The famous “peace” conference, on board the River Queen
, in Hampton Roads
, between President Lincoln
and Secretary Seward
, and the Rebel commissioners Stephens
, and Campbell
, took place the 3d of February, 1865.
A few days afterward1
I asked the President
if it was true,
as reported by the New York Herald, that he told a “little story” on that occasion?--“Why,” said he, “has it leaked out?
I was in hopes nothing would be said about that, lest some oversensitive people should imagine there was a degree of levity in the intercourse between us.”
He then went on to relate the circumstances which called it out. “You see,” said he, “we had reached and were discussing the slavery
said, substantially, that the slaves, always accustomed to an overseer, and to work upon compulsion, suddenly freed, as they would be if the South
should consent to peace on the basis of the ‘Emancipation Proclamation
,’ would precipitate not only themselves but the entire Southern society into irremediable ruin.
No work would be done, nothing would be cultivated, and both blacks and whites would starve
Said the President
, “I waited for Seward
to answer that argument, but as he was silent, I at length said: ‘Mr. Hunter
, you ought to know a great deal better about this matter than I, for you have always lived under the slave system.
I can only say, in reply to your statement of the case, that it reminds me of a man out in Illinois
, by the name of Case, who undertook, a few years ago, to raise a very large herd of hogs.
It was a great trouble to feed them, and how to get around this was a puzzle to him. At length he hit on the plan
of planting an immense field of potatoes, and, when they were sufficiently grown, he turned the whole herd into the field, and let them have full swing, thus saving not only the labor of feeding the hogs, but also that of digging the potatoes.
Charmed with his sagacity, he stood one day leaning against the fence, counting his hogs, when a neighbor came along.
’ Well, well, ‘ said he, ’ Mr. Case
, this is all very fine.
Your hogs are doing very well just now, but you know out here in Illinois
the frost comes early, and the ground freezes a foot deep.
Then what are they going to do?
‘ This was a view of the matter Mr. Case
had not taken into account.
Butchering-time for hogs was ’ way on in December or January.
He scratched his head, and at length stammered, ‘Well, it may come pretty hard on their snouts
, but I don't see but that it will be ‘root, hog, or die!’’ ”
“Shortly afterward,” he continued, “a reference was casually made to Colonel Hardin
, who was killed in the Mexican War
,--who at one time was a representative in Congress from Illinois
; and this drew out a story from Stephens
On a certain occasion, he said,
when the House was in session, a dispute arose between Hardin and others of the Illinois delegation as to the proper pronunciation of the name of their State.
Some insisted it was “Illinoy,” others as stoutly that it was “Illinois.”
Hardin at length appealed to the venerable John Quincy Adams.
“If one were to judge from the
character of the representatives in this Congress from that State,” said the old man, with a malicious smile, “I should decide unhesitatingly that the proper pronunciation was ‘All noise!’
In the Augusta (Ga.)
“Chronicle,” of the 17th of June, 1865, there appeared a report of this conference, purporting to have been written out from the lips of Mr. Stephens
, so characteristic of Mr. Lincoln
, that I subjoin the following extracts:--
The three Southern gentlemen met Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, and after some preliminary remarks, the subject of peace was opened.
Mr. Stephens, well aware that one who asks much may get more than he who confesses to humble wishes at the outset, urged the claims of his section with that skill and address for which the Northern papers have given him credit.
Mr. Lincoln, holding the vantage-ground of conscious power, was, however, perfectly frank, and submitted his views almost in the form of an argument.
... Davis had on this occasion, as on that of Mr. Stephens's visit to Washington, made it a condition that no conference should be had unless his rank as commander or President should first be recognized.
Mr. Lincoln declared that the only ground on which he could rest the justice of the war — either with his own people or with foreign powers — was that it was not a war for conquest, for that the States had never been separated from the Union.
Consequently, he could not recognize
another government inside of the one of which he alone was President, nor admit the separate independence of States that were yet a part of the Union.
“That,” said he, “would be doing what you have so long asked Europe to do in vain, and be resigning the only thing the armies of the Union are fighting for.”
Mr. Hunter made a long reply to this, insisting that the recognition of Davis's power to make a treaty was the first and indispensable step to peace, and referred to the correspondence between King Charles I. and his Parliament, as a trustworthy precedent of a constitutional ruler treating with rebels.
Mr. Lincoln's face then wore that indescribable expression which generally preceded his hardest hits, and he remarked: “Upon questions of history I must refer you to Mr. Seward, for he is posted in such things, and I don't pretend to be bright.
My only distinct recollection of the matter is, that Charles lost his head.”
That settled Mr. Hunter for a while.
During the interview it appears that Hunter declared that he had never entertained any fears for his person or life from so mild a government as that of the United States.
To which Mr. Lincoln retorted that he, also, had felt easy as to the Rebels, but not always so easy about the lamp-posts around Washington City,--a hint that he had already
done more favors for the Rebels than was exactly popular with the radical men of his own party.
Mr. Lincoln's manner had now grown more positive.
He suggested that it would be better for the Rebel States to return at once than to risk the chances of continuing the war, and the increasing bitterness of feeling in Congress.
The time might come, he said, when they would not be considered as an erring people invited back to citizenship, but would be looked upon as enemies to be exterminated or ruined.
During the conference, the amendment to the Federal Constitution, which has just been adopted by Congress, was read, providing that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for crime, should exist within the United States, or any place within its jurisdiction, and Congress should have power to enforce the amendment by appropriate legislation.
The report says, Mr. Seward then remarked: “Mr. President, it is as well to inform these gentlemen that yesterday Congress acted upon the amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery.”
Mr. Lincoln stated this to be true, and suggested that there was a question as to the right of the insurgent States to return at once and claim a right to vote upon the amendment, to which the concurrence of two thirds of the States was required.
He stated that it would be desirable to have the institution of slavery abolished by the consent of the people as soon as possible,--he hoped within six
He also stated that four hundred millions of dollars might be offered as compensation to the owners, and remarked, “You would be surprised were I to give you the names of those who favor that.”
Mr. Stephens came home with a new cause of sorrow, and those who said he talked of coming home to make war speeches and denounce the terms offered, simply lied.
Before Mr. Lincoln's death, he thought he was doing a favor to him not to include that offer of four hundred millions in gold for the Southern slaves in the published report, for it would be used to the injury of Mr. Lincoln by those of his enemies who talk about taxation and the debt.
Mr. Stephens has frequently expressed no apprehensions should the fortunes of war throw him into the hands of Mr. Lincoln, and said he would not get out of the way of a raid were it not for appearances, on account of the office he held.
He spoke of Mr. Lincoln as an old friend who had generally voted with him in Congress, and who had a good heart and fine mind, and was undoubtedly honest.