‘By the Spectacle of Our Divisions’ – Davis Stamps Out Some States Rights Fires

November 17, 1864 (Thursday)

With William Tecumseh Sherman about to march through Georgia, the state’s senators were understandably concerned. So much were they, that some wrote and signed the “Resolutions on the Subject of Independence and Peace.” While these were not passed, their very existence undermined the entire concept of a united South. Basically, they put forward that it was the individual states, and not the Confederate government, that should sue for peace.


Specifically, they wished that a peace convention would “treat for peace through the medium of a convention of States.” If this idea caught on, Davis and his more-Federal-than-not government would essentially be abandoned.

It was not just Georgia’s senators, but Governor Joseph Brown, as well as Confederate Vice-President, Alexander Stephens. And so, a few senators took it upon themselves to inform their President, who, upon this date, wrote a fairly lengthy rebuttal.

“The immediate and inevitable tendency of such distinct action by each State is to create discordant instead of united counsels,” wrote Davis at the start of his reply, “to suggest to our enemies the possibility of a dissolution of the Confederacy; and to encourage them, by the spectacle of our division, to more determined and united action against us.”

But he dug deeper into why a convention of States, sans the involvement of either federalistic government, could not work. Ever the politician trying to unite a fractured Confederacy, Davis blamed the impossibility upon the common enemy – the North. Should these states meet, it “would be an absolute recognition of the independence of the several States of the Confederacy: would be in a word so complete a concession of the rightfulness of our cause, that the most visionary cannot hope for such an agreement in advance of the meeting of a convention.”

Either that, or the Southern states would be bound to the peace convention’s decision, even before knowing what it might be. This was, Davis contended, “but another form of submission to Northern domination, as we well know that in such a convention we should be outnumbered nearly two to one.”

Davis also countered this idea from the bureaucratic end. If the individual states were to get together to negotiate a peace, it would mean that the “plan then would resolve itself in a scheme that the two governments should negotiate an agreement for the appointment of negotiators to make proposals for a treaty.” To Davis, it seemed “much more prompt and simply to negotiate for peace at once than to negotiate for the appointment of negotiators, who are to meet without power to do anything but make proposals.”

The President also noted that, historically, peace negotiations involving a multitude of parties (in this case, the many states that might attend), are “replete with instances of the interminable difficulties and delays which attend the attempt to negotiate on the great and conflicting interests.”

Looking into the Nation’s own history, Davis brought up the 1783 Treaty of Paris, finally bringing an end to the Revolutionary War. He reminded the Senators that even in that time of “profound peace, when the most cordial brotherhood of sentiment existed, and when a long and bloody war had been brought to a triumphant close, it required two years to assemble a Convention and bring its deliberations to an end, and another year to procure the ratification of their labors.” Now, that the parties concerned were not exactly on the best of terms, how long might this take?

Getting into even more detail, Davis wondered about West Virginia. “Is it supposed that Virginia would enter into a convention with the delegation from what our enemies choose to term the “State” of “West Virginia” and thus recognize an insolent and violent dismemberment of her territory? Or would the United States consent that “West Virginia” should be deprived of her pretensions to equal rights after having formally admitted her a State and allowed her to vote at a Presidential election?”

And what of the states with both a Confederate and Federal government? “Who would send a delegation from Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri?” If members were sent from both factions, the convention would soon be disrupted. If they were sent from neither, “then a number of the States most vitally interested in the result would remain unrepresented, and what value could be attached to the mere recommendations of a body of negotiators under such circumstances?”

Davis had now said his piece. In closing, he simply wrote that “the proposal of separate State action is unwise, impracticable and offers no prospect of good to counterbalance its manifold injurious consequences to the cause of our country.”1

Today's approximate map...
Today’s approximate map…

  1. Sources: Letter from Jefferson Davis to Georgia Senators, November 17, 1864, as found in The Papers of Jefferson Davis: September 1864-May 1865. []


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