January 23, 1865 (Monday)
Francis P. Blair, Sr. was back in Richmond, visiting again with old friends and personally delivering a message to Jefferson Davis, himself a comrade, from President Lincoln. Writing to Blair, but looking directly at Davis, Lincoln had scrawled on the back of a letter:
“You having shown me Mr. Davis’s letter to you of the 12th instant, you may say to him that I have constantly been, am now, and shall continue, ready to receive any agent whom he, or any influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me with a view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.”
His return sparked interest and suspicion, especially from Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. “Blair is back again,” he said to a friend. “What he is doing I do not know but presume the President is endeavoring to negotiate with him for negotiation – that same thing which on 17 Nov. seemed to him so absurd.”
The 17th of November stuck in Stephens mind as it did his crawl as the day the Davis replied to the Georgia legislators who had written to him about peace negotiations between individual states, both North and South, independent of either Federal or Confederal governments. Davis, shot down the idea as pointless.
But Blair was indeed back, arriving the day previous and staying with a friend near downtown. That evening, he took dinner at the Confederate White House, and when it was over, the First Lady made her egress and the two statesmen sat down to business.
Blair handed Davis the note written by Lincoln. He made sure to point out that when Lincoln said “our one common country,” he was specifically countering Davis’ idea “to enter into conference with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” Davis was well aware of Lincoln’s meaning.
There was also the idea proposed by Blair that the two countries set aside their differences and invade Mexico. Blair explained coyly that Lincoln had not specifically rejected it, though it was a stretch to say that the President even entertained it. But it was apparently still on the table in Blair’s mind. This was something upon which they could build.
But it wasn’t the only thing. Blair spun a tale of how Lincoln was embarrassed and coerced by the Radical Republicans “who wished to drive him into harsher measures than he was inclined to adopt.”
“If anything beneficial could be effected,” Blair explained, “it must be done without the intervention of the politicians.” He then proposed that Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant “might enter into an arrangement by which hostilities would be suspended and a way paved for the restoration of peace.”
Davis wasn’t opposed to such an idea and was very willing to trust Lee if such a negotiation were to take place. This wouldn’t, of course, mean that the two countries were at peace (or even that there would be two countries), but it would be the first step toward securing peace between the two, rather than peace for “our one common country.” But Blair didn’t exactly see it that way. Somehow, he was convinced that Davis was now leaning toward the proposal of reunion.
Blair spent a couple more days in the city, and called upon Davis before leaving. He had rethought the Lee-Grant idea and figured that Lincoln really wouldn’t go for it. In fact, he wanted Davis to virtually forget everything he had said and focus only upon Lincoln’s letter. And so it was left for Davis to come up with agents to send north.
Lincoln had sent Blair to Richmond with another mission – to let slip to Davis that there were obvious cracks in the Confederacy – Union men, men who wanted peace, who might wrest power from Richmond. Blair apparently never mentioned any of this, but then, Davis understood this all too well, and hardly needed the reminder.
On a night after meeting with Blair, Davis spoke candidly with Congressman William Rives, a long-time Unionist still in the South. “Despondency and distrust,” said Davis, were all around them. “We are on the eve of an internal revolution.” This, he said, had to be put down, even if that meant sending peace commissioners to meet with Lincoln. The only peace, however, could come to one united nation, not two separate.
In Davis’ mind, at least according to Rives, the South would have to rejoin, but the compromises that would have to be made would ensure them their Constitutional rights. Slavery would not have to be abandoned.
And so Davis had no real choice. The South was too obviously losing the war. They could hold out for a time, but that time was swiftly drawing near. If they lost, he feared the South would be subjugated, made the slaves of even their slaves. And so he decided to send commissioners. This was not, of course, admission of defeat. The war would continue as if the peace conference was never even suggested. But Davis was entertaining the idea of peace through reunion, testing the waters to see if Lincoln was temperate enough for his peculiar sensibilities.1
- Sources: “Memorandum” by Jefferson Davis, written January 12, 1865, as appearing in The Confederate Veteran, Vol. 24; Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Francis P. Blair Sr., Wednesday, January 18, 1865; The Diplomatic History of the Southern Confederacy by James Morton Callahan; Our One Common Country by James B. Conroy. [↩]