American Civil War

The Hampton Roads Conference — 156 years ago today

Historians call it the Hampton Roads Conference. It happened 156 years ago today. Not far from where I live now, near Fort Monroe, Virginia, on February 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln met with commissioners from the southern Confederacy to discuss a possible peace agreement.

The conference is dramatized in the Oscar winning movie Lincoln. The movie, of course, cannot give us all that was said during a roughly 4 hour meeting. What the film maker does in this scene is give us the core sentiments of the negotiating sides, creatively summed up in this short scene:

Hampton Roads Conference scene from the movie Lincoln

“How have you held your union together? Your democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration. Your union sir, is bonded in canon-fire and death.”

Lincoln’s reply brilliantly turns those words back on Alexander Stephens. Yes, the sacrifices had been immense, but these sacrifices will ultimately be proven worthy because they were made not just for our democracy but for democracy as an idea itself. “But say all we’ve done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos. That there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union. Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to? Eventually to become worthy of? At all rates whatever may be proven by blood and sacrifice must have been proved by now.”

Again, the movie clip above is a creative dramatization. Stephens and Lincoln didn’t, as far as we know, actually say these lines, but if you read the correspondences related to this meeting and the various written recollections, you can see how what’s said could be interpreted as representing the central position of Stephens and Lincoln.

By the time of this meeting it was clear the Confederacy was defeated. It was over. The Hampton Roads Conference wouldn’t lead, however, to the Confederate government surrendering. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, would continue to allow southern troops to fight and die in a hopeless cause. The Civil War would end only when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.

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