Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from Jim Conroy’s new book Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865. Jim was kind enough to share a short excerpt, and he sets the scene below.
On January 29, 1865, Jefferson Davis sent three senior officers of the Confederate government to Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward to negotiate an end to the war. The peace delegation’s leader, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Davis’s eccentric Vice President and one of his sharpest critics, had been Lincoln’s friend and ally in a movement against the Mexican War in 1848. The distinguished Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia and the Confederate Assistant Secretary of War, John A. Campbell of Alabama, a brilliant former Justice of the United States Supreme Court, had worked hard with Seward to avert the war in 1860-61. With the unlikely connivance of Ulysses S. Grant, they were coming together now in search of a way out.
Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865, by James B. Conroy, the only book ever written on its subject, has been recently released to high critical praise. (See www.jamesbconroy.com for a synopsis, reviews, and links to online purchases). The following excerpt describes the arrival of the Southern peace commission at the Petersburg, Virginia siege line on their way across no man’s land to meet with Lincoln and Seward. Their military aide appeared with a flag of truce at a Rebel fortification. The Confederate War Department called it Fort Mahone. Its residents called it Fort Damnation.
On Sunday, January 29, 1865, a Rebel flag of truce appeared in front of Fort Damnation, and the neighborhood mood improved. A sergeant of the 8th Michigan reported the enemy overture to Captain Thomas Parker of the 51st Pennsylvania, a bright young man with a walrus mustache, commanding the local picket line. Parker climbed up on a parapet to take a look for himself.
On both sides of no-man’s-land, hundreds of men and boys were doing the same, with a keener intensity than usual. For the past several weeks, Northern and Southern newspapers had been full of rumors of peace, deplored by most editorialists (none of them under fire) as a Yankee trick, or a Rebel play for time, or a craven substitute for victory. The pundits on the siege line were decidedly more bullish. Southern pickets had been shouting peaceful forecasts to their Yankee interlocutors. “This Rebellion is played out.” “There will be glorious news within ten days.”
Having reported the flag of truce, Captain Parker shed his sword, walked out to the middle of no-man’s-land with his own white flag, and saluted Lieutenant Colonel William Hatch, a handsome young Kentuckian. After “passing the compliments of the day,” Hatch requested an audience with no less a figure than General Grant’s Chief of Staff. Three Southern dignitaries had just arrived from Richmond, he said, to meet with President Lincoln for the purpose of ending the war. The general was expecting them. They would wait for his pass in Petersburg, and hoped to reach his headquarters that night. Stunned, no doubt, to hear it, Parker promised a quick reply, the officers returned to their lines, and a Northern lieutenant colonel came out to speak with Hatch.
Rumor was on the wing on the overlooking parapets. From the moment the flag of truce appeared, Parker said, “the enemy and our men watched the whole proceeding in silence until its import was made manifest.” In a triumph of military intelligence, its import was made manifest in both armies simultaneously, and both started shouting.
As the officers down in no-man’s-land walked on and off the stage, applauded from the balconies, “the works were covered with men, yelling, cheering, and making every demonstration of joy at the prospect of having no more fighting to do.” The news “spread like a contagion” as officers of every degree went “flying on horseback in all directions” to pass the jubilant word. A citizen of Fort Hell recalled how “very soon a bit of white cloth stuck on the end of a stick or ramrod could be seen floating from the top of each picket post on both sides.” With the winter sun shining on a hundred daubs of white, some enterprising men ventured out into no-man’s-land, scanning the lunar landscape in search of lead or fuel. Entertainment was provided while the scavengers plied their trades. “One of our boys invited a reb to come out on neutral ground and have a free fight,” a Union man said. “The reb whipped the Yank, when each returned to their respective sides amid loud and prolonged cheers from the rebs.”
Monday morning broke cold and sunny, and thousands of men and boys stood up in perfect safety to watch the doves fly through the lines, only to be disappointed. The disconcerting word was spread that the War Department was holding them up, but the truce stayed in place like a second day of Christmas. With the dignity characteristic of his publication, the New York Times correspondent on the siege line allowed that there was “considerable excitement” about the prospect of getting out of it alive, but the Times was skeptical of peace talks. “Our men know that peace is not to be gained by smooth words. ‘Talk is cheap,’ said one the other day.”
On the following morning, a wire came through from Grant’s headquarters, producing shouts of joy. The general’s senior aide was on his way to the front to receive the Rebel peace commission. The word came none too soon. In the course of the past two days, so many men and boys had been crossing over to “confer with the enemy,” a Northern soldier said, that both sides had posted guards. Otherwise, “the blue and the gray would have got so mixed up, that so far as regards these two armies, the war would have ended right there and then, in spite of all officers and orders to the contrary.”
But officers and orders still reigned. At the eastern end of the siege line, two miles away from the momentous happenings, an artillery officer in blue peered out from Fort McGilvery at an enemy team at work on their fortifications, a faux pas during a truce, and decided to break it up. The Rebels scattered promptly, but their own artillery replied. The commotion remained local but continued until dark, rumbling down the siege line. To the sound of distant cannon, a Rebel general made a stirring address, or so said the Petersburg Express. The defenders of the South must not let down their guard “on account of the so-called peace commission,” but “depend on their arms” for the peace that would come from their “manly exertions.” The man from the Express did not hear the oration, but understood that it generated much enthusiasm.
There was surely much enthusiasm when the lightning word was flashed that the peacemakers were coming. Rebel troops lined the Petersburg road and spilled out into the fields as a coach passed by on a wave of jubilation. When it pulled up behind the Confederate lines, the celebrities stepped down, attended by the mayor and the gracious Colonel Hatch. Slaves unloaded their trunks and joy washed over their heads as they parted a cheering crowd of buoyant Southern men and beaming Southern women down from Petersburg to witness history in their hoop skirts and bonnets. One of the three commissioners looked plump and rosy, another stiff and formal. The third, a sickly little Georgian, had been Lincoln’s friend and ally in the old Congress. Now he was leaning on the arm of a slave, feeble but excited.
Not everyone was. A former Buffalo newspaperman had lost 70 of the 135 companions who had started the war with him. As the bitter Yankee saw it, the Southern peace commission emerged to the sound of protesting cannon, as “the hazy mist, which is not unusual here at sunset, began to obscure the distant horizon and give the landscape a gloomy and somber aspect. At first as we watched, they seemed as shadows moving in the hazy light, but as they approached their forms became clear and distinct, and we soon stood face to face with the representatives of treason, tyranny and wrong.”
Not as traitors but as dignitaries, the Southerners were saluted by a party of Northern officers and escorted to the Union lines. As a thousand troops on both sides chanted “Peace! Peace! Peace!” an excited Rebel soldier called for “three cheers and a tiger for the whole Yankee army,” and got them. The Yanks returned the favor, and a loud Northern voice demanded the same for the ladies, who waved their “snowy handkerchiefs” in decorous reply. Behind the Union lines, a gleaming horse-drawn ambulance was waiting to take the Southerners to the train that would bring them to Grant. A team of matched horses drove them smartly away. By accident or design, all four of them were gray.
As darkness fell, the artillery duel up the line petered out. The federal
officer in charge would soon recount his losses almost cheerfully. “I have
no casualties to report among the artillery and but two killed and four
wounded among the infantry.” It is safe to assume that the brass took the
news in stride and the dead boys’ families took it harder.
General George G. Meade, the celebrated victor at Gettysburg, came to visit the Rebel ambassadors the next day and wrote to his wife that night. One of them had asked to be remembered to her family. Another had brought a letter addressed to their common kin. Skeptical though he was, Meade had his hopes for peace. “I do most earnestly pray that something may result from this movement.”
Lincoln was prayerful too, old at fifty-five with the weight of 600,000 dead. A portrait painter named Carpenter had been living with him for weeks, absorbing “the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look into it without crying.”
In the previous spring, after three cautious years of indecisive battle, Grant had taken command of all the Union armies and designed a new kind of war with the help of a brash subordinate, General William Tecumseh Sherman. “Sanguinary war,” Grant called it—bloody war—and Lincoln had given it his blessing. While Sherman attacked General Joseph Johnston’s outnumbered Army of Tennessee and another Union force marched on Richmond, Grant and Meade would bludgeon Lee until he stopped struggling. In May and June alone, the North had sustained some 95,000 casualties. The South’s horrific losses were unreliably counted. Lincoln had barely slept. Carpenter came across him in a corridor, “clad in a long morning wrapper, arching back and forth a narrow passage leading to one of the windows, his hands behind him, great black rings under his eyes, his head bent forward upon his breast.”
Tens of thousands of young Americans had lost their lives since then, and the war was not yet won. On his way to Hampton Roads to see an old friend from Georgia, Lincoln had a chance to end it.
For more information on the book, visit www.jamesbconroy.com.