January 28, 1865 (Saturday)
Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, hadn’t been on the greatest of terms for quite some time now. But this was too large a matter to settle without him. Frances Blair, Sr. had twice been to Richmond in an attempt to find some sort of peace between the two belligerents. Lincoln had agreed to some kind of informal peace conferences, but each sides wanted something different, something quite opposite, from this coming peace.
Davis wanted to “secure peace to the two countries,” while Lincoln wanted to secure “peace to the people of our one common country.” The lack of bloodshed was really the only thing these two ideas of peace shared.
Vice-President Stephens had known that Blair was in Richmond, and assumed that he had come to bring Davis to the table – something Stephens didn’t think was likely to happen. And so it was to his surprise that the President now suddenly wished to see him.
The idea of peace wouldn’t simply wander in out of the bitter cold. It could be achieved, thought Blair as well as Davis, by uniting the two warring armies and invading Mexico, where, when victorious over the French, a new South could be extended. The idea didn’t sound completely ludicris to Stephens, but he was curious whether Lincoln actually supported it. Davis had been assured by Blair that though Lincoln couldn’t officially lend his name to such a venture, he would eventually back it.
And that was pretty much all Stephens needed to know. It was a curious nod in the right direction – something to talk about, a place to begin. He even brandied about the idea that the Union forces might be willing to simply stop fighting the Confederate forces while they (the Union) did the invading of Mexico.
In Lincoln’s letter, given to Blair, he had intimated that “an agent” from Davis or “any other influential person” in the Confederacy would be welcomed. Stephens held that Lincoln and Davis should be the ones to sit down and talk this all out. But Davis immediately dismissed this idea, insisting that Richmond needed to send three peace commissioners – not the President. Davis insisted that it was simply not proper for him to go to Washington, though he was open to meeting with Lincoln in Richmond, something he knew would never happen.
When asked whom Stephens might select, he turned to secrecy. It should be made up “of persons whose absence from the City would not attract public attention.” And so he first selected Assistant Secretary of War, Judge John A. Campbell of Alabama. Campbell had been a United States Supreme Court Justice before the war, and had even been part of the first Peace Commission in Washington prior to the first shots. Playing still upon on Supreme Court justices, Stephens then picked Henry Benning, who was in command of a brigade in Lee’s army. Lastly, he selected Thomas Flournoy of Virginia, “a gentleman of distinguished ability, and well known personally to Mr. Lincoln.”
Davis agreed fully with Stephen and the matter seemed decided. That is, until the Cabinet met and decided that neither Flournoy nor Benning would do. Campbell was fine, but they also wished for Robert Hunter, former speaker of the US House and Senator from Virginia. Just prior to the war, he had suggested different ways the hostile factions might settle things. But he had been expelled from Congress for supporting Virginia’s secession and then became the Confederate Secretary of State. Needless to say, he was well known in Washington. As was their last choice – Alexander Stephens himself.
“I urged and insisted upon the impropriety of myself and Mr. Hunter being on the Commission,” wrote Stephens after the war, “for my absence, as the Presiding Officer of the Senate, would, of course, be noticed, and inquiries would almost certainly be made as to where I was.” This was a dubious reason at best. Stephens had been sickly for years and his absence for long periods of time was hardly even questioned anymore.
Stephens insisted that he not be forced to go. “My efforts to have it changed, however, were of no avail,” he continued. “The President and Cabinet persisted in the selection of the Commissioners, which they had agreed upon; so in this instance… my judgment was yielded to theirs.”
These three Peace Commissioners were to set out from Richmond the next day. They would arrive in Petersburg and haggle a couple of days with Grant over when and where to cross the lines. But things had been set into motion, the Peace Conference was now a thing of certainty.1
- Sources: A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States by Alexander Stephens; Our One Common Country by James Conroy. [↩]