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by William H. Benson

February 4, 2010

     Like a chess game, war moves through three distinct phases: a series of opening moves, a middle section, and finally an end game, the point at which one side capitulates to the other. In the dark days of 1942, Winston Churchill said, “This is not the beginning, nor is it the ending, but it is the beginning of the ending.” By the early days of 1865, Lincoln in the North and Jefferson Davis in the South were deep into their end games.

     By then the peace movement in the Confederate States of America was on the rise. If President Davis would have ordered his general Robert E. Lee to lay down his arms, Lee would have obeyed him, and Davis would have faced little political opposition. But, stubborn that he was, he would not admit defeat.

     To capitulate would mean that he would have to face hard questions: What kind of punishment would he and his fellow Southerners face? What will happen to their slave society? How will they hire the labor to work their fields? What will become of their government, their economy, and their theology? Would they have to admit that they were wrong about their slave-based society and their Confederate theology, of which Lincoln had said, “not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.”?

     On February 2, 1865, Lincoln slipped out of the White House, boarded his steamer the River Queen, and sailed south to Hampton Roads, a port in Virginia. There, on February 3, he, with his Secretary of State, William Seward, met the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, and his two commissioners, Robert Hunter and John Campbell, three Confederates who had dared to cross battle lines.

     The historian Carl Sandburg drew a close written portrait of the scene. “Five astute men of politics and law talked four hours in a steamboat saloon. What went on in the minds of the five men, the tangled cross-purposes underlying the words of their mouths, no onlooker could have caught and reported.”

     Stephens opened with a question to Lincoln: “Mr. President, is there no way of putting an end to the present trouble?” Lincoln carefully answered with his three requirements to end this Civil War: the restoration of national authority throughout all the states, no negotiation on the banishment of slavery, and a cessation of all hostilities.

     Seward then dropped a bombshell when he explained to the three Southerners that Congress on January 31 had passed the 13th Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation that outlawed slavery. The news visibly rattled the three commissioners.

     Hunter voiced the concern that all Southerners felt: “if the South should consent to peace on the basis of the Emancipation Proclamation, it would precipitate the entire Southern society into irremediable ruin. No work would be done, nothing would be cultivated, and both blacks and whites would starve!”

     Lincoln tried to allay their fears by telling a story of a farmer with the chore of feeding pigs one winter, a rustic story that seemed to have little relationship to the issue, but then Lincoln underscored the moral. “And so in the dire contingency you name, whites and black alike will have to look out for themselves; and I have an abiding faith that they will go about it in a fashion that will [please] you in a very agreeable way.”

     And yet Lincoln, tender he may have been personally, was determined to vanquish the rebellion and the rebels. Hunter finally summarized Lincoln’s arguments, “Mr. President, if we understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government; that we have forfeited our rights, and are proper subjects for the hangman. Is not that about what your words imply?”

     “Yes,” said Lincoln. “You have stated the proposition better than I did.”

     Seward indicated though that to lay down their arms would not result in degradation or in humiliation, but that with peace, the Southern people would again be under the Constitution “with all their rights secured thereby.”

     Lincoln finally challenged Stephens to go back to his native Georgia and convince his fellow citizens in Georgia to withdraw their troops, end the war, and rejoin the Union. “Whatever may have been the views of your people before the war, they must be convinced now, that Slavery is doomed.”

     The Hampton Roads peace conference yielded nothing, as Lincoln had correctly suspected. The war continued for another two and a half months, and it ended very badly for the Southerners, a demoralized and beaten people, not what Lincoln had intended.


     February is Black History Month, the month of Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, and also that of Frederick Douglass’s, February 14, and the Hampton Roads peace conference, historians now consider, as just another missed opportunity to end a war.