The Civil War's Last Great Peace Effort

MISSION OF MR. BLAIR
DAVIS AND LINCOLN EXCHANGE LETTERS THROUGH BLAIR
FAILURE OF BLAIR DISCUSSED
THE HAMPTON ROADS CONFERENCE.

       Among all the efforts to bring the leaders of the two governments together so as to have a consultation, none excited more hope than the informal undertaking by the venerable Francis P. Blair, of Maryland. During the latter part of December, 1864, he proposed in confidential conversations with his friends to go to Richmond and see Mr. Davis, whom he had long known, and there initiate a movement by which the armies of Grant and Lee would cease fighting each other and march together against the French emperor of Mexico. On the 28th of December this venerable and patriotic enthusiast obtained from President Lincoln a brief pass to "go South and return." Two days later President Davis received his request to be permitted to visit Richmond, which was at once granted, but for some unexplained reason the letter of the Confederate President was delayed in Washington, though at last delivered after having been opened. Failing after two efforts to see President Lincoln before leaving for the South Mr. Blair proceeded to Richmond and held a confidential interview with President Davis on the 12th of January, 1865. The Confederate President received his distinguished visitor with cordiality as an old acquaintance and also with the consideration due the great mission on which he had volunteered. Mr. Blair had come only as a private gentleman, with neither credentials nor instructions, merely proposing to present a plan of his own, the chief feature of which was to make a diversion which would result in peace and reunion by turning the two armies against the Emperor Maximilian in assertion of the Monroe doctrine which was popular South and North. In addition to the unfolding of this plan of peace he replied to a question of Mr. Davis by stating that he had no assurance that President Lincoln would receive commissioners from the Southern States, but offered his opinion that he would do so at this juncture. The Confidential interview was protracted until a thorough comprehension of the mission was obtained by President Davis, and it was closed by his writing the following significant letter at once, which he submitted to Mr. Blair and signed. It will be read with interest as manifesting the mind of the Confederate President at that time, as showing his disposition to make peace, and as exhibiting his carefulness in the use of words so as to avoid giving offense. One phrase only seemed to imply independence as his ultimatum. That was the expression: "The two countries." The following is the letter addressed to Mr. Blair:

"Richmond, Va., January 12, 1865.

       "Sir: I have deemed it proper and probably desirable to you to give you in this form the substance of remarks made by me to be repeated by you to President Lincoln.
       "I have no disposition to find obstacles in forms and am willing now as heretofore to enter into negotiations for the restoration of peace; and am ready to send a commission whenever I have reason to suppose it will be received, or to receive a commission if the United States government shall choose to send one. That, notwithstanding the rejection of our former offers, I would, if you could promise that a commissioner, minister, or other agent, would be received, appoint one immediately, and renew the effort to enter into conference with the view to secure peace to the two countries.

JEFFERSON DAVIS."

       With this important letter Mr. Blair returned to Washington, and showing it to President Lincoln, obtained from him a communication designed to be read by the Confederate President. This letter, also addressed to Mr. Blair, and dated at Washington, January 18, 1865, was as follows:

"Sir: You having shown me Mr. Davis' letter to you of the 12th instant, you may say to him that I have constantly been, am now and shall continue ready to receive any agent whom he or any other influential person now resisting the national authority may informally send to me with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN."

       Thus far the preliminaries seemed to gratify Mr. Blair. "It was well you wrote me that letter," he said to Mr. Davis when he reached Richmond, on his second visit bearing the letter from Mr. Lincoln, and on which action was taken at once notwithstanding its careful avoidance of all recognition of Confederate States officials, its characterization of the Confederate President as simply one of a number of "influential persons engaged in resisting the national authority," and its plain foil of the intimation of Mr. Davis that there were two countries.
       What prevented the success of this mission? President Davis thought that during Blair's stay in Richmond he discovered more than ought to have been known abroad concerning the weakness of the Confederacy, and the anxiety for peace which disturbed men's minds. His visits excited great interest and great hopes in Richmond. His high character, his Southern blood, his sage-like appearance, his supposed influence at Washington, all contributed to make him and his objects deeply interesting to the prominent leaders of the Confederacy. It does not appear, however, in any way, that Mr. Blair sought or took advantage of the courtesies which he received. His visits, however, did indeed encourage the hope that subjugation with military force could be averted, a result which was generally regarded as a calamity to be followed by the total overthrow of all liberties.
       Looking into Washington at the same period for insight into influences employed against this mission, there appeared two movements---one in Congress and the other from without--which obstructed the pending negotiations. That which occurred in Congress and so fully described in the work of the Hon. S.S. Cox, "Three Decades in Federal Legislation;" was the sudden resurrection, January 6, 1865, of the Thirteenth amendment to the Constitution which had been slumbering on the table since the last Presidential campaign. Mr. Cox says of this amendment that "it was a part of the program for strengthening the Federal cause. Mr. Seward and the President considered it worth an army. Whether they were right or not the amendment was not pressed until just before the negotiations at Hampton Roads." It was bruited around Washington about the first of January that Blair was entertaining the President with a scheme by which it was proposed to terminate the awful strife of North and South by negotiations with the "insurgents." It was time, therefore, to interpose some obstacle which would make the Confederacy unwilling to negotiate. The Thirteenth amendment would accomplish the purpose. It was therefore called up, and pressed with vehemence while the great peace mission of Mr. Blair was pending, and was yet more warmly urged when the commissioners from President Davis were actually seeking access to the President of the Union. Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Voorhees, and other statesmen, opposed the amendment because they doubted its constitutionality. Mr. Cox opposed its consideration then as being inopportune. The rumor was abroad, said he, that "a commissioner of the United States was then in Richmond (Mr. Blair) with the confidence and assent of the administration to meet a commissioner on the part of the Confederate authority, and that they had agreed to call a national convention in correspondence with the Chicago platform." Mr. Cox did not doubt the power to make this amendment, but he urged with great force the impropriety of raising this impediment to peace. Said he: "So long as there is a faint hope of a returning Union I will not place obstacles in the path. I would rather illuminate, cheer and clear the pathway to the old homestead. All I do and all I forbear to do is to save our imperiled government and restore our priceless Union. Show me that, and I will vote for your amendment. But, as it stands to-day, I believe that this amendment may be an obstacle to the rehabilitation of the States."
       This debate went on while Mr. Blair was prosecuting his plan of negotiations. He had returned to President Davis, delivered to him the letter of President Lincoln and on the 18th of January was again in Washington. Immediately after he left, President Davis called Vice-President Stephens into his counsel, informed him concerning all that had passed, and having his concurrence as to the main fact that a commission should be sent to Washington, appointed as that commission Mr. Stephens, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hunter. These gentlemen proceeded at once on their embassy and reached the headquarters of General Grant on the day that the decisive hour arrived on which the amendment was pressed to vote.
       "Every radical was in his seat and for the amendment." The majority favored its passage. But a minority insisted that it was designed to defeat, and would defeat, the peace which Confederate commissioners were at that moment seeking. It is strangely true that at that hour "high officials stated that no further negotiations were possible; that so Mr. Blair had reported, who had just come from Richmond." The President's private secretary declared that he knew of no such commission. The President himself wrote a note, January 31, 1865, to Mr. Ashley, the mover of the amendment, that he knew "of no such commission or negotiation." Mr. Cox excused these singular declarations from high quarters, but was so well convinced that they were mistaken as to cast his vote against the amendment which in his opinion was perilous to peace. "It was an obstacle, as it turned out," he says, "notwithstanding Mr. Seward's belief that it was an aid." It is to be noted as a significant circumstance that the amendment passed while General Grant was detaining the commissioners by special instructions from Washington, that it was promptly approved, that the interview of the commissioners was then allowed, and that they were quickly confronted with the embarrassing information that this amendment to abolish slavery had passed. Even that, however, did not drive them back to Richmond.
       Another influence which contributed to blight the budding promise of the flower of peace, was the anxious gathering of partisans at Washington to prevent such a collapse of war. One of these obstructionists, Mr. Henry Ward Beecher, was a fair representative of that class of radicals who were in perpetual dread lest the goodness of Mr. Lincoln would in some way be the undoing of their cause. He came and thus tells his own story: He had been in England and returned in 1864 to find that "there was some talk," as he says, "of compromise with the South. Mr. Blair had told the President that he was satisfied if he could be put in communication with some of the leading men of the South,. in some way or other, that some benefit would accrue. Lincoln had sent a delegate to meet Alexander Stephens and that was all the North knew. We were all very much excited over that," said Mr. Beecher. "The war had lasted so long, and I was afraid Lincoln would be anxious for peace, and I was afraid he would accept something that would be of advantage to the South, so I went to Washington and called upon him. I said to him, ' Mr. Lincoln, I come to know whether the public interest will permit you to explain to me what this Southern commission means.' He went to his little secretary, and came out and handed me a little card as long as my finger and an inch wide, and on that was written, ' You will pass the bearer through the lines. A. LINCOLN.' ' There, ' he said, ' that is all there is of it. Now, Blair thinks something can be done, but I don't, but I have no objection to have him try his hand. He has no authority whatever but to go and see what he can do.' "
       All efforts to restrain Mr. Blair, or to prevent the Confederate President from making another attempt at negotiation, entirely failed. Notwithstanding all disadvantages he appointed a commission from which resulted the Hampton Roads conference, as history designates the informal conversation between the Confederate commissioners, as heretofore named, on the one part, and President Lincoln and Mr. Seward on the other part, which was held on board a United States steamer in Hampton Roads, February, 1865. It will be seen on review of the entire history of the event that the United States carefully and firmly held all advantages in the conference while admitting the commissioners to an interview. This is made evident by the following facts: It appears that Mr. Blair left Washington for Richmond without the privilege of a final conversation with the President which might give color to any rumor that he went by authority. Without credentials or instructions his visit to Richmond was to present his own plan, gain knowledge of the mind of Mr. Davis, ascertain the temper of Confederate leaders, and to close his work without committing Mr. Lincoln to anything whatever. The letters to himself which he procured from President Davis first, and next from President Lincoln, were dangerous documents, but the Federal President wrote briefly, avoiding the slightest reference to Mr. Davis as an official, and only noticing his letter as coming from an influential insurgent. So far as receiving an agent was concerned it was of no consequence to the Federal President whether he came from President Davis or any other influential person engaged in resisting the Federal authority. He was even so particular as to rebuke the harmless words, "two countries," as used by the Confederate President, and to require Mr. Blair to bear witness to that particular fact. After the three "influential persons" appointed as Confederate commissioners were on the way towards Washington, he also so far ignored their business as to declare on January 31st, that he knew of "no commission and no negotiations," evidently meaning that he did not look upon them as the commissioners of any government. The interchange of official telegrams between the civil and the military authorities from January 29th further show an absurd continuance of all this trivial caution, while the modes adopted to let these "persons" come on without their presence having any significance, were too puerile to have so seriously engaged the attention of the secretary of state and the secretary of war who had contrived them. Then again, in further purpose to allow no possible equality in the conference to be considered, and no official character to exist, the influential trio were first to be interviewed and their dignity lessened by a mere messenger from the President. They were then required to say to this messenger in writing that they were coming only to have an informal colloquy, and finally to signify, before they could get any further, that they fully understood the ultimatum of President Lincoln. The commissioners had expected to go to Washington, as Mr. Blair had been to Richmond, but they were met aboard a United States steamer with no one to hear them but President Lincoln and Mr. Seward, his secretary of state. Keeping in view these circumstances under which the Confederate States President sought for peace, the detailed account of the famous Hampton Roads conference will be interesting.
       The following events re-stated with their dates will show the progress of this peace movement and assist in understanding it: On December 28th, the pass of President Lincoln was delivered to Mr. Blair; December 30th, President Davis received Mr. Blair's request to visit Richmond, which was immediately granted; January 12, 1865, the first interview between Davis and Blair took place, at the conclusion of which the letter already quoted was written; January 18th, the letter of Lincoln to Blair, written to be read by Davis, was delivered, with which the peacemaker went back to Richmond; January 21st, the second conference took place between Blair and Davis, after which Blair returned to Washington. Davis consulted Stephens, and the three commissioners, Stephens, Campbell and Hunter were appointed. The commission or certificate of appointment signed by Mr. Davis for the guidance of these statesmen read simply that "in conformity with the letter of Mr. Lincoln of which the foregoing is a copy, you are requested to proceed to Washington City for an informal conference with him upon the issues involved in the existing war, and for the purpose of securing peace to the two countries." The use of the words "two countries" instead of "two governments" was discreetly and delicately made by the Confederate President in avoidance of any question which might be raised by the Washington administration, the "country" being a region, a territory, a people and their institutions, while a "government" is a body politic, governed by one authority. In fact the point was considered by the United States officials and fully waived. Rumor went out after the fall of the Confederacy and continued afloat for many years, notwithstanding its refutation, that the commissioners were trammeled by imperative instructions which required them to treat only on the basis of independence, and that in consequence of these instructions their mission failed. This rumor had its origin in the disappointments and sufferings which followed the dissolution of the Confederacy, but afterward was used in justification of the action of the United States authorities at Hampton Roads, and in derogation of the character of President Davis. The certificate, however, as Mr. Davis calls it, contained nothing more than is above quoted, and aside from what is there written no instructions were given. On this question Mr. Stephens says: "The reports were utterly unworthy of notice. * * * We had no written instructions upon that subject, or any other except what were contained in the letter of appointment, nor any verbal instructions on that subject inconsistent with the terms of that letter." With considerable emphasis Mr. Stephens repeated the statements contained in his "War Between the States" through a public letter in 1874, saying again "there were no instructions whatever given by Mr. Davis to the commissioners as to the terms on which they should agree to treat upon the subject of peace." The report of the commissioners explains fully why their efforts failed, and each has with some indignation resented the imputation on their judgment in accepting a trust with conditions which, as alleged, barred its execution. In President Lincoln's brief explanation to Congress of the conference, he remarks that it was not said by the other party that in any event or any condition they ever would consent to reunion, and "yet they equally omitted to declare that they never would so consent." This omission itself entirely refutes the rumor and no declarations of President Davis were needed to show that such terms were included in this remarkable commission which was entrusted to three eminently wise, discreet and patriotic men. As became his office, the Confederate President certainly desired, even passionately, to secure the success of the secession ordained by the States. Independence out of the Union because their constitutional equality in it was imperiled was the simple object aimed at in the formation of the Confederacy, to attain which all energies were directed. Even in January, 1865, this object was not considered by Mr. Davis, Mr. Stephens and the large majority of the Confederate Congress, as unattainable. Neither the army nor the citizens of the South were ready for unconditional submission and they would have been astounded by any instructions to the commissioners to surrender without terms before striking another blow for independence. Mr. Davis says in a public letter in reference to his sense of official responsibility, "I do not know how any one could have expected me, under the trust which I held from the people of the Confederate States, to propose to surrender at discretion the rights and liberties for which the best and bravest of the land were still gallantly struggling, and for which so many had nobly died." The testimony clearly disposes of the rumor concerning instructions, and after this examination of it a further view of events may be taken of the history of the Hampton Roads conference.
       On the 29th of January the commissioners, having reached that part of the Federal front which was occupied by the Ninth army corps, made their presence and business known with request to cross the lines at once on their way to Washington. After passing the military channel of communication their note reached the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton, and the same day was at once referred to President Lincoln, and at the same time General Ord, commanding at the front during General Grant's temporary absence, was directed by the secretary of war not to allow the commissioners to enter the lines unless by instructions from the President. On January 30th President Lincoln telegraphed General Ord, through Secretary Stanton, to inform the "three gentlemen, Messrs. Stephens, Hunter and Campbell, that a messenger will be dispatched to them at or near where they now are without unnecessary delay." The messenger to be sent was Major Thomas T. Eckert, who was given very precise instructions to first secure from the commissioners an agreement in writing that if they are allowed to pass through the United States military lines it will be understood that they do so for the purpose of an informal conference on the basis of the letter dated January 18th, of Mr. Lincoln to Mr. Blair. General Grant, however, had returned to the army and had received direct another application on January 30th, by the commissioners to pass his lines under safe conduct, and without waiting for directions from Washington directed them to be received at h. is headquarters and await instructions. This unexpected action caused President Lincoln to telegraph to Grant to detain the gentlemen in comfortable quarters, and mean. while Major Eckert reached him with a special dispatch to have an interview secured between himself and the Confederate commissioners. Mr. Seward followed on the 31st, bearing explicit instructions from the President to make known to them that three things are indispensable, to-wit: (1) the restoration of the national authority throughout all the States; (2) no receding by the executive of the United States on the slavery question from the position assumed thereon in the late annual message to Congress; (3) no cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government. They were to be informed that all propositions of theirs not inconsistent with the above would be considered and passed in a spirit of sincere liberality, but Mr. Seward was commanded not to definitely consummate anything. This letter of instructions was given on the afternoon of January 31st, at the time when the Thirteenth amendment was on its passage in Congress, and it was followed early next morning, February 1st, by a telegram to Grant from Lincoln--" Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder or delay your military movements or plans." Another dispatch of the same date required Major Eckert to place himself under direction of Mr. Seward, who reached Fortress Monroe on the evening of that day. Major Eckert had already communicated with the commissioners the terms on which they might remain within the lines on their mission, but Mr. Stephens and his associates regarded this reception of their overtures as designedly contrived to embarrass if not to humiliate them. They placed their case again directly before General Grant, who checked the President in a resolution hastily formed to recall Seward with Eckert, by a telegram on the night of February 1st, in which he informed the President of his fear that the return of the commissioners without a hearing would have a bad influence; that he was satisfied of their good intentions and their sincere desire to restore peace and union, and he suggested an interview between them and Lincoln himself. This dispatch of General Grant changed the President's purpose, and the commissioners having further considered their situation signed the terms prescribed for their admission to the conference. The President resolving now to be present in person at the conference came to Hampton Roads where he joined Secretary Seward on the night of the 2nd and next day received the commissioners on board a steamer.
       The conference took place February 3, 1865, to the result of which two countries at least were looking with great solicitude, but the history of what was said and done can be gathered alone from the earliest accounts of it given carefully to the world by all the five great actors; since by agreement not a line was written in the conference room nor a witness admitted to be present. The distinguished parties themselves have all spoken and from these sources the record is made. It appears that the first words bearing on the objects of the meeting were uttered by Mr. Stephens in the form of a question addressed to President Lincoln, whether there was any way to put an end to the present trouble. To this broad and significant inquiry the President at once replied that there was but one way that he knew of and that was for those who were resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance. But Mr. Stephens sought again to know if there was no plan on which existing hostilities might cease and the attention of both parties be turned from the questions involved in the strife and diverted to some great common aim which might lead to the restoration of the Union.
       The evident allusion of the second question to the plan of Mr. Blair to divert the two armies into an invasion of Mexico, which the Confederate commissioners themselves did not favor, brought from the President a distinct disavowal of having given Mr. Blair an authority to speak for him and an earnest declaration that he could entertain no proposition for ceasing active military operations which was not based upon a pledge first given for the ultimate restoration of the Union. The Confederate commissioners had not expected such an immediate and flat statement, and were without authority or inclination to give a pledge unaccompanied with any understanding whatever as to the course the United States would pursue toward the States and the people of the South in respect to their lives, property and local government. Judge Campbell therefore interposed at this point with a direct inquiry as to the plan on which the re-establishment of national authority would take place in the event the South agreed to the general terms as stated by Mr. Lincoln, thus presenting a question which the commissioners had previously considered as one to be asked, provided the armistice should be refused. It was, in fact, the precise pivot on which the issue could be made to turn toward peace with a Union promptly restored, or war with distraction long continued. It was reasonable beyond all question that these three eminent statesmen should have the fair, explicit and reliable answer from President Lincoln :--that secession be abandoned that the Thirteenth amendment be added to the Constitution, or at least be fairly voted upon by all the States; that the Federal civil authority be completely restored in all respects everywhere; that the seceded States repeal for legal reasons the ordinances of secession and resume fully by their own immediate action their constitutional relations in the Union; that general amnesty be proclaimed and all minor legal questions be remanded to the judiciary for adjustment. Whether these terms would have been agreed to so that they could have been satisfactorily executed is not known, yet if they had been sincerely agreed on and honorably carried out by the rapid method of State conventions, the political as well as the military disturbances between the sections would have ended within a few months. But they were not offered.
       Upon several of these questions intimations were made which very nearly approached all that the Confederate commissioners could have demanded. As to the abandonment of secession that was positively required by the President. The ratification by the States of the Thirteenth amendment was taken into discussion during which the President with caution expressed an individual willingness on his own part to be taxed to remunerate the Southern people for their slaves and that he should be in favor individually of the government paying a fair indemnity for the loss to the owners. He knew of some persons who favored an appropriation of four hundred millions for that purpose. But he declared that he would give no assurance and make no stipulation. Mr. Seward accepted this general intimation of the President that the Northern people would be willing to pay about the amount as an indemnity to the owners of emancipated slaves, which would be required to continue the war. To this extent and no farther went even the hint of compensated emancipation. There was no offer either express or implied by the President and his secretary of state to guarantee such a result, and the commissioners understood the intimation as a vague suggestion on which they could base no proposition. Their action was accordingly unaffected by it, nor were they trammeled in any degree by instructions which prevented their consideration of it. The abolition of slavery they clearly understood to be one of the terms of peace, especially since Congress had at this particular juncture passed the necessary amendment to enforce the emancipation proclamation, from which Mr. Lincoln plainly stated he would not recede; but they were not invited to trust that negro property would be paid for upon the abandonment of secession. No part of the accounts given by any of the parties to the Hampton Roads conference authorized this view.
       But still more important to the South and the Union itself than slaves or their value was the question of the status of the States and people of the States upon surrender by negotiation. What position would the States of the South occupy on their abandonment of secession? To what extent would the Federal majority assume the attitude of a conqueror? To this vital question the President answered as to his own opinion the States would be restored to their practical relations to the Union, but said emphatically he could not enter into any stipulations upon the subject, and in reply to the urgency of Mr. Stephens on this matter "persisted in asserting that he could not enter into any agreement upon this subject or upon any other matters of that sort with parties in arms against the government." Mr. Stephens still insisted that if the President could issue a proclamation of emancipation as a war measure of doubtful constitutionality he could certainly enter into a stipulation to preserve the statehood of the States and carry it out as a war measure also; but on the exhaustion of all suggestions the President still returned firmly to his first and only proposition--an unconditional surrender of the States and their people. Not the slightest deviation from this was admissible.
       The conference had reached the line where it seems the Southern commissioners would have taken a step committing their government to dissolution without another battle, provided only they had been fully and frankly assured by authority to be trusted that the Union even without slavery would be at once re-established, the States with all their rightful relations restored, the people of the South protected, the Constitution respected and sectionalism ended forever. But around the form of the President was the portentous shadow of the radical war cloud, an influence that he could not withstand at that time. His ultimatum was dictated by a fierce policy that does not clearly appear to have been his own, and even his hint that he would temper wrath with mercy was given with qualifications. He could give no assurances, make no stipulations, enter into no agreement, and have no understanding as to the result of surrender.
       The commissioners returned to Richmond and made their report, with which every one was disappointed, and, says Mr. Stephens, "no one more so than Mr. Davis." The Confederate President transmitted the report to Congress and all plans for negotiation being thwarted addressed himself to the means at his disposal for defending the South by arms.
Source: Confederate Military History, Vol. 1, The Civil History Of The Confederate States Chapter XXV

This Page last updated 02/16/02

GO TO "LINCOLN'S REPORT TO CONGRESS ON MEETING WITH CONFEDERATES" PAGE

RETURN TO CIVIL WAR POTPOURRI PAGE