January 8, 1864 (Friday)
By this point in the war, things were not going well for the South. Even the pro-secessionist press was admitting that the year previous was “the gloomiest year of our struggle.” Some, like North Carolina’s Governor Zebulon Vance, were actively talking peace.
In a letter written to President Jefferson Davis on December 30, he described the discontent of his state’s citizens. “I have concluded that it will be impossible to remove it,” he wrote, “except by making some effort at negotiation with the enemy.”
He conceded that though the Southern philosophy of wanting “only to be let alone” was sound, it seemed “that for the sake of humanity, without having any weak or improper motives attributed to us, we might, with propriety, constantly tender negotiations.”
For the most part, Vance admitted to wanting this for appearances. It would look good to other countries, he claimed, and the citizens could take some comfort in knowing that their government seemed to care about them. “Though statesmen might regard this as useless,” concluded Vance, “the people will not and I think our cause will be strengthened thereby.”
Perhaps deceiving the people into thinking they were prepared to treat for peace was the proper way to keep them subdued, but Davis saw the bigger picture. On this date, he sent a long and weirdly rambling reply.
For starters, Jefferson claimed that there was never a time when he didn’t want peace. He even recalled the times when the Confederacy attempted to meet with the Lincoln administration to obtain it – though he neglected to recall that the object was peace to form their own government. What Vance was actually writing about was a peace to end the war and return to the Union.
Davis understood what this meant as well: “Have we not just been apprised by that despot [Lincoln] that we can only expect his gracious pardon by emancipating all our slaves, swearing allegiance and obedience to him and his proclamation, and becoming in point of fact the slaves of our own negroes?”
He then challenged the state to remember her heritage. “Can there be in North Carolina one citizen so fallen beneath the dignity of his ancestors as to accept, or to enter into conference on the basis of these terms?” he asked of Vance.
Davis allowed that perhaps there were some Union men in North Carolina, but he asserted that even the “vilest wretch” would never accept such terms as the emancipation of the slaves.
In his letter to Davis, Vance made note that many of the people in his state were tempted by the recent proposition that if ten percent of a seceded state’s population swear a loyalty oath to the Federal government, a new and loyal state government would then be formed. Davis simply could not believe it.
“If we break up our Government, dissolve the Confederacy, disband our armies, emancipate our slaves, take an oath of allegiance binding ourselves to obedience to him and disloyalty to our own States,” Davis paraphrased, “he [Lincoln] proposes to pardon us, and not to plunder us of anything more than the property already stolen from us, and such slaves as still remain.” To this, he argued that Lincoln was simply trying to “sow discord and suspicion” by a promise to “support with his army one-tenth of the people … over the other nine-tenths.” This, he claimed, would “excite them to civil war in furtherance of his ends.”
Davis boldly stated that he would not treat for peace – not on these terms. In fact, the only terms to which he would listen were the same terms as before. The North would stop fighting and let the South become its own country. Slavery would continue as it had before. “To obtain the sole terms to which you or I could listen,” he wrote in conclusion, “this struggle must continue until the enemy is beaten out of his vain confidence in our subjugation. Then, and not till then, will it be possible to treat of peace. Till then, all tender of terms to the enemy will be received as proof that we are ready for submission, and will encourage him in the atrocious warfare which he is now waging.”
Jefferson Davis wasn’t just going to wait it out. He was going to fight until the Union got sick of war and sued for peace. The Confederacy didn’t have to win the war – it merely had to not lose it. And though the fates seemed to be against even this, he was not yet ready to roll over.1
- Sources: Letter from Zebulon Vance to Jefferson Davis, December 30, 1863; Letter from Jefferson Davis to Zebulon Vance, January 8, 1864 – both printed in The Papers of Jefferson Davis: October 1863-August 1864 edited by Lynda Lasswell Crist and Kenneth H. Williams. [↩]