April 21, 1865 (Friday)
It was all going so well for General Sherman. He had convinced Confederate General Joe Johnston to capitulate, and drew up terms for the surrender of the Army of Tennessee. True, many of the objects touched upon in the terms were beyond the reach of the military, but Sherman was certain that Washington would jump at the chance to wrap this whole thing up quick as they pleased.
This was, in part, based upon the idea that Lincoln had allowed for the Virginia legislature to meet and to be considered official. This had been true, though Lincoln reconsidered. Word of this had not reached Sherman prior to the meeting with Johnston, and even on the 20th, Sherman sent newspapers to the Confederate stating that “in Virginia the State authorities are acknowledged and invited to resume their lawful functions.”
On this date, the 21st, Sherman reiterated that sentiment, telling Johnston that he felt “certain we will have no trouble on the score of recognizing existing State governments.” In the terms, he had stated that the people of the states once in rebellion immediately regained “their political rights and franchises, as well as their rights of person and property….” He admitted to Johnston that “lawyers will want us to define more minutely what is meant by the guarantee of rights of person and property,” understanding that such language could certainly “undo the past as to the rights of slaves”.
They planned to meet again, after Johnston found someone adept at Constitutional law, to figure out just what all this meant. It was clearly over Sherman’s head. Being a pragmatic individual, Sherman believed he saw the easiest way:
“I believe if the south would simply and publicly declare what we all feel, that slavery is dead, that you would inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity that would soon efface the ravages of the past four years of war. Negroes would remain in the south, and afford you abundance of cheap labor, which otherwise will be driven away; and it will save the country the senseless discussions which have kept us all in hot water for fifty years.”
Perhaps the more he thought about all of this, the more he understood that he was overstating his authority. He mused to Johnston that “this is no subject of a military convention, yet I am honestly convinced that our simple declaration of a result will be accepted as good law everywhere.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, General Grant had just received Sherman’s terms. “They are of such importance,” he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “that I think immediate action should be taken on them and that I should be done by the President in council with his whole cabinet.” He strongly urged them to meet that night. By 6pm, Stanton was calling at the door of Gideon Welles, and two hours later, the meeting commenced.
“Among the Cabinet and all present there was but one mind on this subject,” recorded Welles in his diary. “The plan was rejected, and Sherman’s arrangement disapproved. Stanton and [Joshuah] Speed were emphatic in their condemnation, though the latter expressed personal friendship for Sherman. General Grant, I was pleased to see, while disapproving what Sherman had done, and decidedly opposed to it, was tender to sensitiveness of his brother officer and abstained from censure. Stanton came charged with specified objections, four in number, counting them off on his fingers. Some of his argument was apt and well, some of it not in good taste nor precisely pertinent. It was decided that General Grant should immediately inform General Sherman that his course was disapproved, and that generals in the field must not take upon themselves to decide on political and civil questions, which belonged to the executive and civil service.”
Grant said little of the meeting in his memoirs: “There seemed to be the greatest consternation, lest Sherman would commit the government to terms which they were not willing to accede to and which he had no right to grant. A message went out directing the troops in the South not to obey General Sherman.”
Stanton reminded Grant of the terms that Lincoln had put forward for the surrender of Lee – that he was not to meet with Lee “unless it be for the capitulation of General Lee’s army or on some minor and purely military matter.” Sherman was to follow these orders, swapping out Lee for Johnston.
Following the Cabinet meeting, Grant put pen to paper, explaining the situation to his old friend, Sherman. Grant knew, from the moment he read Sherman’s terms, that “it could not possibly be approved.” He explained the general feeling at the Cabinet meeting and that of President Johnson. “The result was a disapproval by the President of the basis laid down,” wrote Grant, “a disapproval of the negotiations altogether, except for the surrender of the army commanded by General Johnston.”
Grant reassured Sherman that “the rebels know well the terms on which they can have peace and just when negotiations can commence, namely, when they lay down their arms and submit to the laws of the United States.”
Stanton wished for Grant to send the message to Sherman via the quickest route, and this Grant would do, but would personally accompany the letters, arriving in North Carolina in three day’s time.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 3, p257, 263, 264, 265-266; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Diary by Gideon Welles; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. [↩]