Lincoln's Meeting With Members of the Confederate Government at Hampton Roads, Va.
It was the Old Jacksonian Francis Preston Blair, as quixotic in his own way as Horace Greeley, who set up a meeting between Lincoln and Confederate commissioners. Convinced that he could reunite North and South by proposing a joint campaign to throw the french out of Mexico, Blair badgered Lincoln to give ham a pass through the lines to present this proposal to Jefferson Davis. Lincoln wanted nothing to do with Blair's hare-brained Mexican scheme, but he allowed him to go to Richmond what might develop. For his part, Davis anticipated nothing better from negotiations than the previous demands for "unconditional submission." But he saw an opportunity to fire up the waning southern heart by eliciting such demands publicly. Davis thus authorized Blair to inform Lincoln that he was ready to "enter into conference with a view to secure peace to the two countries." Lincoln responded promptly that he too was ready to receive overtures "with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country."
Hoping to discredit the peace movement by identifying it with humiliating surrender terms, Davis appointed a three-man commission consisting of prominent advocates of negotiations: Vice-President Stephens, President pro tem of the Senate Robert M.T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice. Their proposed conference with William H. Seward, whom Lincoln had sent to Hampton Roads to meet with them, almost aborted because of the irreconcilable differences between the agendas for "two countries" and "our common country." But after talking with Stephens and Hunter and becoming convinced of their sincere desire for peace, General Grant telegraphed Washington that to send them home with a meeting would leave a bad impression. On the spur of the moment Lincoln decided to journey to Hampton Roads and join Seward for a face-to-face meeting with the Confederate commissioners.
This dramatic confrontation took place February 3 on the Union steamer "River Queen." Lincoln's earlier instructions to Seward formed the inflexible Union position during four hours of talks; " (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. (3) No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government." In vain did Stephens try to divert Lincoln by bringing up Blair's Mexican project. Equally unprofitable was Hunter's proposal for an armistice and a convention of states. No armistice, said Lincoln; surrender was the only means of stopping the war. But even Charles I, said Hunter, had entered into agreements with rebels in arms against his government during the English Civil War. "I do not profess to be posted in History." replied Lincoln. "All I distinctly recollect about the case of Charles I, is, that he lost his head."
On questions of punishing rebel leaders and confiscating their property Lincoln promised generous treatment based on his power of pardon. On slavery he even suggested the possibility of compensating owners to the amount of $400 million (about 15 percent of the slaves' 1860 value). Some uncertainty exists about exactly what Lincoln meant in these discussions by "no receding....on the Slavery question." At a minimum he meant no going back on the Emancipation Proclamation or on other wartime executive and congressional actions against slavery. No slaves freed by these acts could ever be re-enslaved. But how many had been freed by them? Asked the southerners. All of the slaves in the Confederacy, or only those who had come under Union military control after the Proclamation was issued? As a war measure would it cease to operate with peace? That would be up to the courts, said Lincoln. And Seward informed the commissioners that the House of Representatives had just passed the Thirteenth Amendment. Its ratification woud make all other legal questions moot. If southern states returned to the Union and voted against ratification, thereby defeating it, would such action be valid? That remained to be seen, said Seward. In any case, remarked Lincoln, slavery as well as the rebellion was doomed. Southern leaders should cut their losses, return to the old allegiance, and save the blood of thousands of young men that would be shed if the war continued. Whatever their personal preferences, the commissioners had no power to negotiate such terms. They returned to dejectedly to Richmond.
Lincoln's Report to the House of Representatives
Stephen's Report to Davis
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