Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 6.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.

To Samuel P. Lee [1]

Rr. Adml. Navy Department
S. P. Lee. Washington, D.C. July [4] 1863

Your despatch transmitting a note from Mr. Alexander H. Stephens has been received. You will not permit Mr. Stephens to proceed to Washington, or to pass the blockade. He does not make known the subjects to which the communication in writing from Mr. Davis relates, which he bears, and seeks to deliver in personPage  315 to the President, and upon which he desires to confer. Those subjects can only be Military, or not Military, or partly both. Whatever may be military will be readily received, if offered through the well understood Military channel. Of course nothing else, will be received by the President, when offered, as in this case, in terms assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States; and anything will be received and carefully considered by him, when offered by any influential person or persons, in terms not assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States.


[1]   ADf, DLC-RTL. This draft of a telegram was not sent, being replaced by the brief communication infra. Rear Admiral Lee telegraphed Secretary Welles from Fort Monroe at 4:30 P.M., July 4 (DLC-RTL):

``The following communication is just received from Mr Stephens who is on the flag of truce boat anchored above. I shall inform Mr Stephens that I await your instructions before giving him an answer.

`` `Confederate States Str. ``Torpedo''

`` `In James' River July 4 1863

`` `Sir: As military commissioner, I am the bearer of a communication in writing from Jefferson Davis Commander-in-Chief of the land and Naval forces of the Confederate States to Abraham Lincoln Comd'r-in-Chief of the land & Naval forces of the United States.

`` `Hon Robert Ould, Confederate States' Agent of Exchange, accompanies me as Secretary.

`` `For the purpose of delivering the communication in person and conferring upon the subjects to which it relates, I desire to proceed directly to Washington in the Steamer ``Torpedo'' Commanded by Lieut. Hunter Davidson of the Confederate States' Navy. No person being on board but the Hon. Mr Ould, myself & the boat's officers & crew. Yours most respectfully


``S. P. LEE

``Act'g. Rr. Adml.''

Welles' Diary for July 4 records his reception of the telegram as follows: ``Received this evening a dispatch from Admiral Lee, stating he had a communication from A. H. Stephens, who wishes to go to Washington with a companion as military commissioner from Jefferson Davis . . . and desires permission to pass the blockade. . . . Showed the dispatch to Blair, whom I met. He made no comment. Saw Stanton directly after, who swore and growled indignantly. The President was at the Soldiers' Home and not expected for an hour or two. Consulted Seward, who was emphatic against having anything to do with Stephens or Davis. Did not see the President till late. In the mean time Stanton and others had seen him, and made known their feelings and views. The President treats the subject as not very serious nor very important, and proposes to take it up to-morrow.''

On July 5 Welles' Diary records the cabinet meeting at 11 A.M. as follows: ``The principal topic was the mission of Alexander H. Stephens. The President read a letter from Colonel [William H.] Ludlow . . . to Secretary Stanton, stating that Stephens had made a communication to Admiral Lee, which the Admiral had sent to the Secretary of the Navy. After reading them, the President said he was at first disposed to put this matter aside without many words, or much thought, but a night's reflection and some remarks yesterday had modified his views. While he was opposed to having Stephens and his vessel come here, he thought it would be well to send some one---perhaps go himself---to Fortress Monroe. Both Seward and Stanton were startled when this remarkPage  316 was made. Seward did not think it advisable the President should go, nor any one else. . . . The most he . . . would do would be to allow Stephens to forward any communication through General Dix. . . . Stanton was earnest and emphatic against having anything to do with Stephens, or Jeff Davis, or their communication. Chase was decided against having any intercourse with them. Blair took a different view. . . . I propose to take some notice of his application, and, unless the President objects, send an answer as follows to Admiral Lee:---

`` `The object of the communication borne by Mr. Stephens is not stated or intimated. It is not expedient from this indefinite information that you should permit that gentleman to pass the blockade. . . .' . . . The President said my letter did not dispose of the communication which Stephens bore. I told him the dispatch did not exclude it. . . .''

On July 2, Jefferson Davis had enclosed two copies of a communication addressed to Lincoln with the following instructions to Alexander H. Stephens:

``Having accepted your patriotic offer to proceed as a military commissioner under flag of truce to Washington, you will receive here with your letters of authority to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. This letter is signed by me as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate land and naval forces.

``You will perceive from the terms of the letter that it is so worded as to avoid any political difficulties in its reception. Intended exclusively as one of those communications between belligerents which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces, care has been taken to give no pretext for refusing to receive it on the ground that it would involve a tacit recognition of the independence of the Confederacy. . . . Your mission is simply one of humanity and has no political aspect. If objection is made to receiving your letter on the ground that it is not addressed to Abraham Lincoln as President . . . then you will present the duplicate letter, which is addressed to him as President and signed by me as President. To this latter objection may be made on the ground that I am not recognized to be President of the Confederacy. In this event you will decline any further attempt to confer on the subject of your mission, as such conference is admissible only on the footing of perfect equality. . . .'' (OR, II, VI, 74-75).

Davis' communication to Lincoln, abridged, is as follows:

``Numerous difficulties . . . have arisen in relation to the execution of the cartel of exchange . . . and the commissioners of the exchange of prisoners have been unable to adjust their differences. . . . I believe that I have just ground of complaint against the officers and forces under your command for breach of trust of the cartel, and being myself ready to execute it at all times in good faith I am not justified in doubting the existence of the same disposition on your part. In addition to this matter I have to complain of the conduct of your officers . . . in many parts of the country who violate all the rules of war by carrying on hostilities . . . against non-combatants, aged men, women and children. . . .

``Still again others of your officers . . . have recently taken the lives of prisoners . . . by asserting a right to treat as spies the military officers and enlisted men under my command who may penetrate into States recognized by us as our allies . . . against the United States, but claimed by the latter as having refused to engage in such warfare. . . . I have . . . refrained from the exercise of . . . retaliation because of its obvious tendency to lead to war of indiscriminate massacre on both sides. . . .

``With the view . . . of making one last solemn attempt to avert such calamities . . . I have selected the bearer of this letter, the Hon. Alexander H. Stephens, as a military commissioner to proceed to your headquarters under flag of truce, there to confer and agree on the subjects above mentioned. . . .'' (Ibid., 75-76).