Three Distinguished Gentlemen (February 1, 1865)

Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy (Library of Congress).

Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy (Library of Congress).

George Meade has just returned to the army after a short leave in Philadelphia His letter back home from February 1 is a very interesting one. In it, he tells his wife about his encounter with three peace commissioners sent by the Confederacy to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. The commissioners were Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president; assistant secretary of war John A. Campbell; and Robert M. T. Hunter, a Confederate senator. Their mission ended in failure because Lincoln stuck to his position that the requirements for peace included reunification of the Union and the abolition of slavery.

Clearly, Meade feels that he should not have spent time talking with the commissioners. I have even read an interview with one historian who says Meade’s actions here were treasonous. I can’t agree with that assessment at all. In his conversations with the rebels, Meade said nothing contrary to Lincoln’s stand that the only want to end the war was for the seceded states to return to the Union and for slavery to end, nor did he offer suggestions for ways in which the commissioners could circumvent Lincoln or suggest negotiating tactics. I think the charge of treason is ludicrous. Perhaps Meade transgressed the bounds of propriety, but he was not doing anything to undermine Lincoln, or to provide “aid and comfort to the enemy.”

In anyone went outside the boundaries, it was Grant. He knew that Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were both wary of meeting with the commissioners, whose instructions including making peace between the “two countries.” “At this point Grant, who was increasingly eager to finish off the war and who was not attuned to the niceties of diplomatic negotiations, intervened,” wrote Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald. “He persuaded the commissioners to delete from their instructions the reference to two separate countries and wired to Washington that he hoped Lincoln would meet with them.”

After Meade’s letter, I include Grant’s view of the delegation.

I reached City Point at twelve o’clock last night, having had a very comfortable journey via Annapolis. We found a good deal of ice in the Chesapeake Bay and considerable in the James River; but to-day has been so mild and pleasant I think the ice will disappear.

From all I can gather, the Secretary’s telegram must have been based on something Ord sent to Washington; for Grant did not return till Monday night, and in ignorance of Mr. Stanton’s telegram, sent me one himself, yesterday morning.

I found on my arrival, last night, that three distinguished gentlemen, Mr. Alexander Stephens (Vice President of the Confederacy), Mr. R. M. T. Hunter (formerly United States Senator from Virginia), and Mr. Campbell, of Alabama (formerly Judge United States Supreme Court), were in our lines, having been passed in by General Grant, on their expressing a wish to go to Washington. After Grant had admitted them, he received a telegram from Washington directing they be retained outside our lines until a messenger despatched from Washington could arrive. They are now awaiting this messenger. They do not profess to be accredited commissioners, but state they are informal agents, desiring to visit the President and ascertain if any measures are practicable for the termination of the war. I called this morning, with General Grant, on them, and remained after General Grant left, and talked very freely with them. I told them very plainly what I thought was the basis on which the people of the North would be glad to have peace, namely, the complete restoration of the Union and such a settlement of the slavery question as should be final, removing it forever as a subject of strife. Mr. Stephens suggested that, if we could stop fighting, the matter might be discussed. I told him promptly that was entirely out of the question; that we could not stop fighting unless it was for good, and that he might be assured any proposals based on a suspension of hostilities would not be received. Mr. Stephens then said they did not consider the slavery question as so formidable a difficulty, but they feared the difficulty would be to obtain such modification of the old Constitution as would protect the States, in case of other questions arising to produce strife. I said if you mean to propose a reorganization and change in our Government, I don’t think you will meet with any success. We are satisfied with our Constitution, and you seem to be, since yours is identically ours, excepting the protection you give to slavery. Mr. Hunter then asked me what we proposed to do with the slaves after freeing them, as it was well known they would not work unless compelled. I replied this was undoubtedly a grave question, but not insurmountable; that they must have labor, and the negroes must have support; between the two necessities I thought some system could be devised accommodating both interests, which would not be so obnoxious as slavery. They then said they thought it a pity this matter could not be left to the generals on each side, and taken out of the hands of politicians. I answered I had no doubt a settlement would be more speedily attained in this way, but I feared there was no chance for this.

We then conversed on general topics. Judge Campbell asked after your family, and Mr. Hunter spoke of Mr. Wise, and said he had brought two letters with him, one of which I herewith enclose.

I judge from my conversation that there is not much chance of peace; I fear we will split on the questions of an armistice and State rights. Still, I hope Mr. Lincoln will receive them and listen to all they have to say, for if it can be shown that their terms are impracticable, the country will be united for the further prosecution of the war. At the same time the selection of three most conservative of Southern men indicates most clearly to my mind an anxiety on the part of Mr. Davis to settle matters if possible. All this I have written you must be confidential, as it would not do to let it be known I had been talking with them, or what I said.

I do most earnestly pray something may result from this movement. When they came within our lines our men cheered loudly, and the soldiers on both sides cried out lustily, “Peace! peace!” This was intended as a compliment, and I believe was so taken by them.

I am sorry I could not stay longer with you, but I don’t believe I should have had any satisfaction, as every report brought in would have a recall telegram.

Here are Grant’s recollections of the peace commission, taken from his memoirs (Vol. II, pp 420-3, available via Google Books):

On the last of January, 1865, peace commissioners from the so-called Confederate States presented themselves on our lines around Petersburg, and were immediately conducted to my headquarters at City Point. They proved to be Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, Judge Campbell, Assistant-Secretary of War, and R. M. T. Hunter, formerly United States Senator and then a member of the Confederate Senate.

It was about dark when they reached my headquarters, and I at once conducted them to the steamer Mary Martin, a Hudson River boat which was very comfortably fitted up for the use of passengers. I at once communicated by telegraph with Washington and informed the Secretary of War and the President of the arrival of these commissioners and that their object was to negotiate terms of peace between the United States and, as they termed it, the Confederate Government. I was instructed to retain them at City Point, until the President, or some one whom he would designate, should come to meet them. They remained several days as guests on board the boat. I saw them quite frequently, though I have no recollection of having had any conversation whatever with them on the subject of their mission. It was something I had nothing to do with, and I therefore did not wish to express any views on the subject. For my own part I never had admitted, and never was ready to admit, that they were the representatives of a government. There had been too great a waste of blood and treasure to concede anything of the kind. As long as they remained there, however, our relations were pleasant and I found them all very agreeable gentlemen. I directed the captain to furnish them with the best the boat afforded, and to administer to their comfort in every way possible. No guard was placed over them and no restriction was put upon their movements; nor was there any pledge asked that they would not abuse the privileges extended to them. They were permitted to leave the boat when they felt like it, and did so, coming up on the bank and visiting me at my headquarters.

I had never met either of these gentlemen before the war, but knew them well by reputation and through their public services, and I had been a particular admirer of Mr. Stephens. I had always supposed that he was a very small man, but when I saw him in the dusk of the evening I was very much surprised to find so large a man as he seemed to be. When he got down on to the boat I found that he was wearing a coarse gray woollen overcoat, a manufacture that had been introduced into the South during the rebellion. The cloth was thicker than anything of the kind I had ever seen, even in Canada. The overcoat extended nearly to his feet, and was so large that it gave him the appearance of being an average-sized man. He took this off when he reached the cabin of the boat, and I was struck with the apparent change in size, in the coat and out of it.

After a few days, about the 2d of February, I received a dispatch from Washington, directing me to send the commissioners to Hampton Roads to meet the President and a member of the cabinet. Mr. Lincoln met them there and had an interview of short duration. It was not a great while after they met that the President visited me at City Point. He spoke of his having met the commissioners, and said he had told them that there would be no use in entering into any negotiations unless they would recognize, first: that the Union as a whole must be forever preserved, and second: that slavery must be abolished. If they were willing to concede these two points, then he was ready to enter into negotiations and was almost willing to hand them a blank sheet of paper with his signature attached for them to fill in the terms upon which they were willing to live with us in the Union and be one people. He always showed a generous and kindly spirit toward the Southern people, and I never heard him abuse an enemy. Some of the cruel things said about President Lincoln, particularly in the North, used to pierce him to the heart; but never in my presence did he evince a revengeful disposition—and I saw a great deal of him at City Point, for he seemed glad to get away from the cares and anxieties of the capital. Right here I might relate an anecdote of Mr. Lincoln. It was on the occasion of his visit to me just after he had talked with the peace commissioners at Hampton Roads. After a little conversation, he asked me if I had seen that overcoat of Stephens’s. I replied that I had. “Well,” said he, “did you see him take it off?” I said yes. “Well,” said he, “didn’t you think it was the biggest shuck and the littlest ear that ever you did see?” Long afterwards I told this story to the Confederate General J. B. Gordon, at the time a member of the Senate. He repeated it to Stephens, and, as I heard afterwards, Stephens laughed immoderately at the simile of Mr. Lincoln.

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. 258-60. Available via Google Books.

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