1865 February 18: The Hampton Roads Peace Negotiations
This article, from The Prescott Journal of February 18, 1865, concerns the Hampton Roads Peace Conference held February 3, 1865, which was an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate an end to the Civil War. Union President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, met with three commissioners from the Confederacy: Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Senator Robert M. T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell.¹
The Peace Negotiations.
The N.Y. Times Washington special says : Mr. Seward reached Fort Monroe in advance of Messrs. Stephens, Hunter and Campbell. Upon the arrival of these gentlemen they were at once invited to an interview and informed Mr. Seward of their desire to proceed to Washington for the purpose of discussing the question of peace with the President. Mr. Seward informed them that it was the President’s wish that the discussion should take place at Fortress Monroe, and that he had been sent to meet them at that point upon the subject. The Commissioners pressed with considerable earnestness for leave to visit Washington, and finally alleged that their Government had consented to send them only in consequence of Mr. Blair’s assurance that they should have a personal interview with President Lincoln. Mr. Seward assured them that this pledge should be fulfilled and at once telegraphed to the President that his presence was necessary. [Francis P. Blair]
After Lincoln’s arrival, the conference lasted four hours, and was perfectly friendly and good tempered throughout. On our side the conversation was mainly conducted by the President, and on their side Mr. Hunter, Mr. Stephens occasionally taking part.
The rebel commissioners said nothing whatever of their personal views or wishes, but spoke solely and exclusively for their Government, and at the outset and throughout the conference, declared their entire lack of authority to make, receive, or consider any proposition whatever, looking toward a close of the war, except on the basis of a recognition of the independence of the Confederate States as a preliminary condition.
The President presented the subject to them in every conceivable form, and suggested the most liberal and considerable modifications of whatever in existing legislation and action of the United States Government might be regarded as specially hostile to the rights and interests, or wounding to the pride of the Southern people, but in no single particular could he induce them to swerve for a moment from their demand for recognition. They did not present this, conspicuously, as resting on their own convictions, but as the condition which their Government had made absolutely indispensable to any negotiation or discussions whatever concerning peace.
President Lincoln on the other hand, informed them, at every point, that such recognition was utterly and totally out of the question ; that the United States could stop the war and arrest, even temporarily, the movement of its armies, only on the condition precedent that the authority of the National Government should be recognized and obeyed over the whole territory of the United States. This point conceded, he assured them that upon every other matter of the difference they would be treated with the utmost liberality, but without that recognition the war must and would go on.
All the conversation which took place between the respective parties came back to and turned upon this radical and irreconcilable difference. Neither side could be swerved a hair’s breadth from its position, and therefore the attempt at negotiation was an utter failure. Upon separating, it was distinctly and explicitly stated that the attitude of each Government was to be precisely what it would have been if the interview had never taken place.
The cabinet received these explanations as complete and satisfactory, and the feeling was unanimous and earnest that the country must now arouse itself to renewed efforts and prepare to make fresh sacrifices in defense of the integrity of the Union and the preservation of the government.
As you know the source of this dispatch, I need not assure you that it is perfectly reliable.
The Herald has an editorial, to which it gives prominence, saying the facts stated in the article are derived from such sources as to entitle them to implicit belief. They are correct beyond the possibility of mistake. After referring to the motives which induced Mr. Blair to visit Richmond it continues :
Before Mr. Blair left for home Jeff Davis addressed to him a letter expressing a strong desire for peace, and offering to waive all formalities in settling our differences on the hasty or careless reader might conceal the cloven foot, or cloven government, which on close inspection was plainly visible at the bottom of it. It seems to be a cunning effort to place the odium of continuing an unnecessary war, on Mr. Lincoln.
The President speedily sent Blair back with the assurance that he also was desirous of peace, and in substance that without stickling for mere technicalities, he would listen to what any messenger might have to say if sent by Jeff Davis or any other promising rebel, provided the necessity of preserving our own as the one Government of the whole United States were first conceded.
Thus far in the diplomatic game Mr. Lincoln had decidedly got the better of Davis. It would not do for the shaking Confederacy to leave the matter thus, and so the astute Mr. Stephens was called to the aid of Mr. Davis, a long conference was held, and it was determined that Mr. Stephens, Judge Campbell and Mr. Hunter should proceed North, and try their joint hands at mending matters.
They entered Grant’s lines on the assurance that they came on the basis of Mr. Lincoln’s instructions to Mr. Blair, but, when the President and Mr. Seward met them, it turned out that all they wanted was an armistice, and the consideration of the maintenance of the Union was to be put off to a more convenient season, when their stomachs should be full of the fat to be derived from our land, and their military stores replenished. Mr. Lincoln again informed them that the preservation of the Union must be a condition precedent to any others ; that he would never consent to but one cessation of hostilities, and that would be a final one. Four hours of good-natured talk ensued, but it resulted in nothing more than what we have already stated.
The truth is, the rebels are very hard pressed by our armies, so that by the sword they mush perish, and so they have sought to save themselves by negotiation and diplomacy, but in this Mr. Lincoln has shown himself more than a match for them. They have found him courteous but firm and inflexible. He has now satisfied the clamorous peace men of the North, who have pertinaciously asserted that soft words would melt the hearts of obdurate rebels. Talk is of no use. All that remains is to fight it out, and the quicker the better.
The Tribune’s Washington special says : “A telegram has been received here from the army of the Potomac reporting a message from Jeff Davis to the Confederate Congress communicating the result of the recent peace conference in Hampton Roads. It appears in substance that President Lincoln refused an armistice of any length, refused recognition either of the Confederacy or of any of the States which compose it, refused independence and only conceded a merciful and liberal use by himself of the pardoning power. During the conference he communicated the passage by congress of the amendment of the constitution abolishing slavery throughout the United States and declared that the question of slavery was wholly removed from his control and placed beyond negotiation.”
The Richmond Enquirer of the 6th says, “submission, abolition, and reconstruction, were the only terms that could be got out of Lincoln and Seward by the peace commissioners. Hence the South has only to fight. It says this result will have the effect to unite the people more closely and strongly than ever. If defeated and destroyed, those who survive will have nothing worse to submit to than is now demanded by the enemy.”
The Richmond Sentinel says the South has been insulted. It regards the passage of the Constitutional amendment as an outrage, and upturning of the social institutions of the South, robbing its citizens. It says, “Lincoln’s propositions were that the South should lay down their arms and dispose of their homes, and he would appoint for the Confederate States Marshals, District Attorneys and Judges for the United States courts ; that in executing the confiscation law, he would do it as leniently as possible ; that he would treat neither the Confederate States nor any State separately ; that he will listen to nothing short of unconditional submission to the Constitution and laws passed under it, that the slavery question was disposed of, and not now to be discussed.”
1. John Archibald Campbell (1811-1889) was a successful lawyer in Georgia and Alabama, where he served in the State legislatures. Appointed by Franklin Pierce to the United States Supreme Court in 1853, he served until the outbreak of the American Civil War, when he became an official of the Confederacy. After serving six months in a military prison, he resumed a successful law practice in New Orleans, where he opposed Reconstruction.