While doing some research for a forthcoming project I came across the following account of an interview between Jefferson Davis and James Jaquess, who was a prewar acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln who helped organize the 73rd Illinois Infantry. Jaquess and his sidekick, James R. Gilmore, were two of the war’s more interesting characters, and in 1864 Lincoln allowed Jaquess to visit Jefferson Davis in Richmond. It was a time when various people were probing the possibilities for a negotiated peace, with most of the pressure being placed on Lincoln. After all, people claimed, Lincoln might well need to abandon emancipation of he really wanted reunion. What followed below, narrated by Gilmore, suggests that a negotiated settlement was something of a fool’s errand: you can find the entire article in the September 1864 issue of the Atlantic Monthly if you look here.
Mr. Benjamin occupied his previous seat at the table, and at his right sat a spare, thin-featured man, with iron-gray hair and beard, and a clear, gray eye full of life and vigor. He had a broad, massive forehead, and a mouth and chin denoting great energy and strength of will. His face was emaciated, and much wrinkled, but his features were good, especially his eyes,—though one of them bore a scar, apparently made by some sharp instrument. He wore a suit of grayish-brown, evidently of foreign manufacture, and, as he rose, I saw that he was about five feet ten inches high, with a slight stoop in the shoulders. His manners[Pg 378] were simple, easy, and quite fascinating: and he threw an indescribable charm into his voice, as he extended his hand, and said to us,—
“I am glad to see you, Gentlemen. You are very welcome to Richmond.”
And this was the man who was President of the United States under Franklin Pierce, and who is now the heart, soul, and brains of the Southern Confederacy!
His manner put me entirely at my ease,—the Colonel would be at his, if he stood before Cæsar,—and I replied,—
“We thank you, Mr. Davis. It is not often you meet men of our clothes, and our principles, in Richmond.”
“Not often,—not so often as I could wish; and I trust your coming may lead to a more frequent and a more friendly intercourse between the North and the South.”
“We sincerely hope it may.”
“Mr. Benjamin tells me you have asked to see me, to”——
And he paused, as if desiring we should finish the sentence. The Colonel replied,—
“Yes, Sir. We have asked this interview in the hope that you may suggest some way by which this war can be stopped. Our people want peace,—your people do, and your Congress has recently said that you do. We have come to ask how it can be brought about.”
“In a very simple way. Withdraw your armies from our territory, and peace will come of itself. We do not seek to subjugate you. We are not waging an offensive war, except so far as it is offensive-defensive,—that is, so far as we are forced to invade you to prevent your invading us. Let us alone, and peace will come at once.”
“But we cannot let you alone so long as you repudiate the Union. That is the one thing the Northern people will not surrender.”
“I know. You would deny to us what you exact for yourselves,—the right of self-government.”
“No, Sir,” I remarked. “We would deny you no natural right. But we think Union essential to peace; and, Mr. Davis, could two people, with the same language, separated by only an imaginary line, live at peace with each other? Would not disputes constantly arise, and cause almost constant war between them?”
“Undoubtedly,—with this generation. You have sown such bitterness at the South, you have put such an ocean of blood between the two sections, that I despair of seeing any harmony in my time. Our children may forget this war, but we cannot.”
“I think the bitterness you speak of, Sir,” said the Colonel, “does not really exist. We meet and talk here as friends; our soldiers meet and fraternize with each other; and I feel sure, that, if the Union were restored, a more friendly feeling would arise between us than has ever existed. The war has made us know and respect each other better than before. This is the view of very many Southern men; I have had it from many of them,—your leading citizens.”
“They are mistaken,” replied Mr. Davis. “They do not understand Southern sentiment. How can we feel anything but bitterness towards men who deny us our rights? If you enter my house and drive me out of it, am I not your natural enemy?”
“You put the case too strongly. But we cannot fight forever; the war must end at some time; we must finally agree upon something; can we not agree now, and stop this frightful carnage? We are both Christian men, Mr. Davis. Can you, as a Christian man, leave untried any means that may lead to peace?”
“No, I cannot. I desire peace as much as you do. I deplore bloodshed as much as you do; but I feel that not one drop of the blood shed in this war is on my hands,—I can look up to my God and say this. I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern[Pg 379] ourselves; and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight his battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence,—and that, or extermination, we will have.”
“And there are, at least, four and a half millions of us left; so you see you have a work before you,” said Mr. Benjamin, with a decided sneer.
“We have no wish to exterminate you,” answered the Colonel. “I believe what I have said,—that there is no bitterness between the Northern and Southern people. The North, I know, loves the South. When peace comes, it will pour money and means into your hands to repair the waste caused by the war; and it would now welcome you back, and forgive you all the loss and bloodshed you have caused. But we must crush your armies, and exterminate your Government. And is not that already nearly done? You are wholly without money, and at the end of your resources. Grant has shut you up in Richmond. Sherman is before Atlanta. Had you not, then, better accept honorable terms while you can retain your prestige, and save the pride of the Southern people?”
Mr. Davis smiled.
“I respect your earnestness, Colonel, but you do not seem to understand the situation. We are not exactly shut up in Richmond. If your papers tell the truth, it is your capital that is in danger, not ours. Some weeks ago, Grant crossed the Rapidan to whip Lee, and take Richmond. Lee drove him in the first battle, and then Grant executed what your people call a ‘brilliant flank-movement,’ and fought Lee again. Lee drove him a second time, and then Grant made another ‘flank-movement’; and so they kept on,—Lee whipping, and Grant flanking,—until Grant got where he is now. And what is the net result? Grant has lost seventy-five or eighty thousand men,—more than Lee had at the outset,—and is no nearer taking Richmond than at first; and Lee, whose front has never been broken, holds him completely in check, and has men enough to spare to invade Maryland, and threaten Washington! Sherman, to be sure, is before Atlanta; but suppose he is, and suppose he takes it? You know, that, the farther he goes from his base of supplies, the weaker he grows, and the more disastrous defeat will be to him. And defeat may come. So, in a military view, I should certainly say our position was better than yours.
“As to money: we are richer than you are. You smile; but admit that our paper is worth nothing,—it answers as a circulating-medium; and we hold it all ourselves. If every dollar of it were lost, we should, as we have no foreign debt, be none the poorer. But it is worth something; it has the solid basis of a large cotton-crop, while yours rests on nothing, and you owe all the world. As to resources: we do not lack for arms or ammunition, and we have still a wide territory from which to gather supplies. So, you see, we are not in extremities. But if we were,—if we were without money, without food, without weapons,—if our whole country were devastated, and our armies crushed and disbanded,—could we, without giving up our manhood, give up our right to govern ourselves? Would you not rather die, and feel yourself a man, than live, and be subject to a foreign power?”
“From your stand-point there is force in what you say,” replied the Colonel. “But we did not come here to argue with you, Mr. Davis. We came, hoping to find some honorable way to peace; and I am grieved to hear you say what you do. When I have seen your young men dying on the battle-field, and your old men, women, and children starving in their homes, I have felt I could risk my life to save them. For that reason I am here; and I am grieved, grieved, that there is no hope.”
“I know your motives, Colonel Jaquess, and I honor you for them; but what can[Pg 380] I do more than I am doing? I would give my poor life, gladly, if it would bring peace and good-will to the two countries; but it would not. It is with your own people you should labor. It is they who desolate our homes, burn our wheat-fields, break the wheels of wagons carrying away our women and children, and destroy supplies meant for our sick and wounded. At your door lies all the misery and the crime of this war,—and it is a fearful, fearful account.”
“Not all of it, Mr. Davis. I admit a fearful account, but it is not all at our door. The passions of both sides are aroused. Unarmed men are hanged, prisoners are shot down in cold blood, by yourselves. Elements of barbarism are entering the war on both sides, that should make us—you and me, as Christian men—shudder to think of. In God’s name, then, let us stop it. Let us do something, concede something, to bring about peace. You cannot expect, with only four and a half millions, as Mr. Benjamin says you have, to hold out forever against twenty millions.”
Again Mr. Davis smiled.
“Do you suppose there are twenty millions at the North determined to crush us?”
“I do,—to crush your government. A small number of our people, a very small number, are your friends,—Secessionists. The rest differ about measures and candidates, but are united in the determination to sustain the Union. Whoever is elected in November, he must be committed to a vigorous prosecution of the war.”
Mr. Davis still looking incredulous, I remarked,—
“It is so, Sir. Whoever tells you otherwise deceives you. I think I know Northern sentiment, and I assure you it is so. You know we have a system of lyceum-lecturing in our large towns. At the close of these lectures, it is the custom of the people to come upon the platform and talk with the lecturer. This gives him an excellent opportunity of learning public sentiment. Last winter I lectured before nearly a hundred of such associations, all over the North,—from Dubuque to Bangor,—and I took pains to ascertain the feeling of the people. I found a unanimous determination to crush the Rebellion and save the Union at every sacrifice. The majority are in favor of Mr. Lincoln, and nearly all of those opposed to him are opposed to him because they think he does not fight you with enough vigor. The radical Republicans, who go for slave-suffrage and thorough confiscation, are those who will defeat him, if he is defeated. But if he is defeated before the people, the House will elect a worse man,—I mean, worse for you. It is more radical than he is,—you can see that from Mr. Ashley’s Reconstruction Bill,—and the people are more radical than the House. Mr. Lincoln, I know, is about to call out five hundred thousand more men, and I can’t see how you can resist much longer; but if you do, you will only deepen the radical feeling of the Northern people. They will now give you fair, honorable, generous terms; but let them suffer much more, let there be a dead man in every house, as there is now in every village, and they will give you no terms,—they will insist on hanging every Rebel south of ——. Pardon my terms. I mean no offence.”
“You give no offence,” he replied, smiling very, pleasantly. “I wouldn’t have you pick your words. This is a frank, free talk, and I like you the better for saying what you think. Go on.”
“I was merely going to say, that, let the Northern people once really feel the war,—they do not feel it yet,—and they will insist on hanging every one of your leaders.”
“Well, admitting all you say, I can’t see how it affects our position. There are some things worse than hanging or extermination. We reckon giving up the right of self-government one of those things.”
“By self-government you mean disunion,—Southern Independence?”
“And slavery, you say, is no longer an element in the contest.”
“No, it is not, it never was an essential element. It was only a means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination. It fired the musket which was already capped and loaded. There are essential differences between the North and the South that will, however this war may end, make them two nations.”
“You ask me to say what I think. Will you allow me to say that I know the South pretty well, and never observed those differences?”
“Then you have not used your eyes. My sight is poorer than yours, but I have seen them for years.”
The laugh was upon me, and Mr. Benjamin enjoyed it.
“Well, Sir, be that as it may, if I understand you, the dispute between your government and ours is narrowed down to this: Union or Disunion.”
“Yes; or to put it in other words: Independence or Subjugation.”
“Then the two governments are irreconcilably apart. They have no alternative but to fight it out. But it is not so with the people. They are tired of fighting, and want peace; and as they bear all the burden and suffering of the war, is it not right they should have peace, and have it on such terms as they like?”
“I don’t understand you. Be a little more explicit.”
“Well, suppose the two governments should agree to something like this: To go to the people with two propositions: say, Peace, with Disunion and Southern Independence, as your proposition,—and Peace, with Union, Emancipation, No Confiscation, and Universal Amnesty, as ours. Let the citizens of all the United States (as they existed before the war) vote ‘Yes,’ or ‘No,’ on these two propositions, at a special election within sixty days. If a majority votes Disunion, our government to be bound by it, and to let you go in peace. If a majority votes Union, yours to be bound by it, and to stay in peace. The two governments can contract in this way, and the people, though constitutionally unable to decide on peace or war, can elect which of the two propositions shall govern their rulers. Let Lee and Grant, meanwhile, agree to an armistice. This would sheathe the sword; and if once sheathed, it would never again be drawn by this generation.”
“The plan is altogether impracticable. If the South were only one State, it might work; but as it is, if one Southern State objected to emancipation, it would nullify the whole thing; for you are aware the people of Virginia cannot vote slavery out of South Carolina, nor the people of South Carolina vote it out of Virginia.”
“But three-fourths of the States can amend the Constitution. Let it be done in that way,—in any way, so that it be done by the people. I am not a statesman or a politician, and I do not know just how such a plan could be carried out; but you get the idea,—that the people shall decide the question.”
“That the majority shall decide it, you mean. We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority, and this would subject us to it again.”
“But the majority must rule finally, either with bullets or ballots.”
“I am not so sure of that. Neither current events nor history shows that the majority rules, or ever did rule. The contrary, I think, is true. Why, Sir, the man who should go before the Southern people with such a proposition, with any proposition which implied that the North was to have a voice in determining the domestic relations of the South, could not live here a day. He would be hanged to the first tree, without judge or jury.”
“Allow me to doubt that. I think it more likely he would be hanged, if he let the Southern people know the majority couldn’t rule,” I replied, smiling.
“I have no fear of that,” rejoined Mr. Davis, also smiling most good-humoredly. “I give you leave to proclaim it from every house-top in the South.”
“But, seriously, Sir, you let the majority rule in a single State; why not let it rule in the whole country?”
“Because the States are independent and sovereign. The country is not. It is only a confederation of States; or rather it was: it is now two confederations.”
“Then we are not a people,—we are only a political partnership?”
“That is all.”
“Your very name, Sir, ‘United States,’ implies that,” said Mr. Benjamin. “But, tell me, are the terms you have named—Emancipation, No Confiscation, and Universal Amnesty—the terms which Mr. Lincoln authorized you to offer us?”
“No, Sir, Mr. Lincoln did not authorize me to offer you any terms. But I think both he and the Northern people, for the sake of peace, would assent to some such conditions.”
“They are very generous,” replied Mr. Davis, for the first time during the interview showing some angry feeling. “But Amnesty, Sir, applies to criminals. We have committed no crime. Confiscation is of no account, unless you can enforce it. And Emancipation! You have already emancipated nearly two millions of our slaves,—and if you will take care of them, you may emancipate the rest. I had a few when the war began. I was of some use to them; they never were of any to me. Against their will you ‘emancipated’ them; and you may ‘emancipate’ every negro in the Confederacy, but we will be free! We will govern ourselves. We will do it, if we have to see every Southern plantation sacked, and every Southern city in flames.”
“I see, Mr. Davis, it is useless to continue this conversation,” I replied; “and you will pardon us, if we have seemed to press our views with too much pertinacity. We love the old flag, and that must be our apology for intruding upon you at all.”
“You have not intruded upon me,” he replied, resuming his usual manner. “I am glad to have met you, both. I once loved the old flag as well as you do; I would have died for it; but now it is to me only the emblem of oppression.”
“I hope the day may never come, Mr. Davis, when I say that,” said the Colonel.
A half-hour’s conversation on other topics—not of public interest—ensued, and then we rose to go. As we did so, the Rebel President gave me his hand, and, bidding me a kindly good-bye, expressed the hope of seeing me again in Richmond in happier times,—when peace should have returned; but with the Colonel his parting was particularly cordial. Taking his hand in both of his, he said to him,—
“Colonel, I respect your character and your motives, and I wish you well,—I wish you every good I can wish you consistently with the interests of the Confederacy.”
The quiet, straightforward bearing and magnificent moral courage of our “fighting parson” had evidently impressed Mr. Davis very favorably.
As we were leaving the room, he added—
“Say to Mr. Lincoln from me, that I shall at any time be pleased to receive proposals for peace on the basis of our Independence. It will be useless to approach me with any other.”
When we went out, Mr. Benjamin called Judge Ould, who had been waiting during the whole interview—two hours—at the other end of the hall, and we passed down the stairway together. As I put my arm within that of the Judge, he said to me,—
“Well, what is the result?”
“Nothing but war,—war to the knife.”
“Ephraim is joined to his idols,—let him alone,” added the Colonel, solemnly.