Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/April/The Peace Commission of 1865

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The Peace Commission of 1865.

By Hon. R. M. T. Hunter.

[We have already published in the Southern Magazine a paper from Judge Campbell on the Hampton Roads Conference. The following, from the pen of the distinguished Vice-President of our Society, has recently appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly Times as one of their series of "chapters of unwritten history," but our readers will thank us for reproducing it.]

At the beginning of the year 1865, the country had become much exhausted by the exertions and ravages of the war. Scarce a household but had lost some member of its family in the bloody conflicts of the war, to whose chances parents had hitherto consigned the lives of their children without doubt or hesitation. In General Lee's skill and patriotism universal confidence was reposed, and, among many disposed by nature to be sanguine, hopes of final success were still entertained. But among the considerate, and those who had staked and lost both family and fortune in the war, feelings of despondency were beginning to prevail. Particularly was this the case among the older class of legislators. The vacant ranks in our armies were no longer promptly filled, as at the commencement of the war, and an exhibit of our resources, made by Judge Campbell, our Assistant Secretary of War, to General Lee, exhibited only a beggarly account of empty regiments. Propositions to call out boys of not more than sixteen years of age, and to place negroes in the army, were already being discussed. The prospects of success from such expedients were regarded as poor, indeed. The chances for the fall of Fort Fisher seemed imminent, as well as that of the complete closure of the ports through which we had been bringing into the Confederacy food, clothing and munitions of war. These dangers, beginning to be visible, were producing a most depressing effect on our Confederate Congress. When these sources of supply should be cut off, where then would be our resources to prolong the contest? The talk, too, for peace began to be more earnest and open than it had been hitherto. Influential politicians on the other side, formerly of great weight in the party contests of the country, and still bound to leading men of the Confederacy by old associations, were openly exerting themselves for peace, and appealing to men who used to act with and confide in them to unite with and work with them to procure a peace. F. P. Blair, an old Democratic leader during the time of General Jackson's election to the Presidency and his administration, and, indeed, through the whole period succeeding it up to the election of President Lincoln, adhered to the Government party, and labored earnestly for its success. Finding that things were going much further than he had anticipated, and becoming alarmed for the consequences, he interposed earnestly in the cause of peace and procured the opportunity to visit Richmond, where he saw many old friends and party associates. Here his representations were not without effect upon his old Confederates who for so long had been in the habit of taking counsel with him on public affairs. He said what seemed to many of us to have much truth, that the disparity of resources was so great in favor of the Federals as would make a much further resistance on the part of the Confederacy impracticable. The United States, he said, if necessary for their purpose, could empty the population of Europe upon the Southern coasts by the offer of the lands of the dispossessed Southern landholders, and they would come in such number that any attempt at resistance would be hopeless. If the resistance, too, were protracted much further, such a temper would be exerted among the adherents of the Government that they would not object to the exchange, but be quite willing for it. Believing this to be the disposition of our opponents, and that a real danger was to be apprehended from a continuance of the war, my own attention was now more seriously directed to peace than heretofore. It turned the thoughts of many Confederates toward peace more seriously than ever before since the commencement of the war. But the very fact of the existence of such disposition on the part of the United States Government, showed how small were the chances for a peaceful and friendly settlement of existing differences between the parties.

THE PEACE COMMISSION APPOINTED.

The talk about peace became so earnest and frequent in the capital of the Confederacy, and the indications of a desire for it among many members of the Confederacy became so plain and obvious, that President Davis and his friends began to feel that it was expedient that the Confederate Government should show some desire for peace on fair terms. To show no sense of responsibility for the terrible conflict then waging, and no desire for peace on any terms, would injure the Confederate Government in the eyes of its own people. The intrinsic difficulties in the way of a fair accommodation were scarcely appreciated, and the desire for change so universal in the human heart was manifest. Many were alarmed at the talk of conscribing negroes, and mothers, who had shrunk from nothing heretofore, were beginning to flinch at the prospect of seeing their boys of sixteen years of age, or under, exposed to the horrors and hardships such as would then be incurred in military service. Accordingly, the President, in January, 1865, determined to appoint three Commissioners and proposed a conference between them and others to be appointed by the United States Government, on the subject of peace, at some place to be agreed upon between the Governments. The persons appointed were A. H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederate States, Judge John A. Campbell, Assistant Secretary of War, and R. M. T. Hunter, Confederate Senator from the State of Virginia. These were expected to meet President Lincoln and Secretary Seward at Old Point, and prepare for the conference. General Lee was directed to pass the Commissioners through his lines to City Point, from which place it was supposed that General Grant would transfer them to the place of meeting at Old Point. Instructions were delivered to them directing, among other things, that they were to treat on the basis of "two countries," thus precluding any idea of reunion, a provision which subsequently gave rise to difficulties in arranging the meeting, and it was rumored that Mr. Benjamin, Secretary of State, foreseeing this, had endeavored in vain to have it stricken out. We were dispatched at once to Petersburg, and it having gotten out that a Commission of Peace was on its way to Norfolk, we were received everywhere along the line with marks of great interest and curiosity. Of course we did nothing voluntarily to create expectations; and seeing no prospect of negotiating for a settlement of the difficulties between the parties, under our instructions, we did nothing so well calculated to exasperate the difference, as would have been the case had false hopes of peace, wantonly created, been unexpectedly disappointed. But we were not insensible to the manifestations of interest in the question in Petersburg, or that Judge Joynes, on taking leave of us said, as he shook hands, that if we returned with any fair hope of peace, we would be thanked by every man, woman and child in the city.

PASSING THROUGH THE LINES.

When we reached Petersburg an intense state of excitement was soon raised in regard to the Commission. This excitement was increased by unexpected delays in passing the Commissioners over the enemy's line. This delay was the cause of some wonder to ourselves, until, in subsequently passing over, we observed the lean state of General Lee's defences, and how poorly our lines were lined with defenders. The ground between the two armies was covered with spent minnie balls, and it was obvious that if no more carnage had ensued it was not for the want of mutual ill-will and attempts between the combatants. A short time brought us to the river, over which we were conducted to the boat which received us, and subsequently conducted us to the place of meeting. Here we were courteously received by General Grant and his officers, and we had abundant means to compare the resources of the respective and opposing lines. Many of the officers in General Grant's lines loudly expressed their desire for peace, wishes which we did not hesitate to reciprocate. Among them was General Meade, who told us he was near being arrested in Chicago at the commencement of the war for expressing such desires, and the opinion that the contest would result like the Kilkenney cat fight; and who now, said he, will say that such an opinion was absurd? Some of us said he had heard the conjecture that General Lee had already fought as many pitched battles as Napoleon in his Italian campaigns. General Meade said he did not doubt but he had, for many of his skirmishes, as they were called, would have ranked as battles in Napoleon's campaigns. The officers were courteous in their comments on their enemies, and many of them seemed mindful of old acquaintanceship and old ties. But soon General Grant began to receive returns to his telegrams from President Lincoln and Mr. Seward. A copy of our instructions was transmitted to President Lincoln, and now commenced our troubles. The President and his secretary answered promptly that they could not negotiate on the basis of two countries. President Lincoln said he could negotiate on no hypothesis but one of reunion. We were bound by positive instructions on our side, and could make no relaxation of those instructions on that head. As these difficulties seemed to increase by the persistency on both sides, all parties were annoyed by the hitch. Not only General Grant's officers, but we ourselves were anxious to know if there was any chance of settlement and on what terms. It was interesting to us to know whether the other party was aware of our real situation, but nothing occurred to satisfy us on that point; and yet with the system of spies and deserters on both parts, and the notoriety of our state of destitution at home, it seemed impossible to suppose that the enemy were not sufficiently aware of our condition to make their knowledge in that particular an important element in the negotiation.

THE DIFFICULTIES IN THE WAY.

As the difficulties of meeting seemed to increase, the impatience of the bystanders to bring the parties together grew very rapidly. One of General Grant's officers assured us that Mrs. Grant had expressed her opinion openly that her husband ought to send us on, and permit no vital difficulties to break up the interview. She said we were known to be good men, and she believed that our intentions were praiseworthy, and she doubted not but that something good would result if we and Mr. Lincoln could be brought together; but that if Mr. Seward were allowed to intervene between us he would break up all prospect of a settlement of the difficulties by his wily tactics. She seemed to have a poor opinion of his purposes or management. She impressed us very favorably by her frankness and good feelings, but somehow the difficulties were removed, and after a delay of about twenty-four hours, steam was gotten up and we were on our way to the place of meeting. We all moved under some excitement; we were all desirous of a fair settlement, and neither expected nor wished unequal advantages or an unfair adjustment. We were no diplomatists, unused in the practices of negotiation; immense events might be in store for us; great possibilities of change ahead of us, and possibly through us seeds might be sown from which new destinies might spring or changes effected which might alter the course of empire itself. We would probably soon know what would be the effect of our own action or how it would result for our country. These were dreary thoughts to any men, but particularly to those who felt the load of a peculiar responsibility for the turn which events might take. We had formed no particular scheme of negotiation, no definite line of policy by which exciting dispositions on both sides might be molded to satisfactory results. Mr. Stephens seemed possessed with the opinion that secession might be recognized as a conservative remedy by the Northern population, as subsequent conversations proved. He made it evident, too, that he believed the Monroe doctrine might be made the cement of union among our populations. He acted on the principle that by a union to drive the French out of Mexico, our people could be reunited at home. The extent to which he carried these opinions was strange indeed. Judge Campbell seemed to repose his hopes on an armistice to be formed by General Grant and General Lee, and certain conditions to be declared between them on which this armistice should exist. The intercourse which would subsist during the armistice, it was thought, would hurry about peace and good feeling and the renewal of old habits of communion, and profitable trade would restore good feeling and the old habits of trade, and bring on old feelings generated by the intercourse dictated by self-interest and old association. It was believed, too, that arrangements brought on by General Grant and General Lee to restore old intercourse would be tolerated, which would be rejected if proposed by any one else.

THE MEETING.

We met Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward aboard the steamer, and soon the conference was commenced by Mr. Stephens, who seemed impressed with the idea that secession was the true conservative remedy for sectional difference, and appeared to be animated by the hope that he could convince the President and Secretary of the truth of this view. Never was hope more mistaken. Although polite, neither countenanced the idea for a moment. He next proposed another subject upon which he seemed to rely with even more confidence. He revived the old Monroe doctrine, and suggested that a reunion might be formed on the basis of uniting to drive the French out of America, and uniting to organize this continent for Americans. This was received with even less favor than I expected. Both expressed their aversion to any occupancy of Mexico by the French, but if they felt any doubt, expressed none as to the capacity of the United States Government to drive the French away. Mr. Blair, while in Richmond, talked of this as a probable basis of reunion. Mr. Lincoln was evidently afraid that he had uttered sentiments for which he could not be responsible, and earnestly disclaimed having authorized his mission—whether this was true I had my doubts then and now. It is impossible but that Mr. Lincoln must have felt anxiety on the subject of peace. If he knew of our destitution he gave no sign of it, but he did not press the peace as I had supposed he would. He distinctly affirmed that he would not treat except on the basis of reunion and the abolition of slavery. Neither Lincoln nor Seward showed any wise or considerate regard for the whole country, or any desire to make the war as little disastrous to the whole country as possible. If they entertained any such desires they made no exhibition. Their whole object seemed to be to force a reunion and an abolition of slavery. If this could be done, they seemed to feel little care for the distress and suffering of the beaten party. Mr. Lincoln, it is true, said that a politician on his side had declared that $400,000,000 ought to be given by way of compensation to the slaveholders, and in this opinion he expressed his concurrence. Upon this Mr. Seward exhibited some impatience and got up to walk across the floor, exclaiming, as he moved, that in his opinion the United States had done enough in expending so much money on the war for the abolition of slavery, and had suffered enough in enduring the losses necessary to "carry on the war." "Ah, Mr. Seward," said Mr. Lincoln, "you may talk so about slavery, if you will; but if it was wrong in the South to hold slaves, it was wrong in the North to carry on the slave trade and sell them to the South (as it is notorious that they did, he might have added), and to have held on to the money thus procured without compensation, if the slaves were to be taken by them again." Mr. Lincoln said, however, that he was not authorized to make such a proposition, nor did he make it. It was evident that both the President and Secretary were afraid of the extreme men of their party. Certain objects were to be secured, and when once obtained it was no consideration with their party whether the sufferings of the conquered party were to be mitigated or any relief was to be afforded. And yet to statesmen and benevolent men, it was obvious that both parties were to be benefited by affording the conquered party some relief for their prostration. The reaction of the sufferings of the South upon the North has been obvious enough for many years. The English Government in its scheme of West India emancipation saw the necessity of some relief to all parts of the country. It ought to have been obvious enough to wise and considerate statesmen that some relief was the policy here, too. But the North, when placed in power, seemed to be insensible to these views, and desired to punish those who had been defeated in the contest. To do this they seemed willing to make their losses irretrievable.

UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER DEMANDED.

The armistice was promptly opposed by the President and Secretary of State. If the only objects were to re-establish the Union and abolish slavery, they were right. If, however, they had any desire for the general good, and to procure relief for parties suffering, as ought to have been felt by men fit to govern such a country and to understand its wants, their views would have been different. We had tried to intimate to General Grant before we reached Old Point, that a settlement generally satisfactory to both sides could be more easily effected through him and General Lee by an armistice than in any other way. The attempt was in vain. Lee had too much principle probably to have yielded to such a suggestion, and if Grant would have suffered no principle to restrain him if he had seen his way clear, he had not the ability to weigh truly his responsibility or to understand his opportunities. Generals who are so often accused and blamed for usurping power often see the best way out of difficulties. Had Caesar or Napoleon been in command of the Union forces there is little doubt but that some settlement would have been made to have relieved us of much of our difficulty. When a general knows what to do he is often more reliable than the politicians in civil war. England, probably, was better managed by Cromwell than would have been done by the general voice of her civilians. Politicians often make more fatal inroads on the bulwarks of national liberty than military commanders. It is doubtful whether a Government formed by the Roman Senate would have been better than Scylla's, and Napoleon's constitutions were probably preferable to what the civilians would have given them. Civil wars often produce emergencies which create new and unexpected wants, and in these I have no doubt but that Napoleon was a more reliable counsellor than Lieges. Complications are sometimes produced by the sword that can only be cut by the sword. In this very case some compensation for the negroes taken away would have been both just and politic. Through a truce or armistice it might have been effected, but otherwise it seems not.

With regard to the Monroe doctrine, out of which I feared some complications might arise, as Blair had seemed to favor it very much, I took occasion to say to Mr. Lincoln that I differed much from Mr. Stephens, and so in my opinion did many of our people, who would be found unwilling to kindle a new war with the French on any such pretence. That for one I laid no such claims to the right of exclusive possession of the American continent for the American people, as had been done by others. That many of us would be found unwilling to have a war upon a mere question of policy rather than of honor or right. That although we would hear and communicate whatever was said to us on this question, we were not instructed to treat upon it. Nor for one was I prepared to do so. I asked him, however, to communicate the terms, if any, upon which he would negotiate with us. He said he could not treat with us with arms in our hands; in rebellion, as it were, against the Government.

THE END OF THE CONFERENCE.

I did not advert to the fact that we were with arms in our hands upon this occasion when we came to treat with him, but I replied this had been often done, especially by Charles I, when at civil war with the British Parliament. He laughed, and said that "Seward could talk with me about Charles I, he only knew that Charles I had lost his head." I said not for that, but because he made no satisfactory settlement at all. But it was of no use to talk with him upon this subject. It was evident that both he and Seward were terribly afraid of their constituents. They would hint at nothing but unconditional submission, although professing to disclaim any such demand. Reunion and submission seemed their sole conditions. Upon the subject of a forfeiture of lands, Mr. Lincoln said it was well known that he was humane and not disposed to exact severe terms. It was then that I expressed myself more freely on the subject of the negotiation and the condition of affairs. It seemed, I said, that nothing was left us but absolute submission both as to rights and property, a wish to impose no unnecessary sacrifice on us as to landed property on the part of one branch of our Government, but no absolute assurance as to this. I might have said it was the expression of an absolute determination not to treat at all, but to demand a submission as absolute as if we were passing through the Candine forks.

Such a rebuke to negotiation after a civil war of half this magnitude in any European nation, probably would have called down the intervention of its neighbors; nor is it probable that the parties to a civil war in any civilized European nation could have met for purposes of adjustment without some plan of relief or amelioration on the part of the stronger in favor of the weaker. Mr. Seward, it is true, disclaimed all demand for unconditional submission. But what else was the demand for reunion and abolition of slavery, without any compensation for negroes or even absolute safety for property proclaimed to have been forfeited?