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)