The Hampton Roads Peace Conference During the War Between
the States

by John V. Denson

Most establishment historians today might as well be the Orwellian
historians writing for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s
novel 1984, especially in relation to the War Between the States.
They rarely, if ever, mention the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
which occurred in February of 1865, because it brings into question
most of the mythology promoted today which states that Lincoln and
the North fought the war for the purpose of abolishing slavery and
the South fought for the purpose of protecting it, and therefore,
it was a great and noble war.

The story of the peace conference is related by a participant
who was vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens,
in volume two of his work entitled A Constitutional View of the
War Between the States: Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results,
at pages 589 through 625.

The story begins in early January of 1865 which was before Sherman
left Savannah on his march through the Carolinas. Mr. Francis
P. Blair, Sr., instigated the conference by obtaining President
Lincoln’s permission to contact Confederate President, Jefferson
Davis, concerning a possible temporary halt in the war. Mr. Blair
was closely connected to the Lincoln administration and he was
concerned about the efforts on the part of the French to establish
a military presence in Mexico in order to help them reconquer
the territory that had been lost in the war with America. Mr.
Blair made his proposal to President Jefferson Davis that a secret
military conference take place and that all hostility cease between
the North and South for the purpose of letting the American army
enforce the Monroe Doctrine by directing all of its efforts to
evicting the French from Mexico, thereby stopping any assault
by the Mexicans on the southwest corner of America. President
Lincoln gave his permission to Mr. Blair to talk with Jefferson
Davis but indicated to him that he did not endorse Mr. Blair’s
ideas; however, he would not stand in the way of some military
conference to discuss peace terms and to stop hostilities while
the conference was in session. Jefferson Davis listened to Mr.
Blair’s proposal, met with his cabinet and it was decided
that three delegates were to be appointed to meet with President
Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward. The three
Confederate delegates were Mr. Stephens, John Campbell, a former
U.S. Supreme Court Justice from Alabama, and a Mr. R. M. T. Hunter,
a member of the Confederate Senate. The Confederate delegates
were given safe passage through Northern lines and met directly
with General Grant, who put them on a boat to go to Fortress Monroe.
When they reached Fortress Monroe near Hampton Roads, Virginia,
they were then escorted to another steamer where President Lincoln
and Mr. Seward were to meet with them. The actual meeting occurred
on February 3, 1865.

Mr. Seward indicated that this was to be an informal conference
with no writing or record to be made, all was to be verbal, and
the Confederates agreed. President Lincoln announced in the beginning
that the trip of Mr. Blair was approved by him but that he did
not endorse the idea to halt the hostilities for the purpose of
the American army going to Mexico to enforce the Monroe Doctrine;
however, he had no objection to discussing a peace offer at this
time. President Lincoln stated that he had always been willing
to discuss a peace offer as long as the first condition was met
and that would be for the Confederacy to pledge to rejoin the
Union. If that condition was agreed upon then they could discuss
any other details that were necessary. Mr. Stephens responded
by suggesting that if they could come up with some proposal to
stop the hostilities, which might lead to the restoration of the
Union without further bloodshed, would it not be advisable to
act on that proposal, even without an absolute pledge of ultimate
restoration being required at the beginning? President Lincoln
replied firmly that there would be no stopping of the military
operations unless there was a pledge first by the Confederacy
to rejoin the Union immediately.

Judge Campbell then asked what would be the terms offered to
the South if they were to pledge to rejoin the Union and how would
they be taken back into the Union. Since there was no immediate
response by either President Lincoln or Mr. Seward, Vice-President
Stephens stated that it would be worthwhile to pursue stopping
the hostilities to have a cooling off period so that the peace
terms might be investigated without the passions of the war. Mr.
Stephens indicated that should the hostilities stop for some extended
period of time, he felt that there would be a good chance that
many of the states would rejoin the Union on the same terms as
they had when they joined in the beginning, but that the sovereignty
of the states would have to be recognized upon rejoining the Union.
Mr. Seward objected that a system of government founded upon the
right of secession would not last and that self-preservation of
the Union was a first law of nature which applies to nations as
well as to individuals. He brought up the point that if all the
states were free to secede, they might make a treaty with some
foreign nation and thus expose the Union to foreign aggression.
Mr. Stephens responded that the principle of self-preservation
also applied to every state by itself and it would never be in
the interest of any single state or several states to join with
some foreign power against those states which remained in the

Mr. Hunter then brought up the question of whether President
Lincoln would require the Confederate army to join with the Union
army to go to war in Mexico and stated before Lincoln answered
that it was the view of all three commissioners that the Confederates
would never agree to join with the Union army in an invasion of
Mexico. Both President Lincoln and Mr. Seward responded that the
feeling was so strong in the North to enforce the Monroe Doctrine,
that they felt that the South would not be needed in the invasion.

The subject of slavery then came up and Mr. Stephens asked President
Lincoln what would be the status of the slave population in the
Confederate states, and especially what effect the Emancipation
Proclamation would have if the Confederates rejoined the Union.
President Lincoln responded that the Proclamation was only a war
measure and as soon as the war ceased, it would have no operation
for the future. It was his opinion that the Courts would decide
that the slaves who were emancipated under the Proclamation would
remain free but those who were not emancipated during the war
would remain in slavery. Mr. Seward pointed out that only about
two hundred thousand (200,000) slaves had come under the operation
of the Proclamation and this would be a small number out of the
total. Mr. Seward then brought up the point that several days
before the meeting, there had been a proposed 13th constitutional
amendment to cause the immediate abolition of slavery throughout
the United States, but if the war were to cease and the Confederates
rejoined the Union, they would have enough votes to kill the amendment.
He stated that there would be thirty-six (36) states and ten (10)
could defeat the amendment. The reader should be reminded at this
point that President Lincoln, in his Inaugural Address before
the war, gave his support to the first 13th amendment pending
at that time which would have explicitly protected slavery where
it already existed.

Mr. Stephens then inquired as to what would be status of the
states in regard to their representation in Congress and President
Lincoln replied that they would have their full rights restored
under the Constitution. This would mean that there would be no
punishment or reconstruction imposed. President Lincoln then returned
to the slavery question and stated that it was never his intention
to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed
and he would not have done so during the war, except that it became
a military necessity. He had always been in favor of prohibiting
the extension of slavery into the territories but never thought
immediate emancipation in the states where it already existed
was practical. He thought there would be "many evils attending"
the immediate ending of slavery in those states. Judge Campbell
then asked Mr. Seward if he thought there would be good race relations
in the South upon immediate emancipation and inquired about what
would happen to the freed slaves. President Lincoln responded
by telling an anecdote about an Illinois farmer and how he avoided
any effort in finding food for his hogs, and his method would
apply to the freed slaves, in other words "let’em root!"
The Confederate delegation showed no interest in protecting slavery
in the Confederacy with their only interest being independence
from the Union and the protection of the right to secede, which
raised the subject of West Virginia. Mr. Hunter asked President
Lincoln whether West Virginia, which had seceded from the State
of Virginia, would be allowed to remain a separate state and President
Lincoln stated that it would. Lincoln had once been a strong proponent
of secession, and as a first-term congressman from Illinois, he
spoke in a session of the House of Representatives in 1848 and
argued that:

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power,
have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government
and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable
and most sacred right, a right which we hope and believe is to
liberate the world." (emphasis supplied).

Lincoln recognized the right of West Virginia to secede but refused
to recognize the right of the South to secede. Mr. Hunter indicated
that President Lincoln’s proposal amounted to an unconditional
surrender but Mr. Seward responded that the North would not be
conquerors but rather the states would merely have to recognize
national authority and the execution of the national laws. The
South would regain full protection of the Constitution like the
rest of the states.

President Lincoln returned to the question of slavery stating
that he thought the North would be willing to be taxed to compensate
the Southern people for the loss of their slaves. He said that
he had many conversations to the effect that if there was a voluntary
abolition of slavery the American government would pay a fair
indemnity and specified that four hundred million dollars ($400,000,000)
would probably be appropriated for this purpose. Mr. Seward said
that the Northern people were weary of the war and they would
be willing to pay this amount of indemnity rather than continuing
to pay for the war.

Mr. Stephens wrote that the entire conversation took about four
hours and the last subject was the possible exchange of prisoners.
President Lincoln stated he would put that question in the hands
of General Grant and they could discuss it with Grant as they
left. Finally, Mr. Stephens asked President Lincoln to reconsider
stopping the hostilities for a period of time so that the respective
sides could "cool off," and while cooling off, investigate
further possibilities for ending the war other than by simply
having the South pledge to rejoin the Union. President Lincoln
stated he would reconsider it but he did not think his mind would
change on that point. Thus, ended the Peace Conference and the
Confederates returned to meet with General Grant and were escorted
back to the Confederate lines.

In summary, the South wanted independence, not the protection
of slavery, and the North wanted reunion rather than abolition
of slavery. This is what President Lincoln had stated in the very
beginning before the war and again what he had stated near the
end of the war.

It was generally recognized in both the North and the South by
1865 that slavery was a dying institution, not just in America,
but throughout Western Civilization. It was also obvious to both
the North and the South that slavery would be hard to maintain
in a separate Confederate South without the constitutional and
statutory fugitive slave provisions which had required free states
to return escaped slaves. In fact, many abolitionists had advocated
Northern secession before the war as a means to end slavery by
depriving the Southern states of the benefits of the fugitive
slave clause in the Constitution and the laws relating thereto.
The offer of the North to pay for the freed slaves was merely
an added inducement to rejoin the Union but Lincoln had always
been willing to accept slavery where it already existed if the
South would remain in, or later, rejoin the Union. The right of
a state to secede clearly had been accepted in the North and the
South at the time of the formation of the Union and up until the
time of the War Between the States. For example, the New England
states frequently asserted the right of secession and threatened
to use it on five occasions: in 1803 because of President Jefferson’s
Louisiana Purchase; in 1807 over the Embargo Act; in 1812 over
the admission of Louisiana as a state; in 1814 at the Hartford
Convention because of the War of 1812; and finally, in 1845 over
the annexation of Texas.

If the agricultural South rejoined the industrial North, they
would again be subject to economic exploitation of the protective
tariff, which was paid primarily by the South and was by far the
main tax to operate the central government in Washington, D.C.
The North, due to their increased representation in Congress,
was able to control where the money was spent, which was primarily
for internal improvements in the North, a practice the South considered
unconstitutional. The protective tariff and internal improvements
had been two of the key problems between the two sections since
1828, along with the general disagreement about the size and power
of the central government in Washington.

Finally, in order to bring into clear focus the significance
of the Hampton Roads Conference, it should be recalled that on
April 4, 1861, before the start of the war on April 12, the Secession
Convention in Virginia, which had convened in February of 1861,
sent a delegate to visit President Lincoln in the White House
to discuss the results of the action recently taken in Virginia.
When the State of Virginia originally voted on its ratification
ordinance approving the U.S. Constitution, it contained a specific
clause protecting their right to secede in the future. The delegate
was Colonel John B. Baldwin, who was a strong opponent of secession
by Virginia, although he recognized the right. His message communicated
privately to the president on April 4, was that the convention
had voted not to secede if President Lincoln would issue a written
pledge to refrain from the use of force in order to get the seceded
states back into the Union. President Lincoln told Colonel Baldwin
that it was four days too late now to take that action. Unknown
to all except a few insiders of the administration, meaning that
members of the Congress did not know, the president had already
issued secret orders on April 1, to send a fleet of ships to Fort
Sumter in order to provoke the South into firing the first shot
in order to start the war. (For more details see my chapter "Lincoln
and the First Shot: A Study of Deceit and Deception" in the
book Reassessing the Presidency.) Lincoln stated that he could
not wait until the seceded states decided what to do and added:

"But what am I to do in the meantime with those men at Montgomery?
Am I to let them go on?"

Baldwin replied:

"Yes sir, until they can be peaceably brought back."

Lincoln then replied:

"And open Charleston, etc., as ports of entry, with their
ten percent tariff . . ." (as opposed to the much higher
forty percent Federal tariff). "What then would become of
my tariff?" (For more details on this meeting and a subsequent
meeting with President Lincoln by other delegates of the Virginia
Secession Convention, again see my chapter "Lincoln and the
First Shot")

The original Constitution, still in effect before the war, prohibited
all "direct" taxes on the people, i.e. income, estate,
gift, etc., so almost all the revenue to operate the Federal government
in Washington was derived from an "indirect" tax on
imports. The South, being agricultural, had to import almost all
manufactured goods from Europe (primarily England) or buy the
products from the North. The higher the tax on imports, the more
protection the North got to raise its prices for its manufactured
goods and for this reason a high import tax was called a "protective
tariff." As long as, the import tax was ten percent or less
it was classified as a "revenue tax" to which the South
did not object. In fact, the new Confederate Constitution adopted
in March of 1861, placed a maximum tax on imports of ten percent.
However, when an import tax or tariff exceeded ten percent, it
became known as a "protective tariff" for the protection
of domestic (Northern) industry. Shortly before the war, the Chicago
Daily Times was only one of many newspapers predicting a calamity
for federal revenue and business in the North if the South was
allowed to secede with its ten percent limit on import taxes which
would attract trade, especially from abroad, to the South rather
than the North. In an editorial it stated:

"In one single blow our [Northern] foreign commerce must
be reduced to less than one-half what it now is. Our coastwise
trade will pass into other hands . . . We should lose our trade
with the South, with all of its immense profits. Our manufactories
will be in utter ruins. Let the South adopt the free-trade system,
or that of a tariff for revenue (ten percent or less), and these
results would likely follow."

In a debate in England, two notable British citizens, Charles
Dickens and John Stuart Mill, took opposing views on the cause
of the American War Between the States with Mill stating that
the purpose of the war was the abolition of slavery and Dickens
maintained that "The Northern onslaught upon slavery was
no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its
desire for economic control of the Southern states."

The meeting at Hampton Roads in 1865 and the meeting with Colonel
Baldwin in 1861 both showed that President Lincoln’s concern
was preventing the secession of the South in order to protect
Northern manufacturers and to retain the tax source for the Federal
government. The abolition of slavery was not the purpose of the
war. In his Inaugural Address he promised he would invade the
South for the purpose of collecting taxes and recovering the forts
but he would support the first 13th amendment which protected
slavery in the states where it already existed.

The War Between the States was not a noble war to abolish slavery,
but instead was a war of conquest to require the Southern states
to continue paying the taxes which paid for the federal government
and to change the system of government given to us by our Founders
and instead replace it with a strong national government thereby
removing most of the political power from the states and the people.
When the famous British historian, Lord Acton, wrote to Robert
E. Lee after the war, in a letter dated November 4, 1866, he inquired
about Lee’s assessment of the meaning of the war and the
result that would follow. Lord Acton’s letter stated, in
part, that:

"I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the
absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with
hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy
. . . . Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles
of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn
for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice
over that which was saved at Waterloo."

Lee replied in a letter dated December 15, 1866, and stated,
in part, what the result would be:

" . . . [T]he consolidation of the states into one vast
republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will
be the certain precursor of the ruin which has overwhelmed all
those that have preceded it." (emphasis supplied).

Never have truer words ever been written or spoken.

Rarely do any governments, or the politicians, intellectuals
and news media who support their wars, tell the truth about the
real motives for the wars. After all, the citizens must be convinced
either that their safety is being protected from an aggressor
or that the war serves some noble purpose, because it’s
the citizens who fight, die and pay the taxes. The Orwellian historians
have falsified the true purposes or motives behind most of America’s
wars, and have instead given us glorified accounts designed to
mislead the public in order to justify the sacrifices the people
have made. All wars, whether won or lost, tend to centralize and
increase the power into the national government, increase the
debts and taxes and diminish the civil liberties of the citizens.
It is time we begin to see through the myths and false propaganda
about American wars so that we can prevent future wars. Americans
have a strong tendency to accept as true the false wartime propaganda
which now appears in the history books and which is repeated by
politicians and intellectuals to the effect that all of America’s
wars have been just, necessary and noble. This tendency of the
Americans to accept this false propaganda tends to prevent them
from questioning the alleged reasons for current wars. There is
also a strong tendency by Americans to measure a person’s
patriotism by how much that person supports an American war rather
than how much the person supports the concept of American freedom
and the ideas of our Founders, which includes a noninterventionist
foreign policy

It is time that Americans learn the truth about the real reasons
behind our wars, and particularly, the War Between the States,
because of the price that we have paid in the long-term loss of
liberty in that war. The deaths of over 600,000 American young
men in that war is not exactly inconsequential. This high death
total is more than the total of all the deaths of American soldiers
in all the other wars America has fought. The Hampton Roads Peace
Conference is a necessary piece to the puzzle of learning that

The abolition of slavery by the 13th amendment was a great step
forward in the struggle for individual freedom and it eliminated
a horrible evil in America which had been practiced for centuries
throughout the world, but the passage of that amendment was not
the purpose of the war and slavery would certainly have died soon
without a war as it did elsewhere throughout Western Civilization
without wars. It is the War Between the States which was the first
great turning point in American history away from the system of
government and the individual freedom that our Founders provided
for us. We need a new "Reformation and Renaissance,"
but this time, it needs to be about government, especially the
American government. We need a new "turning point" to
go in the right direction to recover the original ideas about
individual freedom advocated by our Founders before it is too
late; or have we already passed the point of no return?

Copyright © 2006