Grant Cannot Talk Peace with Lee

March 3, 1865 (Friday)


In the last week of February, a strange meeting took place between Union General Edward Ord and Confederate General James Longstreet. Along the lines between Longstreet’s men and the Army of the James, between Petersburg and Richmond, the pickets of both sides had more or less given up on the war and engaged in open trade with each other.

Rather than simply order it to be ceased, Ord wrote to Longstreet and asked if the two of them might not get together to talk about this. They had been friends before the war, and at the very least, it would be an amicable aside. It was decided that they would meet at noon on the New Market Road.

When they met, the talk about the soldiers’ behavior was quickly had, and soon after Ord moved onto his true purpose: peace. He had been thinking much about the failed Hampton Roads peace conference, and came to the conclusion that such matters couldn’t be left up to politicians. They should be held, thought Ord, by officers of each army.

According to Longstreet’s account, Ord said that the Union officers “thought the war had gone on long enough; that we should come together as former comrades and friends and talk a little. He suggested that the work as belligerents should be suspended; that General Grant and General Lee should meet and have a talk; that my wife, who was an old acquaintance and friend of Mrs. Grant in their girlhood days, should go into the Union lines and visit Mrs. Grant with as many Confederate officers as might choose to be with her. Then Mrs. Grant would return the call under escort of Union officers and visit Richmond; that while General Lee and General Grant were arranging for better feeling between the armies, they could be aided by intercourse between the ladies and officers until terms honorable to both sides could be found.”

This idea sat well enough with Longstreet, and he met with both Lee and President Davis of the interview. Both found favor with the plan, and Longstreet even sent for his wife, who was staying now in Lynchburg. The day following, Ord and Longstreet met once again. Ord suggested that Lee come up
with some trivial reason to meet with Grant and when the two were together, he could broaden the subject to peace. Ord, according to Longstreet, even mentioned Lincoln’s willingness to pay compensation for the emancipated slaves.

Julia Grant
Julia Grant

With that, Longstreet wrote to Davis, who then gave his blessing to Lee. “If you think the statements of General Ord render it probably useful that the Conference suggested should be had, you will proceed as you may prefer, and are clothed with all the supplemental authority you may need in the consideration of any proposition for a Military Convention, or the appointment of a Commissioner to enter into such an arrangement as will cause at least temporary suspension of hostilities.”

Lee, it seems, could treat, if possible, for a lasting peace, though no mention was made of a surrender. In turn, on March 2nd, Lee wrote to Grant. He eschewed the idea of coming up with a trivial excise for the two to parlay, and instead went right to the point, suggesting that they meet on the 6th.

“Lieut. Gen. Longstreet has informed me that, in a recent conversation between himself and Maj. Gen. Ord, as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a Military Convention, General Ord stated that if I desired to have an interview with you on the subject, you would not decline, provided I had authority to act.

“Sincerely desirous to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of War, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that, upon an interchange of view, it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a Convention of the kind mentioned.”

When Grant received the note from Lee, he forwarded it to Washington. On this date, the 3rd, Lincoln read it and, with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, came up with a reply.

“The President directs me to say to you,” wrote Stanton to Grant, “that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army, or on some minor, and purely, military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost, your military advantages.”

James Longstreet
James Longstreet

The next day, Grant received the reply, and wrote his own to Lee:

“In regard to meeting you on the 6th instant, I would state that I have no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed. Such authority is vested in the President of the United States alone. General Ord could only have meant that I would not refuse an interview on any subject on which I have a right to act, which, of course, would be such as are purely of a military character, and on the subject of exchanges which has been intrusted to me.”

And so it was not to be.

Many in the South were now seeing the end as near. But if such thoughts were in the mind of Jefferson Davis, he kept them close and to himself. To Confederate congressman Willoughby Newton, Davis wrote: “In spite of the timidity and faithlessness of many who should give tone to the popular feeling and hope to the popular heart, I am satisfied that it is in the power of the good men and true patriots of the country to reanimate the wearied spirit of our people. The incredible sacrifices made by them in the cause will be surpassed by what they are still willing to endure in preference to abject submission, if they are not deserted by their leaders.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p825, 1259, 1264; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant; The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 8; The Papers of Jefferson Davis; The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Isaac Newton Arnold. []


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