Historians tend to prefer to examine how wars start rather than how they end, and historians of the American Civil War tend to focus on the decisions made by President Abraham Lincoln while slighting those made by his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. One way to reverse both of these trends is to ask why Davis did not accept the deal Lincoln was willing to offer the Confederacy in February 1865: namely, immediate surrender, followed by compensated emancipation, possibly implemented in stages. That’s basically what Lincoln offered at the Hampton Roads Conference in 1865. Fresh from having seen the passage through Congress of a proposed Thirteenth Amendment designed to abolish slavery constitutionally across the entire United States, Lincoln, largely at the urging of Ulysses S. Grant, traveled to Hampton Roads, Virginia, the site of the engagement between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in March 1862, to talk to a trio of Confederate commissioners led by his old acquaintance, Alexander H. Stephens, then vice president of the Confederacy. Although historians sometimes debate exactly what Lincoln proposed as terms of a final peace settlement, it is clear that he was willing one last time to return to compensated emancipation as part of a settlement based upon Confederate capitulation. Davis rejected the offer out of hand, and the war continued.
Did Davis make the right choice? Continue reading