Lincoln: Let them Surrender and Go Home

March 28, 1865 (Tuesday)

River Queen
River Queen

Gathered in the steamer River Queen were President Lincoln, Generals Grant and Sherman, as well as Admiral Porter. This council of war permitted no onlookers, though all but Lincoln wrote of the meeting after the war. Admiral Porter may have been the only one to take notes.

The conversation, according to Sherman, was begun by Grant, who explained the more local military situation around Petersburg. Philip Sheridan and his mass of cavalry, said Grant, were about to fall upon the Southside and Danville Railroads – Lee’s life line. Grant was concerned that Lee would abandon Petersburg before the Federal army had a chance to fully pen them in. By Porter’s words, those fears were voiced first by Lincoln.

Sherman reassured Lincoln, reminding him that “Goldsboro’ was strong enough to fight Lee’s army and Johnston’s combined, provided that General Grant could come up within a day or so ; that if Lee would only remain in Richmond another fortnight, [Sherman] could march up to Burkesville, when Lee would have to starve inside of his lines, or come out from his intrenchments and fight us on equal terms.”

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Porter wrote that this “somewhat reassured” Lincoln, who then went on to ask a “number of shrewd questions” that were often “difficult to answer.” Porter was surprised by Lincoln’s topographical knowledge of Sherman’s route, as well as many other military affairs that a civilian president might not otherwise understand.

“Both General Grant and myself supposed that one or the other of us would have to fight one more bloody battle,” wrote Sherman, “and that it would be the last.”

Lincoln, according to both Sherman and Porter, expressed his hope that such a battle could be avoided, but ultimately understood what was coming. The President was well aware that Lee would soon abandon his defenses and that Richmond would then be in Federal hands. It seemed as if Lincoln hoped that the capture of Richmond would force the Rebels to finally capitulate.

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“Let them surrender and go home,” Porter noted Lincoln as saying, “they will not take up arms again. Let them all go, officers and all, let them have their horses to plow with, and, if you like, their guns to shoot crows with. Treat them liberally. We want these people to return to their allegiance and submit to the laws. Therefore, I say, give them the most liberal and honorable terms.”

Sherman recalled a slightly different take on this part of the conversation.

“During this interview I inquired of the President if he was all ready for the end of the war. What was to be done with the rebel armies when defeated? And what should be done with the political leaders, such as Jeff. Davis, etc? Should we allow them to escape, etc? He said he was all ready; all he wanted of us was to defeat the opposing armies, and to get the men composing the Confederate’ armies back to their homes, at work on their farms and in their shops. As to Jeff Davis, he was hardly at liberty to speak his mind fully, but intimated that he ought to clear out, ‘escape the country,’ only it would not do for him to say so openly.

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“As usual, he illustrated his meaning by a story: A man once had taken the total-abstinence pledge. When visiting a friend, he was invited to take a drink, but declined, on the score of his pledge; when his friend suggested lemonade, which was accepted. In preparing the lemonade, the friend pointed to the brandy-bottle, and said the lemonade would be more palatable if he were to pour in a little brandy; when his guest said, if he could do so ‘unbeknown’ to him, he would not object. From which illustration I inferred that Mr. Lincoln wanted Davis to escape, ‘unbeknown’ to him.”

Admiral Porter relates much of the back and forth of the conversation, with Sherman assuring Lincoln that if he had but two weeks, he could refit his army and compel Johnston’s surrender. Of this, Lincoln had doubts, figuring that in that fortnight, Johnston will simply “have gone south with those veterans of his, and will keep the war going indefinitely.” Lincoln, according to Porter, told Sherman to “be easy with him [Johnston] about terms.”

He suggested to “offer General Johnston the same terms that will be offered Lee,” reasoning that it didn’t matter how the Confederates laid down their arms, just so that they did. Sherman agreed to carry out Lincoln’s wishes “to the best of my ability,” and figured that when Lee surrendered, Johnston would follow suit.

“My opinion is,” wrote Porter in his notes, “that Mr. Lincoln came down to City Point with the most liberal views toward the rebels. He felt confident that we would be successful, and was willing that the enemy should capitulate on the most favorable terms.”

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“I know, when I left him,” Sherman penned in his memoirs, “that I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature, his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people, resulting from the war, and by the march of hostile armies through the South; and that his earnest desire seemed to be to end the war speedily, without more bloodshed or devastation, and to restore all the men of both sections to their homes.”

The following day, Sherman would start back to his command, and Grant would begin his final push.1

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  1. Sources: Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Naval History of the Civil War
    by David Dixon Porter. []

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