by James B. Conroy, author of Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865
In the winter of 1865, Abraham Lincoln enraged the Radical Republicans who had taken control of his party, defied their ban on compromise, and welcomed three Confederate leaders to the presidential steamboat River Queen, to seek a peaceful reunion, improbably abetted by Ulysses S. Grant. No American president had ever sat down with the enemy in the midst of a shooting war. No president has done so since. Famous in its day, the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865 has slipped from the national consciousness. There has never been a better time to learn from its missed opportunities.
On February 3, 1865, the South was battered and bleeding after nearly four years of war but far from conceding defeat when General Grant’s aide escorted three Confederate leaders to the River Queen to meet with President Lincoln and his beguiling Secretary of State William Seward at Hampton Roads, Virginia. In response to Lincoln’s invitation to discuss a peaceful restoration of “our one common country,” conveyed by an elderly protégé of Andrew Jackson’s, Jefferson Davis had sent his emissaries to negotiate peace for “two countries.” To stop the fraternal bloodshed, the statesmen on the River Queen would have to square that circle.
Lincoln and Seward and the three Southern peace ambassadors were old friends. In the Congress of 1848, the eccentric Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a sickly little Georgian who never weighed 100 pounds, had been Lincoln’s friend and ally in a movement against the Mexican War. In 1861, Virginia’s distinguished Senator Robert M. T. Hunter and the brilliant Alabamian John A. Campbell, then a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, had worked hard with Seward to avert the national catastrophe that went on to kill 700,000 of their sons. They had come to the River Queen now in search of a way out, Stephens as Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Hunter as President pro tempore of its Senate, Campbell as its Assistant Secretary of War.
Having parted as friends, it was more than a little awkward to reunite as enemies, but when Stephens shed two shawls and a ponderous gray overcoat of thick Southern wool, Lincoln broke the ice with a touch of homespun humor. He had never seen so small an ear emerge from so much husk. Happily for diplomacy, Stephens led the laughter. The five old colleagues reminisced, spoke of happier times, asked to be remembered to Northern and Southern friends, exchanged amusing tales of John Quincy Adams, the crusty former President with whom they had served in Congress.
Then Stephens called the meeting to order, asking Lincoln if a way could not be found to restore the warm feelings that prevailed in those days between the two sections of “the country,” a promising start to their meeting. “There is only one way I know of,” Lincoln said, “and that is for those who are resisting the National Authority to stop.”
Lincoln refused to negotiate with armed rebels. He promised to pardon treason liberally (a not inconsiderable thing to three of the men in the room), but offered them little more. In a confession that startled his Secretary of State, the President told the Confederates that the North was as responsible for slavery as the South — Northern traders had brought slavery to America. Northern lawmakers had condoned it for decades. “If it was wrong for the North to sell the slaves to the South, it would be wrong for the North to take the slaves back again without paying for them.” But the power of the purse belonged to Congress, not him, he said, and so did the power to readmit the Southern states to their rights and privileges in the Union. As everyone in the room well knew, Congress was under the sway of his party’s radical wing, who had sworn to hang the Rebel leaders and subdue their beaten people like conquered tribes. The Southerners protested that Lincoln had offered them nothing they could take back to Richmond to help them stop the killing, and the conference ended inconclusively.
On the long trip back to Washington, Lincoln pondered what the Southerners had said, talked it out with Seward, and spent the next day on a draft proposal to Congress to pay the Southern states $400,000,000 and restore their citizens’ confiscated property if they promptly returned to the Union and ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. He read it aloud to his Cabinet that night. They rejected it to a man. Dominated by the Radical Republicans as it was, Congress would never accept it, they said. The very proposition could destroy his presidency. It was never even raised.
Jefferson Davis’s emissaries brought nothing back to Richmond but Lincoln’s good will. It was just as Davis had expected, and he pounced on it, inciting his constituents to another round of war. Lincoln had left them no honorable alternative, he said, nothing but Yankee insults.
Two months later, after Richmond had fallen and the Confederate government had fled, burning their capital behind them in a careless incineration of munitions and supplies, Lincoln came to Richmond and met with Campbell twice in an effort to revive the opportunities that both sides had missed. If the Southern states agreed to rejoin the Union “on any condition whatever,” he said, except for backward steps by the Executive on slavery, let them say so, “so that such conditions can be distinctly known and considered.” But now was it too late. For all practical purposes, the Confederate government had ceased to exist, leaving its scattered armies to surrender one by one and each citizen to make a separate peace in exchange for food and amnesty.
A few weeks later, the last Southern armies were gone, Davis had been captured and imprisoned, Lincoln was dead, and so was his dream of a peacefully reunited Union. Under his successor, the South was subjected to military rule, its states excluded from their old rights and standing in the Union for years. The legacy of bitterness that followed has yet to run its course.
A century and a half from now, will our descendants say of us that we too were paralyzed by partisan orthodoxy and a grim refusal to find ways and means to resolve the issues of our day? What consequences will be left for them to mourn?
James B. Conroy is a Boston lawyer who formerly served as a Senate and Congressional aide in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865 (Lyons Press, January 2014), the story of the secret meeting between the Confederacy and Abraham Lincoln that failed to find a peaceful end to the Civil War. Visit him at jamesbconroy.com.