Story of a Failed Peace Mission~September 1864

A Failed Peace Mission

James Gilmore, age 42 at the time, was a Massachusetts writer and journalist. James Jaquess, age 44, came from Indiana and was a Methodist minister, educator and Union officer who believed that he could “covert” President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy to peaceably ending the war. At their own request, President Lincoln permitted them to undertake a personal, unaccredited mission to meet with Davis which they actually did on July 17th, 1864, in Richmond, without any results. Jaquess lived to June 17, 1898 and Gilmore until November 16, 1903. Jaquess lectured about his experience during the fall political campaign of 1864. Gilmore made money lecturing and writing about his experience for many years after the war. Under the pen name “Edmund Kirke” Gilmore wrote an article which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Volume 14, Issue 83, September 1864, pp. 372-383 “Our Visit to Richmond.” What follows are several excerpts from the last half of that article:

the Atlantic Monthly building in Boston

the Atlantic Monthly building in Boston

We called again, at nine o’clock, at the State Department. Mr. [Judah P] Benjamin [Confederate Secretary of State] occupied his previous seat at the table, and at his right sat a spare, thin-featured man, with iron-gray hair and beard, and a clear, gray eye full of life and vigor. He had a broad, massive forehead, and a mouth and chin denoting great energy and strength of will. His face was emaciated, and much wrinkled, but his features were good, especially his eyes,– though one of them bore a scar, apparentlymade by some sharp instrument. He wore a suit of grayish-brown, evidently of foreign manufacture, and, as he rose, I saw that he was about five feet ten inches high, with a slight stoop in the shoulders. His manners were simple, easy, and quite fascinating: and he threw an indescribable charm into his voice, as he extended his hand, and said to us,

“I am glad to see you, Gentlemen. You are very welcome to Richmond.”

And this was the man who was Secretary of War of the United States under [President] Franklin Pierce, and who is now the heart, soul, and brains of the Southern Confederacy! His manner put me entirely at my ease,– the Colonel [Jaquess] would be at his, if he stood before Caesar,– and I replied, “We thank you, Mr. Davis. It is not often you meet men of our clothes, and our principles, in Richmond.”

“Not often, not so often as I could wish; and I trust your coming may lead to a more frequent and a more friendly intercourse between the North and the South.”

“We sincerely hope it may.”

“Mr. Benjamin tells me you have asked to see me, to”– And he paused, as if desiring we should finish the sentence.

The Colonel replied, “Yes, Sir. We have asked this interview in the hope that you may suggest some way by which this war can be stopped. Our people want peace, your people do, and your Congress has recently said that you do. We have come to ask how it can be brought about.”

“In a very simple way. Withdraw your armies from our territory, and peace will come of itself. We do not seek to subjugate you. We are not waging an offensive war, except so far as it is offensive-defensive, that is, so far as we are forced to invade you to prevent your invading us. Let us alone, and peace will come at once.”

“But we cannot let you alone so long as you repudiate the Union. That is the one thing the Northern people will not surrender.”

“I know. You would deny to us what you exact for yourselves, the right of self-government.”

“No, Sir,” I remarked. “We would deny you no natural right. But we think Union essential to peace; and, Mr. Davis, could two people, with the same language, separated by only an imaginary line, live at peace with each other? Would not disputes constantly arise, and cause almost constant war between them?”

“Undoubtedly, with this generation. You have sown such bitterness at the South, you have put such an ocean of blood between the two sections, that I despair of seeing any harmony in my time. Our children may forget this war, but we cannot.”

“I think the bitterness you speak of, Sir,” said the Colonel, “does not really exist. We meet and talk here as friends; our soldiers meet and fraternize with each other; and I feel sure, that, if the Union were restored, a more friendly feeling would arise between us than has ever existed. The war has made us know and respect each other better than before. This is the view of very many Southern men; I have had it from many of them, your leading citizens.”

“They are mistaken,” replied Mr. Davis. “They do not understand Southern sentiment. How can we feel anything but bitterness towards men who deny us our rights? If you enter my house and drive me out of it, am I not your natural enemy?”

“You put the case too strongly. But we cannot fight forever; the war must end at some time; we must finally agree upon something; can we not agree now, and stop this frightful carnage? We are both Christian men, Mr. Davis. Can you, as a Christian man, leave untried any means that may lead to peace?”

“No, I cannot. I desire peace as much as you do. I deplore bloodshed as much as you do; but I feel that not one drop of the blood shed in this war is on my hands– I can look up to my God and say this. I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves; and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight his battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we will have.”

* * * * *

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States

“I know your motives, Colonel Jaquess, and I honor you for them; but what can I do more than I am doing? I would give my poor life, gladly, if it would bring peace and good-will to the two countries; but it would not. It is with your own people you should labor. It is they who desolate our homes, burn our wheat-fields, break the wheels of wagons carrying away our women and children, and destroy supplies meant for our sick and wounded. At your door lies all the misery and the crime of this war, and it is a fearful, fearful account.”

“Not all of it, Mr. Davis. I admit a fearful account, but it is not all at our door. The passions of both sides are aroused. Unarmed men are hanged, prisoners are shot down in cold blood, by yourselves.

Elements of barbarism are entering the war on both sides, that should make us– you and me, as Christian men– shudder to think of. In God’s name, then, let us stop it. Let us do something, concede something, to bring about peace. You cannot expect, with only four and a half millions, as Mr. Benjamin says you have, to hold out forever against twenty millions.”

Again Mr. Davis smiled. “Do you suppose there are twenty millions at the North determined to crush us?”

“I do, to crush your government. A small number of our people, a very small number, are your friends – Secessionists. The rest differ about measures and candidates, but are united in the determination to sustain the Union. Whoever is elected in November, he must be committed to a vigorous prosecution of the war.”

Mr. Davis still looking incredulous, I remarked, “It is so, Sir. Whoever tells you otherwise deceives you. I think I know Northern sentiment, and I assure you it is so. You know we have a system of lyceum-lecturing in our large towns. At the close of these lectures, it is the custom of the people to come upon the platform and talk with the lecturer. This gives him an excellent opportunity of learning public sentiment. Last winter I lectured before nearly a hundred of such associations, all over the North, from Dubuque [Iowa] to Bangor [Maine], and I took pains to ascertain the feeling of the people. I found a unanimous determination to crush the Rebellion and save the Union at every sacrifice. The majority are in favor of Mr. Lincoln, and nearly all of those opposed to him are opposed to him because they think he does not fight you with enough vigor. The radical Republicans, who go for slave-suffrage and thorough confiscation, are those who will defeat him, if he is defeated. But if he is defeated before the people, the House will elect a worse man, I mean, worse for you. It is more radical than he is, you can see that from Mr. Ashley’s Reconstruction Bill, and the people are more radical than the House. Mr. Lincoln, I know, is about to call out five hundred thousand more men, and I can’t see how you can resist much longer; but if you do, you will only deepen the radical feeling of the Northern people. They will now give you fair, honorable, generous terms; but let them suffer much more, let there be a dead man in every house, as there is now in every village, and they will give you no terms– they will insist on hanging every Rebel south of . . . Pardon my terms. I mean no offence.”

“You give no offence,” he replied, smiling very, pleasantly. “I wouldn’t have you pick your words. This is a frank, free talk, and I like you the better for saying what you think. Go on.”

“I was merely going to say, that, let the Northern people once really feel the war, they do not feel it yet, and they will insist on hanging every one of your leaders.”

“Well, admitting all you say, I can’t see how it affects our position. There are some things worse than hanging or extermination. We reckon giving up the right of self-government one of those things.”

“By self-government you mean disunion, Southern Independence?”

“Yes.”

“And slavery, you say, is no longer an element in the contest.”

“No, it is not, it never was an essential element. It was only a means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination. It fired the musket which was already capped and loaded. There are essential differences between the North and the South that will, however this war may end, make them two nations.”

* * * * *

Judah P Benjamin

Judah P Benjamin

“Your very name, Sir, ‘United States,’ implies that,” said Mr. Benjamin. “But, tell me, are the terms you have named– Emancipation, No Confiscation, and Universal Amnesty– the terms which Mr. Lincoln authorized you to offer us?”

“No, Sir, Mr. Lincoln did not authorize me to offer you any terms. But I think both he and the Northern people, for the sake of peace, would assent to some such conditions.”

“They are very generous,” replied Mr. Davis, for the first time during the interview showing some angry feeling. “But Amnesty, Sir, applies to criminals. We have committed no crime. Confiscation is of no account, unless you can enforce it. And Emancipation! You have already emancipated nearly two millions of our slaves, and if you will take care of them, you may emancipate the rest. I had a few when the war began. I was of some use to them; they never were of any to me. Against their will you ’emancipated’ them; and you may ’emancipate’ every Negro in the Confederacy, but we will be free! We will govern ourselves. We will do it, if we have to see every Southern plantation sacked, and every Southern city in flames.”

“I see, Mr. Davis, it is useless to continue this conversation,” I replied; “and you will pardon us, if we have seemed to press our views with too much pertinacity. We love the old flag, and that must be our apology for intruding upon you at all.”

“You have not intruded upon me,” he replied, resuming his usual manner. “I am glad to have met you, both. I once loved the old flag as well as you do; I would have died for it; but now it is to me only the emblem of oppression.”

“I hope the day may never come, Mr. Davis, when I say that,” said the Colonel.

A half-hour’s conversation on other topics– not of public interest– ensued, and then we rose to go. As we did so, the Rebel President gave me his hand, and, bidding me a kindly good-bye, expressed the hope of seeing me again in Richmond in happier times, when peace should have returned; but with the Colonel his parting was particularly cordial. Taking his hand in both of his, he said to him, “Colonel, I respect your character and your motives, and I wish you well, I wish you every good I can wish you consistently with the interests of the Confederacy.” The quiet, straightforward bearing and magnificent moral courage of our “fighting parson” had evidently impressed Mr. Davis very favorably. As we were leaving the room, he added, “Say to Mr. Lincoln from me, that I shall at any time be pleased to receive proposals for peace on the basis of our Independence. It will be useless to approach me with any other.”

* * * * *

CSA Capitol Building, Richmond, Virginia

CSA Capitol Building, Richmond, Virginia

Thus ended our visit to Richmond. I have endeavored to sketch it faithfully. The conversation with Mr. Davis I took down shortly after entering the Union lines, and I have tried to report his exact language, extenuating nothing, and coloring nothing that he said. Some of his sentences, as I read them over, appear stilted and high-flown, but they did not sound so when uttered. As listened to, they seemed the simple, natural language of his thought. He spoke deliberately, apparently weighing every word, and knowing well that all he said would be given to the public.

He is a man of peculiar ability. Our interview with him explained to me why, with no money and no commerce, with nearly every one of their important cities in our hands, and with an army greatly inferior in numbers and equipment to ours, the Rebels have held out so long. It is because of the sagacity, energy, and indomitable will of Jefferson Davis. Without him the Rebellion would crumble to pieces in a day; with him it may continue to be, even in disaster, a power that will tax the whole energy and resources of the nation.

The Southern masses want peace. Many of the Southern leaders want it, both my companion and I, by correspondence and intercourse with them, know this; but there can be no peace so long as Mr. Davis controls the South. Ignoring slavery, he himself states the issue, the only issue with him, Union, or Disunion. That is it. We must conquer, or be conquered. We can negotiate only with the bayonet. We can have peace and union only by putting forth all our strength, crushing the Southern armies, and overthrowing the Southern government.

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