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 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.

“by the better angels of our nature.”

President Abraham Lincoln delivering his first Inaugural Address

In your hand, my fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend” it…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

— U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861.

155th Anniversary of the End of the American Civil War

Surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia

155 years ago today Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to United States General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, ending the American Civil War.

Lee had held the trenches at Petersburg for 10 months before he had abandoned his untenable position and marched his army west in an attempt to shake the federals and hopefully get reenforced by another confederate army marching north through North Carolina.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was, by this time, hollowed out by desertions and in no shape to take on the much larger federal army pursing them. Knowing this, Lee did the honorable thing and surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox. The contest had been decided.

With Lee’s surrender the Civil War was effectively over and the Confederacy was no more.

Sunrise at a snow covered battlefield

Chancellorsville, Virginia (Photo by Theresa Rasmussen, December 12, 2019)

Free State of Jones

While walking through the Gettysburg battlefield museum this past June, I noticed something I hadn’t during my previous 6 or so trips: a display listing the total number of white southern men, per confederate state, that had fought for the Union and its army. The total number was over 100,000 men. That’s basically a large army of southern men rallying to Old Glory and President Lincoln. The largest number, I noticed, came from the southern state of Tennessee, where about 42,000 southern white men joined the Union army ranks. This gives a whole new meaning to the motto “the volunteer state.”

No doubt these southern men were labeled “traitors” by many of their fellow southerns. But these Southern Unionist or, more aptly, Union Loyalists, might have reminded their secessionist brethren that they had rightfully acquired that label first.

I had always known there were white southerns during the American Civil War that didn’t support secession, but they got outvoted. I think one might argue that most southerners got out-maneuvered politically and psychologically as well. Many got pulled into the war by the southern planter class who benefited the most from slave labor and the wealth it generated for their vast plantations.

This brings me to a civil war era movie I watched on Netflix the other night. It’s based on a true story. This particular story had escaped my readings over the years until the other night when I saw the movie the Free State of Jones. I hadn’t known that men (and women) in the deep southern state of Mississippi had taken up arms against the confederacy—a rebellion within a rebellion you might say.

Newton Knight was their leader and in the movie he’s played by Matthew McConaughey. Knight was a confederate solider who got furloughed by General Braxton Bragg to go home and to be with his dying father. (The movie has Knight leaving the army to bring his cousin’s—killed in battle— body home). But back home, in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight found the confederate army was confiscating food and other supplies from the locals, and not necessarily in nice way either. And of course the confederate army was hunting down deserters…at gun point…and hanging some of them, too.

On top of that, the confederate government had recently passed a new conscription law that favored wealthy southern families. The law said that for every 20 slaves a family owned, one of its male draft age members was exempt from conscription—the draft. Well…of course…it was mostly wealthy southern planters who owned 20 or more slaves. Almost needless to say the vast majority southern men (didn’t own more than 20 slaves, if any at all) in the confederate army and many weren’t pleased when the word got out about the new law. This aristocratic exemption only added to the confederate army’s desertion rate. On top of that, the whole idea of seceding from the Union hadn’t been particularly popular with many Mississippians anyway.

So Newton Knight, along with a growing band of confederate army deserters, and a number of local run-away slaves formed their own resistance army in Jones County, Mississippi. Basically, at first, their intent was to assist the Union army. They began ambushing confederate army wagon-trains and skirmishing with confederate army troops. Ultimately Knight and his band ran the confederate army out of Jones County and seized Ellisville, the county seat. Initially, Knight tried to get help from the Union Army, but he and his rebel band weren’t happy (at least in the film) with the answer they got from General Sherman. So Knight and his band declared Jones County Mississippi the Free State of Jones. They held on to Jones County until the war ended. Of course after the war you had the continuation of war (against the freed black population) by other means: the rise of the KKK, lynchings, voter suppression, etc, etc, and all kinds of other cruelties by white southerns determined to keep blacks disenfranchised.

It’s well worth your time to watch the Free State of Jones. Overall a good historical drama. A pretty good movie about an interesting aspect of Civil War history.