April 11, 1865 (Tuesday)
Confederate President Jefferson Davis heard of General Lee’s surrender the night previous. He had re-established what was left of the government in Danville, Virginia, some eighty miles to the south of Appomattox.
Almost immediately he began to make plans for another evacuation, fearing now that Federal cavalry would swarm down upon him. Entering Danville as he was about to leave were throngs of refugees, including soldiers wishing not to surrender, but to join in with Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
The night of the 10th, Jefferson and what could be gathered of the government boarded trains for Greensboro, forty-five miles farther south. They arrived in the afternoon of this date. The crowds in Greensboro were not as they had been in Danville and Richmond. These were not dyed in the wool Rebels, but indifferent citizenry weary of war. They cared little to harbor this congress of fugitives.
Regardless, Davis found a makeshift home in a second floor apartment, while the White House was now merely a rail car.
Davis, however, was not broken. “We must redouble our efforts to meet present disasters,” wrote the President to North Carolina’s governor. “An army holding its position with determination to fight on, and manifest ability to maintain the struggle, will attract all the scattered soldiers and daily and rapidly gather strength.”
He desperately wanted to meet with Joe Johnston and Secretary of War John Breckinridge, both of whom would not arrive until the following day. This left P.G.T. Beauregard, who had established his headquarters in a few boxcars near the depot.
Beauregard had little to say to Davis. It was all hopeless, in his view, and the general was stunned that the President did not share his view. Though Davis had heard from reliable scouts and various sources that Lee had surrendered, he had received no official word on the matter and somehow held out hope. If that failed, he said, the fight could always be carried over to the western side of the Mississippi.
In the meanwhile, President Lincoln was back in Washington, fresh from his trip to the fallen Richmond. Business had returned to normal for him and his Cabinet. And though he wanted most to meet with Grant, Lincoln gave a lengthy address to a crowd gathered at his window.
We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart,” he began. “The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.”
But this was not a speech of boasting and victory. The nation must now turn toward reconstruction. This was, he said, “fraught with great difficulty.” It wasn’t like two warring and independent nations. The Confederacy was not a nation. They had lost their rebellion. But in rebellions, there’s no real surrender just as “there is no authorized organ for us to treat with.”
There were many disagreement about what should be done with the states in rebellion, and Lincoln wished to focus upon what these various factions had in common.
We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier, to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these states and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.
Addressing those who wished the South to be ground under the boot heel of the North, Lincoln had this to say: “Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them, we in effect say to the white men ‘You are worthless, or worse—we will neither help you, nor be helped by you.’ To the blacks we say, ‘This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.’ If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black….”
Lincoln even looked to the voting rights of black citizens, asking, “will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?”
The President ended his speech with a hint of what was to come. “In the present ‘situation’ as the phrase goes, it may be my duty to make some new announcement to the people of the South. I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when satisfied that action will be proper.”
This speech, as it turned out, would be his last.1
- Sources: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln Volume 8; P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard; The Long Surrender by Burke Davis. [↩]