Critics say the U.S. should never negotiate with a country like Iran. But as the Obama administration and other members of the U.N. Security Council resume talks with Tehran this week, a new book argues that negotiations with your enemy can be the best path.
The book looks back to a secret peace conference during the late stages of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln spoke in person with Confederate representatives on the presidential steamboat River Queen, the Air Force One of her day.
Ultimately, Lincoln’s cabinet rejected the plan for peace that the president brought back to them and Congress was never even aware of the talks. But nevertheless, says author James B. Conroy, it still makes sense to try.
Conroy speaks to Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti about his book, “Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865.”
By James B. Conroy
Shortly after breakfast on a spring-like day in the winter of 1865, Abraham Lincoln slipped out of the White House alone and into a waiting carriage. To deceive passersby, his Irish-born valet, carpetbag in hand, lagged a minute or two behind him. At the WashingtonCity depot, a train with a single car had been summoned to take him to Annapolis, where the fastest ship on Chesapeake Bay would be ready to run him south to Hampton Roads, Virginia, for a peaceful talk with the enemy in the midst of a shooting war. It had never happened before. It has never happened since. Apart from his Secretary of State, who had quietly gone ahead of him, neither his Cabinet nor his staff had been told that he was going.
After nearly four years of war, much of the Confederacy was in federal hands, its battered armies cornered, the rebellion all but broken, but no one knew when it would end. Indeed, it might yet be revived. Over 600,000 young Americans were dead. A Northern push to victory would kill tens of thousands more, humiliate the South, and delay for generations what Lincoln wanted most and the beleaguered Rebel leader in his capital at Richmond even now refused to consider—a reconciled nation, healed of its painful wounds. Reasonable men of the North and South were coming to Hampton Roads in search of a way out.
Entrenched in a fortified arc on the edge of Petersburg, Virginia, one day’s march from Richmond, General Robert E. Lee was praying for their success. The 50,000 men and boys of the Army of Northern Virginia were ragged, gaunt, and bleeding. The opposing Union forces—smartly uniformed, splendidly equipped, more than 100,000 strong—had failed to dislodge them in June and had dug in beside them instead, grinding them down night and day, taking their blows in return. Half a century later, fighting side by side in France, their grandsons would call it trench warfare.
It was in its eighth month when Lincoln went south to the enemy. A seventeen-year-old Union infantryman would still be reliving its horrors in 1926, deep in old age. “Wish I could forget many, many dread sights that I saw around Petersburg.” Even on dress parade, assembled for inspection with other frightened boys, he had seen arms and legs reaching out from shallow graves.
Interspersed with the trench-side tombs were dozens of primitive forts named for officers struck dead in the vicinity, an old American tradition. Out of place in the nineteenth century, they were throwbacks to the ninth, with walls of earth and timber impaled by sharpened stakes, ringed by pits and moats like some Dark Age warlord’s stronghold. One such edifice on the Union side of the lines intersected the Jerusalem Plank Road. The War Department called it FortSedgwick. Its residents called it FortHell. On the opposite side of no-man’s-land was the Rebel fortification known as FortMahone or FortDamnation, depending on who was asking. Hell and Damnation were a few hundred yards apart, sporting range for sharpshooters who honed their country marksmanship taking aim at careless heads. Mortars and artillery wreaked indiscriminate mayhem and respected no safe havens. A South Carolinian was struck in the mouth while lying at the bottom of a trench, reading a letter from home. “The piece of shell broke his left jaw-bone, severed two arteries on that side of his face, tore out several teeth and lodged there. He was laid out dead. Providentially the blood clotted and prevented his bleeding to death” until someone caught him breathing.
Within FortHell was the warren of holes and hovels that its garrison called home. The most desirable Hellish residences were dug from the battered ground, covered with logs and branches, roofed with a yard of earth to absorb exploding shells. A former Yankee coach maker described the “undiscoverable, almost inconceivable nooks” where less fortunate men lived. The “upholsterer’s art,” he found, had not been “lavished upon our beds.” Less agreeable still were the lodgings outside the walls, “little pits the size of a common grave, though not half so well furnished.”
And then there were the pickets—the unfortunate souls pushed out in front of the trenches in parallel lines of holes to serve as human trip wires in the event of an attack and kill the other side’s pickets. A veteran of the 48th Pennsylvania said a brick could be tossed with ease from one picket line to the other. Bullets traveled faster.
Closer to death than anyone, pickets behaved oddly when they found themselves within chatting distance. They chatted. An unwritten code of picket etiquette determined when its subscribers could socialize and when they could try to kill each other. After dark, the popping of picket fire could be as constant as “the dropping of hail,” but pickets stopped firing at dawn and gave fair warning when ordered to do otherwise. One Rebel threw a rock with a note tied around it: “Tell the fellow with the spy-glass to clear out or we will have to shoot him.” In the quiet of the day, pickets traded rumors, jokes, and whatever was edible, readable, or smokeable, negotiating with their lungs, making airborne deliveries with their pitching arms. Ever short of ammunition, Rebel pickets had been known to toss tobacco plugs to their trading partners in exchange for the lead they had fired at them the night before.
Pickets were not alone in the art of fraternization. A teenaged Midwesterner was proud to distinguish himself as “the boy that caused peace at times.” Confronting a regiment of overactive Virginians, he shouted across the way that the 60th Ohio had moved in, and urged them to quit wasting good ammunition. They proposed to stop shooting if the Ohioans did. “A glad cry went up along the lines, and there was peace and quiet for some time after that. We exchanged coffee with them for some tobacco and papers.”
Joining forces to fight the cold, axmen in blue and gray felled trees together for fuel and shared the proceeds equitably. On Christmas Day, pickets had stood up “in full sight of each other, shouting the compliments of the season, giving invitations to cross over and take a drink, to come to dinner, to come back into the Union.” Well-provisioned Yankees could afford their magnanimity. More than a few Northern regiments opened gifts sent down by rail and enjoyed a festive dinner. The same could not be said for the Americans across the way. Six Southern men had about as much to eat as one of their Northern counterparts. “While our men were dressed in good warm pants, blouses, and overcoats and evidently well fed and taken care of,” a New Englander said, hardly two of “the poor Johnnies” were dressed alike. Many of them were barefoot, their eclectic outfits “ragged and worn with long service, a blanket with a hole in the centre placed over their shoulders forming jacket and overcoat, and with hats of all shapes. But let them hear the word ‘forward’ and you would be surprised to see what a lively set of men they could be.”
Their alacrity had limits. From his headquarters nine miles northeast of the front, Grant was extending his trenches daily, filling them with fresh troops, killing Lee’s stick figures one and two and three at a time, starving and bleeding and breaking them. Unaccustomed to the cold, Captain John Evans of the 23rd South Carolina wrote home in a heavy snow. “It makes me sorry to see so much suffering . . . we poor fellows are in the mud and water . . . the dissatisfaction is spreading fearfully, and especially in the North Carolina brigade it looks like a general stampede for home will take place before spring.” Every night, a Yankee said, “half-frozen and repentant Rebels, in large numbers, made their appearance on our picket line, and were sent to the rear.”
Their suffering was not unrelieved. From time to time official truces were called to recover the dead and wounded in the wake of an attack, discuss a prisoner exchange, or adjust the rules of engagement. When the white flags flew, foul-smelling men crawled out of their holes, the colonels conducted their business, and the privates conducted theirs. Blue and gray laundry was washed side by side in the same refreshing streams. Memorable feats of marksmanship were acknowledged and admired. A consensus was reached on the ineptitude of officers. There had even been North–South wrestling matches, cheered on by partisan fans. A Rhode Island regiment’s football games “never failed to interest the Johnnies,” who would gather a stone’s throw away, “taking as much pleasure therein as if no deadly feud existed between us.”
When the truce flags came down, the combatants returned to their work. Some of them died every day. Others would still be suffering when FDR was president, getting dressed with one hand in Alabama, crying out in the night in New York, burdening their families in Mississippi, enduring their pity in Maine. The killing rarely stopped. As the North replenished its ranks, the South’s diminished daily. “I think hardly any man in that army entertained a thought of coming out of the struggle alive,” a Virginian would later say, but the most intrepid of them persisted “in vaguely hoping and trying to believe that success was still to be ours, and to that end we shut our eyes to the plainest facts, refusing to admit the truth which was everywhere evident, namely, that our efforts had failed, and that our cause was already in its death struggles.”
On Sunday, January 29, 1865, a Rebel flag of truce appeared in front of FortDamnation, and the neighborhood mood improved. A sergeant of the 8th Michigan reported the enemy overture to Captain Thomas Parker of the 51st Pennsylvania, a bright young man with a walrus mustache, commanding the local picket line. Parker climbed up on a parapet to take a look for himself.
On both sides of no-man’s-land, hundreds of men and boys were doing the same, with a keener intensity than usual. For the past several weeks, Northern and Southern newspapers had been full of rumors of peace, deplored by most editorialists (none of them under fire) as a Yankee trick, or a Rebel play for time, or a craven substitute for victory. The pundits on the siege line were decidedly more bullish. Southern pickets had been shouting peaceful forecasts to their Yankee interlocutors. “This Rebellion is played out.” “There will be glorious news within ten days.”
Having reported the flag of truce, Captain Parker shed his sword, walked out to the middle of no-man’s-land with his own white flag, and saluted Lieutenant Colonel William Hatch, a handsome young Kentuckian. After “passing the compliments of the day,” Hatch requested an audience with no less a figure than General Grant’s Chief of Staff. Three Southern dignitaries had just arrived from Richmond, he said, to meet with President Lincoln for the purpose of ending the war. The general was expecting them. They would wait for his pass in Petersburg, and hoped to reach his headquarters that night. Stunned, no doubt, to hear it, Parker promised a quick reply, the officers returned to their lines, and a Northern lieutenant colonel came out to speak with Hatch.
Rumor was on the wing on the overlooking parapets. From the moment the flag of truce appeared, Parker said, “the enemy and our men watched the whole proceeding in silence until its import was made manifest.” In a triumph of military intelligence, its import was made manifest in both armies simultaneously, and both started shouting.
As the officers down in no-man’s-land walked on and off the stage, applauded from the balconies, the works were covered with men, yelling, cheering, and making every demonstration of joy at the prospect of having no more fighting to do.” The news “spread like a contagion” as officers of every degree went “flying on horseback in all directions” to pass the jubilant word. A citizen of FortHell recalled how “very soon a bit of white cloth stuck on the end of a stick or ramrod could be seen floating from the top of each picket post on both sides.” With the winter sun shining on a hundred daubs of white, some enterprising men ventured out into no-man’s-land, scanning the lunar landscape in search of fuel or lead. Entertainment was provided while the scavengers plied their trades. “One of our boys invited a reb to come out on neutral ground and have a free fight,” a Union man said. “The reb whipped the Yank, when each returned to their respective sides amid loud and prolonged cheers from the rebs.”
Monday morning broke cold and sunny, and thousands of men and boys stood up in perfect safety to watch the doves fly through the lines, only to be disappointed. The disconcerting word was spread that the War Department was holding them up, but the truce stayed in place like a second day of Christmas. With the dignity characteristic of his publication, the New York Times correspondent on the siege line allowed that there was “considerable excitement” about the prospect of getting out of it alive, but the Times was skeptical of peace talks.. “Our men know that peace is not to be gained by smooth words. ‘Talk is cheap,’ said one the other day.”
On the following morning, a wire came through from Grant’s headquarters, producing shouts of joy. The general’s senior aide was on his way to the front to receive the Rebel peace commission. The word came none too soon. In the course of the past two days, so many men and boys had been crossing over to “confer with the enemy,” a Northern soldier said, that both sides had posted guards. Otherwise, “the blue and the gray would have got so mixed up, that so far as regards these two armies, the war would have ended right there and then, in spite of all officers and orders to the contrary.”
But officers and orders still reigned. At the eastern end of the siege line, two miles away from the momentous happenings, an artillery officer in blue peered out from FortMcGilvery at an enemy team at work on their fortifications, a faux pas during a truce, and decided to break it up. The Rebels scattered promptly, but their own artillery replied. The commotion remained local but continued until dark, rumbling down the siege line. To the sound of distant cannon, a Rebel general made a stirring address, or so said the Petersburg Express. The defenders of the South must not let down their guard “on account of the so-called peace commission,” but “depend on their arms” for the peace that would come from their “manly exertions.” The man from the Express did not hear the oration, but understood that it generated much enthusiasm.
There was surely much enthusiasm when the lightning word was flashed that the peacemakers were coming. Rebel troops lined the Petersburg road and spilled out into the fields as a coach passed by on a wave of jubilation. When it pulled up behind the Confederate lines, the celebrities stepped down, attended by the mayor and the gracious Colonel Hatch. Slaves unloaded their trunks and joy washed over their heads as they parted a cheering crowd of buoyant Southern men and beaming Southern women down from Petersburg to witness history in their hoop skirts and bonnets. One of the three commissioners looked plump and rosy, another stiff and formal. The third, a sickly little Georgian, had been Lincoln’s friend and ally in the old Congress. Now he was leaning on the arm of a slave, feeble but excited.
Not everyone was. A former Buffalo newspaperman had lost 70 of the 135 companions who had started the war with him. As the bitter Yankee saw it, the Southern peace commission emerged to the sound of protesting cannon, as “the hazy mist, which is not unusual here at sunset, began to obscure the distant horizon and give the landscape a gloomy and somber aspect. At first as we watched, they seemed as shadows moving in the hazy light, but as they approached their forms became clear and distinct, and we soon stood face to face with the representatives of treason, tyranny and wrong.”
Not as traitors but as dignitaries, the Southerners were saluted by a party of Northern officers and escorted to the Union lines. As a thousand troops on both sides chanted “Peace! Peace! Peace!,” an excited Rebel soldier called for “three cheers and a tiger for the whole Yankee army,” and got them. The Yanks returned the favor, and a loud Northern voice demanded the same for the ladies, who waved their “snowy handkerchiefs” in decorous reply. Behind the Union lines, a gleaming horse-drawn ambulance was waiting to take the Southerners to the train that would bring them to Grant. A team of matched horses drove them smartly away; by accident or design, all four of them were gray.
As darkness fell, the artillery duel up the line petered out. The federal officer in charge would soon recount his losses almost cheerfully. “I have no casualties to report among the artillery and but two killed and four wounded among the infantry.” It is safe to assume that the brass took the news in stride and the dead boys’ families took it harder.
General George Gordon Meade, the celebrated victor at Gettysburg, came to visit the Rebel ambassadors the next day and wrote to his wife that night. One of them had asked to be remembered to her family. Another had brought a letter addressed to their common kin. Skeptical though he was, Meade had his hopes for peace. “I do most earnestly pray that something may result from this movement.”
Lincoln was prayerful too, old at fifty-five with the weight of 600,000 dead. A portrait painter named Carpenter had been living with him for weeks, absorbing “the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look into it without crying.”
In the previous spring, after three cautious years of indecisive battle, Grant had taken command of all the Union armies and designed a new kind of war with the help of a brash subordinate, General William Tecumseh Sherman. “Sanguinary war,” Grant called it—bloody war—and Lincoln had given it his blessing. While Sherman attacked General Joseph Johnston’s outnumbered Army of Tennessee and another Union force marched on Richmond, Grant would bludgeon Lee until he stopped struggling. In May and June alone, the North had sustained some 95,000 casualties. The South’s horrific losses were unreliably counted. Lincoln had barely slept. Carpenter came across him in a corridor, “clad in a long morning wrapper, arching back and forth a narrow passage leading to one of the windows, his hands behind him, great black rings under his eyes, his head bent forward upon his breast.”
Tens of thousands of young Americans had lost their lives since then, and the war was not yet won. On his way to Hampton Roads to see an old friend from Georgia, Lincoln had a chance to end it.
Excerpted from the book OUR ONE COMMON COUNTRY by James B. Conroy. Copyright © 2014 by James B. Conroy. Reprinted with permission of Lyons Press.