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!