The Great Conspiracy

And when these self-constituted Peace-delegates had fulfilled the duty
which their zeal had impelled them to perform, and were taking their
leave of the Rebel chieftain, Jefferson Davis added:

“Say to Mr. Lincoln, from me, that I shall at any time be pleased to
receive proposals for PEACE on the basis of our INDEPENDENCE. It will
be useless to approach me with any other.”

Thus the lines had been definitely and distinctly drawn, on both sides.
The issue of Slavery became admittedly, as between the Government and
the Rebels, a dead one. The great cardinal issue was now clearly seen
and authoritatively admitted to be, “the integrity of the whole Union”
on the one side, and on the other, “Independence of a part of it.”
These precise declarations did great good to the Union Cause in the
North, and not only helped the triumphant re-election of Mr. Lincoln,
but also contributed to weaken the position of the Northern advocates of
Slavery, and to bring about, as we have seen, the extinction of that
inherited National curse, by Constitutional Amendment.

During January, of 1865, Francis P. Blair having been permitted to pass
both the Union and Rebel Army lines, showed to Mr. Lincoln a letter,
written to the former, by Jefferson Davis–and which the latter had
authorized him to read to the President–stating that he had always
been, and was still, ready to send or to receive Commissioners “to enter
into a Conference, with a view to secure Peace to the two Countries.”
On the 18th of that month, purposing to having it shown to Jefferson
Davis, Mr. Lincoln wrote to Mr. Blair a letter in which, after referring
to Mr. Davis, he said: “You may say to him that I have constantly been,
am now, and shall continue, ready to receive any agent whom he, or any
other influential person now resisting the National Authority, may
informally send to me, with the view of securing Peace to the People of
our common Country.” On the 21st of January, Mr. Blair was again in
Richmond; and Mr. Davis had read and retained Mr. Lincoln’s letter to
Blair, who specifically drew the Rebel chieftain’s attention to the fact
that “the part about ‘our common Country’ related to the part of Mr.
Davis’s letter about ‘the two Countries,’ to which Mr. Davis replied
that he so understood it.” Yet subsequently, he sent Messrs. Alexander
H. Stephens, R. M. T. Hunter, and John A. Campbell as Commissioners,
with instructions, (January 28, 1865,) which, after setting forth the
language of Mr. Lincoln’s letter, proceeded strangely enough to say: “In
conformity with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a
copy, you are to proceed to Washington city for informal Conference with
him upon the issues involved in the existing War, and for the purpose of
securing Peace to the two Countries!” The Commissioners themselves
stated in writing that “The substantial object to be obtained by the
informal Conference is, to ascertain upon what terms the existing War
can be terminated honorably. * * * Our earnest desire is, that a just
and honorable Peace may be agreed upon, and we are prepared to receive
or to submit propositions which may, possibly, lead to the attainment of
that end.” In consequence of this peculiarly “mixed” overture, the
President sent Secretary Seward to Fortress Monroe, to informally confer
with the parties, specifically instructing him to “make known to them
that three things are indispensable, to wit:

“1. The restoration of the National Authority throughout all the
States.

“2. No receding, by the Executive of the United States, on the Slavery
question, from the position assumed thereon in the late Annual Message
to Congress, and in preceding documents.

“3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the War and the
disbanding of all forces hostile to the Government.”

Mr. Lincoln also instructed the Secretary to “inform them that all
propositions of theirs, not inconsistent with the above, will be
considered and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality;” to “hear
all they may choose to say, and report it” to him, and not to “assume to
definitely consummate anything.” Subsequently, the President, in
consequence of a dispatch from General Grant to Secretary Stanton,
decided to go himself to Fortress Monroe.

Following is the dispatch:

[In Cipher]

OFFICE UNITED STATES MILITARY TELEGRAPH. WAR DEPARTMENT.

“The following telegram received at Washington, 4.35 A.M., February
2, 1865. From City Point, Va., February 1, 10.30 P.M., 1865

“Now that the interview between Major Eckert, under his written
instructions, and Mr. Stephens and party has ended, I will state
confidentially, but not officially, to become a matter of record,
that I am convinced, upon conversation with Messrs. Stephens and
Hunter, that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to
restore Peace and Union. I have not felt myself at liberty to
express, even, views of my own, or to account for my reticency.
This has placed me in an awkward position, which I could have
avoided by not seeing them in the first instance. I fear now their
going back without any expression from any one in authority will
have a bad influence. At the same time I recognize the
difficulties in the way of receiving these informal Commissioners
at this time, and do not know what to recommend. I am sorry,
however, that Mr. Lincoln cannot have an interview with the two
named in this dispatch, if not all three now within our lines.
Their letter to me was all that the President’s instructions
contemplated to secure their safe conduct, if they had used the
same language to Major Eckert.

“U. S. GRANT,
“Lieutenant General.

“Hon. EDWIN M. STANTON,
“Secretary of War.”

Mr. Stephens is stated by a Georgia paper to have repeated the
following characteristic anecdote of what occurred during the
interview. “The three Southern gentlemen met Mr. Lincoln and Mr.
Seward, and after some preliminary remarks, the subject of Peace
was opened. Mr. Stephens, well aware that one who asks much may
get more than he who confesses to humble wishes at the outset,
urged the claims of his Section with that skill and address for
which the Northern papers have given him credit. Mr. Lincoln,
holding the vantage ground of conscious power, was, however,
perfectly frank, and submitted his views almost in the form of an
argument. * * * Davis had, on this occasion, as on that of Mr.
Stephens’s visit to Washington, made it a condition that no
Conference should be had unless his rank as Commander or President
should first be recognized. Mr. Lincoln declared that the only
ground on which he could rest the justice of War–either with his
own people, or with foreign powers–was that it was not a War for
conquest, for that the States had never been separated from the
Union. Consequently, he could not recognize another Government
inside of the one of which he alone was President; nor admit the
separate Independence of States that were yet a part of the Union.
‘That’ said he ‘would be doing what you have so long asked Europe
to do in vain, and be resigning the only thing the Armies of the
Union have been fighting for.’ Mr. Hunter made a long reply to
this, insisting that the recognition of Davis’s power to make a
Treaty was the first and indispensable step to Peace, and referred
to the correspondence between King Charles I., and his Parliament,
as a trustworthy precedent of a Constitutional ruler treating with
Rebels. Mr. Lincoln’s face then wore that indescribable expression
which generally preceded his hardest hits, and he remarked: ‘Upon
questions of history I must refer you to Mr. Seward, for he is
posted in such things, and I don’t pretend to be bright. My only
distinct recollection of the matter is that Charles lost his head,’
That settled Mr. Hunter for a while.” Arnold’s Lincoln, p. 400.

On the night of February 2nd, Mr. Lincoln reached Hampton Roads, and
joined Secretary Seward on board a steamer anchored off the shore. The
next morning, from another steamer, similarly anchored, Messrs.
Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell were brought aboard the President’s
steamer and a Conference with the President and Secretary of several
hours’ duration was the result. Mr. Lincoln’s own statement of what
transpired was in these words:

“No question of preliminaries to the meeting was then and there made or
mentioned. No other person was present; no papers were exchanged or
produced; and it was, in advance, agreed that the conversation was to be
informal and verbal merely. On our part, the whole substance of the
instructions to the Secretary of State, hereinbefore recited, was stated
and insisted upon, and nothing was said inconsistent therewith; while,
by the other party, it was not said that in any event or on any
condition, they ever would consent to Re-union; and yet they equally
omitted to declare that they never would so consent. They seemed to
desire a postponement of that question, and the adoption of some other
course first, which, as some of them seemed to argue, might or might not
lead to Reunion; but which course, we thought, would amount to an
indefinite postponement. The Conference ended without result.”

In his communication to the Rebel Congress at Richmond, February 6.
1865, Jefferson Davis, after mentioning his appointment of Messrs.
Stephens, Hunter and Campbell, for the purpose stated, proceeded to say:

“I herewith transmit, for the information of Congress, the report of the
eminent citizens above named, showing that the Enemy refused to enter
into negotiations with the Confederate States, or any one of them
separately, or to give to our people any other terms or guarantees than
those which the conqueror may grant, or to permit us to have Peace on
any other basis than our unconditional submission to their rule, coupled
with the acceptance of their recent legislation on the subject of the
relations between the White and Black population of each State.”

On the 5th and 9th of February, public meetings were held at Richmond,
in connection with these Peace negotiations. At the first, Jefferson
Davis made a speech in which the Richmond Dispatch reported him as
emphatically asserting that no conditions of Peace “save the
Independence of the Confederacy could ever receive his sanction. He
doubted not that victory would yet crown our labors, * * * and sooner
than we should ever be united again he would be willing to yield up
everything he had on Earth, and if it were possible would sacrifice a
thousand lives before he would succumb.” Thereupon the meeting of
Rebels passed resolutions “spurning” Mr. Lincoln’s terms “with the
indignation due to so gross an insult;” declared that the circumstances
connected with his offer could only “add to the outrage and stamp it as
a designed and premeditated indignity” offered to them; and invoking
“the aid of Almighty God” to carry out their “resolve to maintain” their
“Liberties and Independence”–to which, said they, “we mutually pledge
our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” So too, at the second
of these meetings, presided over by R. M. T. Hunter, and addressed by
the Rebel Secretary Judah P. Benjamin, resolutions were adopted amid
“wild and long continued cheering,” one of which stated that they would
“never lay down” their “arms until” their “Independence” had “been won,”
while another declared a full confidence in the sufficiency of their
resources to “conduct the War successfully and to that issue,” and
invoked “the People, in the name of the holiest of all causes, to spare
neither their blood nor their treasure in its maintenance and support.”

As during these Peace negotiations, General Grant, by express direction
of President Lincoln, had not changed, hindered, nor delayed, any of his
“Military movements or plans,” so, now that the negotiations had failed,
those Military movements were pressed more strenuously than ever.

[The main object of this Conference on the part of the Rebels was
to secure an immediate truce, or breathing spell, during which they
could get themselves in better condition for continuing the War.
Indeed a portion of Mr. Seward’s letter of Feb. 7, 1865, to Mr.
Adams, our Minister at the Court of St. James, giving him an
account of the Conference with the party of Insurgent
Commissioners, would not alone indicate this, but also that it was
proposed by that “Insurgent party,” that both sides, during the
time they would thus cease to fight one another, might profitably
combine their forces to drive the French invaders out of Mexico and
annex that valuable country. At least, the following passage in
that letter will bear that construction:

“What the Insurgent party seemed chiefly to favor was a
postponement of the question of separation, upon which the War is
waged, and a mutual direction of efforts of the Government, as well
as those of the Insurgents, to some extrinsic policy or scheme for
a season, during which passions might be expected to subside, and
the Armies be reduced, and trade and intercourse between the People
of both Sections resumed. It was suggested by them that through
such postponements we might now have immediate Peace, with some not
very certain prospect of an ultimate satisfactory adjustment of
political relations between this Government, and the States,
Section, or People, now engaged in conflict with it.”

For the whole of this letter see McPherson’s History of the
Rebellion, p. 570.]

Fort Fisher, North Carolina, had already been captured by a combined
Military and Naval attack of the Union forces under General Terry and
Admiral Porter; and Sherman’s Army was now victoriously advancing from
Savannah, Georgia, Northwardly through South Carolina. On the 17th of
February, Columbia, the capital of the latter State, surrendered, and,
the day following, Charleston was evacuated, and its defenses, including
historic Fort Sumter, were once more under that glorious old flag of the
Union which four years before had been driven away, by shot and shell
and flame, amid the frantic exultations of the temporarily successful
armed Conspirators of South Carolina. On the 22nd of February, General
Schofield, who had been sent by Grant with his 23rd Corps, by water, to
form a junction with Terry’s troops about Fort Fisher, and capture
Wilmington, North Carolina, had also accomplished his purpose
successfully.

The Rebel Cause now began to look pretty desperate, even to Rebel eyes.

[Hundreds of Rebels were now deserting from Lee’s Armies about
Richmond, every night, owing partly to despondency. “These
desertions,” wrote Lee, on the 24th February, “have a very bad
effect upon the troops who remain, and give rise to painful
apprehensions.” Another cause was the lack of food and clothing.
Says Badeau (Military History of Ulysses S. Grant, vol. iii., p.
399): “On the 8th of January, Lee wrote to the Rebel Government
that the entire Right Wing of his Army had been in line for three
days and nights, in the most inclement weather of the season.
‘Under these circumstances,’ he said, ‘heightened by assaults and
fire of the Enemy, some of the men had been without meat for three
days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant
clothing. Colonel Cole, chief commissary, reports that he has not
a pound of meat at his disposal. If some change is not made, and
the commissary department reorganized, I apprehend dire results.
The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must
fail under this treatment. Our Cavalry has to be dispersed for
want of forage. Fitz Lee’s and Lomax’s Divisions are scattered
because supplies cannot be transported where their services are
required. I had to bring Fitz Lee’s Division sixty miles Sunday
night, to get them in position. Taking these facts in connection
with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if
calamity befalls us.'” Badeau’s (Grant, vol. iii., p. 401,)]

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