LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln"), as President, TO REV. HENRY WARD BEECHER (1813-1887), Executive Mansion, Washington, D. C., 27 February 1865. 1 page, 4to, blank integral leaf tipped to another sheet, small, discreet repairs to creases.
"I HAD NO THOUGHT OF GOING IN PERSON TO MEET THE RICHMOND GENTLEMAN." LINCOLN TALKS ABOUT THE "SO CALLED...NEGOTIATION" AT HAMPTON ROADS
Lincoln provides a dramatic scoop to Beecher (the most prominent American clergyman during the Civil War) about his conduct of the famous Hampton Roads conference. "Yours of the 4th and the 21st reached me together only two days ago," Lincoln writes. "I now thank you for both. Since you wrote the former the whole matter of the negotiations, if it can be so called, has been published, and you, doubtless, have seen it. When you were with me on the evening of the 1st I had no thought of going in person to meet the Richmond gentleman." That final sentence reveals that Lincoln only made up his mind at the last minute on 2 February to leave the White House and meet with the three emissaries from Jefferson Davis--Alexander Stephens, John A. Campbell and Robert M. T. Hunter--aboard a riverboat off Fortress Monroe on 3 February. This parley arose out of a peace feeler from Jefferson Davis in January, in which he offered to send three commissioners "with a view to secure peace to the two countries." Lincoln accepted this overture with his usual--but crucial--caveat: in an 18 January letter to Francis P. Blair, Sr., he asked Blair to tell Davis that he would meet with any responsible official "with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country."
Lincoln presumed nothing further would come of it. But Ulysses Grant--eager to stop the bloodshed--convinced the three Confederate delegates when they entered his lines to drop any references to "two countries." He knew it was a non-starter with Lincoln. At the same time, Grant convinced Lincoln that giving the commissioners a cold shoulder might make peace harder to achieve. So Lincoln agreed to the floating summit aboard the River Queen on 3 February.
Before the conference, Henry Ward Beecher needlessly worried that Lincoln might concede too much to the rebel officials. "The interview and information which you gave me," Beecher wrote on 4 February, "not only relieved me then, but has, ever since, given me great faith. Even your unexpected visit to Ft. Munroe did not stagger me. It has been much criticized. The pride of the nation, is liable to be hurt. Anything that looks like the humiliation of our Government, would be bitterly felt. But I do not criticize it..." Lincoln, of course, told Stephens, Campbell and Hunter that the only basis for peace was an end to armed resistance and Southern acceptance of the Union and the abolition of slavery. He rejected Stephens's rather hair-brained scheme for North and South to reunite for a war against French encroachment in Texas--with slavery conveniently left alone. Lincoln brushed this off, just as the Southerners dismissed his offer of compensation to former slave owners. Lincoln submitted a report on these talks to Congress on 10 February, which was duly published. In it he told the lawmakers that the meeting "ended without result." Sensing a looming victory by arms, neither Lincoln, his Cabinet, nor the Congress, were disposed to grant any 11th hour concessions to the rebelling Slave Power.