Abandonment of Slavery (July 26, 1864)

Horace Greeley (Library of Congress).

Horace Greeley (Library of Congress).

Meade returns to the subject of Horace Greeley’s peace conference at Niagara Falls. The general was essentially conservative. While never as outspoken as George McClellan about not turning the war into one of “servile insurrection,” we can assume Meade agreed with those sentiments. By this time, though, there was no turning back. Lincoln would not (and could not) reverse course on the subject of slavery. Once the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation the North’s war had changed from one to restore the Union to one to restore the Union without slavery.

Lincoln knew perfectly well that the Confederates would reject the terms he offered in the“To Whom It May Concern” letter he sent with Greeley (and had published in northern newspapers). He feared that simply demanding the restoration of the Union might lead to a cease-fire that could ultimately scuttle the Union’s war efforts. But his insistence on the abolition of slavery emboldened his critics. Wrote David Herbert Donald in Lincoln, “The New York Herald announced the publication of the President’s ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letter ‘sealed Lincoln’s fate in the coming Presidential campaign.’ . . . ‘All he has a right to require of the South is submission to the Constitution,’ Democratic editors announced. They were sure that ‘the people of the loyal states will teach him, they will not supply men and treasure to prosecute a war in the interest of the black race.’”

I consider the peace movement in Canada, and the share Horace Greeley had in it, as most significant. The New York Times of the 23d has a most important article on the President’s “To whom it may concern” proclamation, in which it is argued that Mr. Lincoln was right to make the integrity of the Union a sine qua non, but not to make the abandonment of slavery; that this last is a question for discussion and mutual arrangement, and should not be interposed as a bar to peace negotiations.

It is a pity Mr. Lincoln employed the term “abandonment of slavery,” as it implies its immediate abolition or extinction, to which the South will never agree; at least, not until our military successes have been greater than they have hitherto been, or than they now seem likely to be. Whereas had he said the final adjustment of the slavery question, leaving the door open to gradual emancipation, I really believe the South would listen and agree to terms. But when a man like Horace Greeley declares a peace is not so distant or improbable as he had thought, and when a Republican paper, like the Times, asserts the people are yearning for peace, and will not permit the slavery question to interpose towards its negotiations, I think we may conclude we see the beginning of the end. God grant it may be so, and that it will not be long before this terrible war is brought to a close.

The camp is full of rumors of intrigues and reports of all kinds, but I keep myself free from them all, ask no questions, mind my own business, and stand prepared to obey orders and do my duty.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 215-16. Available via Google Books.

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