Tag Archives: Robert M.T. Hunter

Black Confederate Soldiers

February 20, 1865 – The Confederate House of Representatives approved a measure allowing for the recruitment of slaves into the military.

The “Negro Soldier Law” passed after long, intense debate by the slim margin of 40 to 37. Approving such a bill would have been virtually unthinkable a year ago, but now the Confederacy was on the verge of defeat, and desperation pushed the measure through.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser, had been urging the enactment of such a law for nearly a year and a half. He had recently written an editorial calling on President Jefferson Davis and Congress to impose “a permanent levy or draft of a certain proportion of the slave population.” According to Forsyth, since the “stragglers, skulkers and absentees” would never return to the Confederate ranks, and since the Federals now had “marshaled 200,000 of our slaves against us,” the time had come to draw from this large manpower reserve in the South.

Davis assured Forsyth that his article was “a substantial expression of my own views on the subject. It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantages or disadvantages of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of our enemy.”

However, many influential southerners were still vehemently opposed to such a move. The fire-eating Charleston Mercury declared: “The freemen of the Confederate States must work out their own redemption, or they must be the slaves of their own slaves.” Robert Toombs proclaimed: “The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.” And Howell Cobb stated:

“The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you. You can’t keep white and black soldiers together and you can’t trust Negroes by themselves. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

But many of the white soldiers who supposedly would not fight beside blacks had been urging their government to allow blacks into the ranks. The 56th Virginia submitted a petition stating that “slavery is the normal condition of the negro…as indispensable to (his) prosperity and happiness… as is liberty to the whites,” but even so, “if the public exigencies require that any number of our male slaves be enlisted in the military service in order to (maintain) our Government, we are willing to make concessions to their false and unenlightened notions of the blessings of liberty.”

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

In the end, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee helped tipped the scales in favor of passage, as Lee had long supported slave recruitment and believed that blacks could serve as soldiers just as well as whites. Lee had privately written that “we should employ them without delay at the risk which may be produced upon our social institutions.” He then issued a public statement on the 18th, declaring that such a measure was “not only expedient but necessary. The negroes, under proper circumstances, will make efficient soldiers. I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy… Those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise… to require them to serve as slaves.”

The anti-administration Richmond Examiner questioned whether Lee was “a ‘good Southerner’; that is, whether he is thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of negro slavery.” However, it reluctantly acknowledged that “the country will not venture to deny to General Lee… anything he may ask for.”

The House bill did not specifically mandate that slaves who fought for the Confederacy would be freed, but it was generally understood that freedom would be given for service. Proponents of this bill asserted that it would encourage slaves to return to their southern homes after serving rather than go north to take homes and jobs assigned by Federal authorities. Moreover, offering slaves a chance for freedom could negate the Federals’ image as liberators among the world powers, and possibly even open a path to foreign recognition for the Confederacy.

Slaveholders comprised most of the bill’s opponents. They argued that slave recruitment could lead to universal abolition, thus forever ending their traditional way of life which they believed was entwined with the Confederate cause itself. However, considering that less than 250,000 people owned slaves, this “way of life” only existed for a very small minority of southerners. Other opponents doubted the loyalty and ability of slaves as soldiers.

Most southerners acknowledged that slavery was on the path to extinction, regardless of whether the Confederacy gained independence or not. Once this bill passed the House, it went to the Senate, where it failed by one vote. Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia (one of the Confederate envoys at the Hampton Roads conference) led the opposition, arguing:

“If we are right in passing this measure, we are wrong in denying to the old (U.S.) government the right to interfere with slavery and to emancipate the slaves. If we offer the slaves their freedom as a boon, we confess that we were insincere and hypocritical in saying slavery was the best state for the negroes themselves.”

Despite the Senate’s rejection, this bill would be reconsidered in March, when Confederates were becoming even more desperate.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 555-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 641-42; 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. 834-36; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 471-72

The Hampton Roads Conference: Southern Reaction

February 6, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis submitted his report on the Hampton Roads peace conference to the Confederate Congress, along with his denunciation of the Federals’ insistence on reunion.

The three Confederate envoys (Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter) returned to Richmond on the 4th following their meeting with U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward at Hampton Roads. They met with President Davis that night and briefed him on what had been discussed.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederates got nothing they had hoped for in the talks, and Davis asserted that Lincoln had “acted in bad faith” by rejecting Francis P. Blair, Sr.’s plan to unite Federals and Confederates against the French in Mexico. But according to Stephens, “the publicity of the Mission was enough to account for its failure, without attributing it to any bad faith, either on the part of Mr. Blair or Mr. Lincoln.”

Stephens wrote that even though the Confederate cause seemed lost, Davis believed “that Richmond could still be defended, notwithstanding Sherman had already made considerable progress on this march from Savannah; and that our Cause could still be successfully maintained…” Hunter agreed with Davis, but Campbell later wrote, “I recommended the return of our commission or another commission to adjust a peace. I believed that one could be made upon the concession of union and the surrender of slavery, upon suitable arrangements.”

Davis refused. According to Campbell, Davis argued that “the Constitution did not allow him to treat for his own suicide. All that he could do would be to receive resolutions and submit them to the sovereign States; that his personal honor did not permit him to take any steps to make such a settlement as was proposed.”

J.A. Campbell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Campbell opined that the peace effort “failed, principally through Mr. Davis, who had no capacity to control himself to do an irksome, exacting, humiliating, and, in his judgment, dishonoring act, however called for by the necessities of his situation. He preferred to let the edifice fall into ruins, expecting to move off with majesty before the event occurred.”

The next day, the commissioners submitted their formal report on the Hampton Roads conference to Davis. It stated in part:

“… A conference was granted… We understood from him (Lincoln) that no terms or proposals of any treaty or agreements looking to an ultimate settlement would be entertained or made by him with the authorities of the Confederate States, because that would be recognition of their existence as a separate power, which, under no circumstances, would be done… During the conference, the proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States adopted by Congress on the 31st ultimo was brought to our notice…”

Davis forwarded the report to the Confederate Congress with a presidential message:

“I herewith submit for the information of Congress the report of the eminent citizens above named, showing that the enemy refused to enter into negotiations with the Confederate States, or any one of them separately, or to give to our people any other terms or guarantees than those which the conqueror may grant, or to permit us to have peace on any other basis than our unconditional submission to their rule, coupled with the acceptance of their recent legislation, including an amendment to the Constitution for the emancipation of all the negro slaves, and with the right on the part of the Federal Congress to legislate on the subject of the relations between the white and black population of each State. Such is, as I understand, the effect of the amendment to the Constitution which has been adopted by the Congress of the United States.”

Virginia Governor William Smith organized a meeting at Richmond’s Metropolitan Hall to condemn the Hampton Roads results. Hunter attended the meeting and spoke for the Confederate envoys:

“If anything was wanted to stir blood, it was furnished when we were told that the United States could not consent to entertain any proposition coming from us as a people. Lincoln might have offered something… No treaty, no stipulation, no agreement, either with the Confederate States jointly or with them separately; what was this but unconditional submission to the mercy of the conquerors?”

On the 9th, Davis and other high-ranking Confederate officials attended a day-long rally at the African Church, which was borrowed for the occasion for its spaciousness. Hunter delivered another speech, this time declaring that Lincoln “turned from propositions of peace with cold insolence. I will not attempt to draw a picture of subjugation. It would require a pencil dripped in blood.” Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin said, “Hope beams in every countenance. We know in our hearts that this people must conquer its freedom or die.”

Davis hoped that news of the failed peace conference would galvanize southerners to fight even harder for their independence. He announced that he “would be willing to yield up everything he had on earth” before submitting to Federal authority. Davis asserted that the Confederate military was in excellent condition, and “Sherman’s march through Georgia would be his last.”

He predicted that the Federals would seek peace terms by summer, and declared, “I can have no ‘common country’ with the Yankees. My life is bound up in the Confederacy; and, if any man supposes that, under any circumstances, I can be an agent of reconstruction of the Union, he has mistaken every element of my nature!”

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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 21852-68; 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 16270-330; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 551; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 692-93; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 635; 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. 823-24; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 468, 470-71

Peace Conference at Hampton Roads

February 3, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward met with three Confederate envoys to discuss a possible end to the war.

On the morning of the 3rd, Lincoln and Seward met with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell aboard the steamboat River Queen off Hampton Roads, Virginia. The men met in the saloon specially prepared for them.

The River Queen | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org public domain

Lincoln and Stephens were old friends, and they began the meeting by talking about mutual acquaintances. Seward described the new dome over the Capitol to the envoys, all of whom had once served in the U.S. Congress. The men agreed not to document the meeting, and nobody was allowed in the saloon except a steward who served refreshments. Stephens began the official talks by asking, “Is there no way to put an end to the present troubles and restore the good feelings that existed in those days between the different States and sections of the country?”

Lincoln said that the only way to stop the war was “for those who were resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance. All the trouble came from an armed resistance against the National Authority.” Stephens suggested uniting Federals and Confederates in a common cause to end the war, and Lincoln replied, “I suppose you refer to something that Mr. Blair has said. Now it is proper to state at the beginning, that whatever (Blair) said was of his own accord… and he had no authority to speak for me. When he returned and brought me Mr. Davis’s letter, I gave him” the letter dated January 18, making “the restoration of the Union a sine qua non with me, and hence my instructions that no conference was to be held except upon that basis.”

Lincoln stated that he “was always willing to hear propositions for peace on the conditions of this letter and on no other,” and he was led to understand that the envoys had accepted this term as part of their “application for leave to cross the lines” and meet with him.

After a brief silence, Campbell asked hypothetically how the southern states might return to the Union. Seward asked to defer that question so he could hear more about Stephens’s idea of Federals and Confederates joining forces. Stephens explained that France had violated the Monroe Doctrine by installing a puppet ruler over Mexico, and as such the two sides could call a ceasefire and join to oust the French from that country. During the armistice, a military convention could settle all differences between the two sides.

Stephens had cleverly turned the discussion into what the Confederates wanted: a ceasefire so they could negotiate on the basis of Confederate independence. But, according to Stephens, Lincoln “could entertain no proposition for ceasing active military operations, which was not based upon a pledge first given, for the ultimate restoration of the Union.”

Lincoln explained that “the settlement of our existing difficulties was a question now of supreme importance,” and the only way to settle them was the “recognition and re-establishment of the National Authority throughout the land.” Stephens later wrote: “These pointed and emphatic responses seemed to put an end to the Conference on the subject contemplated in our Mission, as we had no authority to give any such pledge, even if we had been inclined to do so, nor was it expected that any such would really be required to be given.”

Seward asked for more details on how invading Mexico would promote “permanent peace and harmony in all parts of the country,” but when Stephens shared them, Seward concluded that no “system of Government founded upon them could be successfully worked. The Union could never be restored or maintained on that basis.” Hunter conceded that “there was not unanimity in the South upon the subject… it was not probable that any arrangement could be made by which the Confederates would agree to join in sending any portion of their Army into Mexico.”

Lincoln repeated that he “could not entertain a proposition for an Armistice on any terms, while the great and vital question of reunion was indisposed of.” Stephens later wrote, “He could enter into no treaty, convention or stipulation, or agreement with the Confederate States, jointly or separately, upon that or any other subject, but upon the basis first settled, that the Union was to be restored. Any such agreement, or stipulation, would be a quasi recognition of the States then in arms against the National Government as a separate Power.”

Stephens suggested that Lincoln could, as commander-in-chief, approve a military convention to settle their differences. Lincoln agreed that he could, but he would not approve such a thing unless “it was first agreed that the National Authority was to be re-established throughout the country.”

This brought Campbell back to his original question of how the southern states might return to the Union. Lincoln answered, “By disbanding their armies, and permitting the National Authorities to resume their functions.” Seward backed him by telling the envoys that “Mr. Lincoln could not express himself more clearly or forcibly” on this matter than he did in his message to Congress last December. Seward then explained exactly what Lincoln had written in that message.

Campbell declared that numerous matters “required stipulation or agreement of some sort” before the South could rejoin the Union. Dissolving the Confederate military “was a delicate and difficult operation,” and a policy regarding confiscated property would need to be implemented. Seward suggested that property issues could be settled by the courts, and Congress would be “liberal in making restitution of confiscated property, or providing indemnity, after the excitement of the times had passed off.”

Stephens brought up slave emancipation. Lincoln conceded that his Emancipation Proclamation may not be legal, and the courts would decide this after the war. In the meantime, Seward estimated that about 200,000 slaves had been freed under the decree, and Lincoln would not retract or modify it in any way.

Seward informed the envoys that the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had just passed Congress. He then tried enticing the envoys by implying that if the southern states returned to the Union, they could kill the amendment by blocking ratification: “If the war were then to cease, it would probably not be adopted by a number of States, sufficient to make it a part of the Constitution.”

Lincoln then gave a long discourse on slavery, of which Stephens later wrote:

“He said it was not his intention in the beginning to interfere with Slavery in the States; that he never would have done it, if he had not been compelled by necessity to do it, to maintain the Union; that the subject presented many difficult and perplexing questions to him; that he had hesitated for some time, and had resorted to this measure only when driven to it by public necessity; that he had been in favor of the General Government prohibiting the extension of Slavery into the Territories, but did not think that the Government possessed power over the subject in the States, except as a war measure; and that he had always himself been in favor of emancipation, but not immediate emancipation, even by the States.”

Lincoln then advised Stephens on what he would do if he were Stephens:

“I would go home (to Georgia) and get the Governor of the State to call the Legislature together, and get them to recall all the State troops from the war; elect Senators and Members to Congress, and ratify this Constitutional Amendment prospectively, so as to take effect–say in five years. Such a ratification would be valid in my opinion… Whatever may have been the views of your people before the war, they must be convinced now that Slavery is doomed. It cannot last long in any event, and the best course, it seems to me, for your public men to pursue, would be to adopt such a policy as will avoid, as far as possible, the evils of immediate emancipation.”

Lincoln went on to voice his support for compensating slaveholders for the loss of their labor, but only if the southern states voluntarily abolished slavery and returned to the Union. Since the North was partly responsible for slavery, Lincoln stated that northerners would likely support “paying a fair indemnity for the loss to (slave) owners.” He said that Congress could appropriate up to 15 percent of the slaves’ 1860 value, amounting to about $400 million.

Seward objected to his plan, arguing, “The United States has already paid on that account.” Lincoln said, “Ah, Mr. Seward, you may talk so about slavery if you will, but if it was wrong in the South to hold slaves, it was wrong in the North to carry on the slave trade, and it would be wrong to hold onto that money that the North procured by selling slaves to the South without compensation, if the North took the slaves back again.” Lincoln reiterated his support for compensating slaveholders, but he also reiterated that Congress would have to approve the compensation.

The envoys then discussed “the evils of immediate emancipation,” such as the hardships that freedom would bring to those “who were unable to support themselves.” Lincoln responded with an anecdote about a farmer who told his neighbor about an efficient way to feed his hogs: “Why, it is to plant plenty of potatoes, and when they are mature, without either digging or housing them, turn the hogs in the field and let them get their own food as they want it.” His neighbor asked, “But how will they do when the winter comes and the ground is hard frozen?” The farmer answered, “Well, let ‘em root.”

As the discussion entered its fourth hour, Hunter said that it seemed Lincoln and Seward expected nothing less than “unconditional surrender” from the Confederacy. Seward said that neither he nor Lincoln had used those words, and that they merely insisted on the South “yielding to the execution of the laws under the constitution of the United States, with all its guarantees and securities for personal and political rights.” Such a thing could not “be properly considered as unconditional submission to conquerors, or as having anything humiliating in it.”

Lincoln added that as president, he had the power to pardon citizens, and he would do so “with the utmost liberality.” Only Congress could decide whether to seat senators and representatives from the southern states, but Lincoln said “they ought to be” seated. Hunter said that King Charles I of England had been willing to compromise with those rebelling against him, and Lincoln should do the same. Lincoln quipped, “I do not profess to be posted in history. On all such matters I will turn you over to Seward. All I distinctly recollect about the case of Charles I, is, that he lost his head in the end.”

Based on Lincoln’s conditions and terms, there would be no further negotiation until the southern states agreed to unconditional submission to U.S. rule. Hunter asked, “Mr. President, if we understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government; that we have forfeited our rights, and are proper subjects for the hangman. Is that not about what your words imply?” Lincoln replied, “Yes. You have stated the proposition better than I did. That is about the size of it.”

Hunter countered, “Well, Mr. President, we suppose that would necessarily be your view of our case, but we have about concluded that we will not be hanged as long as you are President – so long as we behave ourselves.” This broke the tension in the saloon. Then there was some talk about West Virginia, which Lincoln insisted would remain separate from Virginia.

The cordial four-hour meeting ended with no agreements made, mainly because the Confederates could not consent to Lincoln’s demand for “one common country.” As the meeting broke up, Lincoln agreed to release Stephens’s nephew, a captured lieutenant in the Lake Erie island prison camp. He also promised to suggest to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant that he work with Confederate officials to set up a prisoner exchange system.

Lincoln and Seward left for Washington immediately after the meeting. Their departure left the Confederates to either voluntarily submit to terms they deemed unacceptable or continue fighting until forced to unconditionally submit. Nevertheless, the Federals hoped the Confederates would see that the war was lost and therefore voluntarily return to the Union.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 209-10; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 564; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 526-27; 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 16211-70; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 549; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 692-93; 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. 21-24; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 631-34; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 208; 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. 822-23; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 469; 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), Q165

Peace Talks: Lincoln Leaves for Hampton Roads

February 2, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln accepted a suggestion to meet with Confederate envoys in person to discuss possible peace.

Three Confederate envoys waited at City Point, Virginia, for permission to discuss peace with members of the Lincoln administration. The envoys were Vice President Alexander Stephens, Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell. They were made guests of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, while they waited.

Major Thomas T. Eckert, head of the War Department telegraph office, had been dispatched from Washington to open preliminary talks with the envoys. Eckert was to obtain a written pledge that negotiations would be based on the notion that North and South were “one common country.” If the envoys agreed, they would be allowed to proceed to Fort Monroe, where Secretary of State William H. Seward would talk with them.

Pres. Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

While Eckert was in transit, President Lincoln wired Grant: “Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder or delay your military movements or plans.” Grant answered, “There will be no armistice in consequence of the presence of Mr. Stephens and others within our lines. The troops are kept in readiness to move at the shortest notice if occasion should justify it.” The envoys told Grant that they accepted the conditions listed in Lincoln’s letter of January 18 to Francis P. Blair, Sr., “without any personal compromise on any question in the letter.”

Eckert arrived on the afternoon of the 1st, where he informed the envoys of the written pledge and then left them alone to discuss it. When he returned that night, he found that their response did not specifically repudiate President Jefferson Davis’s insistence that peace talks proceed only on the basis of “two countries.” Eckert therefore deemed their answer “not satisfactory,” and at 9:30 p.m., he reported: “I notified them that they could not proceed.”

But Grant did not want the peace talks to break down, and so he interceded with a message of his own an hour later:

“Now that the interview between Major Eckert, under his written instructions, and Mr. Stephens and party has ended, I will state confidentially, but not officially to become a matter of record, that I am convinced, upon conversation with Messrs. Stephens and Hunter, that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union. I have not felt myself at liberty to express even views of my own or to account for my reticency. This has placed me in an awkward position, which I could have avoided by not seeing them in the first instance. I fear now their going back without any expression from any one in authority will have a bad influence. At the same time I recognize the difficulties in the way of receiving these informal commissioners at this time, and do not know what to recommend. I am sorry, however, that Mr. Lincoln cannot have an interview with the two named in this dispatch, if not all three now within our lines. Their letter to me was all that the President’s instructions contemplated, to secure their safe conduct, if they had used the same language to Major Eckert.”

On the morning of the 2nd, Lincoln received a wire from Seward, who was expecting the envoys at Fort Monroe: “Richmond party not here.” Lincoln then received Eckert’s message explaining why he did not let them proceed. The president decided to recall both Seward and Eckert, but then Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton arrived with Grant’s message. Lincoln authorized the envoys to proceed to Fort Monroe and wired Seward: “Induced by a despatch of Gen. Grant, I join you at Fort-Monroe as soon as I can come.” He then wired Grant: “Say to the gentlemen I will meet them personally at Fortress Monroe, as soon as I can get there.”

Travel arrangements were made within two hours. He could not get to Chesapeake Bay in the usual way due to ice on the Potomac River. Lincoln therefore took a special train to Annapolis, walked a half-mile to the landing, and then boarded the steamer Thomas Colyer. Just one aide accompanied him. Word quickly spread that the president had left the capital, and many were not happy about it.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote that the cabinet viewed it “unfavorably that the Chief Magistrate should have gone on such a mission.” The Radical Republicans in Congress feared that Lincoln might give up too much in exchange for a speedy end to the war. They threatened “hostile investigation and hostile resistance” to the peace effort, but no measures were passed. Nevertheless, the New York Tribune reported that “radical War men made no concealment of their anger and their apprehensions.”

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. wrote to his father, the U.S. minister to Great Britain, that Lincoln’s trip was “a step forward, an indispensable first step.” He spoke for many by adding, “As for dignity, I do not look to President Lincoln for that… I do look to him for honesty and shrewdness and I see no evidence that in this matter he has been wanting in these respects.”

Lincoln arrived at Hampton Roads that night and met with Seward, who was aboard the River Queen. The peace conference would begin the next day.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 564; Catton, Bruce, Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 420; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 525-26; 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 16181-221; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 549; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 690-91, 692-93; 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. 21-24; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 631-33; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 202-05; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 469; 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), Q165

Peace Talks: Confederate Envoys Arrive

January 30, 1865 – Three Confederate emissaries crossed the siege lines at Petersburg to meet with Federal officials and discuss a possible end to the war.

President Jefferson Davis had dispatched Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter. They were given a letter to present to the Federal authorities requesting a meeting to discuss “securing peace to the two countries.”

Under a flag of truce, the envoys reached the picket line of Federal Major General John G. Parke’s IX Corps and were escorted to the nearest ranking Federal officer, who knew nothing about their visit. When the envoys asked to speak with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the officer cracked that he “was on a big drunk.” (Grant was actually at Wilmington planning an invasion of North Carolina.) The next ranking officer, Major General George G. Meade, was at Philadelphia. This left Major General E.O.C. Ord.

Ord notified the War Department that the commissioners were there “in accordance with an understanding claimed to exist with Lt. Gen. Grant…” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wrote that Grant had not notified the department of any arrangement to bring Confederate officials across the lines. He directed Ord to keep the envoys there and sent Major Thomas T. Eckert, head of the War Department telegraph office, to meet with them.

President Abraham Lincoln instructed Eckert to listen to what the commissioners had to say, and then present them with his letter of the 18th. Eckert was to ask the commissioners if they accepted his condition of “one common country” for peace talks, and then “receive their answer in writing, waiting a reasonable time for it.” If they accepted, Ord would be directed to let the envoys pass through the Federal lines, “without further condition.”

As the commissioners waited for Eckert, they conferred and agreed that if they presented Davis’s letter insisting on two separate countries, negotiations would fail. They therefore drafted a new letter to present to Grant:

“Sir: We desire to pass your lines under safe conduct and to proceed to Washington to hold a conference with President Lincoln upon the subject of the existing war, and with a view of ascertaining upon what terms it may be terminated, in pursuance of the course indicated by him in his letter to Mr. F.P. Blair of January 18, 1865, of which we presume you have a copy; and if not, we wish to see you in person, and to confer with you upon the subject.”

Grant returned to his City Point headquarters knowing nothing about either the envoys’ visit or Eckert’s impending arrival. He read the Confederates’ letter and allowed them through the lines to meet with him at his headquarters. Grant wrote, “Your letter to me has been telegraphed to Washington for instructions. I have no doubt but that before you arrive at my Headquarters an answer will be received directing me to comply with your request.” When Grant forwarded the envoys’ letter to Washington, Lincoln replied that Eckert was on his way, and Grant was to cooperate with him.

Word quickly spread that Stephens, Campbell, and Hunter had come to possibly negotiate an end to the war. Both Federal and Confederate troops came out of their trenches and lined up to watch the envoys’ carriage pass on its way to City Point. Meade, recently returned from Philadelphia, wrote to his wife, “Our men cheered loudly, and the soldiers on both sides cried out lustily, ‘Peace! Peace!’”

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The three commissioners met with Grant and Meade on the night of the 31st, where they discussed ways to end the war. Stephens told the generals that he hoped to arrange an armistice before talking peace. Meade told him that “any proposal based on a suspension of hostilities would not be received” by Lincoln unless it would lead to reunion. Grant hoped the commissioners might be flexible on this point.

Grant then arranged for them to be comfortably quartered aboard the steamship Mary Martin while he waited for Eckert to arrive. He assured them that if they were not given safe passage to Washington, he would see to it that they were safely returned to their own lines.

Back in Washington, Lincoln anticipated that Eckert would get a positive response and so he directed Secretary of State William H. Seward to follow him down to Virginia to negotiate “on the basis of my letter to F.P. Blair, Esq., on Jan. 18, 1865.” Seward was to tell the envoys that “three things are indispensable” for peace:

  • First, “the restoration of the national authority throughout all the States.”
  • Second, “no receding, by the Executive of the United States on the Slavery question” as Lincoln had declared in his latest annual message to Congress “and in preceding documents.”
  • Third, “no cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.”

Seward would then inform the men that “all propositions of theirs not inconsistent with the above, will be considered and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality.” Seward was not “to definitely consummate anything,” but instead report to Lincoln what the envoys “may choose to say.” Lincoln issued passes for the envoys to go through the Federal lines to Fort Monroe and meet with Seward, but only if Eckert’s interview proved favorable. Eckert would arrive on the afternoon of February 1.

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References

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 419; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 524; 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; 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. 629-30; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 198-200; 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