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Steven E. Woodworth
The Last Function of Government
Confederate Collapse and Negotiated Peace
The seven men sat around a dining-room table, looking for all the world like so many mourners at a wake. Indeed, Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen Mallory thought he and his six companions made a picture that was "the most solemnly funereal" he had ever seen. The deceased, however, was not a person but an idea. The dream of Confederate nationhood had succumbed to Northern military pressure—and perhaps other factors. It was dead, at any rate; in most minds it had been dead for quite some time.
Yet its specter continued to haunt the minds of one or two members of the meeting. President Jefferson Davis still refused to face what was by now a settled fact. "I think we can whip the enemy yet," he insisted, "if our people will turn out." It was April 11, 1865, and Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy's chief army had surrendered two days earlier. Nevertheless, the president, backed as usual by Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, clung to the increasingly bizarre delusion that the South could still achieve independence. Even Davis himself had to admit in later years that his opinion had been "over-sanguine." The fact was that the organized Confederate government could no longer extort even minor concessions from its foe. It would endure such conditions of peace as its now completely victorious conqueror saw fit to impose.
As the Confederate cabinet, joined by its two top remaining generals, brooded heavily through its last meeting, it was the military men who hammered home to Davis the reality of the situation. While the president stared down at a scrap of paper he held in his lap, absently folding, unfolding, and refolding it ,with nervous hands, Gens. Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard stated categorically that the end had come. Further resistance was a practical impossibility. It was wormwood and gall to Davis, and at least one observer thought the generals, both of whom had carried on bitter personal feuds with the president during the war, seemed to take grim pleasure in it. Johnston, the senior of the two and the chief spokesman, later recalled how he had concluded his remarks by urging "that the President should exercise at once the only function of government still in his possession, and open negotiations for peace." In fact, it was too late even for that, and Davis began to see as much. All that would be offered them, he countered, was "a surrender at discretion."
It need not have been so. Extensive opportunity had existed, even after the Confederacy's military options had been exhausted, for working out a negotiated peace that could have secured far better terms for the South. Lincoln was willing to make substantial concessions in exchange for an early end to hostilities, provided only that such a peace encompassed both Union and emancipation. A trail of opportunities—all somehow missed—had led to this council of despair around a dining-room table in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Several times over the past two years, even before hope of victory had vanished, some Southerners had appeared ready to explore the possibilities of a negotiated peace. In June 1863 Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens approached Davis about it. Vicksburg was already besieged and all but lost, and Lee's army was, unbeknownst to Stephens, preparing to move northward for its invasion of Pennsylvania. The vice-president suggested that as a prewar friend and political associate of Abraham Lincoln, he might be well suited to the role of negotiator. The ostensible purpose of his mission would be to discuss the conduct of the war—the exchange of prisoners and Federal actions viewed by Confederates as uncivilized. At least, thus Stephens hoped to be able to sell the idea to the rival presidents, but he had more in mind. In asking Davis's authorization, he went further and requested authority to discuss with Lincoln "any point in relation to the conduct of the war." His goal, he explained, was to bring about a peace agreement based on the "recognition of the sovereignty of the states, and the right of each ... to determine its own destiny." That was an exceedingly ambiguous formula that could have embraced a restored Union, an independent Confederacy, or perhaps something in between. Davis rejected it out of hand, and Lincoln would have too.
Davis did not trust the short, slight, wizened Confederate vice-president, and he had reason not to. Stephens's heart had never been in the Confederate cause. He was a gifted but not quite mentally balanced Georgian whose admirable dedication to civil liberties had unfortunately led him into a fixation with the letter of the law apart from its spirit. In his fevered mind, the law was as drained of substance as his withered body seemed drained of natural vitality. That was all well and good when the game had been a punctilious defense of the rights and liberties of slaveholders and their state governments, but when secession came, Stephens had demurred. Only after the state of Georgia had declared itself out of the Union did he acquiesce. Having declared himself opposed both to the Union and to the rebellion, he chose to go with the majority in his home state.
Much to the detriment of the Confederacy, however, he proved just as adept and enthusiastic in carping about its government as he had been about that of the United States. Quickly he became a thorn in the side of the Davis administration, sulking in Georgia when his duty was in Richmond and roundly denouncing Davis as a would-be tyrant and destroyer of liberty for pursuing necessary war measures.
Not without reason, then, was Davis uneasy about entrusting to Stephens the responsibility of carrying out the delicate negotiations that might lead to a peace settlement. Instead, he determined to send the vice-president north in hopes of meeting with Union officials but with the strictly circumscribed task of dealing only with prisoners of war and related matters. "Your mission is simply one of humanity," he informed Stephens in written instructions issued July 2, "and has no political aspect." Stephens was unwilling to go on those terms, but Davis, perhaps eager to destroy the vice-president's possible effectiveness as a rallying point for any nascent Confederate peace movement, insisted. If the public saw Stephens negotiating and no peace followed, he would be discredited as a peacemaker.
As events fell out, Stephens did not get even that far, at least not during 1863. He traveled down the Virginia peninsula to pass into Federal lines around Fort Monroe, and there his 1863 mission ended. Detained near the front lines while the authorities in Washington decided whether to receive him, Stephens waited in frustration. No one in the Federal capital seemed to believe that Stephens could indeed have come merely to discuss prisoners of war. Lincoln felt a strong personal desire to talk to his old Whig associate Stephens, but though he was usually fairly receptive to suggestions of a negotiated end to the fighting, this time he said no. Vicksburg had by then fallen and Lee's army had retreated in defeat from Gettysburg. The Rebels "will break to pieces," the president told his secretary John Hay, "if we only stand firm now." Lincoln believed it would be foolish at this juncture to enter into negotiations, the bare appearance of which would strengthen the enemy, when an early and complete victory seemed to be in prospect. In short, Confederate stock had momentarily dropped low enough to extinguish the possibility of negotiations for the time being. Even Lincoln would not talk. His cabinet members were still more adamantly opposed, trusting Stephens no more than Davis did. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton both vigorously argued against any meeting with Stephens, and Lincoln had to agree. Stephens returned, and the first halting gesture toward a negotiated peace failed.
The Confederacy, however, did not "break to pieces." Lee's army escaped back into Virginia. The Union army of Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans suffered a severe setback at Chickamauga that fall, and despite Ulysses S. Grant's dramatic victory at Chattanooga in November, it was clear that the war would continue for at least another campaigning season. Both sides had time to reflect further on the prospects of war and peace.
The issue was most pressing for Southerners, who were, after all, losing the war and at the same time suffering the worst of its hardships. Stephens continued to be an unofficial rallying point for those of them who thought the time had come to make a deal. Letters to him from prominent Confederates during the summer and fall of 1863 and into the following winter lamented Davis's intransigence and expressed hope that something might be accomplished in cooperation with "the friends of peace in the North."
Stephens made no public pronouncements but collaborated with his brother Linton as well as Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown to present their ideas of negotiated peace to the Southern people. Both Linton Stephens and Joe Brown were of as doubtful a character as the Confederate vice-president. Linton shared his brother's ideological fixations but was more prone to bitter hatreds. Joe Brown's fixation was his own power. A shameless demagogue, Brown objected to any authority above himself and steadfastly obstructed nearly every effort of Jefferson Davis to prosecute the war in any way that pertained to the state of Georgia.
Both Alexander and Linton Stephens had by this time begun to consider a peace that would be accompanied by a restoration of the Union. Though written correspondence between Brown and the Stephens brothers is scanty and cryptic, probably deliberately so, the governor seems to have agreed with their desires—or at least found it useful to pretend as much. He made plans to call a special session of the Georgia legislature in March 1864, and together he and Alexander Stephens worked on the speech he would send to be read in the assembly urging that after each Confederate victory the Davis administration should offer the North peace on the basis of the "great fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence." At the same time, Linton, probably with the help of his brother, worked on a series of resolutions by which the legislature could express its approval of these same ideas. It might have been a useful means of easing the Southern populace into accepting the idea of peace and reunion.
Quite accidentally, Davis did something that disrupted the whole scheme —or that allowed Brown and the Stephenses to disrupt their own scheme. In February 1864, in an unrelated matter, Davis issued a proclamation suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus throughout the Confederacy For the Georgia leaders any such move was like throwing red meat into a cage full of lions, and they almost forgot their plans for negotiated peace in their eagerness to pounce on this political tidbit. Consequently, when the Georgia legislature actually met on March 10, the long, windy, and intemperate speech read by the clerk on Brown's behalf contained more of complaint about habeas corpus suspension and of general and vituperative condemnation of the Davis administration than it did of peace. The necessarily veiled and oblique references to the possibility of negotiations were overshadowed by the shrill anti-Davis rhetoric and alarmist eries about the fate of liberty. A potential appeal to many Southerners' latent desire for peace and misapprehensions of the outcome of a war to the finish was drowned out in what could—probably accurately—be written off as a partisan political tirade.
Alexander Stephens made his own speech to the legislature six days later, a three-hour address that also focused on rights, liberties, and Stephens's ideas of Richmond's abuses. Linton Stephens duly introduced his resolutions, two sets of them now—the peace resolutions and another set condemning Davis and the suspension of habeas corpus. The latter received the bulk of debate and passed by a narrow margin. The peace resolutions passed with little debate by a wide margin, a sure sign that their blandness had faded to meaninglessness in contrast to the controversial partisan issues. Another chance to begin the discussion of peace negotiations thus passed without awakening a significant response among Confederate statesmen or the Southern people.
In May 1864 military operations began again with Grant's coordinated offensives in East and West. Hopes were high in the North that the war would end soon. By July, however, hope deferred had sickened the hearts of many Northerners. Sherman was stalled outside Atlanta, Grant outside Richmond. Casualty lists were ghastly beyond all the nation's ghastly experience in the previous three years of war. The situation was sufficient to raise doubts about the possibility of a purely military conclusion to the war, and negotiation took on new appeal to many in the North.
Significantly, Lincoln was up for reelection that fall, and the military stalemate made his chances look dim. Many in both North and South saw the opposing Democratic Party as the "peace party"—not without reason. By August, Lincoln himself believed that he would be beaten, and, "unless some great change takes place, badly beaten," and that his successor would have run on a platform that would make it impossible for him to continue the war after the inauguration. The South would win.
One hundred miles to the south, Jefferson Davis in Richmond was sensitive to the same political winds and hastened to spread his sails to them. Perhaps the election could be influenced so as to bring about a victory for those Northerners who favored a negotiated peace that accepted Southern independence. At any rate, the circumstances offered delightful prospects for all sorts of Confederate mischief-making. To that end, Davis launched an operation that unintentionally created the next potential opening for negotiations.
With the approval of Congress, Davis dispatched Clement C. Clay of Alabama and Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, politicians both, to join University of Virginia professor James P. Holcombe at Niagara Falls, Canada, there to pose in some vague way as diplomats while in fact actively aiding "a peace sentiment which it was understood was then active along the Border States, and particularly to give aid to a peace organization known as the `Knights of the Golden Circle,' which flourished in the Northwestern States." Years later Davis asserted that the delegation would have "a view to negotiating with such persons in the North as might be relied upon to aid the attainment of peace," but his handling of the situation makes clear that he intended no good-faith negotiations. Clay and Thompson received no written instructions, and the president's oral directives were "suggestive and informal." In no imaginable case would Davis have sent emissaries with power to treat for peace without including very explicit written instructions. The real purpose of the mission is reflected in another of Davis's postwar statements to the effect that he sent the commissioners "to facilitate such preliminary conditions as might lead to formal negotiations between the two Governments, and they were expected to make judicious use of any political opportunity that might be presented." The "preliminary conditions" Davis had in mind no doubt included the election of a Democratic president. Any "negotiations" the commissioners might do would, in effect, be a sham aimed at discrediting Lincoln to the Northern electorate.
The trio carried out the mission admirably. They cunningly managed to get into contact with a shady character named William C. "Colorado" Jewett, friend to the unstable but influential New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley, and thus, by July 12, with Greeley himself. Next they gave the flighty editor to understand—or allowed him to think—that a fully accredited, authentic Confederate government delegation waited on the north bank of the Niagara, ready to negotiate a peace settlement. That was a master stroke. The excitable Greeley was all but hysterical about the summer's military disappointments and ripe for picking by such slick Confederate operators.
Greeley wrote to Lincoln urging him to pursue negotiations at once. The Northern people, he assured the president, "desire any peace consistent with the national integrity and honor"—whatever that meant—and if Lincoln would only take this opportunity he could dispel the "wide-spread conviction that the Government and its prominent supporters are not anxious for Peace." Of course, it would not do for the public to learn that the Confederacy had sought peace and Lincoln had spurned the offer out of hand. The implication was that the public would be sure to learn just that, if Lincoln did not cooperate, since Greeley would tell them himself, and as his New York Tribune was the most widely read newspaper in the North, he could do it. All this constituted a very astute political trap. The Confederate commissioners had done their work well.
Lincoln was no political neophyte either, and he chose his next move Carefully. Agreeing in principle to the idea of negotiations, he appointed Greeley to be his agent. The newspaperman was to go to Niagara Falls, get whatever Confederates might be lurking there, ready to talk, and bring them to Washington. Specifically, the safe-conduct Greeley was authorized to offer covered "any person anywhere professing to have any proposition of Jefferson Dads in writing for peace, embracing the restoration of the union and abandonment of slavery." Greeley balked. Now his credibility was on the line. Lincoln insisted and, when the editor still proved reluctant, dispatched his secretary, John Hay to take Greeley to Niagara Falls along with a letter, addressed, "To whom it may concern," making explicit Lincoln's offer. "Any proposition," it read, "which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points, and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways." The Confederate emissaries, of course, had no proposition of that sort and, thus compelled to put up or shut up, they had to choose the latter.
In his later years, Davis seems to have become confused about the meaning of all this. The passage of twenty years made the result seem the intention in his mind, and he wrote, "This movement, like all the others which had preceded it, was a failure." It was nothing of the sort, at least not in terms of what it was intended to accomplish. The Confederate emissaries had forced Lincoln into a politically damaging admission that emancipation was one of his essential war aims. Not all Northerners were prepared to fight for that cause, at least not at the expense the 1864 campaign was exacting. Many by this time objected even to the stipulation that Southern acceptance of reunion had to precede negotiation. Being forced to state his terms had cost Lincoln politically.
Holcombe, Clay, and Thompson, like the good politicians they were, went straight to the press and accused Lincoln of deliberately scotching negotiations by naming outrageous and unacceptable preconditions. This, they claimed, showed Northerners the need to rid themselves of Lincoln. The Democratic papers crowed predictably about Lincoln's extremism, and even the precious Greeley, in the pages of his New York Tribune, characterized Lincoln's response as a blunder.
Yet aside from the success of a relatively minor political maneuver, the incident had revealed far broader possibilities. Lincoln could be politically maneuvered into negotiation, and the terms he was prepared to offer were as generous as the South could expect to gain short of complete victory. If the South were indeed, as Davis liked to claim, fighting not for slavery but for "constitutional liberty," the virtual blank check Lincoln offered presented a very plausible way to achieve it within the Union. If for the moment Confederate prospects looked good, any future downturn in its fortunes might heighten the appeal of gaining half a loaf by negotiations rather than none by resistance to the bitter end.
The sham negotiations on the Niagara were not the only tentative moves toward peace that summer. James F. Jacques, a Methodist preacher and now colonel of the Seventy-third Illinois, and James R. Gilmore, a freelance journalist from Massachusetts, two otherwise rather obscure individuals acting entirely on their own, sought permission to pass through the lines and sound out Davis regarding peace. Lincoln gave them no authority but let them go. Through various byways and intermediaries they arrived at last in the office of the Confederate president. The two Northerners came right to the point. They explained that "they had no official character or authority" but believed they had a pretty good idea of the Lincoln administration's position regarding "an adjustment of the differences existing between the North and the South." Perhaps if they could get the two sides talking, something could be worked out. Jacques, Davis recalled, "expressed the ardent desire he felt, in common with the men of their army; for a restoration of peace." The Union soldiers, he assured Davis, "would go home in double-quick time if they could only see peace restored." Gilmore then chimed in with the meat of their proposal. If the Southerners would agree to return to the Union, they believed Lincoln would be willing to grant a complete amnesty to the former Rebels. The issue of slavery could then perhaps be put to a nationwide popular vote, and the majority of white Americans could thus decide its continuance as well as any other problematic issues.
Excerpted from The Collapse of the Confederacy by Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson. Copyright © 2001 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|List of Maps|
|The Last Function of Government: Confederate Collapse and Negotiated Peace||13|
|Learning to Say "Enough": Southern Generals and the Final Weeks of the Confederacy||40|
|Facilitating Defeat: The Union High Command and the Collapse of the Confederacy||80|
|Jefferson Davis and the "Guerrilla Option": A Reexamination||104|
|Despair, Hope, and Delusion: The Collapse of Confederate Morale Reexamined||129|
|Did Confederate Women Lose the War? Deprivation, Destruction, and Despair on the Home Front||168|