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. []


View all posts by