The Thirteenth Amendment and the Hampton Roads Conference

The movie Lincoln has focused renewed interest in the process whereby the Thirteenth Amendment made its way through Congress at the very same time that three Confederate commissioners were at Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia, seeking passage to Washington.

Well, what really happened?

In early January 1865 Francis P. Blair, Sr., an old hand at Washington politics, had visited Richmond to present a proposal before Jefferson Davis looking towards an armistice between the United Sates and the Confederacy. Lincoln was well aware of this mission, but he did not invest much hope in it. He informed Blair on January 18, 1865 that he was “ready to receive any agent whom he, or any other influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me, with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.” Seven days later, on January 28, he noted that the rub in the proposed negotiations rested in Davis’s decision to make reference to “the two countries,” a wording Lincoln simply would not accept.

On January 29, three Confederate commissioners–Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Robert M. T. Hunter, and John Campbell–arrived at Union lines. Two days earlier Davis had selected them for this mission, although he had little interest in any conference that did not recognize Confederate independence. They sought to meet Grant, who was away at the moment (as was George G. Meade). It was left to John G. Parke (temporarily in command of the Army of the Potomac) and Edward O. C. Ord (commander of the Army of the James, and ranking Parke) to decide what to do, with Ord forwarding the correspondence to Washington that day. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent over the dispatches to the White House that evening, while informing Ord that he should await instructions before acting.

On the morning of January 30 Lincoln directed Major Thomas T. Eckert of the War Department to meet with the Confederate commissioners  but at Fortress Monroe, not Washington.

Eckert was still in Washington on January 31, preparing to depart: before he did Lincoln received a telegram from Grant (sent that morning) asking for instructions from Lincoln concerning the peace commissioners. Lincoln alerted Grant as to Eckert’s mission, without revealing the content of the dispatch he had entrusted to Eckert; he also directed Secretary of State William H. Seward to proceed to Fortress Monroe to meet with the commissioners.  Lincoln laid out three non-negotiable positions: the restoration of the Union, no back-tracking on emancipation (although no mention was made of the proposed amendment), and an end to the war and the disbanding of Confederate forces. Those principles accepted, he was willing to entertain other idea “in a spirit of sincere liberality.”

Even as he did this, however, Lincoln was quick to allay rumors about a possible peace conference. Responding to Representative James M. Ashley’s concern that reports circulating around Washington that peace commissioners from the Confederacy were either in Washington or on their way to the city, the president replied, simply and shrewdly: “So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” This was as true as far as it went.

That afternoon, the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment (you can read the proceedings here). Lincoln signed the resolution transmitting the proposed amendment to the states the next day, February 1, although the ceremonial flourish was unnecessary and superfluous.

That same day it appeared that the proposed conference would not come off. In the afternoon Lincoln had ordered Eckert to leave City Point and make his way to Fortress Monroe, where he was to give way to Seward; by that time, however, Eckert had already met with the Confederate trio and found their response to Lincoln’s request unsatisfactory. Stephens and company then turned to Grant, who forwarded to Eckert a second request to go to Washington. Again Eckert turned it down.

Then Grant interjected himself in the negotiations (much to Eckert’s dismay). The general wired Stanton on the evening of February 1, expressing his opinion that the motives of the commissioners seemed sincere, that not to hear them out might have negative repercussions, and that he regretted that Lincoln could not meet with them. That changed everything, and on the morning of February 2 Lincoln notified Grant that he was on his way to Fortress Monroe; in going he passed up another chance to talk to Blair, who had been pressing for a meeting.

On February 3, 1865, the Hampton Roads Peace Conference took place aboard Lincoln’s steamer. Only Lincoln, Seward, Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell were present. No notes were kept; recollections differ as to the details of what was discussed. As expected, the talks broke down over the key question of one country or two, with the Confederate commissioners being unable and perhaps unwilling to accede to Lincoln’s insistence on reunion.

Meeting with the cabinet on February 5, Lincoln shared with them a proposed joint resolution offering to pay the slave states (including states not part of the Confederacy) four hundred million dollars to compensate for the abolition of slavery, provided the war end by April 1, 1865, and the Thirteenth Amendment being ratified by July 1, 1865. Should he submit that document to Congress? Cabinet members advised against the measure, and it was dropped.

You can find out more about the conference here. Lincoln’s message to the House of Representatives, containing many of the documents in question, is here (scroll backwards to the beginning of the document).

So, what do we make of this?

Well, for all the talk of a possible conference about peace, it was not until January 29 that the Confederate commissioners appeared seeking passage through Grant’s lines. Word of their appearance made its way to Washington that night. Lincoln framed his response on January 30, then sent first Eckert and then Seward forward on January 31 … the same day as the House vote on the Thirteenth Amendment. Yes, Lincoln furnished Ashley with a skillfully-worded denial of rumors that Confederate envoys were on the way to Washington, but he doubted that it made much difference. As historian William C. Harris has said, given the collapse of the mission, even a failed vote on January 31 would have not been the last word on the amendment during that lame-duck session; besides, it appears that without Grant’s intervention, the meeting would never have taken place.

How does Lincoln treat this event? Well, here’s the script.  There’s been some playing with chronology, to be sure, and I’m not sure why. Besides, the movie’s treatment of this event isn’t quite as bad as what I’ve seen elsewhere.


23 thoughts on “The Thirteenth Amendment and the Hampton Roads Conference

  1. Patrick Young December 29, 2012 / 6:40 am

    You say of Grant’s wire “That changed everything”. Not sure I understand why.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 29, 2012 / 9:57 am

      Simple. Otherwise Lincoln accepts Eckert’s assessment and no meeting takes place. Lincoln himself said so.

  2. Jefferson Moon December 29, 2012 / 6:57 am

    I think the Hampton Roads conference, shows that ending slavery,wasn’t,never was,the goal of the Union’s war effort.

  3. Troy Duwayne, Barclay December 29, 2012 / 7:01 am

    The so-called 13th amendment was not lawfully passed as it involved fraud, trickery, deceit, lies and blackmail for its so-called passage, without the southern state votes. Lincoln could not have it both ways—a vote without the southern states involved without blackmail or passage by the north as the only ones who can decide—thereby only tyrannical and demanding acceptance because they say so.
    I have viewed the movie Lincoln and was glad that it did expose some of what the connivers used, including Lincoln, himself, and his cohorts to accomplish the 13th’s so-called passage.


  4. Mark December 29, 2012 / 9:13 am

    Having finally got around to seeing the movie I think they messed with the chronology to add dramatic tension which it did – the film is quite suspenseful even though you know the outcome. I thought by the standards of Hollywood its historical fidelity wasn’t bad and as a movie it was quite good, if a bit stiff and stilted at times, though I wonder how successful it would have been without Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance.

  5. Andy Hall December 29, 2012 / 9:41 am

    Thanks for laying this out. The film garbles the timeline, placing Grant’s encounters with the commissioners before the passage of the amendment in the House, and generally stretching out that part of the storyline to what seems to be weeks, instead of a few days (January 29 to February 2). It’s inaccurate in that regard, but makes for better storytelling, establishing what the script depicts as a looming, existential threat to the passage of the amendment — as Seward says in the film, “it’s either the amendment or this Confederate peace, you cannot have both” — with all those events rushing forward to a common point. The Hampton Roads Conference provides the tension and conflict in the film, that makes it about more than Lincoln’s corn-pone anecdotes and W. N. Bilbo’s comedic arm-twisting. In the broadest terms, it’s the Hampton Roads Conference, and (to Lincoln’s mind) a premature peace that ends the war without ending slavery permanently, that is the film’s real villain.

    Even with the rearrangement of the timeline regarding Grant, though, it’s through his dialogue that the movie reveals the sticking point about there being two countries:

    I suggest you work some changes to your proposal before you give it to the President.

    We’re eager to be on our way to Washington.

    Did Mr. Lincoln tell you to tell us this, General Grant?

    Grant fixes Stephens with a look – bemused, a little disappointed.

    It says…“securing peace for our two countries.” And it goes on like that.

    I don’t know what you –

    There’s just one country. You and I, we’re citizens of that country. I’m fighting to protect it from
    armed rebels. From you.

    But Mr. Blair told us, he, he told President Davis we were –

    A private citizen like Preston Blair can say what he pleases, since he has no authority over anything. If you want to discuss peace with President Lincoln, consider revisions.

    He lights a cigar.

    If we’re not to discuss a truce between warring nations, what in heaven’s name can we discuss?

    Terms of surrender.

    That’s great dialogue, that compresses the central (and unresolvable) conflict of the conference, even if those words were never actually spoken in that way. For all its flaws, I still think this film does a tremendous job in giving the general public — who would not likely know of the Hampton Roads Conference or the legislative struggles of the 13th Amendment at all, otherwise — a good and broadly-correct picture of events.

  6. James F. Epperson December 29, 2012 / 10:04 am

    My two favorite anecdotes from this episode, possibly apocryphal:

    1. Hunter lectures Lincoln that there is nothing wrong in a gov’t treating with rebels in arms, citing the precedent of Charles I negotiating w/ Parliament. Lincoln says, “I’ll defer on questions of history to Gov. Seward; all I recall us that Charles lost his head!”

    2. After it is over, Lincoln asks Stephens if there is anything he can do for him as a friend, and Stephens mentions his nephew, held as a POW on Johnston’s Island; Lincoln arranges an exchange for the young man.

    Good post, Brooks.

    • Andy Hall December 29, 2012 / 2:44 pm

      “The most interesting thing about Charles the First is that he was 5’6″ at the start of his reign, but only 4’8″ at the end of it.”

      — Monty Python

      • James F. Epperson December 30, 2012 / 8:02 am

        I need your address so I can bill you for a new laptop—I just sprayed soda all over the one I have. That was hilarious!

        • Andy Hall December 30, 2012 / 11:03 am

          My work here is done. . . .

        • Brooks D. Simpson December 30, 2012 / 12:22 pm

          Epperson’s been working this scam for years. Now he’s drinking soda in the morning. Next week he’ll tell you that he represents a donor from some foreign country who does not know what to do with winnings from a lottery that does not exist, and that he’s chosen you as the beneficiary.

          • John Foskett December 30, 2012 / 2:32 pm

            Well, it beats those monthly emails from the exiled Royal Family of Nigeria who need a lawyer to help transfer their extensive Swiss holdings.

          • Andy Hall December 30, 2012 / 4:07 pm

            So you’re saying I shouldn’t have sent him my bank account numbers and passwords?

            Now you tell me, sheesh.

          • TF Smith January 2, 2013 / 10:43 am

            I think Andy must have been an Aggie…

          • Andy Hall January 3, 2013 / 12:08 pm

            In point of fact, I am a former TAMU student.

  7. rcocean December 29, 2012 / 12:27 pm

    The Conference was doomed from the start since the Confederate commissioners had been instructed that Confederate independence was condicio sine qua non. As for the 13th Amendment being passed “illegally” – nothing in the Constitution requires the approval of states in Rebellion. It would’ve been absurd for Lincoln to have submitted the 13th Amendment to the CSA state governments since these governments no longer considered themselves part of the USA.

    • Joe March 14, 2013 / 6:23 pm

      The first 13th amendment (Corwin amendment) would have protected and given the south slavery. The 13th amendment that was passed by the northern states would have been defeated if the south re-entered the union. So two times the south could have had their slaves but they didn’t. So whenever you hear the argument that the war was over slavery one will have to wonder. The war was fought over the northern industrialists sucking dry the south. Always follow the money and you can’t be far from the truth.

  8. TF Smith December 29, 2012 / 1:25 pm

    I like Andy’s comment – one thing that scene in the film reminded me of were Sherman’s letters to and from Hood and Calhoun (Atlanta’s mayor) in 1864, which lays out the case for the US war effort pretty clearly.


    • John Foskett December 30, 2012 / 2:34 pm

      I’ve always liked those – especially the one which pointedly told Ole’ JB what a hypocrite he really was.

  9. TF Smith December 30, 2012 / 4:18 pm

    Sherman was a very intellligent man; if he hadn’t gone to West Point, he probably would have made a hell of a trial attorney.

  10. Rob Baker January 3, 2013 / 11:58 am

    Thanks for the break down Brooks.

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