LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A.Lincoln") as President to Major Thomas T. Eckert, Executive Mansion [Washington, D.C.], 30 January 1865. 1 full page, 4to (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in.), integral blank, lined paper, minor ink smudges and fingerprints in left-hand portion and on blank verso.
THE PRESIDENT ARRANGES THE SECRET HAMPTON ROADS PEACE CONFERENCE
On February 3, 1865, the President and Secretary of State Seward met in secret on a Federal steamer moored off Hampton Roads, Virginia with three Confederate peace commissioners, Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883), R.M.T. Hunter and John A. Campbell. Their unusual meeting resulted from contacts in mid-January between Francis P. Blair and President Jefferson Davis, who indicated his willingness "to secure peace between the two countries." Back in Washington, Blair gained Lincoln's assurance that he would receive representatives of the Confederate government sent by Davis to discuss "securing peace to the people of our common country." Stephens, Hunter and Campbell--critics of Davis's government--were duly appointed, and on the 29th, General Ord telegraphed the Secretary of War to report that the three emissaries "desire to cross my lines...on their way to Washington as peace Commissioners." At 2 a.m. that night, Stanton telegraphed back from Washington to state that that he had referred the matter to the President. The next morning, Lincoln promptly cabled Ord to inform him that he was sending a messenger--Eckert--to conduct the Confederate representatives through Union lines. The present letter constitutes Lincoln's formal, almost legalistic instructions to Eckert for that mission.
Lincoln writes: "You will proceed with the documents placed in your hands; and, on reaching Gen. Ord, will deliver him the letter addressed to him by the Secretary of War; then, by Gen. Ord's assistance, procure an interview with Messrs. [Alexander H.] Stephens, Hunter and Campbell, or any of them, deliver to him, or them, the papers on which your own letter is written, note on the copy which you retain the time of delivery, and to whom delivered, receive their answer in writing, waiting a reasonable time for it, and which, if it contains their decision to come through, without further condition, will be your warrant to ask Gen. Ord to pass them through as directed in the letter of the Secretary of War to him. If by their answer they decline to come, or propose other terms, do not have them passed through. And this being your whole duty return and report to me. Yours truly..."
Lincoln was equally precise in his note to the Confederates, which Eckert was to deliver. To them he wrote "if you pass through the Union lines, it will be understood that you do so for the purposes of an informal conference" with "some person or persons." He also guaranteed their safe conduct. But the present letter, which Lincoln expected Eckert to deliver to General Ord, was instead addressed by Secretary of War Stanton to General Grant, who subsequently took over arrangements for the historic secret conference. In his instructions to Seward though, Lincoln, as a precaution, enumerated three "indispensable" points on which there could be no negotiation: 1) the restoration of the Federal authority throughout the seceded states, 2) "no receding...on the slavery question," and 3) no cease-fire "short of an end to the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government" (Basler 8:279). The Confederate representatives were understandably reluctant to accede to these conditions, but on the basis of a telegram from Grant, stating that in his opinion "their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union," Lincoln decided to go forward with the planned conference. On February 2nd telegraphed back: "Say to the gentlemen I will meet them personally at Fortress Monroe as soon as I can get there" (Basler 8:282). Lincoln caught a navy steamer from Washington and on the morning of February 3rd boarded the "River Queen" with Seward for a four-hour meeting with the rebel representatives.
No minutes were kept of their discusssions, but Lincoln reported that he and Seward had maintained their insistence on the same three fundamental points enumerated in his instructions to the Secretary. The Confederates were unwilling to concede any of these, and, he said, "seemed to desire a postponement" of the question of restoring the union. As Davis's biographer notes "each held a basic position that excluded compromise" (W.C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, p.590). In addition, Lincoln was aware that W.T. Sherman's army was continuing to tear at the vitals of the Confederacy, in spite of the deadlock at Petersburg. The Union, he knew, was winning the war. Predictably, "the conference," Lincoln recorded matter-of-factly, "ended without result." The fighting that had already raged for three years and 10 months would continued another three months.
Published in Basler 8:246 (and quoted in full in Lincoln's detailed report to the House, with all correspondence leading up to the Conference (Basler 8:274-285).
Provenance: Justin G. Turner, the legendary Lincoln collector -- Anonymous owner (sale, Sotheby's, 31 October 1984, lot 144).