On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln returned to Washington from a trip to Virginia, where he had visited Grant’s headquarters, surveyed Richmond in captivity and sat in Jefferson Davis’s chair, contemplating the imminent end of war.
Arriving back in the capital, Lincoln stopped first by the house of William Seward, his Secretary of State, who was laid up owing to a carriage accident that left him with a broken arm and jaw. The president proposed a national day of thanksgiving, and held his face close to Seward’s to hear his colleague’s answer. Seward counseled, not yet. Sherman had still to secure the surrender of Joseph Johnston. Until then the Confederacy remained unconquered.
Lincoln would not live to see the end Seward advised him to await. But when that conclusion came, Lincoln’s trip to Virginia would hang heavy over it. Officers of the government and various journalists would claim that the terms Sherman gave Johnston were so lenient as to seem treasonous, and Sherman would say that he granted only what Lincoln had told him to grant when they met at City Point, Virginia. Sherman met Johnston on April 17 and 18, and signed an agreement that included not only the disbanding of all Confederate armies, but also the recognition “by the Executive of the United States” of Confederate state governments, a provision that the U.S. Supreme Court would decide the legitimacy of competing state governments, a guarantee that southerners would remain secure in their rights of person and property, as well as a general amnesty.
Lincoln had been murdered April 14; the Johnson administration immediately rejected Sherman’s terms and sent Grant to relieve Sherman of command, though on arrival Grant opted simply to inform Sherman his terms had been rejected. Sherman subsequently obtained from Johnston terms of surrender materially similar to those Lee had given Grant: surrender of arms, soldiers to write oaths promising not to take up arms against the U.S., officers to retain sidearms.
What was wrong with Sherman’s initial terms? (1) they were silent on slavery; (2) they opened the way for legal challenges to loyal governments, like those in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, not to mention the new state of West Virginia; (3) at the same time they recognized existing Confederate state governments; (4) they left open the possibility of paying the Confederate war debt.
All pretty bad, right? How had Sherman, the terrible swift sword himself, come to offer such light terms?
Sherman would later claim that he had offered only what Lincoln told him to offer.
Then recalling the conversation of Mr. Lincoln, at City Point, I sat down at the table, and wrote off the terms, which I thought concisely expressed his views and wishes…. Neither Mr. Breckenridge [sic; Confederate Secretary of War] nor General Johnston wrote one word of that paper. I wrote it myself….
And Admiral David Porter, also present at City Point, backed Sherman up, saying, “the President was very decided about the matter, and insisted that the surrender of Johnston’s army must be obtained on any terms.”1
The trouble is, Lincoln’s stated peace terms were at odds with these characterizations. He had in February, when the Confederates still had Richmond, drafted an offer of amnesty, and $400m—half now, half when the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment—and protection of “all property, except slaves.” That was as generous as he got. As the Confederate military position eroded, so did his generosity. On April 5, he wrote clearly that peace required “No receding … on the slavery question,” and in the speech he gave on April 11—his last—he cast doubt on any recognition of Confederate state governments: “there is no authorized organ for us to treat with… We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements.”
Suppose Sherman’s terms didn’t come from Lincoln: where did they come from? Look back at the passage from Sherman’s Memoirs, and notice how firmly he says, “Neither Mr. Breckenridge [sic] nor General Johnston wrote one word of that paper. I wrote it myself….” While perhaps literally true, this appears substantially false. The terms probably did come from the Confederate representatives, specifically from a memorandum written by Confederate postmaster general John Reagan, who accompanied them but with whom Sherman couldn’t directly negotiate because he was a civilian. Reagan’s correspondence indicated clearly enough that he meant all the loopholes and implications that so enraged the U.S. government and public to be in there.
Was Sherman simply taken at the table? One historian writes that Reagan was a good lawyer, and Sherman a poor one: which might be enough to explain what happened.2
Sherman himself, in sending the terms up the chain of command, wrote “Both Generals Johnston and Breckinridge admitted that slavery was dead, and I could not insist on embracing it in such a paper, because it can be made with the States in detail.”3 Is this a believable statement? that Sherman didn’t think it necessary to mention slavery, which all knew was somehow the cause of the war, while mentioning security in property? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the statement of a man who realized belatedly he had been “hustled”—Michael Fellman highlights that word, which Sherman used years later in what Fellman calls “a moment of candor.”4
The source here is John Wise:
Breckinridge never shone more brilliantly than he did in the discussions which followed. He seemed to have at his tongue’s end every rule and maxim of international and constitutional law, and of the laws of war, - international wars, civil wars, and wars of rebellion. In fact, he was so resourceful, cogent, persuasive, learned, that, at one stage of the proceedings, General Sherman, when confronted by the authority, but not convinced by the eloquence or learning of Breckinridge, pushed back his chair and exclaimed: “See here, gentlemen, who is doing this surrendering anyhow? If this thing goes on, you’ll have me sending a letter of apology to Jeff Davis."… [Breckinridge] had pressed the Union commander to that state of abstraction….
Wise claimed to have brought it up later to Sherman, “being intimate” with him, whereupon Sherman replied, “Those fellows hustled me so that day….”
Still, there is also this to consider: Lincoln’s public statements were at odds with such generous terms. But these were issued from the sobriety of his study. Is it not possible that in the field he might have weakened and felt differently? Here are Bowman and Irwin, writing in 1865:
It will be remembered that during his hurried visit to City Point to confer with General Grant, General Sherman also had the good fortune to meet President Lincoln, and freely interchange views with him. Any one who knows any thing of the personal opinions and desires of Mr. Lincoln knows that, above all things, he desired an end of the war on any terms that proposed a permanent peace. He was now, more than ever, impressed by the sacrifices and sufferings of the people on both sides of the contest. Here, in the neighborhood of Petersburg, he had seen war for the first time, and it harrowed his generous soul to the very bottom. He walked over ground covered with the bodies of the slain, more numerous than he could count or cared to count; he saw living men with broken heads and mangled forms, and heard the hopeless groans and piteous wails of the dying, whom no human hand could save; he witnessed the bloody work of the surgeons—those carpenters and joiners of human frames—and saw amputated legs and arms piled up in heaps to be carted away like the offal of a slaughter-house; and he turned from the horrid sight, exclaiming: “And this is war—horrid war—the trade of barbarians!” And, appealing to his principal officers, he inquired: “Gentlemen, is there no way by which we can put a stop to this fighting?”
The President was in this frame of mind when General Sherman reported to him at City Point.
Remarkable—if true. But what’s their source? So much of that paragraph sounds so much like the rhetoric of instant reconciliation, it’s hard quite to credit.
So there’s a puzzle here. And I bet some of you (Kevin?) know more pieces than I’ve given here. Probably there’s an article or dissertation playing it all out, and I look forward to someone humbling me by saying so.
1Cited in Raoul S. Naroll, “Lincoln and the Sherman Peace Fiasco: Another Fable?” Journal of Southern History 20, no. 4 (November 1954): 459-483 at 471. 2Ibid. 3Cited in S. M. Bowman and R. B. Irwin, Sherman and His Campaigns: A Military History (New York: Charles B. Richardson, 1865), 398. 4Michael Fellman, Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman (New York: Random House, 1995), 244.