previous next

The truth of history. [from the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch, July 27, 1897.] Judge Reagan on the Hampton Roads Conference. A reply to Watterson.

No offer made to pay for the Slaves—The testimony of President Davis, Vice-President Stephens and others.

Austin, Texas, July 20, 1897.
To the Editor of the Dispatch:
In the address delivered by me at the annual reunion of Confederate veterans at Nashville, Tenn., on the 22d of June, discussing the question as to why the war was not brought to an end sooner than it was by a compromise, it became necessary for me to refer to a story often told, that President Lincoln, at the Hampton Roads Conference, February 3, 1865, offered to pay $400,000,000 for the slaves of the South to secure peace and a restoration of the Union. This statement has been often made for the purpose of showing that the Southern people might have been paid that sum for their slaves, and that the war might have been terminated and its sacrifices avoided, if President Davis and the Confederate authorities had accepted this offer from President Lincoln. I felt that it was due to the Confederate authorities, due to truth, and necessary as a historic fact, that I should declare, on that great occasion, ‘that no such offer in any form was made.’

The Nashville American newspaper, of the 26th of June, 1897, published a communication from Mr. R. H. Baker, of Watertown, Tenn., under the head lines, ‘Judge Reagan in Error,’ in which he took issue with me on that question, thereby necessarily assuming that President Lincoln had made such an offer.

The day on which Mr. Baker's article was published I sent a note to the American, stating that on my return home I would send to that paper a statement of the authorities on which I made the denial that any such offer had been made.

Pursuant to that promise, on the 7th day of July, 1897, I sent my letter of that date to the American, giving some of the authorities on which I based my denial that President Lincoln had offered [69] $400,000,000 to pay for the loss of the slaves. I quoted what was said by the five members of the Hampton Roads Conference, the only persons who were present and knew what was said in that Conference; and by them showed that no such offer was made, and that no terms were offered the Confederates but unconditional submission to Federal authority. I will not go over that presentation of facts again, but will add to it two more statements—one by President Davis and one by President Lincoln.

President Davis's statement.

In submitting to the Confederate Congress the report of our commissioners to the Hampton Roads conference, President Davis said:

I herewith transmit, for the information of Congress, the report of the eminent citizens above named (Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell), showing that the enemy refused to enter into negotiations with the Confederate States, or any one of them separately, or to give to our people any other terms or guarantees than those which the conquerer may grant, or to permit us to have peace on any other basis than our unconditional submission to their rule, coupled with the acceptance of their recent legislation on the subject of the relations between the white and black populations of each State. Such is, as I understand it, the effect of the amendment to the Constitution, which has been adopted by the Congress of the United States.

In response to a resolution adopted by the Congress of the United States, on the 8th of February, 1865, requesting information from President Lincoln in relation to what occurred in the conference held at Hampton Roads, Mr. Lincoln said:

On my part, the whole substance at the instructions to the Secretary of State, hereinbefore recited, was stated and insisted upon, and nothing was said inconsistent therewith.

In the above, reference is made to the instructions given by President Lincoln, to Secretary of State Seward, on the 31st of January, 1865, as to what he was authorized to do in the conference with the Confederate commissioners. Mr. Lincoln said:

You will make known to them that three things are indispensible —to-wit: First, the restoration of the national authority throughout all the States; second, no receding by the Executive of the United States on the slavery question, from the position assumed thereon in the late annual message to Congress, and the preceding documents; [70] third, no cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all the forces hostile to the government.

The reference in the second of the above propositions, was to Mr. Lincoln's annual message to Congress, of December, 1864, and his reference to documents, is to his emancipation proclamations of September 22, 1862, and of January 1, 1863.

It was the policy indicated in these proclamations and in this message, which he informed the Confederate commissioners he would not recede from.

Conclusive proof.

And are not these two authorities conclusive proof, independently of all the other proofs presented in my letter of July 7th, that no proposition was made by Mr. Lincoln to the Confederate commissioners to pay $400,000,000 for the slaves to secure peace and union?

Now I will add that of all the persons who met in that conference, no one of them has ever said that such an offer was made; but all of them show a state of facts absolutely inconsistent with the making of such an offer. Henceforward, any one who may assume that such an offer was made, must do so in the face of, and in defiance of, all the facts connected with that conference. The only interest I feel in this matter is to see to it that the historic facts connected with that conference shall not be perverted and misrepresented, so as to throw on President Davis and the Confederate authorities the responsibility of having rejected such a proposition.

The Hon. Henry Watterson, editor of the Courier-Journal, gave to the public in that paper, on the 12th of July, under the display heading, ‘The Truth of History,’ over four columns' criticism and reply to my letter of the 7th of July.

I cannot descend from the consideration of an important historical question to a reply to what he says about my ‘vehemence’ and ‘volubility’ and a number of other merely ill-natured and ungracious personal flings at me. I am only concerned in the settlement of the historical question.

Replying to my denial that President Lincoln, at the Hampton Roads conference, offered to the Confederate commissioners $400,000,000 to pay for the slaves, to secure peace and the return of the Southern States to the Union, Mr. Watterson says:

Since no one that we have ever heard of has intimated that Mr. Lincoln did, it is difficult to understand just why Judge Reagan should be so inconsistent.


Let us see as to this. My letter of July 7th was a reply to Mr. R. H. Baker, who questioned the truthfulness of my denial that such an offer was made. It is also true that a considerable portion of the people of the Southern States have been induced to believe that such an offer was made, and was rejected by President Davis and the Confederate authorities. And since the delivery of my address at Nashville, and the publication of my letter of the 7th instant, I have received many letters from persons in a number of States, thanking me for having shown that no such an offer was made. And in a lecture delivered by Mr. Watterson, in Kansas City, some two or three years ago, he said, under the heading ‘New Birth of Freedom,’ that:

In the preceding conversation Mr. Lincoln had intimated that payment for the slaves was not outside of a possible agreement for reunion and peace. He based that statement upon a proposal he already had in hand to appropriate $400,000,000 for this purpose. I am not going to tell any tales out of school. I am not here for controversy, but when we are dead and gone the private memorabilia of those who know what terms were really offered the Confederacy, within ninety days of its total collapse, will show that in the individual judgment of all of them the wisdom of the situation said “Accept.”

Accept what? Why surely he means the $400,000,000. Had Mr. Watterson forgotten this? Does not this language show that he meant to charge the Confederate authorities with having refused this offer, and that posterity would say the offer ought to have been accepted? I think it safe to say that Mr. Watterson, whether he meant to be so understood or not, is, through his newspaper and lectures, more responsible than any other living man for the belief by others of the truth of this fable about the offer of $400,000,000 by Mr. Lincoln and its rejection by the Confederacy.

How does the above queston agree with Mr. Watterson's statement that he had never heard it intimated that Mr. Lincoln did make such an offer? If Mr. Watterson agrees with me that no such offer was made, why did he write four or five columns of editorial to combat my statement on this question? In that I said nothing about Mr. Watterson or his views. I was discussing an interesting historical question. Was he indulging in a mere display of dialectics to show how skilfully he could avoid a real issue, or did he mean by it to controvert what I had said?

Mr. Watterson states that the day after Mr. Lincoln's return from [72] the Hampton Roads conference, he submitted to his Cabinet the form of a joint resolution empowering him to pay, on the terms proposed, $400,000,000 for the slaves, if the Confederate States would abandon the war. And he follows the quotation of that proposed joint resolution by the following statement:

Thus it will be seen that Mr. Lincoln did, at the Fortress Monroe conference, intimate that payment for the slaves might be considered as a basis for reunion and peace, and Mr. Lincoln did embody the proposition in an official document, notwithstanding Judge Reagan's confident assertion that neither President Lincoln nor any other man on the Federal side would have dared to make such an offer at that time.

An assumption.

I must call attention to two views in reference to the foregoing extraordinary statement. The first is that Mr. Watterson assumes that because Mr. Lincoln submitted the form of a joint resolution to his Cabinet, proposing to pay $400,000,000 for the slaves, that this is evidence that he did intimate, at the Hampton Roads conference, payment for the slaves. Is the one evidence of the truth of the other? What connection is shown between these two facts? Was this not a mere play on words intended to mislead? The other is that the submission by Mr. Lincoln of the form of such a joint resolution to his Cabinet was a refutation of my statement that no such offer was made at Hampton Roads. What sort of logic is this, coming from a great editor and an experienced writer? Does Mr. Watterson expect his readers to believe that because Mr. Lincoln may have submitted such a form of joint resolution to his Cabinet that this is evidence of his having made such a proposition in the conference at Hampton Roads?

Let us look at another piece of Mr. Watterson's logic and facts. He says: ‘Now, let us see how much more accurate and authoritative Judge Reagan is, when he flatly contradicts the statement that Mr. Lincoln, in his private interview with Mr. Stephens at Fort Monroe, said to Mr Stephens, ‘Let me write ‘Union’ at the top of this page, and you may write whatever else you please.’’

I have never found it necessary to dispute anything which has been said about private interviews between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stephens. My position was, and is, that no such statement was made to the Confederate Commissioners as an inducement to bringing [73] about peace. I have only combated the statements that such offer was made, and such as the payment of $400,000,000 were ever made as any part of an offer to influence the action of the Confederate Government.

Mr. Watterson quotes very lengthy statements made by Mr. Howells, of Atlanta, Ga., and Mr. Felix G. De Fontaine, of Fifth avenue, New York, in relation to conversations purporting to have occurred between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stephens. It will be remembered that no one has said, and that there is not a particle of evidence to prove, that the private conversations said to have taken place between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stephens were known to the other commissioners, or in any way made known to President Davis.

If these gentlemen correctly remember what Mr. Stephens said as to facts occurring thirty years before their papers were written, it does not prove that any such offers were made to the Confederate Commissioners as were talked of between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stephens, or that any such information was ever communicated to the Confederate Government. Mr. Howells may state correctly what Mr. Stephens said about there being a ‘bitter opposition on the part of the friends of President Davis in the Confederate Congress, but finally it was authorized and commissioners selected to attend the conference.’ I can only say that I never heard of any such condition of feeling, and have never understood that the President conferred with Congress about the appointment of their commission.

The only issue.

Allowing that all these statements are true, it does not controvert my statement that no such propositions were made in any form for acceptance or rejection, or that they were made to the Confederate commissioners, or communicated to the Confederate Government, or rejected by it. This is the only issue I have made, and Mr. Watterson insists that no one ever said such an offer was made, and that in showing that no such offer was made he says I am ‘fighting a man of straw.’ So it would seem there is and can be no issue between us. He admits that none such was made, and I have never questioned what was said in private interviews between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stephens, but call attention to the fact that all, as far as I know, of the gentlemen who keep up the statements about what occurred between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stephens, somehow manage to leave the impression that President Davis failed of his duty in not accepting [74] terms which were never offered to him, and for not terminating the war when he had no power to terminate it on any other terms than unconditional surrender. And if he had by that means ended the war, I do not doubt but that the very class of men who have made war on him for not doing so would have been equally loudmouthed in charging him with being both coward and traitor.

It may be proper for me to present some testimony showing that Mr. Stephens said that no offer was made by Mr. Lincoln at the Hampton Roads conference of $400,000,000 to pay for the slaves.

A letter was published in the Houston Post of the 16th instant, a leading daily of this State, by Mr. R. G. Latting, Jr., in which, referring to the discussion of this question, he says:

I have seen a statement from Mr. Stephens on this subject over his own signature. In the year 1869, while living in the State of Mississippi, some of my young men associates and myself, when discussing this very subject, decided that we would get at the facts by writing to the Hon. Alexander H. Stephens in reference to it. The letter was written, asking him if Mr. Lincoln had at any time said that if the South would lay down her arms and return to the Union she would receive pay for her slaves. Mr. Stephens replied that, “if Mr. Lincoln had ever made a proposition of that kind he had never heard of it.”

I also quote the following from a letter written by the Hon. Frank B. Sexton, in March, 1895, and published in the newspapers at that time, in which he says:

On the day after the return of the commissioners from the Fort Monroe conference, I was told by Senator James. L. Orr, a close friend of, and certainly in the confidence of Mr. Stephens, that Mr. Stephens had told him the night before, and just after the return of the commissioners, that the conference was utterly fruitless; that Mr. Lincoln offered the Confederate States nothing but unconditional submission; that we now had nothing to do but resist to the last, or surrender at discretion.

On February 8, 1865 (I am able to give this date from an entry in my diary kept at the time), which was two days after the return of the commissioners, Mr. Stephens in conversation with Hon. Clifford Anderson, of Georgia, and myself, in the Chamber of Representatives of the Confederate States, said that Mr. Lincoln offered the Southern States nothing but unconditional submission — that it was utterly impossible to effect any peaceful negotiations with him; that [75] he offered the Confederate States no terms at all but laying down our arms and trusting entirely to his clemency and that of the United States. Mr. Anderson and I both said that we could only reach those terms in any event, and we saw nothing to be accomplished by anticipating them. Mr. Stephens did not dissent from our expressions.

I was told that Mr. Stephens had previous to this conversation, said “we now only need stout hearts and strong arms.” I did not hear him say this; it was told me at breakfast on Sunday morning, February 5, 1865. My diary does not show who told me. I think it also came from Senator Orr.

Mr. Stephens again.

Some time after the war, between 1866 and 1870, a somewhat heated controversy arose between two gentlemen in St. Augustine county, where I then lived, as to the paragraphs above quoted from Colonel Watterson's address. One of them averred in the most unqualified terms that the administration and Congress of the Confederate States were alone to blame for the loss of the negroes as slaves, because Mr. Lincoln offered $400,000,000 for them at the Monroe Conference, and his offer was flatly refused. The other as warmly contradicted this averment. The latter was my lifelong friend, Colonel S. W. Blount, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence of Texas, deceased only a few years since. He appealed to me for information as to fact. I told him that the statement made by his adversary was completely untrue. But the other gentleman insisted that I was mistaken. Colonel Blount, who in his boyhood had been a schoolmate of Mr. Stephens, wrote to him on the subject. Mr. Stephens promptly replied that it was not true that Mr. Lincoln had ever offered to pay any sum for the negroes of the South, and added: “I think (as I now state from memory) that the only element of truth in the reference to the slaves of the South was so much mixed up and infused with falsehood as to make the entire assertion false.” Colonel Blount showed me Mr. Stephen's letter, and it was published at his request, in the Texas Republican, at Marshall, and several other Texas newspapers.

Colonel Blount's adversary, still not satisfied with the denial of Mr. Stephens, addressed a letter to Hon. John H. Reagan, stating that he (Reagan) being a member of President Davis's Cabinet, must know all about the facts, and telling him that it was his duty to [76] state them for the information of the Southern people, and especially of the people of Texas.

Judge Reagan replied to him at considerable length, and in the plain and vigorous English which generally characterizes the writing of that venerable gentlemen, he said, directly and positively, that no offer had ever been made, nor was any such offer reported to Mr. Davis or his Cabinet, either in writing or verbally, by the commissioners, who, as he said, stated orally to Mr. Davis all that occurred.

It is proper to state that Colonel Sexton was a member of the Confederate Congress; that he has ever since been a prominent lawyer in this State, and that he is a man of the highest social, moral and professional standing, whose word no one who knows him would question.

I do not make these quotations to show a conflict between them and other statements attributed to Mr. Stephens. They may all be true, and still there is no conflict between them. These statements show, what Mr. Stephens' book and the other evidence shows, that no such offer was made. The other statements show that in certain private conversations between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stephens, some such matter was talked of. We may understand that both sets of statements being true, and relating to different questions, there is no conflict between them.

Mr. Watterson says: ‘I regret that Judge Reagan has seen fit to recur to a question I thought was settled.’ Innocent Mr. Watterson. When settled, and how? I am now contributing my part towards the settlement of this question as truth and justice demands that it should be settled. Mr. Watterson assumes to advise me that it was untimely and ungracious to discuss this question at the Confederate Reunion at Nashville. I choose to discuss it before the brave and true men, who, having lost the cause for which they fought, have an interest in seeing that history shall not be perverted to the dishonor of that cause, and of the men who represented it.

Mr. Watterson also says that ‘I have no personal motive, as Judge Reagan has, for making any special plea in favor of any particular view.’ I do not know what personal motive Mr. Watterson attributes to me; but I confess to having a high and holy motive in this matter. It is, that the truth of history be established, in order that justice may be done to the dead and the living, and that the coming generation shall not be taught to believe false statements as to that history, tending to dishonor the President of the late Confederacy, [77] who, I think, was the bravest, truest, most virtuous, most self-sacrificing, and the greatest man I ever knew.

If Mr. Watterson does not want contention on this subject kept up, why did he write a four or five column editorial on it? when by his own statements, he does not disagree with me that no offer of $400,000,000 was made at the Hampton Roads conference to the Confederate authorities by Mr. Lincoln for the slaves, to secure peace and reunion.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: