Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865
By James B. Conroy, Lyons Press, 2014, $27.95
Even dedicated students of the war likely knew little about the Hampton Roads (Va.) Peace Conference before Steven Spielberg made it part of his film Lincoln. Few, I’m sure, can forget Spielberg’s portrayal of the Southern peace commissioners traveling north to meet with President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward in February 1865.
Anyone wanting to know more about the event is in luck. James B. Conroy’s Our One Common Country is the first full-length book on the subject. Part of the challenge Conroy faced in telling the story of what took place aboard the River Queen, anchored near Fort Monroe, is that the participants agreed no notes would be taken. But at different times, the men left a record of what they discussed.
Conroy’s fluid narrative contains dozens of characters that he keeps in motion as the story unfolds. He is a gifted writer and offers richly drawn portraits of Lincoln, Seward and the Confederates: diminutive Vice President Alexander Stephens, affluent Virginia Sen. R.M.T. Hunter and learned Georgia jurist John A. Campbell.
The story begins with Preston Blair Sr. traveling to Richmond to meet with Jefferson Davis, ostensibly to recover lost family papers. It continues with Lincoln authorizing Maj. Thomas Eckert to determine whether the commissioners would negotiate on the basis of “our one common country,” and Eckert’s conflict with Ulysses S. Grant over whether that condition was satisfied.
Nothing came of the conference. Lincoln reported fully on the event to Congress, and enjoyed a laugh over his clever prevarication at a critical moment in the vote for the 13th Amendment when rumors of peace threatened to derail passage. “So far as I know,” Lincoln wrote Congressman James Ashley, “there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” The commissioners were on their way to Hampton Roads instead.
One controversial question emerged from Hampton Roads. In 1870, Stephens claimed Lincoln said Southern states could prospectively ratify the 13th Amendment, thereby delaying the abolition of slavery. Campbell and Hunter are silent on this point, as is Stephens’ post-conference report to Davis. Most historians believe it is unlikely, but Conroy argues for its validity because Stephens “prided himself on his integrity.” Exactly what was said can never be known, but more than Stephens’ integrity is needed to deem his account, or anyone’s for that matter, fully reliable.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.