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.