Finding a Fallen Soldier’s Family (Article 80)

“Whose father was he?” – Headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer

After the battle at Gettysburg, in July 1863, the body of a soldier was found by a young girl within the city in a location removed from the main battles. He wore a blue Union private’s shirt, but otherwise carried no identification, not even a unit insignia. He was, however clutching a small glass plate image, called an ambrotype, of three children, which he had probably removed from his pocket for a final look before dying of his wounds.

But who was he?

The girl notified one of the many burial details around the small community which were moving bodies of fallen soldiers to a central area for identification before burial. Unfortunately, determining the name was not always possible. In the Civil War era, identifying dog tags, which are so ubiquitous today, did not exist; so, the process of recording the names of war dead was more happenstance. Some soldiers carried personal information in a pouch or folder as a means of identification. If survivors of a unit were still in the immediate area, they could help provide names and even important information such as the home state or home town. Officers and senior Sergeants would check-off the soldiers still alive after a battle and often could record in official records, the names of those who had died. But in the chaos of battle, there were soldiers who remained unidentified and were simply buried with a marker as “unknown” or, even more tragic, in a mass grave.

The burial detail she summoned permitted the young girl to keep the plate image of the three children, to whom she now felt a connection. Her father ran a small tavern and boarding house in a village nearby, and the girl placed the picture in a prominent location as a way to honor the unidentified soldier. Patrons would note the display and soon people came into the tavern just to see the image and ponder the sad circumstances. It was not unusual for Gettysburg artifacts to be on display in businesses and homes in the area, as the great battlefield was littered with weapons, hats, badges, and other paraphernalia carried by soldiers. But this item struck a chord with most who saw it.

The girl had asked the burial detail to inter the soldier’s body in an individual grave, marked with the date and location where his body was found, and the words “A Father” added as a reminder. A local resident provided a plot, and they all hoped that someone, somehow, sometime would eventually provide a name.

Within a few days, one person, who just happened upon the tavern and saw the display, decided to try and identify the family.

John Bourns, a physician from Philadelphia was on a volunteer mission to Gettysburg to help care for the several thousand wounded who were still near the battlefield. Dr. Bourns asked the tavern owner if he could take the image and show it to some of the wounded men in the hope that the unusual item might be recognized. Unfortunately, he found no one who recalled the image.

However, Dr. Bourns did not give up. First, he located the grave, which had been marked as requested, and placed a more permanent sign explaining the image held by the dying soldier. Then, when he returned to Philadelphia, he had copies printed on small cards with his contact information and, began to hand out the cards and sent them to various publications.

On October, 29, 1863, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a letter, not from Dr. Bourns, but from someone who had received one of the cards. The Inquirer re-printed the letter with the image on the front page. The caption read, “Whose Father is He” and continued with, “How touching, how solemn.”  The writer then went on to tell the story he had heard about the soldier’s dying effort to see his children’s faces and added, “What pen can describe the emotions of this patriot-father as he gazed upon these children, so soon to be made orphans!” The writer then encouraged all who might see the letter and the image to contact other newspapers and magazines throughout the north in an effort to locate the family.

Within days, the image and the story were appearing all over Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and throughout New England. At a time with no radio, no TV, and no internet, this story had quickly captured the attention of an entire region.

On November 3, the publisher of the “American Presbyterian” was preparing to mail out the periodical and, at the last minute, made room to include the article from the Inquirer. However, the newsletter did not have the capability of printing an image so the editor tried to describe the picture of the three children as best he could. The American Presbyterian newsletter was circulated throughout the Northeast and a copy went to a subscriber in Portville, New York, who reprinted it and circulated copies to other parishioners and churches in the area. One recipient took the letter to Mrs. Philinda Humiston, the mother of three small children, whose husband had not been in contact with her for months. Of course, she feared the worst, but had heard nothing from the Union army and knew that many Union soldiers were held as prisoners by the Confederacy. After reading the description of the image of the three children, Mrs. Humiston said that she had sent a similar picture to her husband the previous May and that she had received a letter from him acknowledging the gift, in which he wrote, “I got the likeness of the children and it pleased me more than anything thing that you could have sent to me. How I want to see them and their mother is more than I can tell. I hope that we may all live to see each other again if this war does not last to long.”

Dr. Bourns was contacted and he quickly had a copy of the one of the cards delivered to Mrs. Humiston. When she finally saw a copy of the glass image, she knew that her husband would not be coming home and that her children would never again see their father.

Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, had died in the service of his country, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, nearly four months earlier.

The only image of Sgt. Humiston was taken before the war. Artists later added a beard and uniform.

As it turned out, most of Sergeant Humiston’s 154th New York Regiment had been captured by Confederate forces on the day he was killed, so no one who knew him was available to identify his body. Therefore, without a young girl’s compassion, and Dr. Bourns’ willingness to devote time to the effort, Sergeant Humiston’s family would never have had closure and his sacrifice would not have been honored.

And, he has been honored. In addition to his grave, which visitors can visit today, a commemorative plaque can be found near the place where he fell. Sergeant Humiston may still be the only enlisted soldier with an individual memorial at Gettysburg.

Postscript: Dr. Bourns raised several thousand dollars selling the cards he had made and gave   a portion, as well as the original ambrotype, to Mrs. Humiston.  He then used the rest of the proceeds, plus fees from the sales of a poem about the story, to build a orphans’ compound in Gettysburg. Sergeant Humiston’s family was the first to live there.

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A Gathering of Old Foes (Article 79)

“The hatred is gone, but it took some time.” –  An eighty-year-old former Confederate Private

“I seen things I can’t forget and it’s been more than fifty years and I’m near eighty.”  – Former Union soldier

“You don’t look so frightening now as you did then” –  A former Union soldier, smiling at a former Confederate in 1913.

“You are the man” – A Confederate soldier who found the Union soldier who had saved his life.

The Civil War finally ended. Soldiers went home and began to reconstruct their lives. Some did well, but others did not. But most of them were grateful to have survived, because they knew nearly a million others did not get the chance to go home.

There were numerous reunions in the fifty years following the Civil War, many sponsored by the two most prominent veterans’ groups of that time; the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans. However, smaller units, particularly if represented by one state, would hold regimental gatherings where attendees had served together and had formed a special bond to one another. But, generally, reunions were almost always limited to soldiers who fought together and the concept of bringing former Union and Confederate soldiers to one reunion was rarely proposed or implemented. Occasionally, groups from both sides might appear at the same site, but interaction, if any was minimal. Over time, some former Union and Confederate soldiers found themselves serving together in state legislatures, or on committees and boards for the good of their communities; but that hardly constituted a reunion.

Over the first fifty years after the Civil War, veteran groups frequently gathered at the battle fields, which they considered hallowed grounds, but usually the Union and Confederate groups held separate ceremonies. But, in 1913, at the largest veterans’ reunion ever held, the old soldiers embraced their former foes. Well, most of them did; as there were some who could still not forgive.

The largest, most memorable, and well photographed reunion of former Confederate and Union soldiers was held from June 30 through July 4, 1913 at Gettysburg to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous battle. Over 45,000 veterans attended, with most from the Union but nearly 9,000 former Confederate soldiers attended as well. At least 20,000 of the men had actually fought at Gettysburg. Counting some family members, and active duty soldiers and Boy Scouts who helped with the ceremonies, almost 58,000 people descended on Gettysburg, which had a population of only about 7,500. The logistics for the event were staggering for the time. Thirty-four special trains were scheduled, over 5,000 housing tents were erected and one massive auditorium tent was designed and constructed that would seat 13,000 people. Electric lines were erected and the entire campground was lighted at night, a spectacular sight for outside observers. For four days, this throng had to be fed and also cared for as many of the attendees were in their seventies and eighties (and a few in their nineties). One speaker said, “Once again this field trembles under the tread of a mighty host, not now in fear, but in joy.”

On July 3rd, 120 former Confederate soldiers who were part of the deadly, and futile, battle of Picket’s charge, faced an equal number of elderly former Union soldiers across the same field; but as one wrote, “not with rifles and bayonets but with canes and crutches.” They then assembled on Cemetery Ridge and shook hands. Joshua Chamberlain, the Union hero and Medal of Honor recipient for his leadership and valor at Little Round Top, attended and said, “It was a radiant fellowship”

And, author Stephen Crane labeled these gatherings “The meetings of a mysterious fraternity” noting the respect shown to former adversaries.

Almost all of the nearly fifty thousand veterans were able to appreciate the newly found camaraderie with their former enemies. However, a very few let long-simmering grudges surface. In one case, several former adversaries found themselves eating at a common mess tent when an argument began and a brief fight ensued between two old men; one Union and one Confederate. But this time, they only waved forks at each other. One witness said that, before others could break-up the skirmish, the Union soldier, who had escaped unharmed in the original battle at Gettysburg, was slightly wounded in the hand by a fork in, what the writer called, “The Gettysburg Battle of 1913.”  (Note: This incident is often confused with a more serious confrontation at the Hotel Gettysburg on June 30 where, as reported in the Pittsburg Progress, eight men were stabbed by W.B. Henry who was not a veteran himself, but claimed to be son of a veteran. That incident occurred when someone made a loud slur about Abraham Lincoln and a Union veteran threw a goblet at the inciter. Henry then became enraged and pulled a knife and began his attacks. None of the wounds were serious and, while the attacker spent a few nights in jail, otherwise, it appears he escaped further punishment.)

But those were exceptions as almost all who attended were able to set aside resentments. Two old veterans who knew each other before the war but who chose opposite sides, renewed their acquaintance at the reunion. In a gesture that must have meant so much to each of them, they went into town and purchased a hatchet – and buried it, unmarked, somewhere on the grounds at Gettysburg. At a separate event, one Confederate was asked to recreate the famous, and always frightening, Rebel yell. He declined saying he could not as it was, “Impossible unless made in great fear, at a dead run, full charge against the enemy; and (it would be) worse than folly to try to imitate it with stomach full of food and a mouth full of false teeth.”

On the Fourth of July, President Woodrow Wilson spoke to assembled crowd: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.

A New York times article from July 3rd described a special reunion of two men who fought in one of the ferocious battles at Gettysburg. A former Confederate soldier was telling a group that he had been shot while near a specific outcropping and would have died if a young Union soldier had not stopped to assist him by controlling the bleeding. He said, “I would have died then and there without him and I never forgot.”  An elderly former Union soldier overheard the conversation and said that he had helped a Confederate boy on that day. As the two former enemies began to compare their recollections, the old Confederate shouted; “But my God, that’s just what the Yankee did for me. There couldn’t have been two cases like that at the same time. You are the man!” 

There was also a seventy-fifth Gettysburg reunion in 1938 with about 2,000 veterans in attendance, but only twenty-five had actually fought at Gettysburg. So, soon, that great battle would no longer be an actual memory for any living soldier. The valor and sacrifice of all of those who were there, amid the horrific circumstances, both those who fell and those who survived, would be remembered and honored by subsequent generations.

Today, it is left for us to perpetuate the legacy of the Battle at Gettysburg in 1863; however, we should not forget that these most bitter foes ultimately came to a reconciliation during the remarkable reunion at Gettysburg in 1913.

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Children go to War (Article 78)

“Put the boys in…and may God forgive me for the order.” – Confederate General John C. Breckenridge at the battle of New Market.

Certainly, in the Revolutionary War, and in the War of 1812, boys of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen took up arms for their country. Most served in infantry units but some boarded naval vessels. There may have even been a few young boys who traveled away from home with forces during the Mexican War in 1847. But during the Civil War, the documented cases of boys as young as ten, eleven and twelve, who found themselves in battle situations is astonishingly high. They fought for the Union and the Confederacy, but unlike many of the senior officers whose choice was made on philosophical grounds based on their convictions about slavery, state’s rights and secession, most of these boys joined to fight with other soldiers based simply on where they lived or to follow a father, brother, or friend. Some were either runaways or orphans who, in the mid-nineteenth century, could only expect a harsh existence anyway.

And in one instance, boys joined their fellow cadets from a military school in battle.

Both the Union and Confederate military began the war insisting that a soldier be at least eighteen years of age, or have a parent’s permission to enlist. However, since personal identification records were not very precise, most of the underage youngsters who wanted to enlist, simply lied about their age. An oft told story from the Civil War was that an enterprising boy, who evidently preferred to not lie, wrote the number “18” on a piece of paper and put it his shoe; then, when the recruiter asked if he was “over eighteen” the boy could honestly reply, “Yes sir!”

Confederate enlistment records were never very thorough, but became even worse during the last two years of the War. As the attrition rate for Southern soldiers continued to climb, more boys were allowed to join the army by recruiters who needed every new soldier they could get, and they would often simply disregarded the age of the enlistee. As a result, more underage boys probably fought for the Confederacy than for the Union.

Most of the child soldiers were drummers or other musicians, flag bearers, messengers, and aides, who served behind the battle lines. But there were those who raised their weapons, followed orders to engage the enemy, and, in too many cases, fell on the killing fields.

There were children, however, who survived their ordeal. Some emerged from battle as inspirational figures, while others simply lived to tell of their experiences. But all, whether casualties or survivors, deserve to be remembered.

John Clem entered the Union Army as a drummer at only ten years old. He was well behind the clashing armies at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, when a Confederate artillery shell exploded nearby and a metal shrapnel fragment hit his drum and shattered it. Slightly injured but still able to play, Johnny picked up another drum, and stayed at his position. As word spread of his calm behavior and dedication to his task, he became somewhat famous, as “Johnny Shiloh.”


John Clem

Then, when he was the ripe old age of twelve, during the battle of Chickamauga, in September, 1863, John Clem made history again. A Confederate Officer encountered young Johnny sitting with his drum on a mobile artillery piece and ordered him to surrender. Obviously surprising the officer, the boy retrieved a discarded gun and shot his unsuspecting captor. As time went on there was some dispute over whether the Confederate officer was killed or wounded, but, in any event, Johnny was not captured. When the episode was reported in Union newspapers, “Johnny Shiloh” became even more famous as the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” and, seizing on the growing publicity and public adoration, the Union Army quickly awarded him a medal for “Heroism under fire.”  For the next two years, young Clem continued to serve his unit, although not in direct combat. Then, after the end of the War, he remained in the Army and was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant; and served until his retirement in 1915 as a Brigadier General. He never personally described his actions at Shiloh or Chickamauga as “heroic” but instead as “impulsive” and “his duty” and usually added that he was very lucky.

Other than musicians and aides, the youngest Confederate soldier was probably Charles C. Hay, who joined an Alabama regiment when he was eleven years old; but his enlistment records showed him to be sixteen. His true age was not determined after the Civil War, so we do not know if the recruiter or the leaders of his unit suspected that Charlie was so young.

There were also other boys who were assigned “safer” positions who, when presented with a challenge, ran toward battle. Orion Howe, a fourteen year-old Union drummer was severely wounded during a volunteer mission to deliver a message to another unit during the battle of Vicksburg. An observer wrote; “We could see him nearly all the way. He ran through what seemed a hailstorm of canister and musket-balls, each throwing up its little puff of dust when it struck the dry hillside. Suddenly he dropped and our hearts sank, but he had only tripped. Often, he stumbled, sometimes he fell prostrate, but was quickly up again and he finally disappeared from us, limping over the summit.” Howe later received the Medal of Honor for his actions and was appointed to the United States Naval Academy in 1865.

Then there were the “Boys of VMI.”

The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded as a state university in Lexington in 1837, with their first class starting in 1839. The stated purpose for the new school was to prepare young men for potential service, if needed, in the Virginia Militia; although many graduates accepted a commission in the United States Army. The Lexington location was chosen because significant weaponry had been gradually accumulated there for use, again only if needed, by the state’s militia.

Within a week after the start of the Civil War, the first Union troops moved onto Virginia soil, and the administration of VMI volunteered their cadets to the Virginia Militia, which was affiliated with, but not yet officially part of, the Confederate army. About fifty of the older Cadets, and several faculty members, were quickly assigned to Richmond where they trained new (raw) recruits in battle formations. The other younger Cadets remained at VMI to guard the arsenal of weapons; and, when the Richmond based Cadets returned in January 1862, for many of the boys, life as a student in a military school resumed. While the Confederate government exempted VMI Cadets from the draft calls, many of the older Cadets voluntarily left school to join the Southern Army. Those Cadets who were in their final year, and who chose to join the Confederate Army, were granted early graduation. Interestingly, about thirty of the VMI Cadets left the school and returned to Northern states, with a few joining the Union Army.

Although, the full corps of VMI Cadets had been assembled as a military unit on two earlier occasions, they were not assigned duties near any battle lines. But then on May 11, 1864, the Cadets were ordered to march about seventy-five miles to join the Confederate forces under General John C. Breckenridge near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. (Breckenridge, a former Vice President of the United States, was a candidate of the Southern Democratic Party for President in 1860 against Abraham Lincoln.)

A few of the VMI Cadets were only fifteen years old and many others were only sixteen. The 247 Cadets were positioned as a rear guard and, at first, General Breckenridge had no intention of putting them in harm’s way. In fact, the General addressed the Cadet Corps and said, “Gentlemen from VMI, I trust I will not need your services today; but if I do, I know you will do your duty!” Then Breckenridge told an aide, “They are only children, and I cannot expose them to such fire.”

However, as is often the case, once the shooting started, the battle did not follow the carefully laid plans, and when a large Union force swept deep into the Confederate lines, the young Cadets were ordered into the battle. General Breckenridge reportedly said, “Put the boys in (the battle) and may God forgive me for issuing this order.”

So, on May 15, 1864, the 247 members of the VMI Corps of Cadets fought for the Confederacy as an independent unit at the battle of New Market, near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. And, as the General predicted, the VMI boys did their duty and preserved the Confederate line. But there was an awful price to be paid. Ten boys lay dead, and another forty-five were wounded. One Cadet proudly wrote later, “The line went forward in the best of order.” After the VMI Cadet Corps fought at New Market, Union Generals determined that the VMI campus, and its arsenal, comprised a military threat and, on June 12, 1864, the campus buildings were burned by Northern forces and the weapons cache was seized.

However, the heroism of the 247 cadets has not been forgotten. To this day, the names of the ten boys lost at New Market are read at a solemn annual VMI ceremony.

Many of the boys of the Civil War, at first, must have had hopes of a glorious experience, wrapped in romantic and heroic ideals. But, as with almost every soldier, of every age, and of every era, they soon realized the truth. War is horrific!

One boy wrote; “I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”

And a 16-year-old wrote; “I passed the corpse of a beautiful boy who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hand folded peacefully across his breast. He was clad in a bright and neat uniform, garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. His neat little hat lying beside him …He was about my age… At the sight of the poor boy’s corpse, I burst into a regular boo hoo.”

After the Civil War, the public, politicians, and military leaders became aware of the large numbers of children who had fought and the many (really too many) who were wounded or killed. As a result, the prohibition of recruitment, enlistment, and use of children in the United States military became a stated policy.

However, in every war since, especially in World Wars I and II, there are examples of a few who found a way to become a child at war. We can only hope it does not happen again on our watch.

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The Amistad Affair (Article 77)

“…where human life and human liberty are in issue, and constitute the very essence of the controversy, it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression and to apply force against ruinous injustice.” – U.S. Supreme Court, 1841

In early 1839, professional slave-hunters (really kidnappers), some African and some White, brought their recent “haul” of native Africans to the shores of Western Africa, to a port in Sierra Leone. There they were divided into groups, with only a few members of each tribe in a group to minimize communication. Several hundred men, women, and children were herded on board the Portuguese ship Tecora, for a three-week voyage to Cuba, then a province of Spain. (This will be important later). The conditions within the hold of the ship were horrible, with the prisoners chained to only allow minimal movement and left to wallow in filth. As a result of the deplorable conditions, during the voyage, several of the Africans died before reaching Cuba. After they arrived in Cuba the survivors were sold at a large centralized slave auction, where it was common for 500-600 slaves per day to be offered to plantation owners; and to so-called wholesalers, who would then again sell them at local auctions in the Caribbean Islands and in South and North America.

To this point, the story of these particular Africans, however inhumane, was in no way unusual. In fact, nearly fifteen million people were kidnapped in Africa, chained in the hold of ships for a horrific voyage across the Atlantic, and then sold (and re-sold) as slaves throughout the Americas, but about 500,000 went to the British colonies in North America. However, the next chapters in the lives of some of the people, who were transported on the Tecora, would become very much different.

On June 27, 1839, fifty-three of the Africans were led to another smaller ship, La Amistad, a Spanish schooner; where they were placed in shackles in the hold of that ship to begin what was expected to be a three-day voyage to a plantation farther along the Cuban coastline.

The three “officers” of the La Amistad, Captain Ramón Ferrer, and First Mates José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, were Spanish citizens. (This becomes important later).  Ferrer also had a personal slave, Antonio, who was not part of the African group, but had been in his “possession” for several years. Ruiz was personally responsible for delivering forty-nine of the slaves, but Montez, for some reason, was given responsibility for four of the slaves by the Spanish Governor of Cuba. Since the trip usually required three days, the ship carried sufficient rations and fresh water only for the crew; with the expectation that the slaves, who had been fed before being placed in the hold of the La Amistad, could survive without further nourishment for three days. On this voyage, however, unusually strong headwinds required the crew to sail the ship on a longer and more erratic route and Ferrer, as captain, determined that there would not be enough food and water for the crew if they shared with all of the slaves during an extra three or four days before they reached their new port.

But he had a solution! A terrible solution. He assumed that the stronger slaves would survive and he would accept that a few of the weaker ones would not. So, he allowed some food and water to be given to those slaves he deemed worthy, and denied it to others who were already weakened. Some of them died while being chained in the hold of the ship.

Deaths of a few slaves was not unexpected on those voyages and the trade was so lucrative that the monetary “losses” could be covered. To Ferrer, as Captain, it was a business decision, not a moral dilemma. But, in a way, he would soon pay for his total disregard for the lives of those he was willing to let die of thirst and/or starvation.

Unknown to the crew, one of the slaves, a young chieftain of the Membe Tribe, who came to be called Cinque, had found an old file and, for several days, had been sawing on the irons that bound him. Sometime before dawn on July 2, the irons broke and Cinque began to release the main bindings on other slaves. Several of the men were from tribes which spoke a similar language and they began to plan an escape. The first crew member who came down into the hold was the ship’s cook and the Africans quickly killed him and raced to the deck. There they pounced on Ferrer and the rest of the crew. However, the crew was armed, while the Africans were not, and two of the slaves were killed. But, in the melee, Ferrer and another crewman were also killed. At least one, perhaps two, crewmen jumped ship and their fate is unknown.

La Amistad, was then under complete control of the Africans.

However, the slaves had never sailed, had no understanding of using winds to maintain a course, and were not even sure which direction would take them back to Africa. Their intent was, after all, to sail home!

Cinque quickly emerged as the leader of the freed Africans and he directed that the lives be spared of the two men who he believed could steer the ship, Ruiz and Montez. He also spared Ferrer’s slave, Antonio, who had some understanding of the Africans’ languages, and who would serve as an interpreter.

José Ruiz and Pedro Montez promised, under the threat of death, to sail the Amistad back to Africa. However, that first night, and every night thereafter, Ruiz and Montez steered a northern course in the darkness, that would not take the Africans back home. Instead, after a stop at an isolated area along the Cuban coastline to forage for edible plants and fresh water, they sailed La Amistad toward the eastern coastline of the United states.  Out on the open ocean, with no navigation skills and only the sun during daylight as a general directional guide, the Africans thought they were headed home. However, Ruiz and Montez continued their northward heading every night and during overcast days, which would eventually take the Amistad far from Africa.

To Connecticut!

As the ship moved along the coast of the United States, they made several stops in remote bays where a few slaves would search on land for more food and fresh water; usually accompanied by Antonio. It is unclear how much Antonio knew of the deceptive plan.  

There have been some questions about the decisions of Ruiz and Montez. For example, why the two sailors did not just cruise around Cuba until they found a “friendly” port or neared the Cuban shore and simply jump ship? The most likely reason was that the Africans guarded them so carefully that Ruiz and Montez probably believed they would have been quickly killed before reaching safety.

They probably also reasoned that the long voyage would buy them time to try to build trust with the Africans. And, they were successful. An uneasy truce developed between the two Spaniards, Antonio, and the former slaves, especially Cinque, which allowed some cooperation to sail the ship and forage for food.

But why did Ruiz and Montez head for Connecticut? Two reasons: (1) that state strictly enforced Fugitive Slave Laws, and (2) The New England seafaring states also strictly enforced International Admiralty Laws which would govern the disposition of the La Amistad and its cargo.

Ruiz and Montez hoped, when they neared the Connecticut coast, to convince the Africans that they had found a neutral port where slavery was not legal (true enough) and they would be safe (not true at all). The two Spaniards expected that, if they could turn the ship over to Connecticut authorities,there was a good chance the Africans would be held as fugitive slaves and they (Ruiz and Montez) would be personally rewarded for returning the ship to its rightful owners.

After almost two months, the La Amistad finally anchored off the New England coast on August 26, 1839. Antonio and several of the Africans rowed to shore where they again scavenged for supplies and fresh water. The small group returned to the ship with new provisions, just as La Amistad was discovered and boarded by a small ship, the USS Washington, which was assigned by the Federal government to guard the coastline. The Commander of the Washington, Thomas Gedney, placed some of his crew on the Amistad, took charge of all on board, and directed the ship and its passengers to a port at New London, Connecticut.

Ruiz and Montez thought their plan had worked, but they underestimated Gedney, who had a different idea.

In an extraordinary and selfish move, Gedney filed a salvage claim against the ship and the cargo of Africans under International Admiralty Law (the slaves, after all were only property to him). Gedney chose to dock in Connecticut because he believed, as did Ruiz and Montez, that the slaves would be treated as fugitives, unlike New York State where escaped slaves were routinely protected. He expected to make a small fortune when he repatriated the Amistad to its owners and returned the slaves to their documented slave-holders back in Cuba. Gedney transferred the captured Africans into the custody of the U.S. Court in Connecticut, and waited for his reward. He could not have cared less about the fate of Ruiz and Montez.

But there were other parties with claims to La Amistad and its human cargo. And they began to show up in Connecticut as well.

Britain filed a petition that the Africans must be freed because they had been illegally kidnapped in their home country in violation of several treaties which banned the International Slave Trade. To Britain, the Africans were, therefore, not fugitives but illegally kidnapped people.

Spain filed a brief that the matter should be tried in a Spanish court, in Cuba, which had been permitted a strange exemption from the International Slave Trade treaties which Spain had signed. The American President, Martin Van Buren, afraid of the reaction by Southern voters, had the U.S. Attorney General file a brief in support of the Spanish position. Spain also wanted Antonio returned to Cuba as a slave to be auctioned off; with the proceeds reverting to the state, since Captain Ferrer had no relatives.

Also, Ruiz and Montez filed a claim that they should receive a portion of the salvage rights to the “cargo” of Africans because the slaves had “escaped” but were re-captured, and delivered to Connecticut, only by their cunning.

The underlying issue was whether the Africans were really kidnapped from their homes, (as the British claimed); or, if they were really fugitives from Cuba, where slavery was legal, based on their short stay on the island (as Spain and the American President claimed).

Then, the case turned again, when the Cuban representatives accused the Africans of murder and demanded that they be returned to Cuba for trial on those charges. Ruiz and Montez applauded the Cuban and Spanish interpretations; but they did not get to celebrate for long.

A group of abolitionists obtained an arrest warrant against Ruiz and Montez for kidnapping, murder (for the slaves who died of thirst and/or starvation), and violations of international anti-slavery laws; and the two sailors were then detained by Connecticut authorities.  The abolitionists further demanded that the Africans be freed and that the U.S. government pay for their return to their homes.

In January 1840, all of the petitions were combined under one U.S. District Court judge, and he finally ruled that:

  1. The Africans were free men, illegally kidnapped.
  2. Ruiz and Montez should be held for trial for kidnapping and murder. They were immediately arrested and taken, howling, from the courtroom.
  3. The claims of the naval officer, Gedney, for salvage rights to the Amistad, but not the human cargo, were valid. The Spanish owners could recover the ship by payment to Gedney. Then, in an extraordinary gesture, the judge awarded one-third of the salvage proceeds be paid, by Gedney, to the Africans.
  4. The Spanish and Cuban claims to the Africans (and the ship) were declared invalid, except as to Antonio, who could be claimed under existing Fugitive Slave Laws. (But, Antonio had long since disappeared.)
  5. The Africans were free to leave the court room; however, the court decided that it had no authority to force the U.S. government to pay for their transportation back to Africa.

Then, as we find so often today, all parties, which did not get what they wanted, decided to appeal the decision.

In the meantime, the abolitionist group found housing in Connecticut for the now freed Africans and began to raise money to cover their transportation costs. But the court required the Africans to remain in the United States through the appeal process.

Ruiz and Montez posted bail and returned to Cuba. There is no evidence that there was ever any attempt to extradite them back to the U.S. for trial. It is presumed they returned to their former “profession” as transporters of kidnapped Africans into slavery in areas of the Caribbean and South America where slavery remained legal for another forty years.

The U.S. Attorney General, upon orders of President Van Buren, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the hearing was set for February 23, 1841. This was one year after the first trial ended; and almost two years after the Africans were kidnapped from their homes.

The U.S. Attorney General’s office opened the hearing pleading the case that this was a Spanish issue and that the Supreme Court should overturn the lower courts order and give custody of the slaves and La Amistad to the Spanish government. Any trials should then be conducted under Spanish law. The United States should no longer be involved.

But the U.S. Attorney General (and President Van Buren) would be up against a brilliant lawyer. John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States, had agreed to represent the Africans, as part of a strong defense team of dedicated abolitionists. Prior to the hearing, Adams told others that he believed President Van Buren had made a cowardly and purely political move in backing the Spanish claim; and then he said no less to the Supreme Court Justices.

Adams told the court that they must first keep in mind that they represented the Judicial Branch and had no allegiance to the President and the Executive Branch; adding that the forefathers intended that separation to be absolute. He went on to directly criticize the President for misusing his Constitutional authority by bowing to Spanish interests. His other comments are eloquent.

“This review of all the proceedings of the Executive (the U.S. President) I have made with utmost pain, because it was necessary to bring it fully before your Honors, to show that the course of that department had been dictated, throughout, not by justice but by a sympathy for the most partial and unjust. And this sympathy prevailed to such a degree, among all the persons concerned in this business, as to have perverted their minds with regard to all the most sacred principles of law and right, on which the liberties of the United States are founded; and a course was pursued (by the President), from the beginning to the end, which was not only an outrage upon the persons whose lives and liberties were at stake, but hostile to the power and independence of the judiciary itself”.

On March 9, 1841, Associate Justice Joseph Story read the Court’s 7-1 decision (one Justice had not participated). He declared that:

1. The Africans were free men, they were never legal property. They were not fugitive criminals, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office argued, but rather “unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board a certain vessel”

2. The documents submitted by the U.S. Attorney were actually fraudulent on the part of the Spanish government and were given no consideration.

3. Lt. Gedney was to be awarded salvage from the La Amistad (but not for the slaves) for having performed “a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo”. The one-third awarded to the Africans was not mentioned and the disposition of that part of the lower decree is lost in history. It is possible that the Africans waived any rights to the salvage value to gain support from Lt. Gedney’s lawyers.

4. The U.S. President was not required to return the Africans to their homes.

Then the Chief Justice added:  These African negroes are not slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes and the United States are bound to respect their rights as much as those of Spanish subjects. The conflict of rights between the parties, must be decided upon the eternal principles of justice and international law, where human life and human liberty are in issue, and constitute the very essence of the controversy. It was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression and to apply force against ruinous injustice. When the “Amistad” arrived, (in Connecticut) she was in possession of the negroes, asserting their freedom; and in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves.” He concluded with,“The said negroes are declared to be free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without delay.

The group of Abolitionists had arranged for temporary housing of the Africans in Farmington Connecticut, and by April 1842 they had gathered sufficient funds to buy their passage back to Africa, including any overland travel to their homes. Most of those newly freed, including Cinque, chose to return to Africa; however, a small group stayed in and around Farmington. A contingent of American Christian missionaries accompanied those who returned to Africa to establish schools and hospitals.

The ordeal for the survivors of the Amistad had lasted three years. 

Hampton Roads Peace Conference (Article 76)

Beginning in December 1864, Francis Preston Blair, an influential political operative from Maryland, proposed a peace conference that he hoped might include Union President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Blair knew both men and believed he could act as an emissary to facilitate a meeting, if not between the two men at least between authorized representatives. For two weeks, Blair, then seventy years old and in failing health, shuttled through enemy lines between Washington DC and Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Initially, Blair proposed a strange plan to have a cease-fire, followed by a joint invasion of Mexico to oust the French, who had displaced the legitimate Mexican government. Both Presidents rejected that idea outright, but Blair sensed a willingness by both men to further discuss more a more traditional path to peace and an end to the Civil War. The most critical hurdle was that Davis wanted to preserve the Confederacy and negotiate as two sovereign nations, while Lincoln would only consider reconciliation into one country. In fact, Lincoln had consistently refused to even recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy, instead referring to its leaders as rebels or insurgents and the seceded states as states in rebellion.  However, Blair hoped that that discussions between to the two, or their trusted representatives, might lead to some progress between their seemingly irreconcilable positions.

He thought it was at least worth a try.

To Blair’s surprise, Lincoln agreed to meet with three Southern delegates designated by Jefferson Davis, and led by Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens, along with John Campbell and David Hunter, both other senior members of Davis’s administration. There would be a Peace Conference after all, at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The Peace Conference Begins

Lincoln arrived at Hampton Roads late on the evening of February 2, 1865, after Secretary of State William Seward had already met informally with the commissioners. The next morning, Lincoln, Seward, and the commissioners met on the River Queen, a large river boat docked at Hampton Roads. Lincoln and Stephens knew each other from an earlier time when both men represented their states in Washington DC, so, the opening introductions and conversations were personal and relaxed. The parties agreed that no written record of the discussions would be made and no others would participate.

Then, they got down to business. Most of what we know, or think we know, about the discussions among these five men, is taken from reports Seward and John Campbell wrote for their respective administrations; as well as letters the attendees wrote soon after the meeting and memoirs written years later. Of course, there are discrepancies among these sources, but historians have been able to piece together a probable re-construction of the discussions; and, the following is a brief summary.

Alexander Stephens began by asking a simple question, “Is there no way of putting an end to the present trouble?” Lincoln replied that it was possible but only if those resisting the Union ceased their resistance.

Stephens raised Davis’s desire for a cease-fire but Lincoln replied that the Union would not suspend military operations until the national authority was reestablished throughout the South.

Campbell asked for Lincoln’s views on Reconstruction. Lincoln’s answer was that reunion could be achieved simply by the Southern states disbanding their armies and permitting federal authorities to resume their functions. The Commissioners stated that here were numerous logistical, administrative and legal question which remained. For examples, (a) the disbandment of the scattered Confederate armies and war materials, (b) private property settlements, (c) the dismantling of Martial Law provisions, (d) legal status of emancipated slaves and slaves in areas not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, and (e) the social upheaval that could result from universal and immediate emancipation of several million slaves. Seward said that the Federal government would be “liberal in making restitution of confiscated property, or providing indemnity, after the excitement of the times had passed.”

Lincoln addressed the elephant in the room; slavery. He admitted that opinions differed on the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was not a law, but only a Presidential war measure. Lincoln said that, after peace was reached, the courts should decide those matters. Seward then presented a copy of the Thirteenth Amendment, which had passed both Houses of Congress and was on the way to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Although the Commissioners were aware of the Congressional intent, they had not yet seen the final version.

Lincoln said that he had always opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, believed slavery could not be morally justified, felt that his Emancipation Proclamation was a reasonable war-time measure, and supported the Thirteenth Amendment.  Stephens later wrote that Lincoln added, “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.”

Recollections of the other attendees differ with most of quote by Stephens, and they agree only that Lincoln stated, “Slavery is doomed.” Historians believe it is unlikely that Lincoln suggested a protracted ratification; as he had hoped the Amendment would be ratified quickly.

Then, the President suggested his support for federal compensation to slaveholders if a Southern state unilaterally abolished slavery. Lincoln, putting on his diplomatic hat, said, “If it was wrong in the South to hold slaves, it was wrong in the North to carry on the slave trade and sell them to the South, … and to have held on to the money.” Lincoln was careful to remind the Commissioners that he would need Congressional approval for any compensation plan, but, that he would support it.

The five men then discussed the issues that would arise from universal and immediate emancipation of all slaves, who had no structured means to provide for themselves. Lincoln, by most accounts, agreed there would be disruptions within society, but that was preferable to continued slavery. Lincoln realized that newly freed slaves would not be able to work their way up the American social ladder without some assistance. To his point, within weeks, he supported the Freedman’s Bureau Bill, which provided for funds to help newly freed and dislocated slaves.

After almost four hours of talks on board the River Queen, Commissioner Hunter offered his summary of the Conference. He said that the talks left nothing for the South but “unconditional submission” to the North;but Seward promptly replied that the words “unconditional submission” had not been used by either Lincoln or him. Seward continued, “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, was not unconditional submission to conquerors.” To further ease the Commissioners’ concerns Lincoln said that he had the sole power to pardon, and restore property, and he would liberally exercise that authority.

Despite these critical opposing views, there were some agreements reached. Lincoln was willing to resume prisoner exchanges and said he would so advise General Grant. Then, as a personal gesture, Lincoln agreed to pardon Alexander Stephens’ nephew who was held as a prisoner of war.

The Aftermath

Although, as he had expected, the Commissioners, certainly under direction from Jefferson Davis, had rejected his terms for peace, Lincoln hoped that individual secessionist states would realize the futility of continuing to fight, would withdraw their support (and their troops) from the Confederate armies, and approach the administration for reconciliation. Lincoln believed one key initiative could accelerate those prospects; compensation to the former slave-owners. He proposed to his Cabinet that Congress authorize a fund of $400,000,000 for compensation which the administration could pay proportionally to each slaveholding state, including the four border states which had never seceded, based on their slave populations in 1860. The Cabinet members, without exception, opposed the idea and they all agreed Congress would never approve the funds. As a result, Lincoln never made that specific proposal public.

Congressional leaders wanted assurances from Lincoln that, during the conference, he had not made any concessions to the Confederacy which would not meet Congressional approval. Lincoln agreed to present a summary and on February 10th, he delivered his message to Congress. In an extraordinary gesture, he provided copies of the documents in his possession related to the Conference, and added a brief commentary to explain the purpose of each communication. Then he concluded with these remarks; “…nothing was said inconsistently therewith; while, by the other party it was not said that they ever would consent to re-union, and yet they equally omitted to declare that they would so consent. They seemed to desire a postponement of that question, and the adoption of some other course first (a cease-fire) which might or might not, lead to reunion.” Lincoln said he could not agree, so the Conference ended without result. The Congressional reaction was overwhelmingly favorable. Lincoln had won over many of his most vocal critics, at least for his handling of the Conference.

One reporter observed, “The president gave enough information in the report to show the subtle wisdom with which his mission had been conducted and concluded. When the reading was completed, an instant and irrepressible storm of applause erupted begun by the members on the floor, and taken up by the people in the gallery…. The Speaker only perfunctorily attempted to quell it.”

Even Thaddeus Stevens, one of Lincoln’s most severe critics and a proponent of harsh measures against members of the Confederacy, said, “I do not believe there was a man on this side who desired to sue for peace, so close was the Union to victory in the war. But the President thought it was best to make the effort, and he has done it in such a masterly style, upon such a firm basis and principle, that I believe those of us who thought his mission there was unwise, will accord to him sagacity and patriotism, and applaud his action.”

Of course, there were a few Democrats, sympathetic to the South, who criticized the President for not considering the interim cease-fire proposal made by the Commissioners.

And the New York Times which had expressed doubt about Blair’s mission, headlined simply, “We escaped the meddlesome antics of Blair due to the good sense of President Lincoln!”

The Times continued that Lincoln had “…swept away the doubts of many Northerners that the rebels were fighting for independence” instead, the Times further noted, “The rebels were primarily fighting to maintain slavery. Hampton Roads should now unite all (Union) men, without distinction of party, in a cordial support of the Government and a vigorous prosecution of the war.”

The New York Herald, wrote that Lincoln was “…one of the shrewdest diplomats of the day. At the same time Lincoln’s liberality regarding the restoration of Constitutional rights in the South, combined with his firm commitment to reunion will operate to widen the distractions, dissensions, demoralizations and confusion existing throughout the rebellious States. The next rebel military disaster will inevitably precipitate a Southern popular revolution in behalf of peace and of submission to the Union.”

As expected, the reactions from political leaders and newspapers in the South were, at first, universally angry. President Davis denounced Lincoln’s rejection of an interim cease-fire and one editorial declared, “The black republican president demands an unconditional submission to the laws and authority of the United States—the sort of submission which the slave yields to the master.” (An interesting analogy from a slave-holder.) In fact, as some in the north had worried, there seemed to be a brief time wherein the rhetoric of Davis, and others who spoke against Lincoln’s stance, may have lifted the defiant spirit of some citizens and soldiers. But not for long!

It soon became evident that most of the Southern public were tired of the war, which their leaders had promised would be quick and would lead to a glorious victory. Instead, Lincoln’s terms were so clear, and the Union military advantage so strong, that even distortions of his message by Davis and die-hard Confederate politicians and newspapers could not stem the tidal wave of despair among their citizens and their soldiers in the field. Divisions within the South were reaching a breaking point by the end of February.

And Lincoln’s second inauguration was only days away.

So, by almost any measure, the Hampton Roads Conference was successful for President Lincoln and the Union. The Southern populous, their Generals, and the politicians, now knew the exact terms to end the war; which was that they must lay down their arms, submit to United States jurisdiction, and accept the demise of the Confederacy. They also knew that full emancipation was a reality that they had to face and that slavery was, in fact, as Lincoln said, “Doomed.”

If, as some historians claim, the only test of whether the Hampton Roads Conference was successful, would have been a signed peace treaty to end hostilities; then they can state that it was a failure or a meaningless gesture. 

However, in so many ways, they would be wrong!

The Road to Hampton Roads (article 75)

(The story of the Hampton Roads Peace conference, where Abraham Lincoln met with three Confederate emissaries is told in two parts; The Road to Hampton Roads is part 1 to be followed by part 2, The Peace Conference at Hampton Roads)

In the Presidential election of November 1864, Lincoln dominated in almost all Union states and he carried an overwhelming majority among the military, both officer and enlisted alike. Most voters in the north wanted to force capitulation by the south and expected an end to the Confederate government. Some, but certainly not all, saw the demise of the Confederacy as the means to the end of slavery. Lincoln’s opponent, in the 1864 election was former General George McClellan, who had offered, as a condition of a peace agreement, recognition of the Confederate States of America as a separate entity; further, he did not call for the immediate end of slavery. He lost big!

The electoral mandate Lincoln received had established his authority and now he was focused on ending the war, which he believed would come by keeping military pressure on the South. However, to some, the time seemed ripe for a peace initiative, and the idea which eventually led to the Hampton Roads Conference was born; although it was not an easy path.

The simple historical account is that President Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of State Seward, met on February 3rd, 1865 at Hampton Roads, Virginia, with three commissioners representing the Confederate States, to discuss possible peace terms. However, at the conference, Lincoln would not accept the continued existence of the Confederate Government and Jefferson Davis had only authorized the Commissioners to discuss a two-state solution. So, the war would go on for another few months, and more Union and Confederate soldiers would die, (and Lincoln would be assassinated), before hostilities ceased. Even then, the Civil War ended, not with peace commissioners signing a treaty, but only when Confederate Generals, who realized their cause was lost, began to surrender their forces.

As a result, some Civil War historians have called the Hampton Roads Conference a failure, a wasted opportunity, or a relatively unimportant event. Some of this is just academic arrogance, with individuals putting their own spin on historical events.

In many ways, Lincoln was a complicated man, but, these narratives miss his very simple, and uncomplicated, reasons for attending the Peace Conference at Hampton Roads. He wanted to press upon the Southern leadership that he would accept only a re-unified nation with no “two government” solution to the war; and, to deliver a clear message that the institution of slavery was doomed. Lincoln’s intended to leave no room for equivocation or mis-understanding.

With that in mind, the Hampton Roads Conference served a valuable purpose as Lincoln and Confederate President Davis as both knew their goals were absolutely incompatible. Davis insisted that the Confederacy continue, while Lincoln insisted it would not.

Lincoln and Davis- The impossible Divide:

Lincoln despaired over the continuing loss of life in the war, but expected that Jefferson Davis would not agree to unconditional surrender as long as he had viable military forces in the field. In his annual message to Congress a month earlier, Lincoln said, “No attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good” because Davis “would accept nothing short of severance of the Union—precisely what we will not give. His declarations are explicit and oft-repeated. He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Therefore, the issue between him and us … can only be tried by war and decided by victory.”

Lincoln also knew that if his administration made any direct contact with the Confederate President (who Lincoln referred to as the insurgent or rebel leader) it might suggest to some that the Union recognized the legitimacy of the Confederate government and the secessionist state governments. Lincoln would not allow that! On the other hand, Lincoln said he would receive overtures from representatives of any state which sought to withdraw secession declarations and requested return to the United States. He said, “They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution. But he concluded with this clear statement, “The abandonment of armed resistance to the national authority is the only indispensable condition to ending the war” Then to make his point to those southerners who hoped slavery might be permitted in some regions, Lincoln said that he “would not retract or modify the Emancipation Proclamation, nor return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that Proclamation.” He finished his remarks on the subject by saying, “The war will cease on the part of the government, whenever it shall have ceased on the part of those who began it.”

The Architect of the Conference

Then, on December 28, 1864, shortly after Lincoln’s electoral victory for a second term, Francis Preston Blair, Sr., asked to see the President. Blair, a Southerner from Maryland, was a long-time political leader with influence among both Republicans and Democrats.  He was an early opponent of secession and then had supported the war effort to preserve the Union. Lincoln respected Blair and had even named his son to a cabinet position. Blair, by then over seventy years old, offered to go to the Confederate Capital of Richmond, Virginia to meet personally with Jefferson Davis, who he had known for many years. Lincoln granted Blair a pass across Union lines to visit Richmond, with a cover story that Blair hoped to retrieve some personal papers seized by Confederate forces who had raided and burned his Maryland home; an incident for which Davis had expressed regret. Lincoln was careful to impress on Blair that he should not provide a “peace” overture to Blair. Today we might call it “plausible deniability” in the event Blair’s trip became public and was perceived as political blunder.

Davis saw an opportunity in meeting with Blair. There were growing concerns among Confederate officials that Davis was opposed to any peace discussions and some were beginning to question his authority to direct the war. Perhaps Davis believed that, if President Lincoln continued to push for the subjugation of the Confederacy and capitulation by the South, Davis could use Lincoln’s intransigence to re-ignite Southern support for the war effort.

On January 12, 1865, Blair arrived in Richmond, having passed through battle lines under a flag of truce; and went directly to the Executive Mansion of the Confederate States of America and its President, Jefferson Davis.

The Mexico Plan

What Blair suggested to Davis was astounding! And, unknown to Lincoln. His plan called for the cessation of hostilities between the North and the South and the uniting of forces to oppose French expansion into Mexico. Blair declared that slavery should no longer remain an insurmountable obstruction to pacification because all sides could now agree that it would soon die out anyway. Blair said that he believed Lincoln might be open to reconciliation, and a permanent peace, if a cease-fire could be arranged. That would be followed by a combined Union and Confederate force which would drive the French out of Mexico; and then, restoration of the Union could occur. Perhaps just being polite to his friend, Davis listened, but, then quickly rejected the proposal saying that the Mexicans themselves must solve their own problem.

Davis wrote a note stating that he was willing to appoint a delegation to meet with President Lincoln or his representatives for the purpose of ending the war, “with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” Whether Blair was so pleased to obtain any remarks from Jefferson Davis which hinted at a prospect for peace, or if he missed (or ignored) the significance of Davis’s concluding words of “two countries,” he was returning with a message Lincoln would never accept.

But Blair would bring other favorable news to Lincoln. He had met with friends in Richmond who told him that they believed their cause was lost and Davis was just hanging on.

The Conference takes shape

Blair met with Lincoln on January 18 and delivered Davis’s note. Lincoln also summarily dismissed Blair’s idea of a joint military action in Mexico but was grateful for the information about discontent among other Southern leaders; who he hoped might be able to pressure Davis into surrender. Lincoln was somewhat encouraged by Davis’s apparent willingness to negotiate but again, clearly stated that he would not accept any recognition of the Confederacy as a legitimate government (the “two-state” solution). The President asked Blair to return to Richmond, this time carrying a letter, addressed to Blair, but to be shared with Jefferson Davis. Lincoln wrote, “I have constantly been ready to receive any agent whom he, or any other influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me with a view to securing peace to the people of our one common country.” Lincoln had made clear in his note to Blair (and secondarily to Davis) that he would not agree to any negotiations based on Davis’s “two-countries” condition.

Of course, word leaked out about Blair’s mission, but not the details of the conversations, so speculations, and even outright falsehoods, appeared in newspapers and in the halls of Congress in both the North and the South. The New York Herald reported that the city “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.”

But Lincoln’s most serious critics were angered by reports of his overture to Davis; many in his own party. Radical Republicans, who wanted the Confederacy crushed, followed by penalizing reconstruction requirements and retribution against secessionist leaders, assumed that Lincoln planned to negotiate a compromise peace with the rebels. The New York Times, which often disagreed with the President, wrote,“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…. conceded everything for which they have been making war. Federal officials should continue to deal solely with the rebels as individuals, not their pretended government in Richmond.”

Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, expressed concern that rumors of peace initiatives would reduce the already dwindling numbers of new recruits and might even weaken the resolve of the soldiers who were still fighting the war.  But Lincoln was willing to take that risk.

Blair returned to Richmond and again met with Davis on January 21. After Davis had read the letter, he quickly realized that Lincoln’s comment “our one common country”’ was directly related to his own words in his letter which referred to “the two countries.” Blair told Davis that Lincoln could not compromise on the one-country principle as a condition for peace talks, but, Davis seemed willing to pursue the opportunity. He met with Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens and described his meetings with Blair. Stephens, who was acquainted with Lincoln through their earlier service in the U.S. Congress, believed there was still some chance of a cease-fire without giving up Confederate sovereignty or accepting re-union. Davis agreed, and, unusual for him at the time, obtained approval from his cabinet.

However, Davis was concerned that, even with any safe-passage granted by Lincoln, he might be detained and arrested; so, he selected a high-ranking team of Confederate officials to attend. He chose Stephens, Robert M. Hunter, a former U.S. Senator and Confederate Secretary of State, and John A. Campbell, a former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, to meet with Lincoln or his representatives. Davis made clear that his primary purpose was a cease-fire.

The Preliminary Arrangements

Lincoln was cautious. He decided to send Secretary of State Seward closer to City Point, where General Ulysses S. Grant had headquarters, to await a determination as to where Seward (and possibly Lincoln) might meet the Confederate Commissioners. While the Southern emissaries hoped they would travel to Washington DC to meet the President; Lincoln believed that would add some legitimacy to the Confederacy and he was not going to let that happen.

In the meanwhile, The U.S. House of Representatives was debating the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and rumors of a “Peace Conference” prompted opponents to demand that President Lincoln answer whether Peace Commissioners were in the city.” In a carefully worded reply Lincoln wrote the Speaker of the House that, “There are no peace commissioners in the City nor are there likely to be any in it.”  This most honest man had just deliberately mis-led Congress.

Lincoln was still hesitant to engage in high-level discussions until he knew more about the Confederate Commissioners expectations. As an interim step, Lincoln decided to have General Grant, who was already near the battle-lines, and Major Thomas Eckert, who was in charge of the War Department’s telegraph office, to first meet with the Commissioners. After their reports, Lincoln would decide if there would be a conference and where it would be held.

Major Eckert and General Grant met with the Commissioners and informed them that any proposal, which included a cease-fire, must also be tied to reconstruction and re-union into one country. Eckert and Grant did not coordinate their individual reports to the President and their impressions could not have been more different. Eckert said later that his assignment came directly from the President and he felt compelled to report independently of General Grant. 

Eckert informed Lincoln that the Conference should not occur as the Commissioners insisted that the “two countries” begin negotiations on only a cease-fire. Lincoln was described as disappointed by Eckert’s report, but not surprised. This could have been a fatal blow to the proposed conference.

However, General Grant still had some hope that a conference could be valuable and sent a message on the evening of February 1st which read, “I am convinced, upon conversation with Messrs. Stephens & Hunter that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union….I fear now their going back without any expression from any one in authority will have a bad influence.”

Lincoln trusted Grant and telegraphed the General to permit the Commissioners to travel further north to Hampton Roads (in Union territory) and wait on board the “River Queen” a large river boat with accommodations for the three men. Then surprising everyone, Lincoln decided to leave Washington DC and join Seward for the meeting. Grant’s message may have led Lincoln to agree that he should at least meet with the commissioners to avoid “a bad influence” on any future peace initiatives.

Word of Lincoln’s departure and realization that he might meet with a Confederate Peace Commission surprised both Republicans and Democrats in Washington and most were critical! Not all prominent politicians, however, were opposed to the meeting. Offering a left-handed compliment, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams wrote to his father; “It is a step forward, an indispensable first step. As for dignity, I do not look to President Lincoln for that. However, 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.”

(NOTE: The next article, Part 2, covers the extraordinary meeting among President Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and three Confederate officials; known in history as The Hampton Roads Peace Conference)

A Peace Conference Fiasco at Niagara Falls (Article 74)

“The recent Niagara Falls Peace tryst, was a gathering of un-elected men, who were sanctioned by neither Lincoln or Jefferson; and who only accomplished further inflamement of passions, North and South. We have Horace Greeley and the Tribune to blame for this scandal.” – editorial by a competitor of Greeley’s at another newspaper.

In July 1864, Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, decided to become a negotiator for peace. When he learned that several Southern representatives had gathered in Niagara Falls, Canada, and were prepared to discuss peace terms, Greeley encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to participate. Although he received a response from Lincoln, it was not as enthusiastic as Greeley hoped; but he pressed on without any real authority. The meetings were held among several men including a minor political influence peddler, three Confederate operatives with no credentials, and Greeley, whose ego was only surpassed by his outrage and vindictiveness when he perceived a slight. With that cast of characters, the conference was a failure; however, the incident gave Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to clearly express his conditions for peace, and in that respect, the meeting served some purpose.

Those gathered in the Canadian town of Niagara Falls, plus others in New York City and in Washington DC, over a two-week period included, in addition to Greeley, William “Colorado” Jewett, who was known to Lincoln and Greeley, and who had been on the periphery of several schemes, usually unsuccessful, to influence politicians. Jewett had been the person who notified Greeley that “Southern Peace Commissioners” were in Canada. Those “commissioners” were Clement Clay, of Alabama, and Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi, both former U.S. Senators before the Civil War, and Professor James Holcomb of the University of Virginia. Also, in attendance was George Sanders whose role has never been clearly defined, but was a liaison to some Northerners who sought Canadian help in opposing the American Civil War. And, eventually, Lincoln sent John Hay, one of his secretaries with a message for Greeley.

By mid-1864, many in the North had become very tired of the war. In June, Abraham Lincoln had been re-nominated for a second term, but the delegates were not enthusiastic about his re-election chances. The people wanted peace, and peace at almost any price. Thompson, Clay, and Holcomb, staying in Canada, let the word out that they were authorized by the Confederacy to confer about possible peace terms. As they hoped, Jewett, whose political machinations were well known, contacted Horace Greeley, publisher/editor of the New York Tribune, who immediately contacted President Abraham Lincoln.

On July 7, 1864, Greeley wrote to Lincoln and encouraged his participation in discussions. In his long letter Greeley wrote, “Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country also longs for peace-shudders at the prospect for new conscriptions (Lincoln was contemplating a new draft), of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood. And, a wide-spread conviction that the Government (meaning Lincoln) is not anxious for peace, and do not improve proffered opportunities to achieve it, is doing great harm now, and, is morally certain, unless removed, to do far greater in the coming elections.” Greeley was giving a veiled threat to Lincoln that if word got out that he refused any opportunity for peace, he would lose the 1864 Presidential election. And, Greeley would have been ready to be the one who would spread that word through his newspaper and other contacts.

Greeley added an admonition for Lincoln, “Mr. President, I fear you do not realize how intently the people desire any peace consistent with the national integrity and honor. I do not say that a just peace is now attainable, though I believe it to be so. But I do say, that a frank offer by you to the insurgents of terms…will…prove an immense and sorely needed advantage to the national cause; it may save us from a northern insurrection. I beg you to invite those now at Niagara to exhibit their credentials and submit their ultimatum.” (The words “do” and “offer” were underlined in Greeley’s letter and not by this author)

Lincoln did not believe that Jefferson Davis had authorized any delegation. However, not wanting to give the New York editor ammunition to accuse him being unwilling to hear a possible prospect for peace, Lincoln wrote Greeley and suggested that he go to Niagara Falls and determine if their credentials were, in fact, legitimate authority on behalf of Jefferson Davis. Then, if they possessed such written credentials, Greeley should tell them that Lincoln would grant them safe-passage to Washington.

Lincoln’s apparent trust in Greeley might seem strange since Greeley had done everything possible to prevent Lincoln’s re-nomination. But Greeley’s vanity was such that he assumed Lincoln would (or at least should) value his advice. Privately, Lincoln referred to Greeley as, “an old shoe — good for nothing now, whatever he has been.”

Greeley desperately wanted some conference to occur and just as desperately, now wanted to be part of it. He wrote Lincoln on July 13: “I have now information on which I can rely that two persons duly commissioned and empowered to negotiate for peace are at Niagara Falls, in Canada. Their names, only given in confidence, are the Hon. Clement C. Clay, of Alabama, and Hon. Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi. If you should prefer to meet them in person, they require safe-conducts for themselves, and for George N. Sanders, who will accompany them. In negotiating directly with yourself, you would be enabled at all times to act upon the freshest advices of the military situation. All that is assumed is a mutual desire to terminate this wholesale slaughter, and it seems to me high time that an effort to this end should be made. I am quite sure that a frank, earnest, anxious effort to terminate the war on honorable terms would immensely strengthen the Government in case of its failure, and would help us in the eyes of the civilized world, which now accuses us of obstinacy, and indisposition even to seek a peaceful solution of our sanguinary, devastating conflict.” (This is an edited version; Greeley never used a few words, when he had a chance to use many.)

Lincoln sent another message to Greeley encouraging him to verify the credentials of the emissaries and offering safe-passage if Greeley believed they were valid and urged him on by stating, “I was not expecting you to send me a (another) letter but to bring me a man or men.”

President Lincoln could not afford to alienate Greeley or to appear to reject a genuine peace overture. But, Lincoln smelled a rat! And, he thought it was time to bring the matter to a close. He was ready to teach the meddlesome Greeley a few lessons on the art of politics (and of over-confidence). And, Lincoln realized that he could use Greeley’s actions to show the country that any such negotiations were either unauthorized by Jefferson Davis or doomed to failure because of irreconcilable differences.

John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, was dispatched to New York bearing a personal, confidential note for Greeley from Lincoln which clearly stated his position.  But this time the letter was addressed “To Whom It May Concern” and Lincoln wrote, “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.” Lincoln was sure the letter would be leaked to the press; in fact, he counted on it! 

Greeley now had his authorization from Lincoln, but even he must have recognized that the President left no “wiggle room” for the future existence of the Confederacy or continuation of slavery by including language about the “…integrity of the whole Union and abandonment of slavery” in the letter. But, Greeley plowed on; and, after some disagreement over the exact terms of safe-passage” for the Confederates who feared arrest when they crossed the border, Greeley headed for Niagara Falls.  Upon arrival he notified the Confederates of Lincoln’s safe-conduct pass and willingness to meet, if Greeley could be satisfied that they were truly authorized by Jefferson Davis to speak on behalf of the Confederacy.

Greeley told the Confederates, “I am informed that you are duly accredited from Richmond as the bearers of propositions looking to the establishment of peace; that you desire to visit Washington in the fulfilment of your mission. If my information be thus far substantially correct, I am authorized by the President of the United States to tender you his safe-conduct on journey proposed, and to accompany you at the earliest time that will be agreeable to you.”  

Then things began to fall apart.

The Southern “delegates” hesitated; and then admitted that they had no credentials from Jefferson Davis but were earnest in trying to broker a peace deal. They declared that no negotiations were possible based on Lincoln’s continuing insistence that the Confederacy dissolve and the seceded states rejoin the United States. Further, they said that they intended to inform Davis and his administration that their sincere efforts had been rebuffed. Greeley realized that he had been used. The Southerners would make it appear to not only their constituents, but to Northerners and the world at large, that it was Lincoln and the Union which were roadblocks to peace, not the Confederacy.

Greeley thought he could shrewdly bring the two side together before any firm negotiating positions were stated; but in fact, he had been out-maneuvered by Lincoln and the Southerners.

The entire episode was an embarrassment for Greeley, who did not take any slight very well. To further his discomfort, the Southern delegates released Lincoln’s letters to the press and declared that Lincoln’s demand that slavery be abolished was the primary cause for failure of the peace initiative. Democratic newspapers in the North and almost all newspapers in the South, accused Lincoln of continuing the war for the sole purpose of ending slavery; knowing that a majority in the North supported the war only to re-unite the Union (but not to end slavery). Even many of Lincoln’s political friends believed that his “To whom it may concern” letter would cost him re-election because it was a declaration that the war was now to be fought to abolish slavery; a notion not accepted by many in the North.

While Lincoln had gambled that he would not lose too many constituents with his position; he also knew that the Democratic Presidential Candidate, expected to be former General George McClellan, would press the point in his bid to wrest the presidency from Lincoln in November 1864. Lincoln’s best hope was that events over the next few months, including prospective Union victories, would show Northerners that the Union was winning, that the Confederacy would lose, and, with the victories, Lincoln believed voters would accept emancipation along with re-union. But, the fact was that Lincoln himself was never certain he could win another term.

However, for now, Lincoln had to do some damage control and issued a statement that, “If there was anybody or any delegation at Niagara Falls, or anywhere else, authorized to represent the Southern Confederacy and to treat for peace, they had free conduct and safety to Washington and return.” Lincoln later said, “Instead of Mr. Greeley doing it that way, he went there as an ambassador, and with an array of reporters established himself on the American side and opened negotiations with these two alleged envoys across the bridge. I had reason to believe that these envoys were without authority, because President Davis had said to this friend of mine and of his that he would treat (meaning to negotiate) on no terms whatever but on absolute recognition of the independence of the Southern Confederacy.” The friend to whom Lincoln was referring was James Gilmore, who had met with Jefferson Davis and was told by Davis that, “The war must go on until the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, unless you acknowledge our right to self -governance.”  

Not any wiggle room there either!

Lincoln later said, “Of course, they never came, because their mission was a subterfuge. But they made Greeley believe in them, and the result is that he is still attacking me for needlessly prolonging the war for purposes of my own.” Greeley did finally support Lincoln for re-election, but only after the Union had established the likely-hood of victory when Atlanta fell in September 1864. Greeley liked to back winners and Lincoln won that election.

It has been said that, “No attempt at peace in time of war is wasted.” While the Niagara meetings did not plant a seed for real peace, the episode did provide Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity to, again, declare his position that he would never accept the continuation of the Confederate States, but, instead, only full restoration of the Union.

And, the Civil War would continue until that outcome was finally reached.

Sherman’s Andersonville Dilemma (Article 73)

In April, 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had been given a mission by his superior officers; to take his over 60,000 Union troops out of Tennessee, into Georgia. Once there, he was to conquer Atlanta, move southeast through Macon (a strategic rail center) and then march to the sea to take Savannah. The strategy behind the Georgia campaign was not to just capture important Southern cities, but to split the diminishing Confederate forces and to demoralize the population so that they would seek an earlier end to the Civil War. An ancillary mission was to, hopefully, weaken the Confederate resistance against General Grant’s forces in Virginia by Robert E. Lee’s army; as Sherman moved his troops further south and around those battlefields.

General Sherman completed his mission, but under a historical cloud. The Georgia campaign is forever marked in history for the burning of Atlanta and for the widespread (and some say unnecessary) destruction of homes and farms during his army’s “March to the Sea” toward Savannah.

But, during that same time-period, there was another immense human tragedy taking place in Georgia, near a town called Andersonville, in a prison named Camp Sumter. The Union soldiers, held there as prisoners-of-war, suffered under inhumane conditions; a situation, at least in part, known to many Northern civilian and military officials. By the time Sherman was preparing to leave Tennessee for Georgia, he was aware of the existence of Camp Sumter, if not of the full scope of the unfolding tragedy. In spite of that knowledge, Sherman’s Georgia campaign strategy did not include the liberation of the lightly defended prison complex; and some critics suggest that it should have.

The prison had been started in December 1863, with a plan to house 10,000 Union prisoners, but was still unfinished when the first prisoners began to arrive in February 1864. In only a few months the prison population swelled to over 33,000 and conditions deteriorated rapidly. Sherman was at least somewhat aware of the deplorable conditions within the prison since a few men had escaped and told of the many prisoners who had died, and were dying, of starvation and disease. His large army would be within about 140 miles of Andersonville during his two-month siege of Atlanta (from early July-September 3rd), and even closer, about 50 miles, as the army marched through Macon, Georgia; on the way to Savannah. However, Sherman decided to not veer the army off course to liberate the thousands of Union prisoners suffering at Camp Sumter. By most estimates, at least 13,000 prisoners died there with many succumbing from the time Sherman entered Georgia in April 1864 until their liberation in April 1865.

Why did Sherman not prioritize the liberation of the Andersonville prisoners? Certainly, many more would have survived if they had been rescued anytime during Sherman’s nine-month campaign in Georgia.

Sherman gave various reasons for his decision.  After he completed his march to the sea in December 1864 he said he had been given a mission that was never altered. Then, just after the war, he said that he could not justify dividing his forces since he could not be sure of the size and capabilities of Confederate General John Bell Hood’s forces which were in the area. Later, he said that, while it would have been a humanitarian mission to relieve the suffering of the prisoners, if he had divided his forces to essentially begin a second and separate campaign, it would have put the remaining soldiers under his command at greater risk in battle against the enemy. He also explained that he could not have cared for the prisoners without halting his campaign; which was probably a fact, since he had organized his force to travel quickly, (read lightly), from Atlanta and obtained most of his food supplies by foraging off the land. Therefore, Sherman believed that he could not have fed and cared for another 30,000 sick soldiers.

What is often lost is that he did permit a voluntary, but limited, attempt at liberating Andersonville in July 1864 when he agreed that General George Stoneman could undertake a rescue mission after his 2,200 men destroyed railroad tracks near Atlanta and otherwise disrupted General Hood’s supply lines. General Stoneman had requested that Sherman grant permission for the liberation effort after completing his primary mission; and General Sherman agreed that Stoneman’s idea might work. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote, “There was something most captivating in the idea, and the execution was within the bounds of probable success.” Sherman recalled that, in his orders to Stoneman, he wrote, “If you can bring back to the army any or all of those prisoners of war, it will be an achievement that will entitle you, and your command, to the love and admiration of the whole country.”

But, it was not to be!

The attempt ended in a disaster for the Union Army when Stoneman was caught in a pincer action between two Confederate forces. Stoneman decided that he and 700 of his troops would remain in place to provide withering cover fire for 1,500 of his men who would attempt an escape through enemy lines. The larger group did break out; however, soon afterward, Stoneman and the 700 remaining troops ran out of ammunition, were captured, and became prisoners themselves. Fortunately for Stoneman and his men, they were not taken to Andersonville, and were exchanged a few months later for a like number of Confederate soldiers in Union hands.

A few weeks after Stoneman’s failed attempt at liberation of Andersonville, on September 1, 1864, Confederate forces under General John Bell Hood pulled out of Atlanta and the city was surrendered the next day. Sherman sent a famous message to Abraham Lincoln writing, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” During the siege, the Union Army had fired thousands of artillery shells into the city, some of which caused fires. Then when Confederate General Hood abandoned the city, he ordered the destruction of military facilities, equipment, and supplies which he could not carry; some by setting more fires. Because Hood’s army remained in the area, Sherman chose to extend his stay in Atlanta to defend the city, and did not leave for Macon and then Savannah until mid-November. But then, before he set off on his famous “March to the Sea” on November 15, Sherman had his forces set fire, or otherwise destroy, any remaining facilities that might be of future use to Confederate troops, including warehouses, factories, and railroad facilities.

When those later fires became uncontrollable, the result was the infamous “Burning of Atlanta.”

Sherman left the devasted city in the hands of a small defensive unit, and took his remaining 60,000 troops toward Savannah, Georgia, about 250 miles to the southeast.  As he passed within about fifty miles of Andersonville, we do not know if he considered a second attempt to liberate the prisoners held at Camp Sumter; we only know that no attempt was made.

Moving generally in front of Sherman’s advance, Confederate troops foraged their way across Georgia taking food, horses, mules and equipment from local farmers, many of whom, but not all, willingly shared what little they had with the Southern soldiers. Sherman’s troops followed the Confederate troops through the countryside, also foraging, but in their case, they often stole any remaining food and livestock they found, leaving the families destitute; and often burned the houses and barns of the farmers who resisted.

When Sherman arrived in Savannah on December 21, 1864, Confederate troops had already abandoned the city, and the citizens quickly surrendered. Therefore, unlike Atlanta, their town was spared. Sherman remained near Savannah for a few weeks to rebuild his supplies and rest his army.  With Bell’s Confederate troops scattered, some critics of Sherman argue that he could have then sent a contingent from Savannah back to liberate the Andersonville prisoners because his primary “mission” was complete; but, by that time Sherman had other plans. In January 1865, ten months after he entered Georgia, he turned his troops northward towards the Carolinas; where he would engage Confederate troops and forage off the small farms on his way back to established Union lines.

As time went on, General Sherman continued to reflect on his decision to not make further attempts to liberate Andersonville. After Stoneman’s capture, Sherman wrote, “Nothing but natural and intense desire to accomplish an end so inviting to one’s feelings would have drawn me to commit a military mistake at such a crisis, as that of dividing and risking my cavalry so necessary to the success of my campaign.” It appears Sherman’s only regret was that he divided his forces (no matter how small the contingent) to allow Stoneman’s liberation attempt. After the Stoneman debacle, Sherman wrote to his wife, “I have already lost Stoneman & near 2,000 Cavalry in attempting to rescue the Prisoners at Macon (Andersonville). I get one hundred letters a day to effect the exchange or release of these Prisoners.” But Sherman would not yield to those hundreds of appeals. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote, “(There were)…more than twenty-five thousand prisoners confined in a stockade designed for only ten thousand; debarred of the privilege of gathering wood out of which to make huts; deprived of sufficient healthy food, and the little stream that ran though their prison-pen poisoned and polluted by the offal from their cooking and butchering houses above.”

Some historians blame much of the suffering at Andersonville on the Union decision, in early 1864, to stop permitting most prisoner exchanges, which had been a common practice until that time. Union leaders including Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and General Ulysses S. Grant, did not support additional prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy because they did not want to help re-enforce the diminishing Southern armies. There was some logic to the decision as it was common for released Confederates to be pressed back into service, while the Union army did not necessarily need the additional troops gained from any exchange. General Grant wrote in a letter “It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man (Confederate soldier) released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated.”

General Sherman had to live with his decisions to never again attempt to liberate Andersonville and to cause such destruction throughout Georgia. But his mission was to conquer Atlanta and destroy the city’s ability to provide supplies to the Confederate armies, to then drive across Georgia to cut the Confederacy in half, and to take Savannah. He accomplished his mission, and, for most Generals, despite other collateral suffering, that is their sufficient reward; it evidently was for General William Tecumseh Sherman. To him, he did his job!

The prisoners at Andersonville just had to wait.

Simon Cameron – Scandal in the Cabinet (Article 72)

“I have the ability to make money, I do not need to steal it.”  – Simon Cameron

Newly elected President Abraham Lincoln asked Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens about the honesty of Simon Cameron, also from Pennsylvania, who was seeking the Cabinet position of either Secretary of War or Secretary of Treasury. Stevens, well known for his acerbic wit, supposedly replied, “I do not believe he would steal a red-hot stove.” After his comments were leaked to Cameron who protested, Stevens then said, “On second thought, he would steal the hot stove.”

One contemporary of Cameron’s attempted to explain his combination of a gregarious personality and selfish interests by saying, “I always knew I would be fleeced, but I did enjoy the fleecing.” Cameron’s early years are difficult to explain because Cameron offered various versions over time; for example, early in his business career he claimed to be an orphan, but he was not. He became an apprentice with a printer and, at 21, started his own newspaper. He became a successful business man and a Pennsylvania political leader who was known to provide patronage to his friends and to withhold it from others. He was adept at raising money to finance rail lines, manufacturing facilities and a bank. Much of his own cash flow came from his appointment as the Pennsylvania state printer. He served as a U.S. Senator from his state both before and then after the Civil War. He often signed documents and letters as “General” but had never served in the military. When asked, he said that it derived from his position as Adjutant General of Pennsylvania (a largely administrative position) early in his career. He was derisively referred to in some newspapers as “The Great Winnebago Chief” for his self-rewarding efforts in settling a Native American dispute, and by others as “The Czar of Pennsylvania” for his control over much of the state’s political machinery.

Cameron’s quote that he did not “need to steal” was probably accurate because “Czar” Cameron was a master at patronage, the politician’s currency; simply stated as, “do something for me or mine, and I’ll do something for you or yours.” He understood the power of patronage and wielded it in local and state politics for years.

However, by 1860, Cameron had higher ambitions and hoped he might become the Republican Presidential nominee at that year’s convention; but, when he realized several others had more committed delegates, he set his sights on being named Treasury Secretary. The ultimate Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln, wanted his Cabinet to be geographically (and politically) diverse and he sought Cabinet members with their region as one qualifier; which gave Cameron a chance despite his record of cronyism. Although Lincoln had warned his floor managers at the Chicago Republican convention to not bind him to any federal appointments in return for delegate votes, Cameron may have received such assurances and Lincoln felt obligated to consider him for some post. Since he had a better qualified candidate for Treasury Secretary, in Salmon Chase, Lincoln finally asked Cameron to be the Secretary of War. Both were important Cabinet posts in an administration which faced, at best, the break-up of the United States and, at worst, the prospect of Civil War; and Cameron accepted Lincoln’s offer.

After his inauguration, on March 4,1861, Lincoln did not want the administration to appear on a war footing, as he still held some hope that no more than the initial seven states would attempt secession and that some peaceful resolution was possible rather than civil war. Cameron agreed with Lincoln’s cautious approach and, other than working with the aging and hobbled General Winfield Scott to re-build the Army manpower lost from defections and resignations by southerners, Cameron took little action to improve the status of the Army. Until April 15, 1861!

When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the senior Generals still on duty, needed to quickly ramp up the Union army. In addition to more men, the U.S. Army would need more weapons, new facilities, uniforms, horses and mules, wagons, tents, and new roads and railroad tracks to move the men and equipment.  The War Department, led by Simon Cameron, devised an effective two-stage plan to rapidly build and equip the forces that would soon reach over 200,000 troops; an unprecedented scale! First, he looked to Northern state and local militias which already had trained and equipped units. He promised that the Federal government would fully repay the states and towns if they would send men and material from their militias to prepare for the defense of Washington DC and to defend critical railroad routes and telegraph lines.  At the federal level, Cameron coordinated with General-in-Chief, Winfield Scott, to expand the Army’s Quartermaster Corps and hired several hundred clerks at the War Department to process procurement orders. Almost all Quartermaster soldiers and civilian procurement clerks worked diligently and honorably to equip the new army. However, lurking in the background, were manufacturers, merchants, and traders who saw an opportunity and seized it. Some were aided by a few soldiers and government clerks who were in a position to steer lucrative contracts and did so for a bribe.

Soon, Cameron was being accused of offering contracts to those he knew, and he was an easy target for those charges. Cameron had called on other successful businessmen, capable of ramping up businesses to meet the Army’s various needs, to “pitch in for the good of the cause.” Reliance on acquaintances was not, in and of itself, unusual, as almost any leader expected to rapidly build something from nothing would put trust in those already known. But, Simon Cameron made, or allowed others to make, terrible procurement decisions; some of which were million-dollar mistakes. (When, as they say, a million dollars was real money!)

There are two truisms about war; some people will die and some people will get rich.

In the case of the Civil War, it did not take long for examples of corruption to become public. Some contract abuses were reported by competitors who did not win an army contract, some surfaced because an honest government clerk noticed an irregularity, and a few were discovered by reporters. But, by far, the most evidence of corruption came to light when the ultimate customer, those who served in the Army, received worthless products. Those included uniforms that fell apart, shoes with paper soles, old weapons marked as new, ammunition that did not match the weapons sent, spoiled food, and near-death horses and mules presented as healthy. Even products that met specifications were often outrageously overpriced.

Any large organization eventually reflects the moral code of its leader. The War Department needed structure and ethical boundaries; but Simon Cameron was incapable of providing either. He valued action over diligence, promptness over inspection, and loyalty over competence, especially when he was spending government money, or buying on government credit.  Critics pointed out, rightly so, that he did not amass his fortune by being so cavalier with his own money. And, Cameron did not satisfy anyone when he said, “I have the ability to make money, I do not need to steal it.” The fact is, he probably never did directly steal from the government, nor is there any evidence he personally accepted a bribe in return for steering contracts to acquaintances. But he often did fail to act decisively when an individual or company was caught over charging, (such as Colt Fire Arms), or providing less than that for which the government had paid, (such as J.P. Morgan’s Hall Carbines, which did not work, and Brooks Brothers, whose shoddy uniforms fell apart).

To some degree, Lincoln must share part of the blame. He had heard rumors of Cameron’s favoritism and poor management practices but chose to focus his own attention on actual war issues against the enemy and political issues in Washington, rather than the inefficiencies within the Army’s procurement processes. Lincoln may have rationalized that, in spite of the corruption, necessary supplies were being delivered at a record pace. But, by the end of 1861, congressional investigations into the mis-conduct within the War Department led Lincoln to consider replacing Cameron, before a public spectacle forced his hand.

However, Cameron instead presented Lincoln with an unexpected gift; a different politically incendiary reason to push him out of the Cabinet. Cameron usurped Presidential authority!

Without consulting Lincoln, Cameron sent to Congress his annual report which included a proposal to arm escaped slaves and Black Freedmen and to form them into special fighting units for use against southern forces.  The militarization of former slaves had previously been proposed by abolitionists, but Lincoln rejected it (at the time) because he was concerned the Union might lose the support of the four border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) where slavery was still legal. Lincoln had previously stopped Union Generals from arming slaves and told his Cabinet the time was not right for such a radical step. While Cameron had now given Lincoln a better reason to remove him, Lincoln knew that he needed to appease Cameron’s Pennsylvania voters and legislators and the abolitionists who supported the arming former slaves. So, Lincoln did what Presidents have always done, he offered Cameron another job – the Ambassadorship to Russia! Lincoln’s initial private termination letter to Cameron was terse and uncomplimentary; and Cameron was said to be devastated. Then, as Lincoln often did, he issued a second, softer, public letter which graciously claimed that he had accepted Cameron’s resignation with regret and that the Country would benefit from Cameron’s service in Russia. Lincoln’s second letter, for which Cameron would always be grateful, served to blunt some of, but not all of, the future criticism of Cameron’s brief tenure as Secretary of War.

Lincoln then reached out to an old antagonist, Edwin Stanton, who was a Democrat, a Washington Lawyer, and an outspoken Unionist. Stanton had already counseled Cameron on several occasions about procurement contracts, so, he was well aware of the corruption scandals being investigated by Congress. Lincoln and Stanton had crossed paths before, when, as a prominent eastern business attorney, Stanton had refused to work with Lincoln (at the time a country lawyer), humiliating Lincoln in the process. However, in typical Lincoln fashion, that episode did not deter him from offering Stanton the position in his Cabinet. Stanton still viewed Lincoln as an incompetent President; but, Stanton accepted the assignment as the new Secretary of War because, he told others, “It was best for the Country.” And it was! Over the next three years, Stanton led the War Department honorably and effectively; and, over time he came to appreciate and admire Abraham Lincoln as President.

Some historians find a conspiracy theory in Lincoln’s appointment of Stanton to be Secretary of War. At the time Lincoln selected Stanton, he was unaware that it was actually Stanton, as counselor to Cameron, who had written Cameron’s message to Congress which supported the arming of Black Freedmen and run-away slaves; the very document that had cost Cameron his job! While those historians speculate whether Lincoln, with that knowledge in hand, might have made a different choice; most historians agree that Stanton was the right person, at the right time, to end the chaos in the War Department.

But what of Cameron?

Cameron’s appointment as Ambassador to Russia was narrowly confirmed by the Senate. Then, Ambassador Cameron took such a long (and expensive) journey throughout Europe on his way to St. Petersburg, that he spent little time there on his diplomatic responsibilities. And, within months of arriving in Russia, Cameron presented Lincoln with another gift; he asked to be relieved of his mission. Lincoln would finally be rid of this nemesis.

Cameron resumed his business enterprises and again became a political force in Pennsylvania, returning to the U.S. Senate in 1867. He served in the Senate until 1877, and typical of Cameron’s self-dealing, he only resigned in a deal that assured his son would be appointed to his seat. And, for the rest of his life, Cameron claimed that, under the circumstances of a necessary rapid build-up of an army, he was successful as Secretary of War; and, he said, that Lincoln’s kind public statement, and the subsequent Union victory, proved his point.

But most historians view his tenure less favorably. He was disorganized to the extreme and did not follow up on early signs of corruption. Then, often, when contractors were caught bilking the Army and/or those were identified who aided their efforts by accepting bribes or favors, Cameron failed to act quickly to punish the culprits. But, despite congressional hearings about the rampant corruption within and around the War Department, Cameron was never personally charged with malfeasance. None of the investigations uncovered any evidence that Cameron personally accepted a bribe or diverted funds for his own use. The fact was that Simon Cameron benefited by trading in favors and patronage, rather than outright theft or graft.

So, does Simon Cameron deserve his poor reputation as Secretary of War? While he did equip a large army, his management oversight was lacking, his mistakes were many and expensive, and he never established clear moral and ethical boundaries within the War Department.

On the other hand, he was never caught stealing a hot stove.

Jefferson Davis – The Rest of the Story (Article 71)

“Dear Varina,

This is not the fate to which I invited you when the future was rose-colored for us both.”

Jefferson Davis wrote those words to his wife, Varina, as he sat in a small dark cell in 1865. Only four years earlier he had been acclaimed by his Southern constituents as the first President of the Confederate States of America. What circumstances led to his capture, what were the charges against him which caused his imprisonment, how did the legal case against him proceed, and, how did he spend the rest of his life?

In early April, 1865, the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, was expected to fall to Union troops within weeks, if not days. To protect his wife and children from harm, he directed that a special armed escort accompany her on a journey further south where they might be safe. Davis and his political entourage abandoned the capital few days later on a different course, but with some hope for intersecting with Varina’s group over the next few weeks.  Davis was not ready to give up the fight to maintain the Confederate cause, and he planned to re-organize Southern Armies in South Carolina or Georgia. Then later, as he became convinced that the troops in those states could not re-form into an effective fighting force, he decided to head for Texas where a large Confederate Army was still in place.

First, however, he was determined to meet with his wife before he veered further west. Davis and Varina had been able to exchange messages by using dedicated couriers who travelled between the groups; therefore, Davis knew it was only a matter of time before he could meet with his wife, and then they could plan on the safest location for her and the children.

After almost five weeks on the run, on May 9, 1865, their two groups met near Irwinsville, Georgia. There husband and wife retired to a tent, a far cry from the Presidential mansion, or in fact, any of the homes the two had enjoyed throughout their lives. Early the next morning, Union soldiers surrounded the encampment, and an officer yelled for Davis to surrender. His wife later said that he considered trying to escape into the dark woods, but quickly realized the futility of such an attempt. So, in their last private moments, he told his wife that he might be executed on the spot, but believed she would be treated courteously by the Union officers; and then, he surrendered.

He was quickly restrained and moved away from the tent, but was not harmed.  And, as he expected, his wife was treated respectfully and informed that her husband was alive; but was a prisoner. Davis was then transported to the federal prison at Fort Monroe in Virginia, where he would await his fate.

And, he would wait for two long years.

The public masses, both north and south, were eager to get any news of the captured Confederate President, and newspapers and pamphleteers rushed copies out, some more than once in a day. Since the Union administration was tight-lipped about his capture, his condition, or the plans for any trial, the papers were full of speculation. Some, in an attempt to damage Davis’s reputation, falsely reported that he had tried to flee his captors disguised in his wife’s clothes.

Davis considered himself a head-of-state and, as such, believed he should have been given a certain degree of respect by his jailers; but he was not. Once he was at Fort Monroe, he again anticipated execution, perhaps after the formality of a quick trial, but he still expected the same result. He was ill, coughed continually, and had little appetite. Understanding the anger in the North towards him, especially considering the assassination of President Lincoln, he assumed his fate was already decided. As the days turned into weeks, he heard nothing from the guards or administrators about a trial, so, he was left to awaken each day not knowing if it might be his last.

At first, he was kept in isolation, but, over time, he was moved to a larger, more comfortable cell, his food improved, he was provided with a bible, and was permitted to write and receive letters. Davis was aware that other confederate officials had also been arrested and imprisoned, including Vice President Alexander Stephens; but they were all released within months. Then, in May 1866, a year after his capture, in a humanitarian gesture never fully explained, his wife and a daughter were permitted to take up residence with Davis in officer’s quarters within the Fort. Their other children were left with relatives in Georgia and later in Canada. For the next year, the prisoner and his family were treated respectfully; but still they were unsure of what would be his fate. Would he continue to be in limbo, or would there be a trial; and, if so, would his sentence be prison or death? It is unlikely that he considered acquittal, or even release on bail, as a possibility.

But, actually, nothing definitive had been decided about Jefferson Davis. The opinions among the leaders of the Federal Government, including President Johnson, and even in the general public, were deeply divided about what to do with their prisoner. Execution was favored by some (of course after a quick trial for history’s sake), others supported a long prison sentence, and some opposed any public trial which would give Davis a forum to argue that secession was legal. In fact, Salmon Chase, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, had already said that, while secessionists committed crimes against federal property, their acts were not treasonous under the Constitution.

In the last year of his incarceration, numerous articles were written which were sympathetic to Davis’s situation, some by Varina, which began to change public opinion in his favor and which caused lawyers and judges to question the legal processes. After two years, and many petitions on his behalf to federal courts and to President Johnson, a judge ruled that Davis was entitled to a bail hearing. Bail was set at $100,000.00 (similar to about $4 million today) and an unusual group combined to sign the bond agreement (meaning they would pay if Davis failed to show for a trial); including Horace Greely and Garret Smith each an avowed Unionist and abolitionist, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, a wealthy northern industrialist. The motives of those who sought Davis’s release were varied but most simply wanted to put the Civil War behind the country and move toward reconciliation of North and South.

By May, 1867, Davis was free on the bail bond, but still under threat of criminal charges. Several motions were made in Federal Court in early 1868 which might have led to a trial, but the impeachment and trial of President Andrew Johnson, which began on February 14 and ended on March 26 (with acquittal) delayed the case. Then, in December 1868, a District Court in Washington DC, which could have heard any trial, requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review the case. On Christmas Day, 1868, President Johnson, fearing that a decision might favor Davis, but also wanting to move on with re-construction without the focus on Davis, issued an unusual pardon for all Confederate officials, specific only to the charge of treason, (leaving them open to other criminal charges) and instructed the Justice Department to drop the treason case against Davis. Over time, Johnson issued full and complete pardons for hundreds of Confederate officials who applied, but Davis refused to request a pardon.  After all of that time, there was no trial, no acquittal or conviction, and no pardon; therefore, Davis remained in a type of legal and political no-man’s-land. Some called him a person without a country.

And he was broke!

His plantation in Mississippi, which had been owned by his brother, was in ruins and his investments in Confederate enterprises and bonds were worthless. He needed a job; and fortunately for Davis, there were admirers who were in a position to help.

From 1868 until 1877, Davis was offered several positions with businesses which hoped to gain from an association with him. He was a popular figure in Canada and Great Britain and explored mercantile opportunities there, but nothing seemed to work out; likely because those enterprises needed business from the Northern states, where Davis was not respected. In 1869, he had his best opportunity for a career in business when he became the president of a life insurance company in Memphis; however, that company failed in the 1873 financial panic. Former Confederate officials referred him to opportunities as a college president of the University of the South in Tennessee and at, what is now, Texas A&M, but the salaries for those positions were not sufficient to support his family’s life-style.

Several acquaintances encouraged Davis write his memoirs, but he usually said that he did not feel comfortable writing and that even if he did, he was not sure there was an audience for his message. He did accept a few assignments from periodicals to commemorate specific events, but he considered writing a chore and was usually only paid about $250.00 or less for each article. But by, 1875, Davis was ready to commit to writing a memoir and several factors had caused him to change his mind. He had not been healthy since the start of the Civil War and his two-year imprisonment worsened several chronic conditions. He also realized that his own mortality was on the horizon and he did want to tell his version of history. And, finally, he needed the money.

Writing his memoirs was not a linear task. The process took several twists including a change of publishers but, by 1877, he had developed the outline of what would become a two-volume work. The memoir would cover two basic themes. First, he intended to explain his reasons for the formation of the Confederacy, which was very important to Davis.  Second, he would cover his assessment of the battle strategies and the Generals who led the effort, which was not as important to Davis, but was very important to the publishers who thought that would sell more books. Woven through those two themes would be a reverence for the “cause” for which so many Confederates fought (and so many died). In fact, the original working title for the book was Our Cause, but that did not survive early editing.

In 1877, Sarah Anne Dorsey, a wealthy widow who had known Davis for years, invited him to stay at her estate and plantation called Beauvoir, near Biloxi, Mississippi. As a writer herself, Mrs. Dorsey believed that she could help Davis with his memoirs through not only her encouragement, but also her editing and composition skills. Aware of Davis’s dire financial situation, she offered to deed to him a small home on the estate and, when Davis balked at the charitable gesture, agreed to sell him the property for a relatively bargain price and carried back a three-year contract. Then to assure that Davis (and/or his surviving family) would not be financially inconvenienced if she died before him, she left her entire estate to him or, if he died earlier, to his daughter. Some biographers have tried to suggest that Davis and Mrs. Dorsey were more than friends, pointing out that Varina seldom stayed at the estate; however, most historians consider that idle speculation. The fact is that Varina Davis enjoyed a more urban and socially active life-style than was available at Beauvoir (or, for that matter, than would have been enjoyed by her husband).  And, it was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that they chose to live apart.

Earlier, Varina had only occasionally resided in Memphis, when her husband worked there at the life insurance company; but instead, she spent long periods in England and travelled throughout Europe as the guest of wealthy friends. Some historians believe that Varina extended her European stay in 1871 for a deeply personal reason. Jefferson Davis had evidently become infatuated with Virginia Clay, the wife of a former Confederate official, and while there is no evidence the two were unfaithful, their conduct was noticed by mutual friends and, as always happens, the gossip reached Varina. Her only public reaction was to simply stay in Europe, and then later in other American cities, and to avoid Memphis; however, we do not know what her private reactions may have been.

In any case, after the Civil War, long separations were the norm for Jefferson Davis and Varina; and both husband and wife seemed to adapt to that style of living arrangement.

By 1881, Davis was again struggling with his memoirs, when an editor, William Tenney, was sent by the publisher to assist Davis. The two men worked well together, which was remarkable since Davis did not usually work well with anyone, and by 1881, the two-volume “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” was published. The book became a mainstay in many Southern households and also sold reasonably well in the Northern states. Also, Mrs. Dorsey had died in 1879, leaving him the Beauvoir estate and several other valuable parcels, and he considered that as home for the rest of his life.

Davis’s money problems were over.

He also found that he enjoyed writing, especially to promote the validity of secession and of the Lost Cause, which was a (flawed) rationale for the formation of the Confederacy. He wrote another book in 1889 called “A Short History of the Confederate States of America” which included additional anecdotes provided by other former Confederate officials. Varina edited a version of that last memoir in 1890.

Davis became gravely ill in November 1889 while on a steamboat on the Mississippi River and intended to return home to Beauvoir. Varina was notified and, concerned about her husband, managed to meet with the riverboat near New Orleans. His doctors, however, deemed him too ill to travel back to his home and he was offered a place to rest and recuperate at the home of a former Confederate officer who lived in New Orleans. He never recovered and died in his host’s home on December 6, 1889. Varina was at his side, holding his hand.

Jefferson Davis was 81 years old.

So, what is Davis’s legacy? It must first be noted that some in the South still believe the Confederate cause was noble, that a state’s right to secede was constitutional, and that Jefferson Davis deserves respect for leading the good fight against overwhelming odds. But, generally, most biographers and Civil War historians have a more nuanced view.

Certainly, for the first fifty years of his life, except for his support of slavery, he had been an exemplary citizen of the United States. He had fought courageously in the Mexican War, had been a U.S. Senator, and even Secretary of War in President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet. He had frequently argued against secession but eventually grew more frustrated with northern pressure to control slavery, which he believed was the rightful privilege for the White aristocracy in the South. But in 1860, he decided to resign from the U.S. Senate and align himself with those who supported secession. For the next five years, he led a war against the United States which caused horrific casualties and destruction, and, as a result, he was considered a traitor to many in the North. And, his overconfidence in his own abilities and unwillingness to delegate, led him to make judgement errors as the chief administrator and the Commander-in Chief while he was the President of the Confederate States of America; which caused criticism even by some Southerners. Most historians further conclude that he was misguided about the constitutionality of secession and that his commitment to slavery tarnished his legacy to those who find human bondage a travesty.

Clearly, as he said in a letter to his wife, Jefferson Davis expected a more “rose-colored” legacy.

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