Confederate Capitulation … February 1865

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?  Much depends on what one believes was at stake.  By February 1865 the Confederacy was clearly not in great shape.  Grant continued to pin Robert E. Lee against Richmond and Petersburg, while William T. Sherman was just starting to make his way through South Carolina.  What were the prospects that the Confederacy might still achieve independence?  Would such independence come at the cost of everything that such independence was supposed to achieve?  After all, with the door now open to enlisting slaves in the Confederate army, slavery was more vulnerable than ever; the Davis government was proving less than adept at defending state rights, southern homesteads, and a particular way of life.  Continued conflict would simply erode what was left of these ends.

No one should question Davis’s commitment to Confederate independence.  Still, the fact remains, was it better to go down swinging on behalf of that commitment, or decide to cut one’s losses, get some needed capital to help in postwar reconstruction, and spare his countrymen the impact of more destructive war?  Or was Confederate triumph still possible in February 1865, which would call into question the usual assumptions about the election of 1864 as sounding the death knell for the Confederacy?

What do you think?

14 thoughts on “Confederate Capitulation … February 1865

  1. James F. Epperson March 25, 2011 / 2:35 pm

    I think the answer depends entirely upon perspective. Looked at dispassionately, the Confederacy was toast, and Davis should have jumped at the offer in order to salvage what he could for his people. But no one in Davis’s position was going to give up their cause so easily; I’m not at all surprised Davis turned him down.

  2. Mark March 25, 2011 / 8:02 pm

    It’s been 150 years. It’s time we can tell the truth — about the START of the Civil War ( caused by the insane Southern demands to spread slavery ) and the END of the Civil war (the same insane people were in charge).

    Do you not yet grasp that Davis was not kidding, was not speaking in tongues, was not trying to be cute when he said slavery was a “a divine blesssing” and that slavery was “the cornerstone” of the Confederacy?

    DO you think the Southern Ultimatums were a joke?

    Davis was not a rational or honorable man. Never mind how many high schools they name after him — whe was goofy. And he didn’t react kindly to people telling him the truth about how the war was going.

    According to Pollard, Johnston and Beauregard had to get in his face, and tell him like a Dutch uncle — that virtually ALL the Southern soldiers had either deserted outright, or the ones that remained, simply refused to fight. Even then, Davis wanted the men to fight on — while he fled. And when he was face to face with the enemy — he hid in a dress (yes a dress) and ran like the coward he was.

    Lee was apparently afraid to tell Davis the truth — and no wonder, if you did, you were quickly removed.

    Davis knew, of course, that 2/3 of his own soldiers had ALREADY deserted by summer of 1864 — and said so himself, in the Macon speech.

    Davis was very likely a sociopath, as you can tell by his Macon speech. Two thirds of his soldiers — by his own admission — had deserted. But he was trying to shame the women in the audience — he told them a totally fabricated farce, about how a mother who had already lost two of her children in the war, wrote him to ask that he save a place for her 8 year old son!

    It takes a special kind of scum to tell mothers some made up story, trying to glorify reserving a place in war for your child. Especially when Davis himself proved just an abject coward.

    Davis’s lunatic shaming didn’t work – the desertions grew even worse.

    While Lincoln put up with any personal slight to get his generals to be efffective, Davis was more concerned with his ego. He got rid of the generals that didn’t brown nose blatantly (a skill Lee had down pat). When he got rid of Johnston, for not attacking, and put in Hood, Hood promptly got the few remaining “true believers” killed off. The world is lucky Davis was such an incompetent leader.

    And you ask why Davis didn’t accept some kind of offer? Maybe because he wasn’t kidding when he said slavery was the cornerstone. Maybe because he was great at sending other men to die — but he ran like the coward he was. What do you expect?

    If you think Davis wasn’t wearing a dress – think again. His own wife wrote a letter to the Blairs, saying that SHE called out “It’s my mother” when the union soldiers stopped Davis. Plus of course the steady and repeated and very detailed reports of the Union soldiers. A close examination of the issue shows Davis most certainly DID wear a dress — astonishingly when the “experts” who dismiss it write it about it, they somehow “forget” about his own’s wife’s statements, and other things I won’t go into. But it wasn’t the dress that he should be ashamed of — it was his cowardice at the moment — and for weeks. While urging (very Hitler like) all his men to fight and die — he was running away. And even in the last moments — he was running AWAY from his wife and children, to get his own escape.

    It’s a shame it’s not politically correct to tell the truth about the Southern leaders, or the start of the war, or the end of the war. We all have to pretend this bizarre nonsense we try to pass off as “history”.

  3. bret curry March 25, 2011 / 9:39 pm

    I think it’s obvious that Davis should have concluded peace in 1865 on whatever terms he could get short of unconditional surrender. I don’t think this requires any hindsight. Once Sherman reached Savannah, the lifespan of the confederacy outside of Texas was a matter of a few weeks of dry roads. Your facing obliteration soon, make the deal and end the bloodshed.

    I think the reason Davis wouldn’t negotiate on any basis other than Southern independence was because he was a Southern nationalist. Davis’ biggest failing IMO, was that he saw the Confederate cause as as simple one directed at establishing a new nation. I think most Southerners did not see the Confederacy as an end in itself as Davis did, but rather as a means to realize other ends: the protection of slavery, the avoidance of Northern domination, the promotion of the interests of their state. If seen in this light, a negotiated peace could salvage something of the ends that the Confederacy existed to protect. If on the other hand, you see the indepence of the Confederacy as a paramount end in itself, Lincoln’s terms are unacceptable. After all what American president would sign a peace treaty ending American indepence, regardless of the situation?

    I think Davis decision to fire on Ft Sumter (his other huge mistake) had the same roots. If you think only in terms of Southern nationalism, the attack on Sumter makes sense. Generally nations don’t accept foreign military bases in its territory without their consent. Davis also saw conflict with Sumter as likley to move the upper South into the Confederacy, completing the national project.

    However, if the Confederacy is seen as a means not an end, the attack on Sumter was insane. Starting a war with North, and firing the first shot, endangered Southern interests unecessarily.

    • Commodore Perry March 26, 2011 / 7:38 am

      “I think the reason Davis wouldn’t negotiate on any basis other than Southern independence was because he was a Southern nationalist.”

      I think you hit it on the head with this one. Remember that Davis went into (or sent his commissioners into) the conference under the resolve that nothing short of independence would be acceptable, no matter what else Lincoln offered. So perhaps the overall question here should be whether Davis should have retained this position as a pretense or if he should have been willing (even internally if not on the public face) to accept terms, and if so, what terms. Knowing Davis, of course, this was not going to happen, but in the “should he have” category, I think it’s the better place to start.

    • Mark March 26, 2011 / 12:01 pm

      The attack on Sumter was not Davis’s idea, first of all.

      Why did they attack? Because these were violent oppressive men, men who could — and did — order women tortured, children sold, and men burned to death. These were men who got their power, prestige, and passion from threats and violence.

      Furthermore, these were men (most of them) who never heard a legal sermon or speech against slavery, never read a book or pamplet allowed by their totalitarian government against slavery.

      Frankly, what do you expect from these guys? We put down people like Lee, Davis, and Stephens as MODERATES — do you not know that Lee had young girls tortured while he screamed at them? Do you not realize that Stephens and Davis both said proudly that slavery was from God and the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy.

      It’s a giant bunch of nonsense we tell each other and ourselves that these were honorable men. They were nothing of the sort, and if you want to know their mind set, go read George Mason’s (a contemporary of Lee’s father and George Washington) describe it. Really – GO read what he said was the mental process– how these men learned from birth to be tyrants, who had the outward appearances and mannerisms of “gentlemen” but were little different from any brute or torturer. And he was right.

      It wasn’t just who fired the first shot – that’s mickey mouse nonsense. The South had violently and brutally attacked for years – used threats and terror for years. What do you expect they would do ?

      They could no more be reasonable and intelligent about secession than they could fly. These were violent terrorist, who knew how to spell and write BS. That is what they were. You can pretend otherwise, but that is what they were.

  4. Stephen Graham March 25, 2011 / 10:25 pm

    Whether or not Davis thought the Confederacy might have some chance to win, most likely through exhaustion or some miracle, there are other questions to be asked. Can any peace settlement make it through the Confederate and US Congresses, especially given the short session remaining for the 38th Congress? Can the Confederates really trust the US Congress to follow through on the promises of Lincoln? They largely know the results of the 1864 elections: even stronger Republican control of the House and Senate. Who can trust those wiley Republicans?

    Compensation for emancipation also seems problematic by this point, both in terms of figuring out how much and to whom, but also convincing Congress to actually pay for it.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 25, 2011 / 10:37 pm

      All of the above may be true … but should Davis have accepted the offer?

      • Stephen Graham March 26, 2011 / 10:24 am

        Yes, he should have. Anything would have been better than continuing for the next few months. If nothing else, there’d actually be a chance to get crops planted for the 1865 growing season.

  5. Matt McKeon March 26, 2011 / 4:50 am

    Since the war was about to be lost, and slavery was rapidly going it seems like Lincoln’s offer was the only rational choice.

    But maybe Davis was right to reject it on two grounds:

    Could Lincoln still politically deliver gradual and compensated emancipation at this late date? Would the radical Republicans, after thousands of war dead and so on, approve a billion dollar pay out to the very people they blamed for the war? Especially when the north was on the verge of victory?

    Could Davis accept such a deal and sell it to the Confederates? After thousands of war dead, destruction in Georgia, etc. the officer and politician class walk away laughing with their pockets stuffed with yankee dollars, while the rank and file have lost everything they had? “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree” would be a song sung by the Confederate army.

  6. David Corbett March 26, 2011 / 10:25 am

    Dear Sir,
    The Confederacy had no chance of victory. Davis’ refusal of terms exhibits the incredibly substandard statesmanship of that government as begun with the cotton embarg.

  7. David Corbett March 26, 2011 / 10:26 am

    Pardon me. The above post should have ended with the word “embargo.”

  8. Chuck Brown March 26, 2011 / 11:39 am

    Davis was either unable or unwilling to grasp the gravity of the Confederate situation. Victory was highly unlikely in February 1865. Given that many southerners believed that God supported both slavery and the Confederacy, perhaps Davis believed that divine intervention was still a possibility. Otherwise, I don’t understand why he turned the offer down. Slavery was dead regardless of whether Lincoln’s offer was accepted or not. The South’s chance for a military victory, while not exactly zero, were pretty close to it. Davis should have accepted the offer. Given northern racial attitudes, perhaps the former slaves would be no more than a permanent southern underclass with the status of serfs. The South might still achieve a semblance of victory, as it did anyway. Additional deaths and devastation might have been avoided.

  9. cyd March 26, 2011 / 6:14 pm

    There was, of course, a Northern analog of Davis’ illogical intransigence: recall that, shortly after that 1865 peace conference, Lincoln floated the idea of offering the South $400M. His cabinet rejected this plan, and Lincoln quickly dropped it. Humans are just bad at calculations of this sort.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 26, 2011 / 6:20 pm

      The cabinet discussion was part of the aftermath of the same negotiation. The cabinet meeting shows the sincerity of Lincoln’s offer, but the decision not to go ahead was immaterial due to Davis’s outright rejection of the offer made at Hampton Roads.

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