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1864 August 6: The Niagara Falls Peace Negotiations

August 11, 2014

The year 1864 saw changes in the popular sentiment about the Civil War.  As the North grew more and more tired of war, many wanted peace.  In July of 1864, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley met former U. S. Senators Jacob Thompson¹ and Clement C. Clay,² both from the South, to conduct a peace conference the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The following articles on these peace negotiations came from both of our newspapers, The Polk County Press and The Prescott Journal, from July 30, 1864, and August 6, 1864, issue.  For much more detail on this episode, see the “Mr. Lincoln and New York” website.

From The Polk County Press, July 30, 1864:

From the Milwaukee Sentinel.

The Peace Fiasco.

We think the conclusion to which nine-tenths of the readers of the documents composing the late peace correspondence, will come, is that it was simply a trick on the part of the rebels at Niagara Falls to make a little more capital for their sinking Southern concern, and it is rather surprising that a man of the sagacity of Horace Greeley could have been inveigled into aiding them in the effort.  It is to be ascribed, we presume, to his sincere desire for peace, and his natural goodness of heart, which has little of guile, and very little suspicion of it in others.

Messrs. Clay & Co. profess to be deeply grieved at the reply of Mr. Lincoln and arraign him with the  utmost apparent sincerity, for being the author of the continuance of the war, with all its privations, horrors and sufferings.  And yet, these gentlemen, being presumed to have common sense, very well knew for Mr. Lincoln to make any other reply would be to admit himself the author heretofore of a war uncalled for and unnecessary.  For if he may now consent to listen to negotiations in which the integrity of the Union is not the admitted basis it cannot fail to elicit the inquiry what the war has been about heretofore, and compel the conclusion that the expenditure of blood and treasure thus far has been for no purpose and useless.  In short, without arguing the point, these gentlemen knew well that Mr. Lincoln neither could nor would make any other reply to their propositions to consult than he did.  And so, knowing their effort could have been made for no other purpose than to elicit the response they got, to be tortured if possible into a new grievance against the Administration.

It has two objects.  To help the Peace Democracy at home, and their cause abroad.  It will do neither.—The response of Mr. Lincoln was in perfect harmony with the war and its purposes, and those who complain of it and his position can be those only who complain of the war and its objects.  To expect their numbers to be increased from the ranks of sensible men by this transparent trick, is folly.

From The Prescott Journal, August 6, 1864:

The Recent Peace Negotiations.

The papers of the country are pretty generally commenting on the recent meeting of Messrs. GREELEY, SANDERS,³ JEWETT,4 CLAY and HOLCOMB,5 at Niagara Falls, and the published correspondence between them.  The copperhead papers are trying to make all the capital possible out of Mr. LINCOLN’s pithy note in which he set forth the terms on which he would receive proposals of peace from the rebels, but their success in this line is not brilliant.

The Union papers of the country give a cordial endorsement of President LINCOLN’S position in the matter.

Mr. GREELEY in the Tribune6 says :

The telegraphic stories concerning peace conferences at Niagara Falls have a slender foundation in fact, but most of the details are very wide of the troth.  The editor of this paper has taken part in and been privy to no further or other negotiations than were fully authorized and more than authorized ;  but these related solely to bringing the antagonists face to face in amicable rather than belligerent attitude, with the view to the initiation of an effort for peace, to be prosecuted at Washington.  The movement has had no immediate success.

“Of course all reports that the writer has been engaged in proposing, or receiving, or discussing, hypothetical terms or basis of peace,whether with accredited agents of the Richmond authorities or others, are utterly mistaken.  He has never had the slightest authorization to do anything of the sort ;  and he is quite aware of those provisions of law which relate to volunteer negotiators [negotiations?] with public enemies.  Those provisions he heartily approves, and is nowise inclined to violate.

“More than this he does not yet feel at liberty to state, though he soon may be.  And all that he can now add is his general inference that the pacification of our country is neither so difficult nor so distant as seems to be generally supposed.”

The New York Evening Post has an excellent article on this subject, which expresses our own ideas so well, that we copy the principal portion of it as follows :

“It is lamentable that a person of Mr. Greeley’s ability and position should be so destitute of common sense or discretion as to lend himself to a parcel of miserable tricksters.  ‘Mr. Sanders, of Dixie,’ as the rogue imprudently styled himself, who invited him to an interview with pretended rebel envoys at the Clifton House, he must have known as a low, cunning, debauched and utterly irresponsible adventurer, who never in his life had a particle of influence among gentlemen North or South, and whose words are of no more account than the windy eructations of any other hanger-on of the pot-houses,7  Yet on the strength of this man’s assurances Mr. Greeley puts himself in communication with the Government and with Messrs. Clay and Holcombe, with a real hope, apparently, that a peace might be brought about through their instrumentality.  His credulity is so amiable, and peace itself so much to be desired that we readily forgive a little foolishness for the sake of it ;  but the proceedings were none the less weak and injurious.

“Any person of ordinary discernment, not overpersuaded by outside influences, would have seen from the first note of Messrs. Clay and Holcombe that they were not authorized in any way to open negotiations with our government.  They did not claim to be, but merely hinted that it was possible they might be invested with powers, if they could get a safe conduct to Washington, and thence to Richmond.  All that these gentlemen wanted, having been|a considerable time from their homes—outcasts, in a word, on the face of the earth—was a secure passage through our lines ;  or, if that should be refused, an implied recognition of their character as the agents of an independent government.  In either event they could lose nothing and might gain something.

“Mr. Greeley fell into the trap, and busied himself in getting the pass.  He wrote to the President, but Mr. Lincoln, somewhat used to dealing with rebels, with a hard sense that always comes to his aid, wrote to all whom it concerned that he was ready to hear propositions for the restoration of peace, the integrity of the Union, and the abandonment of slavery— the three things in fact being but one—and Mr. Lincoln further stated that we would give safe conduct back and forth to the bearers of any such message.  This, however, was not what the rebel emissaries wanted ;  they were not recognized in any way ;  they were not so much as mentioned by name ; and the pass offered them did not include the coveted journey to Richmond.  They were balked in their whole intention by the simple honesty of the President, who sent them to bed with a flea in each ear almost as big as an elephant.  Mr. Greeley, being a water-drinker, slept more profoundly, doubtless, than either of his friends, though even he must have felt a trifle smaller in the morning.

“The letter with which the explosive emissaries close the correspondence shows that all this palavering about peace is nonsensical ;  the peace they mean is not the peace we mean ;  they want separation and independence if they can get it, or if they cannot get it, a mere nominal Union, like the old Confederation, which fell to pieces of itself, or the present rickety and staggering Confederacy ;  but we want a real Union, such as our fathers and the progress of events have made—a living organized nation— a republic of republics, whose bonds shall be as firm as the ligaments of the human body, and whose operations as harmonious and lasting as those of the solar system.  The political leaders of the South will never consent to abandon their desperate position until we destroy the armies by which they maintain it, or until their own people, in the extremity of their sufferings, drive them out of it.  They have nothing to hope from peace or restoration of the Union but everlasting contempt at home and abroad.  They will, therefore, fight on as long as they can, and our best negotiators for the present are Sherman’s marches and Grant’s death grips.  These must soon bring the more rational part of the southern people to reflection, when we shall have proposals to which the North may honorably listen, and when, too, we may return an answer that will show us as magnanimous in concession as we have been energetic in combat.  Meantime the rebels, by this Niagara game, have tried to shove a card into the hands of the patriots who meet next month at Chicago.”

From The Polk County Press, August 6, 1864:

Greeley’s Peace Negotiations.

If Mr. Horace Greeley has as much good sense as we give him credit for, he must already feel as though he had been completely “done for” by Messrs. Sanders & Jewett, in becoming their pliant instrument in the recent sham peace negotiation.  While he was likely to earn the proud title of “pacificator,” they were chuckling over his verdancy in being so readily taken in.  From the tone of the “Tribune” since Mr. Greeley’s return from Canada, we should judge that he is beginning to realize how he was sold.

In a recent article on the subject he winds up by saying, that—”All he can now add is his general influence that the pacification of our country is neither so difficult nor so distant as seems to be generally supposed,” for which statement we suppose there is no good reason save that Mr. Greeley is seeking to diminish the public sense of his folly in rushing in as volunteer peace envoy.—Milwaukee Sentinel.


1.  Jacob Thompson (1810-1885) served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1839-1851), was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1845 but never took his seat, and was the U. S. Secretary of the Interior (1857-1861). Thompson sided with the Confederacy and resigned as Interior Secretary in January 1861, and become Inspector General of the Confederate States Army. When he resigned, Horace Greeley denounced him as a traitor. In March 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis asked Thompson to lead a secret delegation to Canada, where he appears to have been the leader of Confederate Secret Service operations in Canada. From here, he is known to have organized many anti-Union plots, and was suspected of many more.
2.  Clement Claiborne Clay (1816-1882) was a U. S. Senator (1853-1861) from the state of Alabama, and a Confederate States Senator from Alabama (1861-1863). Clement Clay and Jacob Thompson were head of the Confederate secret agents.
3.  George Nicholas Sanders (1812-1873), former editor New York’s Democratic Review, was a purchasing agent for the navy before the Civil War and arranged arms purchases for the Confederacy during the War. Jefferson Davis sent him to Canada to create support for the Copperhead peace movement.
4.  William Cornell “Colorado” Jewett (1823-1893), an influential Copperhead in the Midwest and self-appointed peace advocate, traveled to Europe several times to lobby for a peaceful resolution of the War. He went to Canada on a speaking tour urging his listeners to pressure Great Britain to help negotiate a peace settlement. After his speaking tour ended, he offered his services to Thompson.
5.  James Philemon Holcombe (1820-1873) was a prominent Confederate politician, a delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention (1861), elected to represent Virginia in the Confederate Congress (1862-1864), and Confederate commissioner to Canada (1863-1865).
6.  The New York Tribune of July 22, 1864.
7.  Small taverns.

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