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.