The Fox and the Hedgehog: The Hampton Roads Conference

By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Just east of Petersburg, Virginia – near the rim of “The Crater” on Sunday, January 29, 1865 – a white flag appeared on the Confederate side of the lines. A delegation of commissioners from Jefferson Davis (Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, John A. Campbell, a former U. S. Supreme Court Justice – now assistant secretary of war, and Robert Hunter, president pro tem of the Senate) had arrived to be taken to a meeting with Union representatives to discuss “issues and options for peace.” Hopeful rumors the war was ending soon circulated on both sides of the lines. The ensuing meeting on February 3rd aboard the steamer River Queen became known as the Hampton Roads Conference.

The River Queen

This last hope for some sort of negotiated end to the war was arranged through the friendship of Francis Preston Blair Sr. with Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Blair was an anti-slavery Missouri politician and advisor to presidents back to Andrew Jackson. With a stagecoach version of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Richmond in January, Blair was able to get both presidents to send representatives to try to discuss a way to end hostilities. Since Davis, in his authorizing letter, referred to “two countries” while Lincoln referred to “one country” in his letters, the odds were against any success.

With his reelection and the continuing success of Grant and Sherman as they squeezed whatever life there was left in Lee’s forces between their armies, Lincoln could afford to be magnanimous in agreeing to this conference while Davis, under fire in the South for his handling of the war, needed some political cover to show he was open to other options to end the conflict. Shelby Foote notes that, during the diplomatic exchanges leading to the meeting, Lincoln, the sly political fox, and Davis, the stubborn, prickly hedgehog, “swapped roles.” Lincoln was intransigent and unyielding on his terms for peace while Davis became “politically shifty, and secretive” to hold off disgruntled opponents in the Confederate Congress while not yielding anything.

Ulysses S. Grant

Lincoln had initially sent Secretary of State William Seward to meet with the Stephens’ delegation, but after General Grant sent a letter to Stanton reporting that he “was convinced…intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union” and expressing regret, “that Mr. Lincoln cannot have an interview with the two named in this dispatch, if not all three now within our lines.” Lincoln, encouraged by Grant’s telegram and maybe believing for the first time that there was a chance for some success, sent him these words: “Say to the gentlemen that I will meet them personally…as soon as I can get there.” He then left two hours later, taking only his valet. Although Grant was responsible for Lincoln’s attendance at the conference, he doesn’t speak of his role in doing so in his memoirs – most notably saying of the delegation, for which he was a gracious host, in true Grant fashion, “I never was ready to admit they were representatives of any government.”

The Hampton Roads Conference deserves more attention than it usually gets in the few paragraphs accorded it in most histories if only for the insights it provides into its participants as they tried to find a way, against great odds, to stop the killing. It was a four-hour drama of give and take with argued positions and some humor as only Lincoln could provide in tense situations. By agreement, it was an informal conference with no clerks or secretaries to take any notes so we have only the memory of its participants for the record.

While each side wrote a report on the conference summarizing it for their respective governments, I’ve found the best detailed account of the meeting itself in a two-volume set of books by Alexander Stephens written in 1867 – A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States: Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results. I’ve used several sources for this article but most of its details come from Stephens’ account which also seems to be the prime source for other briefer accounts in other histories. (Unlike Davis – who he seldom even saw – Stephens knew the war was lost and had become known along with others in the South as a “submissionist.”)

The Stephens’ group entered the meeting salon first. Lincoln and Seward then came in greeting the delegation – some as old acquaintances and friends – and being introduced to others. Memories of past associations were shared and various inquiries made about mutual friends – with Stephens reminding Lincoln how they had worked together while congressmen for the election of Zachary Taylor in 1848. (It was also during the re-acquaintance period that Lincoln, remembering Stephens as a small man, first saw him there as a much larger man until Stephens removed his heavy coat prompting the president to remark later to Grant, “Did you ever see such a small ear in such a large shuck.”)

Amenities over, Stephens asked Lincoln: “Well Mr. President, is there no way of putting an end to the present trouble, and bringing about a restoration of the general good feeling then existing between the different states and sections of the country?” Lincoln replied that there was only one way that he knew of and that was for those resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance.

Stephens then explored the plan put forth by Blair, when Blair had met with Davis, which called for an armistice while the two sides somehow joined together to drive the invading French out of Mexico – enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. Lincoln told Stephens that he knew that Blair had certain ideas but that he did not hear of them before Blair’s initial trip to Richmond, telling Stephens as he did, after Blair’s first trip, in a letter to Davis, that his condition for peace was the restoration of the Union.

Stephens asked if a policy could be developed “which would probably lead to a restoration of the Union, without further bloodshed, would it not be advisable to act on it even without the pledge of ultimate restoration being required?” Lincoln replied that the settlement of the existing difficulties was of supreme importance and the only basis on which he would entertain a proposition for a settlement was the recognition and reestablishment of the National Authority throughout the land.

Judge Campbell then asked about conditions for restoration if the South would consent to Lincoln’s terms. The delegation had agreed to ask these questions if the Monroe Doctrine proposal failed although it’s doubtful that Davis would have wanted this line of inquiry pursued. This request led to a discussion of slavery. Seward said that Lincoln could not express himself more clearly or more forcibly than he had in his recent message to Congress – “In presenting the abandonment of armed resistance to the National Authority, on the part of the insurgents as the only indispensable condition to ending the war, I retract nothing heretofore said as to slavery…while I remain in my present position, I shall not attempt to retract or modify the Emancipation Proclamation…”

William H. Seward

Seward then informed the commissioners that Congress had just passed a constitutional amendment banning slavery throughout the country – the whole country – while they were making their way to the meeting. Lincoln added that he still favored some sort of compensation for the loss of slaves if Congress approved. Shelby Foote says this news of the amendment came as “a considerable shock to the delegates but that was mild compared to what followed when Hunter attempted to summarize Lincoln’s terms with a question” – “Mr. President, if we understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we have forfeited our rights and are proper subjects for the hangman. Is that what your words imply? Lincoln answered: “Yes, you have stated the proposition better than I did. That’s about the size of it.” After further discussion and a few Lincoln “tension-easing stories” Hunter was able to conclude that “We shall not be hanged as long as you are president: if we behave ourselves.”

Stephens’ account of the amendment news has Seward making the point that the passing of the amendment was a “war measure” and if the war were to end it would probably not be adopted by enough states to make it a part of the Constitution. By inference, he was suggesting – “end the war and defeat the amendment.” Stephens then asked if the Confederate states would be restored to representation in Congress with Lincoln saying, in his opinion, that they ought to be but that he could not enter into any agreement on this or any subject with “parties in arms against the government.” Hunter suggested to Lincoln that he might follow the precedent of Charles I of England who had negotiated with people in arms against him. Lincoln replied that while Seward was the expert on history, he knew enough history to recall that Charles eventually lost his head.

During the discussion on slavery, Stephens also writes that Lincoln referred to the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure and that he would leave it to the courts to decide its future after the war but that he would “never change or modify the terms of the Proclamation in the slightest particular.” There was some more somewhat legalist discussion on slavery and how it should be ended, according to Stephens, but the result in all scenarios was the same – it would be ended and slavery would be no more in the United States.

Had the delegates strictly followed Davis’ directions the conference would have ended quickly – as soon as Lincoln made it clear there would be no temporary cessation of war for any reason, no “two country” solution and no more slavery. However, as we have seen, the meeting did not end abruptly but continued, in the hope they might yet find some way to achieve an honorable peace. It also seems apparent the southerners knew their cause was lost and began to look ahead to how they and their states might be treated and brought back into a united country. In the end, despite the common good will, Davis had not authorized his delegates to negotiate, while Lincoln would not negotiate with rebel forces. The issues would be settled on the battlefield.

In saying goodbye, Lincoln said to Stephens, “Well Stephens, there has been nothing we could do for our country. Is there anything I can do for you personally.” He first replied “Nothing,” but then said, “Unless you can send me my nephew who has been a prisoner on Johnson’s Island.” (Lincoln also politely promised to have Grant consider an exchange of prisoners and, according to Stephens, to reconsider an armistice saying – as if granting a favor – “I will reconsider it but I do not think my mind will change …”)

George Meade recorded the end of the attempt for peace in a letter to his wife: “Today they (the delegation) returned to Richmond, but what was the result of their visit no one knows. At the present moment, 8 p.m., the artillery on our lines is in full blast, clearly proving at this moment there is no peace.”

Lincoln, upon returning to the White House, had Stephens’ nephew, Lt. John A. Stephens, who was captured at Vicksburg, brought to a meeting with him in Washington where he gave him a pass through Union lines. (He also gave him some pictures of himself saying, “They are a curiosity down your way.”)

Upon their return, the Stephens’ delegation reported to Davis. He thought Lincoln had acted in bad faith. Davis said it was clear that there would be no peace short of “unconditional submission on the part of the people of the Confederacy with an entire change of their social fabric throughout the South.” He would then use this conclusion to promote “the necessity of renewed and desperate efforts for the preservation of themselves and their institutions.” Stephens writes that, “When the program of action, thus indicated by Mr. Davis…was clearly resolved upon, I, then, for the first time, in view of all the surroundings, considered the Cause to be as utterly hopeless.” He then left Richmond after telling Davis he was going home to Georgia to stay, where he eventually welcomed his paroled nephew – the only tangible result of the Hampton Roads Conference.

Books referenced in this article (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States: Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results by Alexander H. Stephens

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote