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Doc. 27. Secretary Benjamin's circular.

Department of State, Richmond, Va., Aug. 25, 1864.
Sir: Numerous publications which have recently appeared in the journals of the United States on the subject of informal overtures for peace between two Federations of States now at war on this Continent render it desirable that you should be fully advised of the views and policy of this Government on a matter of such paramount importance. It is likewise proper that you should be accurately informed of what has occurred on the several occasions mentioned in the published statements.1

You have heretofore been furnished with copies of the manifesto issued by the Congress of the Confederate States, with the approval of the President, on the fourteenth of June last, and have, doubtless, acted in conformity with the resolution which requested that copies of this manifesto should be laid before foreign Governments. “The principles, sentiments, and purposes, by which these States have been, and are still actuated,” are set forth in that paper with all the authority due to the solemn declaration of the legislative and executive departments of this Government, and with a clearness which leaves no room for comment or explanation. In a few sentences it is pointed out that all we ask is non-interference with our internal peace and prosperity, “and to be left in the undisturbed enjoyment of those inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which our common ancestors declared to be the equal heritage of all parties to the social compact. Let them forbear aggressions upon us, and the war is at an end. If there be questions which require adjustment by negotiation, we have ever been willing, and are still willing, to enter into communication with our adversaries in a spirit of peace, of equality, and manly frankness.”

The manifesto closed with the declaration that “we commit our cause to the enlightened judgment of the world, to the sober reflections of our adversaries themselves, and to the solemn and righteous arbitrament of Heaven.”

Within a few weeks after the publication of this manifesto, it seemed to have met with a response from President Lincoln. In the early part of last month, a letter was received by General Lee from Lieutenant-General Grant, in the following words:

headquarters armies of the United States, City Point, Va., Aug. 8, 1864.
General R. E. Lee, commanding Confederate Forces, near Petersburg, Va.:
General: I would request that Colonel Jaques, Seventy-third Illinois volunteer infantry, and J. R. Gilmore, Esq., be allowed to meet Colonel Robert Ould, Commissioner for the exchange of prisoners, at such place between the lines of the two armies as you may designate. The object of the meeting is legitimate with the duties of Colonel Ould as Commissioner.

If not consistent for you to grant the request here asked, I would beg that this be referred to President Davis for his action.

Requesting as early an answer to this communication as you may find it convenient to make, I subscribe myself,

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General U. S. A.

On the reference of this letter to the President, he authorized Colonel Ould to meet the persons named in General Grant's letter; and [151] Colonel Ould, after seeing them, returned to Richmond and reported to the President, in the presence of the Secretary of War and myself, that Messrs. Jaques and Gilmore had not said anything to him about his duties as commissioner for exchange of prisoners, but that they asked permission to come to Richmond for the purpose of seeing the President; that they came with the knowledge and approval of President Lincoln, and under his pass; that they were informal messengers, sent with a view of paving the way for a meeting of formal commissioners authorized to negotiate for peace, and desired to communicate to President Davis the views of Mr. Lincoln, and to obtain the President's views in return, so as to arrange for a meeting of commissioners. Colonel Ould stated that he had told them repeatedly that it was useless to come to Richmond to talk of peace on any other terms than the recognized independence of the Confederacy, to which they said that they were aware of that, and that they were, nevertheless, confident that their interview would result in peace. The President, on this report of Colonel Ould, determined to permit them to come to Richmond under his charge.

On the evening of the sixteenth of July, Colonel Ould conducted these gentlemen to a hotel in Richmond, where a room was provided for them, in which they were to remain under surveillance during their stay here, and the next morning I received the following letter:

Spottswood House, Richmond, V., July 17, 1864.
Hon. J. P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of Confederate States of America.
dear sir: The undersigned, James F. Jaques of Illinois, and James R. Gilmore, of Massachusetts, most respectfully solicit an interview with President Davis. They visit Richmond as private citizens, and have no official character or authority; but they are fully possessed of the views of the United States Government relative to an adjustment of the differences now existing between the North and the South, and have little doubt that a free interchange of views between President Davis and themselves would open the way to such official negotiations as would ultimate in restoring peace to the two sections of our distracted country.

They therefore ask an interview with the President, and, awaiting your reply, are,

Most truly and respectfully,

Your obedient servants,

The word “official” is underscored, and the word “peace” doubly underscored, in the original.

After perusing the letter, I invited Colonel Ould to conduct the writers to my office; and on their arrival stated to them that they must be conscious they could not be admitted to an interview with the President without informing me more fully of the object of their mission, and satisfying me that they came by request of Mr. Lincoln.

Mr. Gilmore replied that they came unofficially, but with the knowledge, and at the desire, of Mr. Lincoln; that they thought the war had gone far enough; that it could never end except by some sort of agreement; that the agreement might as well be made now as after further bloodshed; that they knew by the recent address of the Confederate Congress that we were willing to make peace; that they admitted that proposals ought to come from the North, and that they were prepared to make these proposals by Mr. Lincoln's authority; that it was necessary to have a sort of informal understanding in advance of regular negotiations, for if commissioners were appointed without some such understanding, they would meet, quarrel, and separate, leaving the parties more bitter against each other than before; that they knew Mr. Lincoln's views, and would state them if pressed by the President to do so, and desired to learn his in return.

I again insisted on some evidence that they came from Mr. Lincoln; and in order to satisfy me, Mr. Gilmore referred to the fact that permission for their coming through our lines had been asked officially by General Grant in a letter to General Lee, and that General Grant in that letter had asked that this request should be preferred to President Davis. Mr. Gilmore then showed me a card, written and signed by Mr. Lincoln, requesting General Grant to aid Mr. Gilmore and friend in passing through his lines into the Confederacy. Colonel Jaques then said that his name was not put on the card for the reason that it was earnestly desired that their visit should be kept secret; that he had come into the Confederacy a year ago, and had visited Petersburg on a similar errand; and that it was feared if his name should become known, that some of those who had formerly met him in Petersburg would conjecture the purpose for which he now came. He said that the terms of peace which they would offer to the President would be honorable to the Confederacy; that they did not desire that the Confederacy should accept any other terms, but would be glad to have my promise, as they gave theirs, that their visit should be kept a profound secret if it fail to result in peace; that it would not be just that either party should seek any advantage by divulging the fact of their overture for peace, if unsuccessful. I assented to this request, and then rising, said: “Do I understand you to state distinctly that you come as messengers from Mr. Lincoln for the purpose of agreeing with the President as to the proper mode of inaugurating a formal negotiation for peace, charged by Mr. Lincoln with authority for stating his own views and receiving those of President Davis?” Both answered in the affirmative, and I then said that the President would see them at my office the same evening, at nine P. M.; that, at least, [152] I presumed he would; but if he objected, after hearing my report, they should be informed. They were then recommitted to the charge of Colonel Ould, with the understanding that they were to be reconducted to my office at the appointed hour, unless otherwise directed.

The interview, connected with the report previously made by Colonel Ould, left on my mind the decided impression that Mr. Lincoln was averse to sending formal commissioners to open negotiations, lest he might thereby be deemed to have recognized the independence of the Confederacy, and that he was anxious to learn whether the conditions on which alone he would be willing to take such a step would be yielded by the Confederacy; that with this view he had placed his messengers in a condition to satisfy us that they really came from him, without committing himself to anything in the event of a disagreement as to such conditions as he considered to be indispensable. On informing the President, therefore, of my conclusions, he determined that no question of form or etiquette should be an obstacle to his receiving any overtures that promised, however remotely, to result in putting an end to the carnage which marked the continuance of hostilities.

The President came to my office at nine o'clock in the evening, and Colonel Ould came a few moments later, with Messrs Jaques and Gilmore. The President said to them that he had heard from me that they came as messengers of peace from Mr. Lincoln; that as such they were welcome; that the Confederacy had never concealed its desire for peace; and that he was ready to hear whatever they had to offer on that subject.

Mr. Gilmore then addressed the President, and in a few minutes had conveyed the information that these two gentlemen had come to Richmond impressed with the idea that this Government would accept a peace on a basis of a reconstruction of the Union, the abolition of slavery, and the grant of an amnesty to the people of the States as repentant criminals. In order to accomplish the abolition of slavery, it was proposed that there should be a general vote of all the people of both federations in mass, and the majority of the vote thus taken was to determine that as well as all other disputed questions. These were stated to be Mr. Lincoln's views. The President answered that as these proposals had been prefaced by the remark that the people of the North were a majority, and that a majority ought to govern, the offer was, in effect, a proposal that the Confederate States should surrender at discretion, admit that they had been wrong from the beginning of the contest, submit to the mercy of their enemies, and avow themselves to be in need of pardon for their crimes; that extermination was preferable to dishonor.

He stated that if they were, themselves so unacquainted with the form of their own Government as to make such propositions, Mr. Lincoln ought to have known, when giving them his views, that it was out of the power of the Confederate Government to act on the subject of the domestic institutions of the several States, each State having exclusive jurisdiction on that point; still less to commit the decision of such a question to the vote of a foreign people; that the separation of the States was an accomplished fact; that he had no authority to receive proposals for negotiation, except by virtue of his office as President of an independent Confederacy; and on this basis alone must proposals be made to him.

At one period of the conversation, Mr. Gilmore made use of some language referring to these States as “rebels,” while rendering an account of Mr. Lincoln's views, and apologized for the word. The President desired him to proceed, that no offence was taken, and that he wished Mr. Lincoln's language to be repeated to him as exactly as possible. Some further conversation took place substantially to the same effect as the foregoing, when the President rose, to indicate that the interview was at an end. The two gentlemen were then recommitted to the charge of Colonel Ould, and left Richmond the next day.

This account of the visit of Messrs. Gilmore and Jaques to Richmond, has been rendered necessary by publications made by one or both of them since their return to the United States, notwithstanding the agreement that their visit was to be kept secret. They have, perhaps, concluded that, as the promise of secrecy was made at their request, it was permissible to disregard it. We had no reason for desiring to conceal what occurred, and have, therefore, no complaint to make of the publicity given to the fact of the visit. The extreme inaccuracy of Mr. Gilmore's narrative will be apparent to you from the foregoing statement.

You have no doubt seen in the Northern papers an account of another conference on the subject of peace, which took place in Canada, at about the same date, between Messrs. C. C. Clay and J. P. Holcombe, Confederate citizens of the highest character and position, and Mr. Horace Greeley, of New York, acting with authority of President Lincoln. It is deemed not improper to inform you that Messrs. Clay and Holcombe, although enjoying in an eminent degree the confidence and esteem of the President, were strictly accurate in their statement that they were without any authority from this Government to treat with that of the United States on any subject whatever.

We had no knowledge of their conference with Mr. Greeley, nor of their proposed visit to Washington, till we saw the newspaper publications. A significant confirmation of the truth of the statement of Messrs. Gilmore and Jaques, that they came as messengers from Mr. Lincoln, is to be found in the fact that the views of Mr. Lincoln, as stated by them to the President, are in exact conformity with the offensive paper addressed to “Whom it may concern,” which was sent by Mr. Lincoln to Messrs. Clay and Holcombe by the hands of his private secretary, Mr. Hay, and [153] which was properly regarded by those gentlemen as an intimation that Mr. Lincoln was unwilling that this war should cease while in his power to continue hostilities.

I am, very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

J. P. Benjamin, Secretary of State. Hon. James M. Mason, Commissioner of the Continent, etc., etc., etc., Paris.

1 See page 79 Ante.

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