January 30, 1865 (Monday)
Before the Peace Commissioners selected by Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet – Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John Campbell, and Senator Robert Hunter – could leave Richmond, a letter containing their credentials, their mission, had to be drafted. This was the duty of Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. His letter was based upon the wording in Lincoln’s January 18th letter. That letter, much to Davis’ chagrin, contained the phrase “our one common country.”
Benjamin’s draft read:
“In compliance with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are hereby requested to proceed to Washington City for conference with him upon the subject to which it relates.”
This was really the only thing that Benjamin could do. The “subject,” of course, was to send commissioners “with a view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.” Though Benjamin did not directly address the differing opinions of one country or two, he allowed the commissioners simply to discuss this matter without actually having to agree or even disagree with Lincoln.
However, when Jefferson Davis saw Benjamin’s draft, handed to him by a clerk, he was unhappy. “There is something wrong here,” he insisted. “Mr. Benjamin says in the letter, ‘on the subject.'” He insisted that no subject was actually mentioned in Lincoln’s letter. This was technically true, though everyone knew what Lincoln was talking about. It was a minor quibble.
Unlike Davis’ next issue. “And again, it will never do to ignore the fact that there are two countries instead of one common country. We can’t be too particular on that point.”
With pen in hand, Davis began to slash and edit Benjamin’s piece of diplomacy until it read:
In conformity with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are requested to proceed to Washington City for an informal conference with him upon the, issues involved in the existing war, and for the purpose of securing peace to the two countries.”
When Benjamin saw the changed copy, he was exasperated, but knew he could do nothing. He was also convinced that now the commissioners wouldn’t even be allowed to cross over into Union lines. He argued with Davis that under the original draft, the parties could at least come to the table, but under Davis’, a meeting would never even happen.
Davis apparently believed the “one common country” line came from United States Secretary of State William Seward specifically to derail the meeting. Benjamin didn’t really buy that, but knew Davis would not turn around. The meeting would or would not happen based upon Davis’ refusal to leave out the “two countries” line.
That is not at all to say that Benjamin was interested in reunion. “I believe,” wrote Benjamin after the war, “there was an opportunity for suspending fighting and bloodshed, in which time measures might be taking for restoration of peace, but none of us for a moment dreamed of reconstruction.”
And with that, Vice President Stephens, Judge Campbell, and Senator Hunter – were ushered under a flag of truce to the lines at Petersburg. And as they made their journey, in Washington Lincoln was making final preparations to receive them. Francis Blair had told him that Davis fully accepted the “one common country” rhetoric, but Lincoln wasn’t convinced.
He also wasn’t comfortable with allowing military commanders to handle these matters, even in the most preliminary of ways. To that end, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent Thomas T. Eckert, decidedly not a military man, south to the Petersburg lines to first meet with the commissioners. Eckert had been honored with the rank of Major, but spent most of his time in the telegraph office.
In Petersburg, the Peace Commissioners were not convinced that Davis’ letter specifying “two countries” would even get them across the lines. And so they drafted a new one address to General Grant.
“Sir: We desire to pass your lines under safe conduct and to proceed to Washington to hold a conference with President Lincoln upon the subject of the existing war, and with a view of ascertaining upon what terms it may be terminated, in pursuance of the course indicated by him in his letter to Mr. F.P. Blair of January 18, 1865, of which we presume you have a copy; and if not, we wish to see you in person, and to confer with you upon the subject.”
This completely changed everything Davis had wanted – nixing fully the “two countries” rhetoric in favor of Lincoln’s “one common country.” Should Lincoln no longer wish to meet with them, perhaps Grant would. And to that table, they might also bring Lee.
The next day (the 31st), Grant would welcome them as guests at his headquarters on City Point. Lincoln would instruct Grant to make them comfortable, but that they wouldn’t be coming to Washington. Grant also forwarded the Commissioners’ new message, which made Lincoln think that they were coming to the conference under the idea of “one common country.”
At this point, the Commissioners had to be vetted by Eckert. If they passed his test, they would go on to Fortress Monroe to meet with Secretary of State Seward. Lincoln was not yet involved in any meeting, though the Commissioners believed him to be. This would become a sticking point. Though Seward was already on his way, Lincoln remained in Washington to see how the House would vote upon the Thirteenth Amendment – to abolish slavery. With the idea of Confederate Commissioners coming to Washington, the spirit grew uneasy. Lincoln was also staying to quell such squabbles. The vote would take place the following day (the 31st).1
- Rise and Fall by Jefferson Davis; Statesmen of the Lost Cause by Burton Hendrick; Our One Common Country by James B. Conroy; The Record of the Democratic Party, 1860-1865 by the Loyal Publication Society;Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 8. [↩]