July 5, 1864 – Influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley begged President Abraham Lincoln to meet with Confederate agents who were supposedly willing to discuss ways of ending the war.
The War Department had censored the press since Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant began his grand offensive in May, leading most northerners to believe that the Federals were on the verge of winning the war. But after two months, the truth could no longer be hidden. The Confederate armies had not been destroyed, neither Richmond nor Atlanta had been captured, and the horrific number of casualties sparked calls to stop the conflict.
This outcry was led by Greeley of the New York Tribune. Greeley wrote Lincoln that his “irrepressible friend” William “Colorado” Jewett had informed him that “two Ambassadors” representing President Jefferson Davis on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls had “full & complete powers for a peace.” Greeley pleaded with Lincoln to meet with them because:
“Confederates everywhere (are) for peace. So much is beyond doubt. And therefore I venture to remind you that our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country also longs for peace–shudders at the prospect of fresh conscription, of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood. And a wide-spread conviction that the Government and its prominent supporters are not anxious for Peace, and do not improve proffered opportunities to achieve it, is doing great harm.”
Greeley wrote, “I entreat you to submit overtures for pacification to the Southern insurgents.” Lincoln believed that Greeley was being duped by Confederates seeking to stir up antiwar passions and influence the upcoming elections. In fact, Federal agents had reported that Copperheads were in direct contact with Confederate agents in Canada to try forming a Midwestern alliance with the Confederacy. This became known as the “Northwest Conspiracy.”
Nevertheless, Lincoln authorized Greeley to escort to Washington “any person anywhere professing to have any proposition of Jefferson Davis in writing, for peace, embracing the restoration of the Union and abandonment of slavery.”
Three Confederate agents arrived at Niagara Falls on the 12th–Clement C. Clay of Alabama, James Holcombe of Virginia, and Jacob Thompson of Mississippi. These men had numerous contacts among the Copperheads in the northern states, and now they communicated through Greeley to try to get the Federal government to negotiate peace.
Greeley objected to being Lincoln’s envoy, and so the president dispatched his secretary John Hay to travel with Greeley to Niagara Falls. The men delivered a message written by Lincoln and endorsed by Secretary of State William H. Seward:
“To Whom it may concern: Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points, and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways.”
The Confederates expected Lincoln to insist on restoring the Union, but they were surprised by his insistence on ending slavery because it exceeded his Emancipation Proclamation and all congressional legislation. Lincoln added this requirement for peace knowing that the Confederates would find it unacceptable; he could then announce that he tried negotiating a settlement but the Confederacy refused.
Greeley and Hay delivered Lincoln’s message to the Confederate agents, who read it and explained that they were not prepared to negotiate a peace based on these terms because that would signify a Confederate surrender. The Confederates sent a transcript of the meeting to the Associated Press, “throw(ing) upon the Federal Government the odium of putting an end to all negotiation.”
They wrote, “If there be any citizen of the Confederate States who has clung to the hope that peace is possible,” Lincoln’s terms “will strip from their eyes the last film of such delusion.” As for “any patriots or Christians” in the North “who shrink appalled from the illimitable vistas of private misery and public calamity,” they should “recall the abused authority and vindicate the outraged civilization of their country.”
Lincoln’s message was nothing more than a political maneuver, which backfired when the anti-administration press published it and condemned him for refusing to end the carnage without freeing the slaves. Democrats railed that if Lincoln would simply abandon emancipation, the war could end. But they did not seem to understand that the Confederates would not agree to restoring the Union on any terms.
Both the Confederates and the Copperheads wanted an armistice, but for different reasons. Copperheads believed it would lead to negotiations that would ultimately bring the South back into the Union. Confederates believed it would lead to their independence, and they humored the Copperheads’ “fond delusion” of restoration as a means to their end.
The Niagara Falls meeting proved to Greeley that the Confederates would not negotiate based on either restoration or emancipation. However, the Confederates continued encouraging the antiwar movement, and the military stalemate in Virginia and Georgia made Lincoln’s reelection prospects seem increasingly bleak.
Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21727-42; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 433-34, 437; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10930, 11089-133; 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 9717-37; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 465; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 646-47; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 533-34, 540-42; 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. 761-63, 766; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 351