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Confederate States State Department. [from the New York independent, September, 1901.]

A description of it by Colonel L. Q. Washington.

Deeply interesting paper.

Personal reminiscences of much Value—Recollections of President Davis, Bob Toombs, R. M. T. Hunter, and Judah P. Benjamin.

The public has had a deluge of histories in respect to the Civil War and the Southern Confederacy. The history of the antecedent period covering the anti-slavery agitation has also been written up, for the most part with bias and partisanship. The military events of the four-years' struggle have also been exhibited in official reports, documents, memoirs, and narratives of every kind and description. The material for this history exists in abundance; but, though passion is subsiding it would still be difficult to prepare a work satisfactory to both sides of this great controversy.

Very little comparatively has been written in respect to the work of the Confederate State Department. Some ambitious attempts have been recently made to supply this omission by persons whose means of obtaining accurate information were quite limited. Misrepresentations of Confederate diplomacy have come from different sources. They were made during the war in some anti-administration newspapers published in the South. Attacks were made which [342] could easily have been answered by the State Department making known its policy and telling what it had done or was doing, but this method of defence was not permissible. Since the struggle closed some persons have made criticisms based partly on public documents with a certain amount of added misrepresentation, relying on the prevalent sectional prejudice for their market. With some others of late the motives seem to have been to provide sensation and to make money and bold assertions, trusting to luck and the lapse of time to prevent exposure. This last line of business as time passes is apparently on the increase.

The archives.

The archives of the Confederate State Department were purchased by the United States Government in the year 1872 from Colonel John T. Pickett. They are in the main, but not absolutely, full and correct. I called Secretary Richardson's attention soon after the time of purchase to one very important forgery. It deserves to be noted that the officials at the head of the Confederate State Department and those prominent in its service who were best qualified to write concerning its operations have published little or nothing about it. Mr. Benjamin in response to Mr. Davis's inquiries, wrote something, but not much, about the Hampton Roads conference; Mr. Hunter, Mr. Stephens, and Judge Campbell, considerably more, but on that point chiefly. I regret now that I did not take up this general subject in 1872, but all my time was then engrossed by the work and cares of life.

In the absence of reliable exposition by competent persons, and, indeed, nearly all of them having passed away, we are favored with alleged ‘lost chapters’ of Confederate history. The public is told that the secret things of that period are to be brought to light; how Prince Polignac was sent to Paris to swap off Louisiana for intervention by Louis Napoleon, and to supersede Slidell, while another writer tells us how Mr. Duncan F. Kenner, of Louisiana, was dispatched with authority to supersede both Slidell and Mason. Perhaps this is the proper place to say that the secrets of the Confederate Government were well kept. I have heard a statement to the effect that the United States Government was regularly kept advised of the military strength and movements of the Confederacy by some faithless War Department official, but this story has no foundation in fact. It was hatched at a time when gossip was easy and imagination [343] active. Another oft-printed story is that Miss Van Lew, a person of known Union sympathies, residing in Richmond, but having no official position or social entre, contrived to purvey highly important information for the Washington Government. She might have picked up some empty gossip and rumors in circulation, but nothing more. In fact, even the leading citizens of Richmond knew little or nothing of what was passing or contemplated by the government until events actually transpired. The newspapers of Richmond were hardly any better off. The sessions of the Confederate Congress on all matters of importance were with closed doors and have never been published. The printed reports of the public sessions were very meager—in fact, mere skeleton reports. The Federal spy occasionally entered the Southern lines, and, perhaps, visited Richmond, but he went away as wise as when he came. He could hardly have done any good work, or he would have reported to the War Department that Richmond had practically no garrison before May. 1863, and only a small one afterward. The blockade runners were allowed to pass between Richmond and Washington, but were a harmless set of gentlemen. I used to cross-examine them, but met only one that had any intelligence of interest, and that was on subjects not connected with the war. This person was a woman who knew how to use her eyes and ears, but not well enough to affect a campaign or change the face of history.

The organization.

The successive heads of the Confederate State Department, Messrs. Toombs, Hunter, and Benjamin, and those gentlemen serving under it, such as Slidell, Mason, Mann, Yancey, Preston, Lamar, Thompson, Clay, and others, were then either advanced in years or middle-aged men, and now, over thirty-five years having elapsed, it is not strange that they have gone to their rest. I am the only survivor of those who were in the State Department at Richmond, and, I think, the only one living who was in its service at home or abroad. I had been spending a few weeks in Richmond, chiefly engaged in editorial work for the Examiner, when, about the 4th of November, 1861, by the invitation of Mr. Hunter, then Secretary of State, I became his chief clerk. On the 22d of February, 1862, the government under the ‘Permanent Constitution’ of the Confederacy was inaugurated. This led to some changes in personnel. Mr. Hunter went into the Confederate Senate, representing [344] Virginia. The Hon. J. P. Benjamin, then Secretary of War, was transferred to be Secretary of State, Mr. William M. Browne, the Assistant Secretary of State, became one of the President's aids, and, as chief clerk, I performed the usual duties of the former position until the close of the struggle in April, 1865. In this way I became conversant with all that was being done or that had been done by the State Department, and I also learned confidently much of what was being done by the other departments. With the heads of these departments, as well as the President, I had cordial relations, and most of them I had known before for years. The important military news came to us, of course, and also many of the plans of military operations. I had so many friends in Congress that I was easily kept advised of what it was doing. On the other hand, no one on the outside knew the business of the State Department except the President, and he was not the kind of a man to gossip or to be questioned.

The lost Chapter.

With these opportunities for an inside view of all that passed at Richmond from October, 1861, to April, 1865, I have been able to appreciate at its true value the fiction in reference to the Confederate Government concocted from time to time. If there be a ‘lost chapter’ of the history of the Confederate State Department, I believe that I am the only one capable of supplying it. The story that has been made public to the effect that Prince Polignac was sent by the Richmond government about the close of the civil war on a mission to the Emperor Napoleon, with authority to offer a transfer of Louisiana to France in exchange for his intervention in favor of the Confederacy is not a ‘lost chapter,’ for the good and sufficient reason that no such chapter was ever written, and, therefore, could not well be lost. Mr. Davis was always a great stickler for adhering to the Constitution, and he clearly had no constitutional authority to propose such a transfer. Moreover, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri were three of the States belonging to the Confederacy, though at the time largely occupied by the Federal troops, and their soldiers were performing their duties in the Confederate army with singular zeal, fortitude and heroism. The suggestion to turn over these soldiers, their homes, and liberties to any European government in order to save the other States from being overrun would not have been entertained for a moment by Mr. Davis or any one of his Cabinet. [345] Prince Polignac was a gallant brigadier of the western army, and is a gentleman of high character and intelligence, but he was not at any time in the diplomatic service of the Confederate Government. The Confederacy possessed a singularly able representative at Paris in the person of Hon. John Slidell, of Louisiana, a former associate of Mr. Jefferson Davis in the United States Senate. He was trusted to the fullest extent by the President and by Mr. Benjamin; and, from the time he entered on his duties soon after the the affair of the Trent, no other person was ever chosen to make any representation, oral or written, to the Emperor or his Ministers of Foreign Affairs. To these officials he had easy access, and from them received the most respectful consideration. Slidell was a wise, sagacious, experienced man of affairs, and was probably better fitted to succeed at Paris of all places than any other man. Indeed, I doubt if he had an equal in the South for a diplomatic post, unless, possibly, Lamar or General Dick Taylor, of Louisiana. These two were men of very striking gifts, and had, I think, the special qualifications requisite for diplomatic service.

The denial.

When the account of this alleged Polignac mission was published in 1895, I gave it a brief contradiction in the press. At that time President Davis was dead, and, I believe, only two of his Cabinet still survived—namely, Judge John H. Reagan, of Texas, and the Hon. George Davis, of Wilmington, N. C. Judge Reagan, who, I am happy to say, still lives, who wrote me June 28, 1895, saying that ‘any measure of this importance would necessarily have been considered by the Cabinet of the Confederacy, and no such project was ever mentioned or hinted at in the Cabinet.’

The denial of the Hon. George Davis, ex-Confederate Attorney-General in 1864, to whom I also wrote, is not less emphatic. I append his letter:

Dear Sir,—After long years I am glad once more to hear from you. I have been confined for a long time with a lingering sickness from which I am not yet recovered, and so I am compelled to write to you by the hand of my daughter.

I never heard a word of the Poglinac canard, and I don't believe a word of it. I know that your relations with your chief, Mr. Benjamin, [346] were such that you would have known of it if it had been true.

My commission as Attorney-General bears the date of the 4th of January, 1864.

With kind regards and much esteem, I am,

Yours sincerely,

Mr. Toombs.

The Confederate State Department had in its service some of the most gifted sons of the South. It was organized in Montgomery, Ala., on February 21, 186. The Hon. Robert Toombs, of Georgia, was the first Secretary of State. He was a man of large, powerful frame, with long, shaggy locks, and was thoroughly unconventional. He had been a distinguished member of the United States House of Representatives and was even more eminent in the Senate, where his logic, passion and oratorical gifts made him a power. Had he possessed the musical tones and trained voice of Jefferson Davis or Benjamin he would have come down to us with a great reputation for eloquence, but his delivery was marred by his vehemence, impetuosity, and consequent imperfect enunciation. He was no office man and did little work in his department. He was quoted as saying that ‘he carried the business of the State Department around in his hat.’ He may have reasoned that diplomacy must needs wait on some positive military success, and at that time there had been little actual conflict of arms. In addition to this, Mr. Toombs was looking forward to military service, and during the summer of 1861 he left the Department to become a brigadier-general. He achieved no special distinction in this role, and his fame must rest chiefly on what he said and did during his long and brilliant service in the Federal Congress. Alexander H. Stephens said of his speech of January 7, 1861, that it deserved a place by the side of that of Pericles on a like occasion.

R. M. T. Hunter.

Mr. Toomb's successor in the Confederate State Department after July, 1861, the Hon. Robert M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, was a man of very different mold. Educated at the famous University of Virginia, and for the bar, he went, after a brief law practice, into the service of the State. He was always a careful student of history and of the science of politics in its most elevated sphere of action.

Entering the House of Representatives and becoming its Speaker at [347] the early age of thirty years, he next became a member of the United States Senate, and there taking the acknowledged lead in all matters of revenue and appropriation, he soon impressed himself on all his contemporaries as one of the very ablest among them. On all revenue matters he led the Senate. He left that body in 1861 without a personal enemy and with the sincere respect and esteem of all its members of either party. His mind was thoughtful, sagacious, well balanced, and pre-eminently conservative. His elaborate instructions to Messrs. Slidell and Mason, who were commissioned to London and Paris in September, 1865, embody the general policy of the Confederate State Department which was pursued to the close. Like Mr. Toombs, he was careless as to personal appearanee, but he was far more studious, industrious, and methodical, and he possessed not only a higher scholarship, but a broader, more thoughtful grasp of public affairs coupled with a riper judgment and more conciliatory temper.

The Confederate Government moved from Montgomery to Richmond in the latter part of May, 1861. The President's offices and those of the State Department were located on the upper floor of the spacious granite building known as the Federal custom-house. The President had there his personal office and Cabinet room and also some other rooms for his six aids and his private secretary. The remainder of the rooms on this floor were assigned to the State Department and were ample for its purposes, the force being only a small one. On going from the army to Richmond in the early autumn of 1861, I found Mr. Hunter in the State Department. I saw also Messrs. Mallory, Reagan, and others. Mr. Davis I did not see for a few weeks. He was at this time confined to his home on Shockoe Hill by a protracted illness, but he possessed a great vitality and he recovered in a month or so. After that illness he was careful to take regular exercise. He used to take very long rides in the country, going out late in the evening and having only a single companion, perhaps one of his aids, or his sister-in-law, Miss Howell. The country about Richmond was at that time thickly wooded, imperfectly guarded, and he ran considerable risk, but on a point like that he would not have relished advice. His attention to his arduous office work was unremitting. He was grave, but courteous, a good business man, attentive to official routine and forms. He had been four years United States Secretary of war, and knew their value. He dined late and after his rides, but was always singularly abstemious and temperate. After dinner he was usually ready for quiet, social [348] converse with his family and friends and seemed to enjoy it greatly. But he never mixed up work and pleasure. There were no formal receptions or large companies at the President's. But nevertheless, this old house has its pleasant flavor of social traditions.

During the winter of 1861-‘62 Mr. Hunter's Virginia friends insisted on his giving up the Cabinet place he held and going into the Confederate Senate, in order to represent Virginia. In a matter of that kind he felt that he ought to yield to their wishes and accordingly he was elected to that body, his term beginning February 22, 1862. Here he gave his attention chiefly to finance. He was the author of the principal financial measures of the Confederacy, the tax in kind, the interconvertible bond, and others. He was also president pro tempore of the chamber.

When Mr. Hunter vacated the State Department Mr. Benjamin was transferred from the War Department to fill the position. He, therefore, entered on his duties February 22, 1862, and remained with Mr. Davis so long as there was a semblance of his government. He was a man of wonderful and varied gifts, rare eloquence and accomplishments, a great lawyer, senator, and man of affairs. He could dispatch readily and speedily a very large amount of business. I have known him to compose a most important State paper of twenty pages or more at a single sitting in a clear, neat chirography, and with hardly a single word interlined or erased. His style was a model of ease and perspicuity. Mr. Davis set the highest value upon his services and his friendship. A Secretary of State is bound to consult his chief on every important matter lying within his province. Mr. Davis's room and Mr. Benjamin's were barely a hundred feet apart upon the same floor, and there was hardly a day in which Mr. Benjamin did not visit the President in his office, not so much on affairs of his own department as to learn the army news of which Mr. Davis was sure to be informed, if anybody was. With such relations, therefore, between these two gentlemen, and much more of which I do not propose to speak, it is a moral impossibility that Mr. Davis would dream of transacting diplomatic business outside of the regular channels. If Mr. Davis had not fully trusted his secretary he would have dropped him and appointed some one whom he could trust. Mr. Davis practically left the State Department to its secretaries. He has said that he left finance to Hunter and Memminger, and this was quite true.

The grand objective point of Confederate diplomacy for four years was to secure recognition as an independent government for the [349] Confederacy. This was the policy embodied in Mr. Hunter's letter of instructions to Mr. Slidell already mentioned, and it was the policy constantly kept in view by his successor in office, Mr. Benjamin. An offer to cede territory in exchange for intervention and help would have been fatal to the arguments on which the demand for recognition was based.

I must not conclude my personal notice of Mr. Benjamin without stating that such was his appetite and facility for work that the President devolved much upon him not strictly pertaining to his own department. The facility with which after the collapse of the Confederacy he attained the highest distinctions of the English bar and made a large fortune, was one of the marvels of a great career. When I met him in London in 1875 he hardly referred to the great struggle with which he had been so conspicuously identified. Nor can I recall that at any time in Richmond or elsewhere he ever indulged in retrospect.

I reserve for notice hereafter one of the so-called ‘lost chapters,’ having some basis of truth, but perverted by elaborate fiction out of all proportion.

Washington, D. C.

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