Davis: ‘We are Reduced to Choosing Whether the Negroes Shall Fight for or Against Us

February 21, 1865 (Tuesday)

The idea of forcing slaves to fight in the Confederate armies was one of the hottest debates in Richmond. The day previous, the House voted to allow slaves to be drafted as soldiers. Now it had to face the Senate and then the President.



Jefferson Davis had already voiced his approval of the measure, though only as an absolute necessity. As things stood now, however, that time had come. At the end of December, the editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser send Davis an editorial supporting this view, something that paper had expounded nice November of 1863.

In it, the editor thought that Richmond should make “a permanent levy or draft of a certain proportion of the slave population.” Since there seemed to be no way to coax the “stragglers, skulkers and absentees” back into the armies, and since, as the paper suggested, the Union had “marshaled 200,000 of our slaves against us,” the slave population, it was proposed, should be tapped.

Davis, in replying, agreed, saying that the article was “a substantial expression of my own views on the subject.” In continuing, he wrote:

“It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantages or disadvantages of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of our enemy.”

There had been for some time talk about the foreign benefits of liberating at least the slaves who took up arms for the South. This, however, was too little and too late. The Mobile paper had reprinted a January article from the London Telegraph which stated that such a new policy was “a sign of desperation.” Davis could hardly have disagreed with that. The drafting of slaves into the Confederate armies, as he said, was only to be done if absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile in Petersburg, Robert E. Lee wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine. In the spring of 1864, Lee was fighting Grant north of the James, backing and retreating toward Richmond. “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to James River,” said Lee. “If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

It had become a siege shortly after, and time was now very much the question. In a confidential message to Secretary of War John Breckinridge, Lee addressed this question and what it might mean for his army.

“In the event of the necessity of abandoning our position on the James River, I shall endeavor to unite the corps of the army about Burkeville (junction of South Side and Danville railroads), so as to retain communication with the north and south as long as practicable, and also with the west. I should think Lynchburg, or some point west, the most advantageous place to which to remove stores from Richmond. This, however, is a most difficult point at this time to decide, and the place may have to be changed by circumstances.”

‘An Instant and Irrepressible Storm of Applause’ – Lincoln’s Report to the Senate

February 10, 1865 (Friday)

Noah Brooks

Noah Brooks

It had been a week since the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, and President Lincoln was ready to submit to Congress his report, which was, in fact, simply Secretary of State William Seward’s report with some other bit pasted in.

Reporter, and friend of Lincoln, Noah Brooks, was in the gallery that day, and wrote later about what he saw:

The reading began in absolute silence. Looking over the hall, one might say that the hundreds seated or standing within the limits of the great room had been suddenly turned to stone. The auditors who strained their attention were not merely interested to know what was the story to be unfolded: they were apparently fascinated by the importance and mysteriousness of the possible out come of this extraordinary incident. It is no exaggeration to say that for a little space at least no man so much as stirred his hand. Even the hurrying pages, who usually bustled about the aisles waiting upon the members, were struck silent and motionless.

The preliminary paragraphs of the message recited the facts relating to F. P. Blair, Sr.’s, two journeys to Richmond, and, without the slightest appearance of argument, cleared the way for the departure of Secretary Seward to meet the commissioners at Fort Monroe. Then came the three indispensable terms given in the instructions to the Secretary, on which alone could any conference looking to peace be held. These were:

1. The restoration of the national authority throughout all the States.

2. No receding, by the Executive of the United States, on the slavery question, from the position
assumed thereon in the late annual message to Congress and in preceding documents.

3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war and the disbanding of all forces hostile to
the government.

When the clerk read the words at the close of the instructions to Seward, ” You will not assume to
definitely consummate anything,” there ran a ripple of mirth throughout the great assembly of congressmen; and the tenseness with which men had listened to the reading was for the first time relaxed, although there had been a subdued rumble of applause when the clerk read in the instructions
to Mr. Blair that the President would be always ready to receive any agent whom Davis, or other
influential person, should send to him with a view of securing peace to the people of “our one common country.” As the reading of the message and documents went on, the change which took place in the moral atmosphere of the hall of the House was obvious.

The appearance of grave intentness passed away, and members smilingly exchanged glances as they began to appreciate Lincoln’s sagacious plan for unmasking the craftiness of the rebel leaders; or they laughed gleefully at the occasional hard hits with which the wise President demolished the pretensions of those whose fine-spun logic he had so ruthlessly swept aside in the now famous interview. Of course the details of that interview were not then spread before the country, but enough was given in the documents submitted by the President to Congress to show the subtle wisdom with which his mission had been conducted and concluded.

When the reading was over, and the name of the writer at the end of the communication was read by the clerk with a certain grandiloquence, there was an instant and irrepressible storm of applause, begun by the members on the floor, and taken up by the people in the gallery. It was instantaneous, involuntary, and irrepressible, and the Speaker only perfunctorily attempted to quell it. It was like a burst of refreshing rain after a long and heartbreaking drought.

Though most, as Brooks stated, greatly favored the President’s side of things, a conservative Democrat from New York then spoke with regret that the President would not allow the separate Northern states to make peace individually with the Southern states. Titles like “conservative” and “radical,” he opined, should be disregarded, and every Unionist be for an armistice.

Thaddeus "Sour Apple Face" Stevens

Thaddeus “Sour Apple Face” Stevens

When the orator was then asked whether he favored such an armistice, he replied: “I am in favor of appealing from guns and bayonets and artillery to reason, to sense, to Christianity, and to civilization.” Adding, “Why, certainly I am in favor of an armistice. Someday or other this war must stop.”

But then, he also believed that driving the French out of Mexico was of “far more importance to us than slavery in the South…. Let not Mexico and Central America be enslaved to free a few Negroes here.”

In response to the Senator from New York, Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican from Pennsylvania, replied with a quote from Jefferson Davis:

“Sooner than we should be united again, I would be willing to yield up everything I have on earth; and if it were possible, I would yield up my life a thousand times rather than succumb.”

Stevens continued, now speaking directly at the New York Senator: “And yet a man calling himself a patriot and an American rises upon this floor and sends forth to the country a denunciation of the President of the United States for not entering into negotiations with men holding these doctrines and entertaining these views. I will apply no epithets to such a man; I do not know that I could use any which would be sufficiently merited.”

Virginia Ratifies the Thirteenth Amendment

February 9, 1865 (Thursday)

On this date in 1865, the state of Virginia ratified the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, outlawing slavery. This might seem strange since Richmond, Virginia was where the Confederates made their capitol. This was, however, not the Confederate government of Virginia helmed by Governor John Letcher, but the “Restored Government of Virginia” headed by Francis Harrison Pierpont, seen by many as the “Father of West Virginia.” But neither was this the West Virginia government, based out of Wheeling.


Governor Pierpont was from what is now Morgantown, West Virginia. When Governor Letcher led the state of Virginia (which, at that time, included all of what would later be known as West Virginia) out of the Union, Pierpont was just coming up in politics. He was an ardent Lincoln supporter and became the provisional Governor of the Restored Government of Virginia in 1861.

At that point, with a few exceptions, it included most of the western counties of old Virginia. They met in Wheeling until 1863, when West Virginia became a state, electing Arthur Boreman as governor, even though it was Pierpont who established it. But this did not put Pierpont out of a job.

The original Restored Government was actually supposed to cover the entier state of old Virginia. When West Virginia was formed, Pierpont, who had been elected Governor of the Restored Government of Virginia, remained governor of Virginia, and was re-elected to that position. The capital was moved from Wheeling to Alexandria, a city that had always been controled by the Federals.

This new Restored Government controled any of the area held by Union troops, which included not only Alexandria, but about ten counties around Norfolk and the coast. Some counties themsevles were divided, sending representatives to both Alexandria and Richmond.

In early 1864, Pierpont called a Constitutional Convention. Among other things, they debated whether to emancipate the slave immediately or gradually, and whether slave owners would be compensated for their loss. Four of the delegates, as well as the Convention President, were slave owners. Yet, all voted to abolish slavery immediately. The lone vote against was cast by a farmer who apparently did not own slaves.

It read: “Slavery or involuntary servitude (except for crime) is hereby abolished and prohibited in the State forever. … The General Assembly shall make no law established slavery or recognizing property in human beings.”

Loyal Virginia’s incredibly small assembly was in session when the United States Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. On February 8, all five of the present State Senators voted in its favor (with one member absent). On this date, the House of Delegates voted the same, nine to two in favor.

Though few counted Virginia’s Unionist government as any more than pretend, they were good enough for Secretary of State William Seward, who marked them down as ratifying the amendment on this date. With that, Virginia joined Illinois, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri, Maine, Kansas, and Massachusetts. Five more states would jump on this wagon before the month was out.1

  1. Sources: Lincoln’s Plan of Reconstruction by Charles McCarthy; Constitution of Virginia, 1864; “Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Encyclopedia Virginia; Statue of Governor Francis Harrison Pierpont published by the United States Congress. []

Davis ‘Preferred to Let the Edifice Fall into Ruins’

February 4, 1865 (Saturday)

The Confederate Peace Commissioners – Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John Campbell, and Senator Robert Hunter – returned to Richmond on this date, and met with President Jefferson Davis in the evening. According to Stephens, Davis thought that Lincoln had “acted in bad faith” concerning the rejection of Francis Blair, Sr.’s plan to invade Mexico.

"The Constitution did not allow him to treat for his own suicide."

“The Constitution did not allow him to treat for his own suicide.”

Davis attributed this to the fall of Fort Fisher, though in truth, Lincoln was never really game for combining the two opposing armies for an invented war. Back when Lincoln was a congressman, he vehemently opposed the Mexican War for many of the same reasons.

Regardless, Stephens told Davis all about the meeting. Though it was technically a failure, Stephens “thought the publicity of the Mission was enough to account for its failure, without attributing it to any bad faith, either on the part of Mr. Blair or Mr. Lincoln.” He also told Davis that Lincoln had agreed to reconsider the idea of an armistice.

So now the Confederacy had to decide their next move. It was clear that Lincoln would accept no peace without Reunification. Davis, by Stephens’ words, held the opinion “that Richmond could still be defended, notwithstanding Sherman had already made considerable progress on this march from Savannah; and that our Cause could still still be successfully maintained….”

Senator Hunter, however, sided more with Davis. A few days later, he would make a speech calling for the South to continue the war, lest they be stripped of their slaves and be made slaves themselves.

But Judge Campbell fully disagreed, telling Davis that both reunion and abolition were inevitable. “When I came from Hampton Roads,” wrote Campbell a few months later, “I recommended the return of our commission or another commission to adjust a peace. I believed that one could be made upon the concession of union and the surrender of slavery, upon suitable arrangements.”

Davis, he continued, seemed to hold “a superstitious dread of any approach to the one important question of settlement by negotiation.” The President apparently stated that, as Campbell related, “the Constitution did not allow him to treat for his own suicide. All that he could do would be to receive resolutions and submit them to the sovereign States; that his personal honor did not permit him to take any steps to make such a settlement as was proposed.”

Campbell so concluded that the peace efforts “failed, principally through Mr. Davis, who had no capacity to control himself to do an irksome, exacting, humiliating, and, in his judgment, dishonoring act, however called for by the necessities of his situation. He preferred to let the edifice fall into ruins, expecting to move off with majesty before the event occurred.”

The Judge was through with the war. If Davis truly understood what was best for the South, he would, in Campbell’s mind, halt the war and humble himself before the Union. There was no way to continue the fight, and no chance at all of victory. Davis’ pride, it now seemed, took precedence over what was actually best for the Southern people.1

  1. Sources: Our One Common Country by James B. Conroy; A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States by Alexander Hamilton Stephens; The Papers of Jefferson Davis; Letter From Judge John A. Campbell, July 20, 1865. []

Failure at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference

February 3, 1865 (Friday)

River Queen

River Queen

The proposed Peace Conference that was to happen in Washington between President Lincoln and three Confederate envoys was, a few days prior, moved instead to Fortress Monroe. There was a bit of consternation, but in the end, all agreed to the terms. Lincoln had arrived the night before, and joined Secretary of State William Seward aboard the River Queen, where the three Southern commissioners would join them the next day.

Seward had known all three before the war – Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John Campbell, and Senator Robert Hunter. Lincoln had even been close with Stephens. For quite some time, there was old stories, laughter and small talk, until Stephens, who led much of the mirth, finally suggested they get down to business.

“Is there no way to put an end to the present troubles and restore the good feelings that existed in those days between the different States and sections of the country?”

Photo of Lincoln, taken February 5th, 1865.

Photo of Lincoln, taken February 5th, 1865.

This was, in its purest form, an informal meeting, but it was also one of secrecy. No official transcript of the gathering was kept, and those written after the war differ greatly in what was discussed. Stephen’s accounting is the most likely to be accurate (at least, it’s the most fully developed and accepted). And so it’s by his word that we most often remember what was said.

To this question, Lincoln replied that the only way that he knew of to end the war was “for those who were resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance. All the trouble came from an armed resistance against the National Authority.”

Stephens then alluded to Francis Blair’s scheme to unite the two armies for an invasion of Mexico. Lincoln caught his drift, and discounted it, saying that the conference was to be about “the restoration of the Union” as one country, and “that no conference was to be held except upon that basis.”

Then came the splitting of hairs. Stephens countered, supposing that if a policy that didn’t explicitly require the restoration of the Union was presented, might it not be accepted if the restoration of the Union would be the likely result? According to Stephens, Lincoln and Seward did not necessarily share this opinion, but conceded that the majority of the Northern public did.

And so Stephens came back again to suggesting that the war be postponed so that Mexico could be invaded – “would it not almost inevitably, lead to a peaceful and harmonious solution of their own difficulties?”

William Seward

William Seward

But Lincoln was incredibly specific. “He could entertain no proposition for ceasing active military operations, which was not based upon an pledge first given, for the ultimate restoration of the Union,” recalled Stephens.

Lincoln reiterated that “the settlement of our existing difficulties was a question now of supreme importance.” The only way that the conflict would end was through “The recognition and re-establishment of the National Authority throughout the land.”

Stephen so concluded:
“These pointed and emphatic responses seemed to put an end to the Conference on the subject contemplated in our Mission, as we had no authority to give any such pledge, even if we had been inclined to do so, nor was it expected that any such would really be required to be given.”

While Stephens took a breath, Judge Campbell spoke, asking just how this settlement for restoration was to be made. If the South agreed to rejoin the Union, was the Lincoln’s plan for this National Authority to be respread throughout the land? Campbell was asking for terms. Of late, Campbell had begun to see reunion as almost inevitable. He understood that the South would be punished, and was now wondering how.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

Though this was possibly the most important question that could be asked, Seward decided that he wanted to hear more about Stephen’s ideas about Mexico. Stephens gladly spoke at length about why Mexico must be invaded and how it would bring about “permanent peace and harmony in all parts of the country.”

In the end, Seward doubted that any “system of Government founded upon them could be successfully worked. The Union could never be restored or maintained on that basis.” He asked some specific questions here and there, but Stephens backed off, explaining that he was merely presenting an outline for how a settlement should be made.” Stephens then too got into specifics, and the conversation on political theory and philosophy grew between him and Seward.

Senator Hunter chose this moment to speak, saying that “there was not unanimity in the South upon the subject,” and that “it was not probable that any arrangement could be made by which the Confederates would agree to join in sending any portion of their Army into Mexico.” Both Stephens and Campbell agreed, and this whole sidebar sputtered out in a fit of pointlessness.

It was Lincoln who brought it back around, explaining again that he “could not entertain a proposition for an Armistice on any terms, while the great and vital question of reunion was indisposed of.” He also went on to detail why this was impossible. As Stephens recalled:

Judge Campbell

Judge Campbell

“He could enter into no treaty, convention or stipulation, or agreement with the Confederate States, jointly or separately, upon that or any other subject, but upon the basis first settled, that the Union was to be restored. Any such agreement, or stipulation, would be a quasi recognition of the States then in arms against the National Government as a separate Power.”

Now improvising, Stephens opined that since Lincoln was the Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, he would enter into a military convention, eschewing politics by focusing upon some agreement between the two warring parties. Lincoln agreed, that he could do that, but repeated his stance about not suspending the war until and unless “it was first agreed that the National Authority was to be re-established throughout the country.”

Campbell then spoke up again, reasking his question that had been ignored. Just how was this restoration supposed to take place?

“By disbanding their [the South’s] armies,” Lincoln replied, “and permitting the National Authorities to resume their functions.”

Seward then reminded them that Lincoln had already addressed this in December when he quickly outlined the terms in a message to Congress. The point there was that Lincoln refused to “return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that [Emancipation] Proclamation, or by any of the Acts of Congress.”

“In stating a single condition of peace, I mean simply to say that the war will cease on the part of the Government whenever it shall have ceased on the part of those who began it.”

Campbell asked about property that had been confiscated for the war. Seward said that all of this would be later determined by the courts, assuring him that Congress would “be liberal in making restitution of confiscated property.” This, of course, did not include human beings.

Stephens turned his questioning to that very subject. If Lincoln would not re-enslave any of the people freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, what about those slaves who were not freed? Would the Proclamation emancipate the entire black population?

That would be a question for the courts, came Lincoln’s reply, according to Stephens. Lincoln apparently allowed that the Proclamation had been a wartime measure and couldn’t legally extend once the war was ended. It would be up to the courts, he concluded, but he refused to change the terms of the Proclamation.

Senator Robert Hunter

Senator Robert Hunter

Seward then thought it only fair to tell the Confederates about the Thirteenth Amendment and how it had passed Congress. Once the states signed on, all slaves would be forever free.

Then, according to Stephen, but thought incredibly dubious by others, Seward was to have suggested that even this amendment was done as a war measure. “If the war were then to cease, it would probably not be adopted by a number of States, sufficient to make it a part of the Constitution.” Seward seemed to be saying that if the South did not end the war now, the amendment would pass and slavery would be ended. This meant that when the North finally won, the South would have no choice by to free their slaves. However, if the South were to capitulate now, there was a good chance that there wouldn’t be enough states supporting the measure and it would never pass, thus allowing the South to continue to own slaves. And so it appeared as if Lincoln and Seward were holding out the hope that if the South rejoined the Union, slavery would not be abolished.

Lincoln then spoke about his his original intentions behind the Emancipation Proclamation. According to Stephens:

“He said it was not his intention in the beginning to interfere with Slavery in the States; that he never would have done it, if he had not been compelled by necessity to do it, to maintain the Union; that the subject presented many difficult and perplexing questions to him; that he had hesitated for some time, and had resorted to this measure, only when driven to it by public necessity; that he had been in favor of the General Government prohibiting the extension of Slavery into the Territories, but did not think that the Government possessed power over the subject in the States, except as a war measure; and that he had always himself been in favor of emancipation, but not immediate emancipation, even by the States.”

Then Lincoln made a bold suggestion, telling Stephens what he would do if he were in his place: “I would go home and get the Governor of the State to call the Legislature together, and get them to recall all the State troops from the war; elect Senators and Members to Congress, and ratify this Constitutional Amendment prospectively, so as to take effect – say in five years. Such a ratification would be valid in my opinion. … Whatever may have been the views of your people before the war, they must be convinced now, that Slavery is doomed. It cannot last long in any event, and the best course, it seems to me, for your public men to pursue, would be to adopt such a policy as will avoid, as far as possible, the evils of immediate emancipation.”


The conversation went on, ranging from political representation, to West Virginia, to the very nature of treason. In the latter, Senator Hunter and Lincoln both became angry.

“What you are saying, Mr. President,” spoke Hunter, “is that we of the South have committed treason, that we have forfeited our rights, and that we are proper subjects for the hangman. Is that what your words imply?”

“Yes,” came Lincoln’s quick reply. “You have stated the proposition better than I did. That is about the size of it.”

Somehow this broke the growing tension, and Hunter let up. “Well, Mr. President, we suppose that would necessarily be your view of our case, but we have about concluded that we will not be hanged as long as you are President – so long as we behave ourselves.”

Lincoln smiled, and would repeat this exchange to others over the next several weeks. He would see to it that the Southerners were not treated as a vanquished foe.

But the meeting was not quite at an end. Lincoln then entertained the idea of compensated emancipation. He apparently told them that the North was just as responsible for slavery as the South (a notion he would further address in his Second Inaugural Address). The North benefited from it and the slave trade “until slavery became a vast, public question, and invited war.”

Seward, however, strongly disagreed with this. “The United States has already paid on that account,” he insisted. Lincoln apparently retorted: “Ah, Mr. Seward, 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 it would be wrong to hold onto that money that the North procured by selling slaves to the South without compensation, if the North took the slaves back again.”

But this was the end of the meeting. Talks had broken down. In the end, Lincoln wanted reunion and Jefferson Davis would not consider it. After four long hours, it was adjourned. Small talk about families and the dome of the Capitol building followed. Soon after, they parted.1

  1. Sources: Our One Common Country by James B. Conroy; A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States by Alexander Hamilton Stephens. []