Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Hampton Roads Peace Conference

Francis Blair
As the bloody Civil War raged on into 1865, nearly everyone on both sides longed for peace. There were some who believed that peace could be reached through negotiation, without one side winning a complete victory. One of these was Fancis Preston Blair, a northern politician and journalist who had close personal relations with many in the Confederate government. With Lincoln's permission, he traveled to Richmond in January, 1865 to propose a peace conference. Jefferson Davis was interested, if only to harden the Confederacy's resolve by showing that a negotiated peace was not possible. However, a major issue soon surface. Davis wrote to Lincoln that he was ready to receive a c omission “with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” Lincoln told Blair that he would receive any agent that Jefferson Davis “may informally send to me with a view to securing peace to the people of our one common country.” For Davis, the Confederacy's independence was non-negotiable, but Lincoln would only consider a proposal that resulted in a unified country.

Alexander Stephens
Blair, with help from Grant, was able to smooth over this difference, and a Peace Conference met. It was held on February 3rd, 150 years today, on the Union steamer River Queen off Fort Monroe, Virginia. Representing the Union was Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. From the Confederacy was vice-president Andrew Stephens, who had broken with Davis and pushed for a speedy peace, Senator Robert Hunter of Virginia and John Campbell, former US Supreme Court Justice and Confederate Assistant Secretary of War.

John Campbell
Stephens opened the meeting by discussing the French invasion of Mexico. One of Blair's suggestions was the country could be reunified if the Civil War was halted with an armistice, and north and south united in sending an expedition to repel Napoleon III's invasion of Mexico. Lincoln, however, quickly cut him off, and turned to the question of sovereignty. Would there be one country or two? It was instantly apparent that the conference was useless. As John Campbell wrote, “We learned in five minutes that [Blair's] assurances to Mr. Davis were a delusion, and that union was the condition of peace.” Neither side would yield upon this crucial point.

The conference continued some time longer, with a discussion of slavery, a proposal from Lincoln to compensate to the south for their slaves, and whether if the southern states immediately surrendered they could reject the 13th Amendment. The one result of the convention was that Lincoln promised to recommend that Grant reopen prisoner exchanges.

The River Queen
The main product of the meeting was propaganda material for both sides. Jefferson Davis could tell the South that he had tried his best to arrange a peace with the North, but they only terms they offered was absolute surrender. The Confederacy's only hope was to fight to the end. Abraham Lincoln could say that the south still remained unwilling to compromise on their independence, and the Yankee troops needed to fight the war to the finishing, reaping the complete fruits of victory with the abolition of slavery.

Lincoln on the River Queen several weeks later


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