s presence, at the close of which he, Mr. B remarked that the part about ‘our one common country’ related to the part of Mr. D’s letter about ‘the two countries’ to which Mr. D replied that he so understood it.”

Blair then brought up his idea of Federals and Confederates calling an armistice and joining forces to oust the French from Mexico. Lincoln had not endorsed this idea, Blair explained, but he had not rejected it either. Blair then told Davis that Lincoln was being pressured by the Radical Republicans, “who wished to drive him into harsher measures than he was inclined to adopt.” Therefore, in Blair’s opinion, “If anything beneficial could be effected, it must be done without the intervention of the politicians.” Perhaps Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee “might enter into an arrangement by which hostilities would be suspended and a way paved for the restoration of peace.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Davis said that he would trust Lee to engage in peace talks with Grant. But after returning to Washington, Blair notified Davis that the Lincoln administration did not like the idea of a military convention. This meant that if peace talks were to take place, they would have to be based on Lincoln’s letter alone.

Over the next few days, Davis consulted with Confederate Congressman William Rives of Virginia. Rives had opposed secession but went with his home state out of the Union. Davis told him that Richmond was filled with “Despondency and distrust… We are on the eve of an internal revolution.” According to Rives, Davis had made up his mind that a peace convention was needed to stop the dissent, and such a convention would likely result in reunion.

A few days later, Davis summoned Vice President Stephens to his office to discuss “special and important business.” The men were not on friendly terms, and they had not spoken since the Confederate capital moved to Richmond in 1861. Davis shared Blair’s proposals and Lincoln’s letter, and then asked Stephens for his opinion.

Stephens recommended pursuing the matter, “at least so far as to obtain if possible a conference on the subject.” But he disliked Blair’s idea of a military convention because it might result in the Confederacy either joining with the Federals against the French in Mexico or reunion. Instead, Stephens suggested that Davis and Lincoln discuss the matter themselves.

Davis replied that it would not be proper for him to go to Washington, and he knew that Lincoln would not come to Richmond. He would therefore create a commission of political leaders that would try gaining admission to Washington to negotiate a possible peace. Stephens recommended John A. Campbell, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the highest-ranking Federal official to join the Confederacy. He also named Henry Benning, a politician-turned-general, and Thomas Flournoy, “a gentleman of distinguished ability, and well known personally to Mr. Lincoln.” Davis agreed.

The president discussed the matter with his cabinet and shared the names of the potential peace commissioners. They agreed with picking Campbell, but they opposed Benning and Flournoy. The members preferred Robert M.T. Hunter, a former U.S. senator and Confederate secretary of state, and current Confederate Senate pro tempore. The third man would be Stephens himself. Davis made the changes and notified the vice president that he would be sent to Washington. Stephens later wrote:

“I urged and insisted upon the impropriety of myself and Mr. Hunter being on the Commission, for my absence, as the Presiding Officer of the Senate, would, of course, be noticed, and inquiries would almost certainly be made as to where I was (even though he had been in ill-health and often took longs leaves of absence). My efforts to have it changed, however, were of no avail. The President and Cabinet persisted in the selection of the Commissioners, which they had agreed upon; so in this instance… my judgment was yielded to theirs.”

Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin wrote a letter for the commissioners to present to Federal officials. Benjamin made it “as vague and general as possible, so as to get at the views and sentiments of Mr. Lincoln and test the reality” of a possible peace without divulging that Davis truly wanted an armistice. It read: “In compliance with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are hereby requested to proceed to Washington City for conference with him upon the subject to which it relates…”

But Davis insisted that the talks had to be based on Confederate independence. He therefore changed the letter to read:

“In conformity with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are requested to proceed to Washington City for informal conference with him upon the issues involved in the existing war, and for the purpose of securing peace to the two countries.”

This almost ensured that peace negotiations would stop before they even started.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21816-29; 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 16133-72; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 547; 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. 629; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 199; 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. 822; 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

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.

—–

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

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.

—–

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 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.

—–

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

The Battle of Fort Stevens

July 11, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley spread panic throughout Washington by reaching the capital’s suburbs and attacking a portion of the city’s defenses.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The day after their victory on the Monocacy River, Early’s Confederates continued moving southeast through Maryland toward Washington. Early hoped that his raid would divert Federal forces from laying siege to Petersburg south of Richmond. Slowed by heat and fatigue, the Confederates stopped for the night near Rockville, less than 10 miles from Washington on the Georgetown Pike.

Meanwhile, panic spread throughout both Baltimore and Washington. Northerners eager for the fall of Richmond were now suddenly terrified that their own capital might fall. A group of Baltimore civic leaders wired President Abraham Lincoln accusing him of leaving their city vulnerable to Early’s Confederates. Lincoln replied, “They can not fly to either place. Let us be vigilant but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore or Washington will be sacked.”

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sent VI and XIX corps from Virginia to reinforce the Washington defenses. Grant telegraphed Lincoln offering to come in person to command the forces, and then advised, “All other force, it looks to me, should be collected in rear of enemy about Edwards Ferry and follow him (Early) and cut off retreat if possible.” Lincoln replied:

“Gen. Halleck says we have absolutely no force here fit to go to the field. He thinks that with the hundred day-men, and invalids we have here, we can defend Washington, and scarcely Baltimore. Now what I think is that you should provide to retain your hold where you are certainly, and bring the rest with you personally, and make a vigorous effort to destroy the enemie’s force in this vicinity. I think there is really a fair chance to do this if the movement is prompt.”

Lincoln concluded, “This is what I think, upon your suggestion, and is not an order.” Halleck agreed with Grant’s plan to get into Early’s rear, but, he wrote, “we have no forces here for the field” except “militia, invalids, convalescents from the hospitals, a few dismounted batteries, and the dismounted and disorganized cavalry sent up from James River.” Grant assured Washington that reinforcements would soon arrive, writing, “They will probably reach Washington tomorrow night. I have great faith that the enemy will never be able to get back with much of his force.”

Early’s army continued its advance on the 11th, moving southward down both the Georgetown Pike and the Seventh Street Pike. The troops destroyed bridges, railroad tracks, warehouses, factories, and homes along the way. Early recalled:

“This day was an exceedingly hot one, and there was no air stirring. While marching, the men were enveloped in a suffocating cloud of dust, and many of them fell by the way from exhaustion. Our progress was therefore very much impeded, but I pushed on as rapidly as possible, hoping to get to the fortifications around Washington before they could be manned.”

In Washington, officials frantically organized militia, invalids, government clerks, and anyone else they could muster to man the capital defenses in preparation for an invasion. Federals from the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps began arriving as the Confederates approached Fort Stevens, Washington’s northernmost defensive work, around 1 p.m.

Fort Stevens outside Washington | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

The Confederates drove the Federal pickets back into the fort, but Early hesitated to launch an all-out attack due to Federal artillery, stifling summer heat, and exhaustion from marching all day. Early also noted the Federal fortifications:

“They were found to be exceedingly strong, and consisted of what appeared to be enclosed forts for heavy artillery, with a tier of lower works in front of each pierced for an immense number of guns, the whole being connected by curtains with ditches in front, and strengthened by palisades and abattis. The timber had been felled within cannon range all around and left on the ground, making a formidable obstacle, and every possible approach was raked by artillery.”

President and Mrs. Lincoln visited Fort Stevens as the Confederates approached, with one witness later writing, “While at Fort Stevens on Monday, both were imprudently exposed,–rifle-balls coming, in several instances, alarmingly near!” Lincoln watched the action from a parapet, where his tall figure made a prime target. When a man near Lincoln was shot, a soldier called for the president to get down before he had his head knocked off.

Private Elisha H. Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island recorded in his diary:

“On the parapet I saw President Lincoln… Mrs. Lincoln and other ladies were sitting in a carriage behind the earthworks. For a short time it was warm work, but as the President and many ladies were looking on, every man tried to do his best… I never saw the 2nd Rhode Island do better. The rebels, supposing us to be Pennsylvania militia, stood their ground, but prisoners later told me that when they saw our lines advance without a break they knew we were veterans. The Rebels broke and fled… Early should have attacked early in the morning (before we got there). Early was late.”

Lincoln finally left the parapet, and he and the first lady went to the Sixth Street wharves where they watched troops from the Army of the Potomac debarking from their ship transports. Lincoln mingled “familiarly with the veterans, and now and then, as if in compliment to them, biting at a piece of hard tack which he held in his hand.” The Federals marched up Seventh Street to help defend Fort Stevens. After the Federal artillery drove the Confederates back, Early ordered his men to rest.

That evening, Early and his four division commanders took up headquarters in the mansion owned by the politically prominent Blair family. Early wrote, “I determined to make an assault on the enemy’s works at daylight next morning, unless some information should be received before that time showing its impracticability.” That information came when Early learned that VI Corps had arrived and XIX Corps would be there by morning. However, Early did not want to withdraw without at least trying to fight, so he ordered a probe the next day to look for an exploitable weakness in Fort Stevens.

Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry detachment under Brigadier General Bradley Johnson wreaked havoc throughout Maryland. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“The Rebels captured a train of cars on the Philadelphia and Baltimore Road, and have burnt bridges over Gunpowder and Bush Rivers… General demoralization seems to have taken place among the troops, and there is as little intelligence among them as at the War Office in regard to the Rebels… no mails, and the telegraph lines have been cut; so that we are without news or information from the outer world.”

The Confederates advanced again on the 12th, but the panic had subsided among the Washington residents now that Federal veterans arrived. Many curious onlookers came to see the action, including Lincoln once again. Despite warnings from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about possible assassination attempts, Lincoln adjourned a cabinet meeting and visited several forts around Washington with Secretary of State William H. Seward. The visit ended at Fort Stevens, where Lincoln watched the action with Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps.

Wright unwisely invited Lincoln to watch from the parapet, where he was exposed to enemy fire from the waist up. According to legend, young officer (and future Supreme Court justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. shouted to him, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” Lincoln sat down but repeatedly jumped up to see the action. As he watched the Federals charge, a nearby surgeon was shot and Wright insisted that Lincoln leave or else be forcibly removed. Wright later recalled, “The absurdity of the idea of sending off the President under guard seemed to amuse him…”

The Federals drove the Confederates off by 10 p.m., ending the last threat to Washington. Early’s troops withdrew, and as they moved through Silver Spring, Maryland, they burned the home of Francis P. Blair, Sr., a political icon since the days of Andrew Jackson. Early wrote, “The fact is that I had nothing to do with it, and do not yet know how the burning occurred.” Early stated that it was unwise “to set the house on fire when we were retiring, as it amounted to notice of our movement.” Some claimed that it was Confederate retaliation for the Federals burning the home of Virginia Governor John Letcher.

Nevertheless, as his soldiers formed columns to begin marching back to Virginia, Early told an aide, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 176; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 266; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20420-29; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 434-36; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11033-44; 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 9455-76, 9487-97, 9508-610; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 467-69; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 640-44; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 536-38; 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. 756; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 312; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 279, 504, 677-79

The Fremont Controversy: Fremont’s Retort

September 8, 1861 – After six days, Major General John C. Fremont finally responded to President Lincoln’s request to modify clauses in his controversial proclamation.

Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General John C. Fremont | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West, admitted that he had consulted with nobody, including his superiors, before issuing his decree, which imposed martial law in Missouri and freed all slaves belonging to disloyal masters. Fremont took full responsibility for the order, which he called “as much a movement in the war as a battle,” and like a battle, he would “have to act according to my judgment of the ground before me.”

Regarding Lincoln’s request to change the slave emancipation order, Fremont wrote: “If upon reflection your better judgment still decides that I am wrong in the article respecting the liberation of slaves, I have to ask that you will openly direct me to make the correction,” otherwise, “to retract of my own accord, it would imply that I myself thought it wrong, and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded.” He asserted that he acted “upon the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary, and I think so still.”

Fremont also defended his order to execute armed Missourians suspected of disloyalty: “The shooting of men who shall rise in arms against an army in the military occupation of a country is merely a necessary measure of defense,” and according to Fremont, it was valid “according to the usages of civilized warfare.” Since Lincoln had defined this conflict as an insurrection and not a war against an independent nation, the rebels “have no ground for requiring that we should waive in their benefit any of the ordinary advantages which the usages of war allow to us.”

Mrs. Jessie B. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Mrs. Jessie B. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Fremont then asked for Lincoln’s permission to enforce the proclamation, “hoping that my views may have the honor to meet your approval.”

In an unprecedented move, Fremont assigned his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, daughter of the legendary Senator Thomas Hart Benton, to personally deliver this response from his St. Louis headquarters to the president at Washington. Mrs. Fremont arrived on the 10th not only to deliver her husband’s letter, but to persuade Lincoln to withdraw his objections to Fremont’s proclamation. Radical Republicans had emboldened the Fremonts, ardent abolitionists, by advising them that turning this conflict into a war against slavery would prevent Great Britain from recognizing Confederate independence.

Lincoln, a moderate Republican, sought to not only maintain harmony within the party but also maintain the delicate wartime alliance between the Republicans and Unionist Democrats. As such, Fremont’s proclamation had gone too far, and while Fremont’s defiance had amused the Radicals, Lincoln did not share their amusement when he met with Mrs. Fremont in the Red Room at 9 p.m. on September 10.

Without offering the lady a seat, Lincoln took Fremont’s letter from her and read it, dissatisfied that the general had refused to modify his order. Mrs. Fremont told Lincoln that he needed to consider liberating slaves to garner European support. Interrupting her, Lincoln said, “You are quite a female politician. It was a war for a great national idea, the Union, and… General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it.”

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Lincoln said that he would write a reply and let Mrs. Fremont know when it was ready for delivery. Irritated, Mrs. Fremont defended her husband’s wisdom and prestige, which she contended were “above and beyond” most military officers. Lincoln later said that she “left in anger, flaunting her handkerchief before my face.”

The next day, Lincoln gave Mrs. Fremont his reply. He explained that although he “perceived in general no objection” to Fremont’s proclamation, he could not allow military commanders to override official policies mandated by Congress. Lincoln stated that the order regarding freeing slaves exceeded the Confiscation Act. Therefore, Lincoln expressed his “wish that that clause should be modified.”

Lincoln would take responsibility for removing those non-conforming portions of the decree so that Fremont would not have to admit to any mistake. Lincoln wrote:

“Your answer, just received, expresses the preference on your part that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do. It is therefore ordered that the said clause of said proclamation be so modified, held, and construed, as to conform to, and not to transcend, the provisions on the same subject contained in the act of Congress entitled ‘An Act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes’ Approved, August 6. 1861; and that said act be published at length with this order.”

While Mrs. Fremont awaited Lincoln’s response, she was visited by Francis P. Blair, Sr., whose family was old friends with the Fremonts. However, that friendship quickly dissolved when Blair informed her that his son, Frank Jr., had written to his other son, Montgomery, recommending that General Fremont be removed from command. This prompted Mrs. Fremont to angrily declare that her husband could kill Frank Jr. in a duel.

Lincoln’s letter arrived shortly afterward, and Mrs. Fremont promptly returned to St. Louis to deliver it to the general. In addition, Lincoln granted Fremont’s request to issue an “open order” to change the proclamation by submitting the letter’s contents to the press for publication throughout the country.

While Fremont’s emancipation proclamation may have been morally just, it threatened to divide the U.S. since most politicians and soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. It also threatened to undermine Lincoln’s policies as well as those of Congress. Nevertheless, Fremont remained firm that he would not “change or shade” his proclamation because it “was worth a victory in the field.”

After sending Mrs. Fremont on her way, Lincoln wrote to her denying “being understood as acting in any hostility” toward her husband. Lincoln then addressed the increasing complaints about Fremont’s leadership by dispatching Postmaster General Montgomery Blair (Frank Sr.’s son and Frank Jr.’s brother) to assess Fremont’s command at St. Louis. Blair traveled with Major General David Hunter and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, arriving at Fremont’s headquarters early on the 12th.

Two days later, both Blair and Meigs agreed in recommending Fremont’s removal. Meigs reported that “great distress and alarm prevail,” and Fremont “does not encourage the men to form regiments for defense.” Blair stated that Fremont seemed “stupefied and almost unconscious and is doing absolutely nothing.” Both men left St. Louis that day, but the Fremont controversy would continue.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 74-75; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6618-30; Faust, Patricia L, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 291-92; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 96-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 64; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 389-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 117-18; 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. 353; 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), Q361

Robert E. Lee Goes South

April 18, 1861 – U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee met with influential statesman Francis P. Blair and received an offer to command the Federal army.

Blair, former editor of The Congressional Globe, traveled from his plantation at Silver Spring, Maryland to Washington on the 16th to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. According to Lincoln’s secretary, the men discussed potential commanders for the Federal forces.

U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, was too old for active field command, and his strategy for defeating the Confederacy lacked aggression. Lincoln agreed with Blair’s idea to promote Colonel Lee, whom Scott called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

Through Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Lincoln directed Blair to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings,” and make him an offer. Scott sent Lee a letter requesting an interview on the 18th. The letter included a message from Lee’s cousin, John Lee, stating that Blair also requested a meeting with Lee on the same day.

U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On the afternoon of the 18th, Lee left his home at Arlington to meet with Blair at the statesman’s townhouse across the street from the White House. Blair explained that the Lincoln administration would field an army of 75 to 100,000 troops, and he had been authorized by Lincoln to offer Lee overall command. This was the highest rank a president could bestow upon a military officer.

Lee told Blair, “I look upon secession as anarchy,” and if he had power over every slave, he would “sacrifice them all to the Union.” However, Lee later recalled telling Blair “as candidly and courteously as I could that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” Moreover, considering that the Virginia Convention had just voted to secede (pending a popular vote), Lee asked, “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

After the meeting, Lee went to Scott’s office to visit with the general-in-chief. Lee described his meeting with Blair and Lee’s decision. Scott said, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.” Lee hoped to stay in the army until the referendum on Virginia’s secession took place on May 23, but Scott advised, “If you propose to resign, it is proper that you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal.”

With that, Lee returned to Arlington House, where he would “share the miseries of my people and save in defense will draw my sword on none.”

The next day, delegates to the Virginia Convention approved authorizing appointment of a “commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia.” The commander would have the rank of major-general and authority to lead military operations and troop organization under the governor’s overall authority. The convention committee in charge of the decision recommended Colonel Robert E. Lee for the position.

Meanwhile Lee learned of Virginia’s secession, and while friends and family gathered at the Arlington House to discuss the matter, Lee retired alone to the garden to consider what he would do. He later returned home and paced in his room for several hours. Early next morning, Lee wrote his letter of resignation to General-in-Chief Scott, after 32 years of service in the U.S. army: “Sir–I have the honour to tender the resignation of my Commission as Colonel of the 1st Regt of Cavalry.” Lee explained:

“Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer retain my commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed…”

The decision had to be made quickly before Lee received orders from his superiors in the Federal government to act against the Confederacy. Lee’s decision was made not because he supported either slavery or secession, but because he believed his first duty was to his home state of Virginia, which had opted for secession.

Virginia Governor John Letcher dispatched Judge John Robertson to formally offer a major-general commission to Robert E. Lee in accordance with the ordinance passed on the 19th. Lee accepted and left Arlington on the morning of April 22. He took a train from Alexandria to Gordonsville and then completed his journey to the state capital on the Virginia Central Railroad.

After checking into the Spotswood Hotel, Lee met with Letcher and officially accepted the governor’s appointment. That evening, delegates to the Virginia Convention unanimously approved Letcher’s choice of Lee as “Commander-in-Chief of the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth” of Virginia.

Major General Lee opened a temporary office in Richmond on the 23rd. Before he could assemble a staff, he issued General Order No. 1 announcing that he now commanded all Virginia forces. A committee from the Virginia Convention escorted Lee to the convention hall, where Marmaduke Johnson introduced him: “Mr. President, I have the honor to present to you, and to the Convention, Major General Lee.”

Lee was welcomed into the hall, “in which we may almost yet hear the echo of the voices of the statesmen, the soldiers and sages of by-gone days, who have borne your name, and whose blood now flows in your veins.” Convention President John Janney delivered a speech:

“Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our conviction that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, ‘first in war.’ We pray God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will soon be said of you, that you are ‘first in peace,’ and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being ‘first in the hearts of your countrymen…'”

Lee rose and addressed the delegation: “Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality… Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.”

—–

Sources

  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 224-25, 231-32
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5759
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27-28
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 36-37
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2214-38, 2282, 2367-78, 2390
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 349-50
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 61, 63-65
  • Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 50-52, 283
  • 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), Q261