In late February 1865 Major General Edward O. C. Ord met with Lt. General James Longstreet under a flag of truce. The subject was the exchange of prisoners … at least that’s how it began. After all, Ord and Longstreet knew each other in the prewar army, and getting together gave them a chance to catch up.
Before long the conversation shifted to the current situation. Longstreet was a realist: he knew that the Confederacy was in bad shape. So long as Jefferson Davis was in charge, however, a negotiated settlement seemed unlikely. Ord, who had little interest in emancipation, also longed for the war to end. In the discussion that followed wistful thinking gave way to imaginative solutions, and none more imaginative than what emerged.
Knowing that Grant had done what he could to facilitate the Hampton Roads Conference at the beginning of the month, Ord, firmly believing that politicians could not be entrusted with bringing the war to an end, thought it might not be a bad idea if Grant and Lee could meet to discuss matters. Once they started talking, Ord reasoned, no one could predict what might happen. Longstreet agreed. The Confederate general also welcomed a suggestion from Ord that perhaps Julia Grant, who was residing at army headquarters at City Point, might want to meet Louise Longstreet, with whom she had been close friends in St. Louis (James Longstreet and Julia Grant were cousins).
He took the idea back to Richmond, where he presented it to Lee, who in turn brought it to Davis’s attention. Lee had taken a low profile when it came to previous peace initiatives, but in this instance he was willing to see what might happen. Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge took a shine to the notion of a gathering of wives, and word went out to Louise Longstreet, living in Lynchburg, to make her way to Richmond. Ord and Longstreet met again on February 28, formally charged with discussing the exchange of “political prisoners,” but in truth to iron out the details of the proposed summit.
On March 2 Lee twice wrote Grant.
Lt Gen Longstreet has informed me that in an interview with Maj Gen Ord, that officer expressed some apprehension lest the general terms used by you with reference to the exchange of political prisoners should be construed to include those charged with capital offences. Gen Ord further stated that you did not intend to embrace that class of cases in the agreement to exchange. I regret to leam that such is your interpretation, as I had hoped that by exchanging those held under charges by each party, it would be possible to diminish to some extent the sufferings of both without detriment to their interests. Should you see proper to assent to the interview proposed in my letter of this date, I hope it may be found practicable to arrive at a more satisfactory understanding on this subject.
The letter Lee mentioned follows.
Lt Gen Longstreet has informed me that in a recent conversation between himself and Maj Gen Ord as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention, Gen Ord stated that if I desired to have an interview with you on the subject, you would not decline, provided I had authority to act. Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that upon an interchange of views, it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a convention of the Kind mentioned. In such event, I am authorised to do whatever the result of the proposed interview may render necessary or advisable. Should you accede to this proposition, I would suggest that, if agreeable to you, we meet at the place selected by Generals Ord and Longstreet for their interview, at 11 A M on Monday next.
So matters were now up to Grant. He quickly set aside the idea that his wife would trade pleasantries with Mrs. Longstreet, telling Julia: “It is simply absurd. The men have fought this war and the men will finish it.” Nor was he nearly so eager to embark on such negotiations himself without first checking with his boss. He did so on March 3, wiring Stanton:
Gen. Ord met Gen. Longstreet a few days since at the request of the latter to arrange for the exchange of Citizen prisoners and prisoners of War improperly captured. He had my authority to do so and to arrange definitely for such as were confined in his Dept. Arrangements for all others to be submitted for approval. A general conversation ensued on the subject of the War and has induced the above letter. I have not returned any reply but promised to do so at 12 m to-morrow. I respectfully request this to be laid before the President and for his instructions.
Lincoln and Stanton received the message late that evening, the last night of Lincoln’s first term. After some discussion, Lincoln dictated the following response, which went out under Stanton’s name.
The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with Gen Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Lees army, or on solely minor and purely military matters He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question: such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions—mean time you are to press to the utmost, your military advantages
Unable to leave well enough alone, Stanton added his own observations.
I send you a telegram written by the President himself in answer to yours of this evening which I have signed by his order. I will add that General Ords conduct conduct in holding intercourse with General Longstreet upon political questions not committed to his charge is not approved. The same thing was done in one instance by Major Key when the army was commanded by General McClellan and he was sent to meet Howell Cobb on the subject of exchanges and it was in that instance as in this disapproved. You will please in future instruct officers appointed to meet rebel officers to confine themselves to the matters specially committed to them.
Thus instructed, Grant wrote Lee on March 4.
Your two letters of the 2nd inst. were received yesterday. In regard to any apprehended misunderstanding in reference to the exchange of political prisoners, I think there need be none. Gen Ord and Gen Longstreet have probably misunderstood what I said to the former on the subject. Or I may have failed to make myself understood possibly. A few days before the interview between Gen Longstreet and Ord I had received a dispatch from Gen Hoffman, Com.ry. Gen. of Prisoners, stating in substance that all Prisoners of War, who were or had been in close confinement, or irons, whether under charges or sentence, had been ordered to City Point for exchange. I forwarded the substance of that dispatch to Lieut Col Mulford Asst. Agt. of Exchange, and presumed it probable that he had communicated it to Col Ro. Ould. A day or two after, an offender, who was neither a prisoner of War, nor a political prisoner, was executed, after a fair and impartial trial, and in accordance with the laws of War, and the usage of civilized Nations. It was in explanation of this class of cases, I told Gen Ord to speak to Gen Longstreet. Reference to my letter of Feby. 16th will show my understanding on the subject of releasing political or citizen prisoners— In regard to meeting you on the 6th inst. I would state, that I have no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed. Such authority is vested in the President of the United States alone. Gen Ord, could only have meant that I would not refuse an interview on any subject on which I have a right to act, which of course, would be such as are purely of a military character, and on the subject of exchanges which has been entrusted to me.
Grant was miffed by the tone of Stanton’s missives, as his reply indicated.
Your dispatch of 12 p. m. the 3d received. I have written a letter to Gen. Lee Copy of which will be sent to you by to-morrows Mail. I can assure you that no act of the enemy will prevent me pressing all advantages gained to the utmost of my ability. Neither will I under any circumstances exceed my authority or in any way compromise embarrass the Govt. It was because I had no right to meet Gen. Lee on the subject proposed by him that I refered the matter for instructions. Peace must Come some day and I would regard it just as wrong to I would regard it as wrong to receive such reject such communications without refering them.
Stanton eased up, saying that he trusted Grant’s judgment.
Appomattox was just over five weeks away. Yet this exchange shows that a solid possibility for peace came sooner, but was rejected by Lincoln on the eve of his second inaugural address … a document often cited as outlining the sort of peace Lincoln wanted. And yet the president gave Grant no other instructions at this time. Nor did he given him any written instructions later that month when he came to headquarters, although Grant doubtless learned of his intentions in conversation. Yet on April 9 Grant had no specific instructions; and on the following day Lee would refer to this exchange, suggesting that the war could have come to an end in March.
What do you make of this opportunity not explored?
[The texts of these letters was taken from those provided here.]