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Chapter 40: talk of peace.

  • Second federal move against Fort Fisher and Wilmington Harbor
  • -- Confederate disaffection -- act of Congress appointing a supreme commander of the armies -- Montgomery Blair's peace conference -- Longstreet has a meeting with General Ord, commander of the Army of the James -- military convention proposed -- correspondence between General Grant and General Lee -- Longstreet's suggestions for measures in the critical juncture near the close of the war.

The second expedition against Wilmington was sent in January, 1865, General Terry commanding the land and Rear-Admiral Porter the naval forces. After very desperate work the fort and outworks were carried, the commander, General Whiting, being mortally and Colonel Lamb severely wounded. All points of the harbor were captured by the enemy, the Confederates losing, besides most of the armaments of the forts, about two thousand five hundred officers and men in killed, wounded, and prisoners. General Terry's loss was about five hundred. A remarkable success,--the storming of a position fortified during months and years of labor and by most approved engineering.1 As the first months of 1865 passed, the Confederate Congress realized the extreme tension of affairs, and provided, among other expedients, for the enrollment of negroes as Confederate soldiers. Other measures for giving confidence and strength to the cause were adopted.

On the 21st of January the Confederate President was informed of disaffection in the Virginia Legislature, and, [583] what was more significant, in the Confederate Congress, where a resolution expressive of want of confidence in the Chief Executive was under informal consideration, and would undoubtedly pass by a large vote if introduced. At this critical juncture it seems that a compromise was effected. It was agreed that Congress should enact a law providing a supreme commander of the Confederate armies, this law to be approved by the President, who should then call General Lee to the exercise of the functions of that office. The intention was to invest him with dictatorial power.

During the early days of February, Hon. Montgomery Blair visited Richmond upon a mission of peace, and brought about a meeting at Hampton Roads between President Lincoln and Secretary Seward and the Confederate Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens, and the Hon. R. M. T. Hunter and Judge J. A. Campbell. President Lincoln was firm for the surrender of the Confederate armies and the abolition of slavery, which the Confederate President did not care to consider.

About the 15th of February, Major-General J. C. Breckenridge was appointed Secretary of War, and Brigadier-General F. M. St. John was appointed commissary-general of subsistence.

General Ord, commanding the Army of the James, sent me a note on the 20th of February to say that the bartering between our troops on the picket lines was irregular; that he would be pleased to meet me and arrange to put a stop to such intimate intercourse. As a soldier he knew his orders would stop the business; it was evident, therefore, that there was other matter he would introduce when the meeting could be had. I wrote in reply, appointing a time and place between our lines.

We met the next day, and presently he asked for a side interview. When he spoke of the purpose of the meeting, I mentioned a simple manner of correcting the matter, [584] which he accepted without objection or amendment. Then he spoke of affairs military and political.

Referring to the recent conference of the Confederates with President Lincoln at Hampton Roads, he said that the politicians of the North were afraid to touch the question of peace, and there was no way to open the subject except through officers of the armies. On his side they thought the war had gone on long enough; that we should come together as former comrades and friends and talk a little. He suggested that the work as belligerents should be suspended; that General Grant and General Lee should meet and have a talk; that my wife, who was an old acquaintance and friend of Mrs. Grant in their girlhood days, should go into the Union lines and visit Mrs. Grant with as many Confederate officers as might choose to be with her. Then Mrs. Grant would return the call under escort of Union officers and visit Richmond; that while General Lee and General Grant were arranging for better feeling between the armies, they could be aided by intercourse between the ladies and officers until terms honorable to both sides could be found.

I told General Ord that I was not authorized to speak on the subject, but could report upon it to General Lee and the Confederate authorities, and would give notice in case a reply could be made.

General Lee was called over to Richmond, and we met at night at the President's mansion. Secretary-of-War Breckenridge was there. The report was made, several hours were passed in discussing the matter, and finally it was agreed that favorable report should be made as soon as another meeting could be arranged with General Ord. Secretary Breckenridge expressed especial approval of the part assigned for the ladies.

As we separated, I suggested to General Lee that he should name some irrelevant matter as the occasion of his call for the interview with General Grant, and that [585] once they were together they could talk as they pleased. A telegram was sent my wife that night at Lynchburg calling her to Richmond, and the next day a note was sent General Ord asking him to appoint a time for another meeting.

The meeting was appointed for the day following, and the result of the conference was reported. General Ord asked to have General Lee write General Grant for an interview, stating that General Grant was prepared to receive the letter, and thought that a way could be found for a military convention, while old friends of the military service could get together and seek out ways to stop the flow of blood. He indicated a desire on the part of President Lincoln to devise some means or excuse for paying for the liberated slaves, which might be arranged as a condition and part of the terms of the convention, and relieve the matter of political bearing; but those details were in the form of remote probabilities to be discussed when the parties became advanced in their search for ways of settlement.

On the 1st of March I wrote General Lee giving a report of the second interview, and on the 2d he wrote General Grant as follows:

Headquarters Confederate States Armies, March 2, 1865.
Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, Commanding United States Armies: General,--
Lieutenant-General Longstreet has informed me that, in a recent conversation between himself and Major-General Ord as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention, General Ord states that if I desired to have an interview with you on the subject you would not decline, provided I had authority to act. Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that upon an interchange of views it may be found [586] practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a convention of the kind mentioned. In such event I am authorized to do whatever the result of the proposed interview may render necessary or advisable. Should you accede to this proposition, I would suggest that, if agreeable to you, we meet at the place selected by Generals Ord and Longstreet for their interview, at eleven A. M. on Monday next.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.

The letter was sent to me open, with instructions to read, seal, and forward. I rode into Richmond to ask that some other business should be named as the cause of the call for the interview, but he was not disposed to approach his purpose by diplomacy, and ordered the letter to be delivered.

He sent another letter, however:

Headquarters Confederate States Armies, March 2, 1865.
Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, Commanding United States Armies: General,
Lieutenant-General Longstreet has informed me that in an interview with Major-General Ord, that officer expressed some apprehension lest the general terms used by you with reference to the exchange of political prisoners should be construed to include those charged with capital offences.

General Ord further stated that you did not intend to embrace that class of cases in the agreement to exchange. I regret to learn that such is your interpretation, as I had hoped that by exchanging those held under charges by each party it would be possible to diminish, to some extent, the sufferings of both without detriment to their interests. Should you see proper to assent to the interview proposed in my letter of this date, I hope it may be found practicable to arrive at a more satisfactory understanding on this subject.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.


To which General Grant replied,--

City Point, Virginia, March 4, 1865.
General R. E. Lee, Commanding Confederate States Armies:
Your two letters of the 2d instant were received yesterday. In regard to any apprehended misunderstanding in reference to the exchange of political prisoners, I think there need be none. General Ord and General Longstreet have probably misunderstood what I said to the former on the subject, or I may have failed to make myself understood possibly. A few days before the interview between Generals Longstreet and Ord I had received a despatch from General Hoffman, Commissary-General of Prisoners, stating in substance that all prisoners of war who were or had been in close confinement or irons, whether under charges or sentence, had been ordered to City Point for exchange. I forwarded the substance of that despatch to Lieutenant-Colonel Mulford, Assistant Agent of Exchange, and presumed it probable that he had communicated it to Colonel Robert Ould. A day or two after, an officer who was neither a prisoner of war nor a political prisoner, was executed, after a fair and impartial trial, and in accordance with the laws of war and the usage of civilized nations. It was in explanation of this class of cases I told General Ord to speak to General Longstreet. Reference to my letter of February 16 will show my understanding on the subject of releasing political or citizen prisoners.

In regard to meeting you on the 6th instant, I would state that I have no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed. Such authority is vested in the President of the United States alone. General Ord could only have meant that I would not refuse an interview on any subject on which I have a right to act, which, of course, would be such as are purely of a military character, and on the subject of exchanges which has been intrusted to me.

(Signed) U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.

Under the impression that General Lee would construe the act of Congress in its broad sense and proceed to handle the Confederate armies and affairs under his own good judgment, I wrote, begging that he would call [588] General Joseph E. Johnston back to service and command, and presently suggested and then wrote that I was credibly informed that there was plenty of produce in the country which the farmers would cheerfully deliver at Richmond or Petersburg if liberal prices in gold could be paid them; that the authority given to impress bread and meat stuffs should be applied as including gold; that right or wrong the emergency called for it, and that I would undertake to secure the gold upon his authority. I suggested that as Grant's combinations were looking to concentration against the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond, we should use the railways for collecting and drawing detachments from southern points, calling cavalry by the dirt roads, while the farmers were bringing their produce by private conveyance. Furthermore, I cited the fact that there were eight or ten thousand non-combatants in Richmond who could be put in my trenches as conscripts, and officered by the officers of the department on duty there, and twelve hundred in Lynchburg that could be made similarly available; and argued that using them in the trenches would enable him to draw the First Corps out for a movable force to meet flanking efforts of his adversary, and keep open his lines of communication. In that way, I continued, he could collect a hundred thousand men at Richmond, with a good supply of rations, while General Grant was drawing his two hundred thousand together to attack us; that when concentrated Grant would find himself obliged to give speedy battle, as he could not long supply his large force; that our interior lines would enable us to repel and break up the attack and relieve Richmond.

The times were heavy of events, Executive authority intended to be suspended, and it seemed possible that the use of a little gold would so manifest its power as to induce our people to let cotton and tobacco go for foreign exchange which might put us on a gold basis for a [589] twelvemonth. This was the expedient that offered light and hope for the future, and the times called either for heroic methods or the giving over of the forms of war.

General Lee agreed that the provisions were in the country and would be delivered for gold, but did not think the gold could be found. He made his orders assuming command of the armies, but instead of exercising authority on a scale commensurate with the views of Congress and the call of the crisis, applied to the Richmond authorities for instructions under the new assignment, and wrote that he would call General Johnston to command if he could be ordered to report to him for duty.

General Johnston was so ordered, and was assigned to command of such fragments of troops as he could collect in the Carolinas. General Wade Hampton was relieved of duty as chief of cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia and ordered to join General Johnston. After collecting such detachments as he could gather, General Johnston threw them from time to time along the flank of Sherman's march from Georgia for Virginia, and had some spirited affairs with that army, which was gathering strength along the seaboard as it marched.

1 One of our weeklies announced, upon learning that General Bragg was ordered there, “We understand that General Bragg is ordered to Wilmington. Good-by, Wilmington!”

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