A very important letter and true rarity: The only letter of Grant to Lincoln from the consequential final months of the war we can find reaching the market in at least the past 40 years.
Lincoln was concerned that the Confederates would use the Hampton Roads Peace Conference to buy time and undermine Union war gains, and Grant assures him that there will be no truce or armistice because of it; February 1, 1865, to “A Lincoln, President”. “Your dispatch received. There will be no armistice in...
Lincoln was concerned that the Confederates would use the Hampton Roads Peace Conference to buy time and undermine Union war gains, and Grant assures him that there will be no truce or armistice because of it; February 1, 1865, to “A Lincoln, President”. “Your dispatch received. There will be no armistice in consequence of the presence of Mr. Stevens & others within our lines. The troops are kept in readiness to move at the shortest notice if occasion should justify it. U.S. Grant, Lt. Gen.”
In late November 1864, Sherman was well into his march to the sea, the success of which would so discourage the South. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was securely ensconced in Petersburg, but Grant’s Army of the Potomac had been aggressively besieging it for five months already, so it was in essence bottled up there. Though Confederate prospects for victory on the battlefield had dimmed, its leadership had been hoping that in the presidential election on November 8, 1864, a war-weary North would force a political settlement by rejecting Abraham Lincoln at the polls; instead Lincoln was reelected. Still the Confederacy held on, and had two major, formidable armies filled with outstanding leaders and soldiers. The Civil War, which had been carrying on for almost four years, now seemed interminable. The losses and sufferings on both sides had been terrible, and the seemingly endless strife led to a clamor to bring the conflict to a conclusion.
In December Horace Greeley and Francis P. Blair, who were calling for an end to the war, developed a scheme wherein Blair would propose to Lincoln a meeting with Confederate president Jefferson Davis to sound him out. He did so, and Lincoln allowed Blair to travel to Richmond. After meeting with Davis on January 12, 1865, Blair returned to Washington with a note that Davis had written for Blair to relay to Lincoln, saying he [Davis] was willing to send commissioners, if assured they would be received, and that he was not disposed to find obstacles in formalities. His stated purpose was to discuss the possibility of “securing peace to the two countries”. Lincoln abhorred any suggestion of acknowledging the Confederacy as a separate country; thus he sent Blair back to Richmond on January 18 with a message for Blair to relay to Davis, in which Lincoln, after acknowledging that he had read the note of Davis, said that he was willing to receive any agents that Davis might send to confer informally with the him, “with the view to securing peace to the people of our one common country”.
On January 28, Davis called Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens (a former close friend of Lincoln from the days when they were Whigs in Congress together), Asst. Secretary of War John A. Campbell (a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), and Senate President Pro Temp Robert M.T. Hunter, to a meeting in which he advised them of his intention to send them through the lines to meet with President Lincoln or his designated emissaries with an eye towards ending the war. Davis made it clear, however, that they were not to agree to anything with Lincoln that involved “reconstruction of the Federal Union”. Lincoln for his part assumed that any Confederate commissioners sent to speak with him would understand that they were there in their personal capacities, and not as representatives of a rival government. Thus, though unwilling to be perceived as standing in the way of peace by refusing a dialog, nor of missing a potential opportunity to end the bloodshed, neither president was reconciled to accepting the kind of compromise that would induce the other to agree to terms.
On January 29, Grant advised Lincoln that Stephens, Hunter and Campbell were applying for leave to pass through the lines as peace commissioners, to confer with the President. As Grant later wrote, “On the last of January, 1865, peace commissioners from the so-called Confederate States presented themselves on our lines around Petersburg, and were immediately conducted to my headquarters at City Point…I at once conducted them to the steamer…which was very comfortably fitted up for the use of the use of passengers. I at once communicated by telegraph with Washington and informed the Secretary of War and the President of the arrival of these commissioners and that their object was to negotiate terms of peace between the United States and, as they termed it, the Confederate Government.” Grant treated his guests hospitably, and they in turn treated their hosts cordially. The scene was not a tense on.
The same could not be said of Washington, where, as word spread in the last few days of January that Confederate commissioners were to meet with the President to negotiate peace, there was great concern (if not near panic) in some quarters. Supporters of the war feared that all they had achieved might be for nought if the Confederacy ended up achieving recognition. Abolitionists worried that emancipation might be bargained away to secure reunification of the nation; in fact, the news broke just days before a scheduled vote on the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. Proponents of the amendment were worried that the announcement would kill its chances, and those opposing the amendment in Congress did in fact argue that adopting it would signal hostility to the South and undermine the peace talks. Lincoln was anxious to assuage his supporters’ concerns by emphasizing that his positions on the amendment and non-recognition of the Confederacy had not changed.
With the Confederates literally on Grant’s boat awaiting his presence, Lincoln’s greatest concern was that the Davis government might use the talks to buy time, and to use that time to create pressure to suspend military action on all fronts, and to gather and resupply their forces. This would undermine the entire Union war effort and nullify some of its hard-won gains. He was determined not to allow a de facto armistice because of the talks.
So after receiving Grant’s telegram announcing the arrival of the commissioners, the War Department instructed Grant to retain them at City Point until the President, or some one whom he would designate, should come to meet them. Lincoln then dispatched Maj. Thomas Eckert, head of the War Department's telegraph office and a man who had the President’s trust, to the scene. He carried with him a letter to Grant dated January 30 from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, written “by order of the President”, saying "The President desires that you will please procure for the bearer, Major Thomas T. Eckert, an interview with Messrs Stephens, Hunter & Campbell, and if, on his return to you, he request it, pass them through our lines to Fortress Monroe, by such route and under such military precautions as you may deem prudent, giving them protection and comfortable quarters while there, and that you let none of this have any effect upon your movements or plans.”
Lincoln wrote Secretary of State William H. Seward the next day, January 31, assigning him to meet with the Confederates, and setting conditions that: there must be a restoration of the Union; there would be no “receding” of the Emancipation Proclamation; and no “cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war”. That day the 13th Amendment banning slavery was passed by the House, strengthening Lincoln’s position.
But Lincoln was taking no chances on that latter point – that there would be no truce – and followed up on his instructions to Grant sent through Stanton, with his own telegram directly to Grant, sent February 1, 1865, at 9:30 AM. “Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder, or delay your military movements or plans.” Grant fired back his own telegram to Lincoln, assuring him that the presence of the Confederates would result in no halt in the war, that he should have no worries on that account.
Autograph letter signed, by "Cipher," on his Headquarters Armies of the United States letterhead, City Point, Va., 12:30 PM, February 1, 1865, to “A Lincoln, President”. “Your dispatch received. There will be no armistice in consequence of the presence of Mr. Stevens & others within our lines. The troops are kept in readiness to move at the shortest notice if occasion should justify it. U.S. Grant, Lt. Gen.”
At this point, Grant was in favor of a meeting taking place, while Eckert felt that, pursuant to his instructions, the Confederate commissioners could only be met if they agreed to do so under Lincoln’s three-prong conditions as sent by him to Seward. As a Grant biographer wrote, "At first it looked as if there would be no meeting. The commissioners would not accede to the President's preconditions of reunion, abolition, and an end to the conflict; they insisted that they had to comply with Davis's direction authorizing negotiations to achieve peace between 'the two countries.' The Confederates tried to bypass Eckert by appealing directly to Grant to allow them to go to Washington; the major blocked this effort at circumvention.” Eckert relates that Grant was irritated that a Major should be overriding his wishes within his own command, and obstructing possible from talks. At this point Grant determined to use his considerable influence, writing Stanton: “I will state confidentially…that I am convinced upon conversation with Messrs. Stephens and Hunter that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union… I fear now their going back without any expression from anyone in authority will have a bad influence. At the same time, I recognize the difficulties in the way of receiving these informal commissioners at this time…I am sorry, however, that Mr. Lincoln can not have an interview with the two named in this dispatch, if not all three now within our lines.”
Lincoln later said that it was Grant's telegram that induced him to change his mind and decide to meet the commissioners. On February 2, Lincoln left Washington for Hampton Roads, and the conference was held on February 3. The meeting lasted four hours. As John Nicolay wrote, “The President told them that he could not entertain any proposition, or conversation which did not concede and embody the restoration of the national authority over the states now in revolt. That he could not recede in the least from what he had publicly said about slavery; and that he could not concede or agree to any cessation of hostilities, which was not an actual end of the war and a disbandment of the rebel armies. They on their side neither offered nor declined any distinct point or proposition; but the drift of all their talk was that they desired a cessation of hostilities, or armistice, or as they phrased it 'a postponement of the issue’.”
So Lincoln had been right that a goal of the Confederates was to buy time, and as our letter shows, Grant supported him by refusing to allow that to happen. The war would come to a successful military conclusion just three months later, and had there been an armistice, no one can know what the result would have been.
It is often claimed that the Hampton Road Conference accomplished nothing, and it certainly did not end the war. It did, however, institute a humanitarian prisoner exchange program after two years of no exchanges. The negotiated agreement for that program was completed on February 16 and word relayed to field officers and prison commandants. Fully 41,000 soldiers were exchanged pursuant to that program, many of whom would have died in the awful Civil War prisons without it. So Grant’s advocacy of the meeting saved untold thousands of lives.
A statement on rarity:
Lincoln and Grant needed to stay in constant contact, but there was one complication. Though Grant was overall military commander, he was nominally serving under Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, and also was responsible for reporting to the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Both of these men were notoriously prickly and would offend easily. So Grant generally went through channels, and the letters he wrote for Lincoln’s attention or information were very largely addressed to Halleck or Stanton, who in turn informed the President. The result is that although Grant and Lincoln did directly write each other, a relatively small number of these letters went back and forth in comparison to Grant and Lincoln’s correspondence with others. The communications that passed from Grant to Lincoln of any historical importance did so by way “cipher” as Grant was in the field and Lincoln in Washington.
Looking at the consequential end of war period between Lincoln's reelection on November 8, 1864, and Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, Grant evidently wrote to Lincoln just 36 times, a startlingly low number. Only 13 letters are known definitely to have survived, the rest being known in large part from secretarial copies at the Library of Congress. And of these 13, at least 9 are in institutions, either in the LOC or the Huntington Library. As of a decade or so ago, only three such letters of Grant to Lincoln were known to be in private hands, and these may or may not still be so. This letter is the now the fourth to carry that distinction, and it is by far the most important.
To confirm this, public sale records extending back 40 years (as well as searching our own recollections and records going back three decades) finds no record of any letter from Grant to Lincoln during this period reaching the market over that entire time.
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