150 Years Ago This Week: The peace conference

February 1865

The three Confederate peace commissioners appointed on Jan. 28 by President Jefferson Davis: Vice President Alexander Stephens, Robert Hunter and John A. Campbell, received a pass issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 29 to allow them through U.S. military lines to Fortress Monroe, Va.

The same day, Maj. Gen. John Pope, the Union general who had been in command of the short-lived Army of Virginia (formed in Rappahannock County in late June 1862 and sent west to fight Indians after serious Union defeats at the Battle of Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas in August), was assigned to command the new Military Division of the Missouri, consisting of the area of Missouri and Kansas.

On the last day of January, with a tremendous outburst of enthusiasm from the gallery and the floor, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by a two-thirds vote the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. There were 119 in favor, 56 opposed and eight abstentions to send the amendment, long since passed by the Senate, to the states for ratification.

On Feb. 1, Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment, but it would not be until Dec. 18, 1865, that two-thirds of the states had given their approval, and the Thirteenth Amendment became a part of the Constitution. President Lincoln had vigorously backed the measure and had gone to great lengths to see it pass the House, where it had previously failed. The debates had been furious and lengthy.

Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania had declared a view strongly opposed by the Lincoln administration: that the Confederate states could not be “returned” to the Union but had to be admitted as new states. The House vote confirmed that one result of the war was to be the end of slavery.

The same day, the Confederate States Senate approved the appointment of Gen. Robert E. Lee to be General-In-Chief of the Confederate Armies. The measure came too late in the war to be of much effect; Gen. Lee’s primary responsibility was to retain command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Nonetheless, President Davis on Jan. 31 advised Gen. Lee of his attempt to bring Confederate troops from the Trans-Mississippi to defend against the advances of Maj. Gen. William Sherman in South Carolina. The president pointed out to Gen. Lee that the Congress had not adopted his manpower measures, and asked Gen. Lee for his suggestions “in this, our hour of necessity.”

 On Wednesday, Feb. 1, after two weeks of preliminary movements and preparations, Gen. Sherman actively led his troops out of Savannah and into South Carolina. Gen. Sherman deliberately set out to confuse the Confederate resistance about the immediate objective of his troop movements: Charleston, Columbia, or Augusta, Ga.

As Confederate troops of the Army of Tennessee arrived from Mississippi, Lt. Gen. William Hardee, commanding the Southern troops in the immediate area in front of the Union advances, tried to respond to calls for assistance from several directions. The same day, President Davis reluctantly received the resignation of James A. Seddon, the Secretary of War. Seddon had long been the subject of much criticism and controversy; his hands were largely tied by the diminishing fortunes of the war from the Confederate perspective.

Rhode Island and Michigan became the second and third states, on Feb. 2, to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. In Washington, President Lincoln left Washington to travel to Hampton Roads, Va., to meet with the three Confederate peace commissioners. Secretary of State William Seward was already there aboard the steamer River Queen, where the peace talks were held. The Confederates had hoped to meet in Washington but they had been halted at Fort Monroe.

The next day, five men sat in the peace conference: for the Union, Lincoln and Seward; for the Confederacy, Stephens, Hunter and Campbell. After exchanging pleasantries, President Lincoln gave firm understanding that the national authority of the United States must be recognized within the rebellious states before any peace considerations were to be entertained. There was some discussion about the states of the two nations against Mexico and the French intervention in North America; President Lincoln said this could not be entertained as no treaty with the Confederate States by the Union was possible, for in the eyes of the North, the Confederacy was not a country. The peace conference lasted another day, to Saturday, Feb. 4.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.