The New York Times February 3, 2015
On Feb. 3, 1865, a lovely false spring day, the president of the United States traveled south by train and steamboat to a spot near the front lines of the Civil War for a peaceful talk with the enemy. Such high-level negotiations in the middle of a shooting war had never happened before, and have never happened since. After nearly four years of battering, the Confederacy was all but broken – and Lincoln was eager to stop the killing and begin to heal the country with a peaceful reconciliation instead of a military conquest. That’s why, that afternoon, Abraham Lincoln welcomed three Confederate leaders to the presidential steamboat River Queen, the Air Force One of her day, and exposed himself to political attack for the mortal sin of compromise.
Though many in the North wanted to end the war quickly, the dominant, radical wing of Lincoln’s Republican Party had long since determined not to negotiate with the rebel leaders but to hang them. The beaten South, they said, would be governed “as England governs India.” When they learned that the president had quietly slipped away to entertain its emissaries without so much as telling them he was going, the radicals on Capitol Hill and their partisan press exploded.
The meeting had been set in motion through a harebrained scheme contrived by Francis Preston Blair, a longtime Washington power broker, an alumnus of Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” a mentor to Lincoln and a father figure to Jefferson Davis. In 1864, while the proponents of the Monroe Doctrine were otherwise engaged, Napoleon III of France had sent 35,000 troops to Mexico, ousted its elected president and installed a puppet emperor. Now Blair conceived a secret choreography. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would retreat southwest from Virginia and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would pursue him all the way to the Rio Grande. Crossing the Mexican border with Grant on his heels, Lee would pick a fight with Napoleon’s army and Grant would jump in on the side of his fellow Americans. Together they would beat the stuffing out of the French, embrace on the fields of the Second Mexican War and proclaim a joyful reunion. Slavery would be exchanged for a chance to loot Mexico, and the Civil War would end with no loss of face for the South.
Blair proposed the idea in a month of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Richmond. Amazingly enough, Davis purported to bless it. Though Lincoln dismissed it out of hand, he invited a conversation with “any agent” of the rebellion who was willing to bring peace to “our one common country.” Under irresistible political pressure with the war all but lost, Davis sent to Lincoln three leaders of Richmond’s growing peace movement and gave them a secret mandate to bring peace to “two countries.” Knowing how Lincoln would respond, Davis hoped to kill the peace conference in its crib, discredit the Southern doves he had sent to it and incite the Southern people to a war of desperation.
To the cheers of the combatants on both sides, Grant let the Southern peace envoys across his lines from the rebel fortifications; ignored his orders to keep them there; entertained them profusely at his headquarters; introduced them to his generals, his family and his horses; helped them craft conciliatory messages to the North; and convinced his embattled president that they were ready to accept reunion, Jeff Davis notwithstanding, and give peace a chance. Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, a world-class charmer and a prewar friend and colleague of all three rebel emissaries, joined the president for the peace talks.
The conference on the River Queen was a gathering of old friends. The leader of the Confederate delegation, the 90-pound paradox Alexander Stephens of Georgia, was Davis’s political nemesis as well as his vice president; he was also a friend and ally of Lincoln’s in the Congress of 1848 in a movement against the Mexican War. Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia had been close to Seward in the old Senate. The brilliant Alabamian John A. Campbell, a former justice of the United States Supreme Court, had attended Lincoln’s inauguration and tried to help Seward stop the war before it started.
Their reunion at Hampton Roads began in a glow of nostalgia, descended into threats and ended with a glimpse of Lincoln’s simple compromise: the restoration of the Union, a gradual abolition of slavery, the return of all forfeited Southern property, a $400,000,000 payment to the slave states to offset the loss of their slaves, and pardons for their leaders. The conference ended inconclusively and the participants returned to their capitals, determined to keep hope alive.
But peace was not at hand. As rumors of peace brought hope to their suffering people, militants North and South condemned the very idea of negotiation itself. In the exhausted Confederate capital, The Richmond Sentinel told its readers what peace would bring: “All the dark and malignant passions of a vindictive people, drunk with blood and vomiting crime, will be unloosed on us like bloodhounds upon their prey.” On the floor of the United States Senate, Benjamin Wade, a Republican from Ohio, proclaimed that “this nest of vipers at Richmond” must be crushed, not reasoned with, for negotiation “would be disgrace, dishonor, contamination in the eyes of our own people and in the eyes of the civilized world.”
Explosive though he knew it would be, Lincoln would have brought his generous peace plan to a Congress bent on revenge if a single member of his Cabinet had endorsed it. Not a single member did. “You are all against me,” he said, and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference went for naught.
Its failure had consequences. Some 10,000 men and boys alive and well when their leaders clasped hands on the River Queen were corpses three months later. Instead of a voluntary reunion, the South endured the only existential defeat that Americans have ever suffered. A century of bitterness followed.
James B. Conroy is the author of “Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865.”