A Piece of Secret History: President Lincoln and the Virginia Convention of 1861

THE inception of the late war between the States, the causes which led to it, and the motives and conduct of those in authority on either side who waged the fratricidal strife, will long remain a fruitful theme for contemplation and discussion by those who shall undertake to investigate or record its history.

To the many contributions of materials recently offered to that history, it seems pertinent and necessary to add yet another in the narrative embodied in this paper.

Subsequent events have imparted to the incidents, facts, and conversations here disclosed a remarkable value. The speakers and actors in the scenes and interviews recounted have all passed away, the contributor of this paper alone surviving to save from oblivion a part of the history of an eventful epoch in our country’s annals.

In the spring of the year 1861, I was a resident of the city of Washington, a practicing lawyer of the firm of Chilton and Magruder. On Tuesday, April 3, 1861, I was called upon in my office by Mr. Robert S. Chew (since deceased), an officer of the State Department, and requested to accompany him to Mr. Seward’s office, where that gentleman desired to see me without delay. As I was not personally known to Mr. Seward, I inquired of Mr. Chew if he knew why he wished to see me. He said Mr. Seward would explain; that it had something to do with a communication to be sent to Richmond; that Mr. Seward had asked him to nominate some suitable person to whom business of importance could be intrusted, and he had mentioned my name to him.

Entertaining, I confess, a suspicious dislike of the Secretary of State, I was at first disinclined to see him; but on reflection, and resolving to be on my guard as to any political complications in which he might involve me, I repaired

to the desired interview. After my introduction Mr. Seward said the president wished to communicate confidentially with Mr. Summers, of the Virginia Convention then in session at Richmond; that I had been mentioned to him as a Virginian, a whig, a Union man, and a suitable person to bear the message; and he inquired whether I would go. I replied that this would depend on the nature and object of the errand. He asked a little brusquely what I meant by that reply. I said that as I was a Virginian, I would not undertake any errand or agency which might be injurious or offensive to my native State; although a Union man and opposed to secession, I regarded the Union only as a means to an end; by the Union we could best secure the great end of preserving and securing our liberties; but that whenever the Union became oppressive and destructive of civil liberty, it was the right of the people of the States to devise new defenses for their safety and security. I did not think, however, that such a crisis had yet arisen in our history, and hence I opposed the secession movement; but in the event of hostilities being unhappily forced upon us, I held that my allegiance and my first duty belonged to my native State. He replied that, much as we might differ on this point, he could not say he was surprised at my sentiments; that he knew such convictions of duty prevailed among Southern gentlemen; that for his own part, while his State had honored him by conferring on him many distinguished stations and had therefore every claim upon him, he did not hesitate to declare that his allegiance to the Union was always prior and paramount to every other, and that no earthly consideration could make him lift his hand against its perpetuity. I told him I knew that he, like other Northern statesmen, had been bred in that school, and looked upon the general government as the great central balance-wheel of a system designed to control and regulate the movements of the State governments at will, but that we of the South had not so learned our public duties; that I did not forget that Virginia, my own State, was a great commonwealth, a free and independent State with a complete government, years before the Union was formed.

Seeming to waive any further discussion of the subject, Mr. Seward said politely he was happy to assure me that the president would ask nothing of me inconsistent with my sense of duty to my native State; that Mr. Lincoln’s object was to preserve the Union, and maintain and secure the public peace and safety. On his invitation I accompanied him to the president. Mr. Seward introduced me as a Virginian, a member of the bar of Washington, an old-line whig, and a Union man, saying that although I was engaged as the judge-advocate of the naval court-martial then in session 1 for the trial of Commodore Armstrong for the surrender of the navyyard at Pensacola, the court was at present in recess, waiting for witnesses, and that I would have time to go to Richmond.

After some preliminary conversation, in the course of which, with characteristic jocoseness, the president related an anecdote suggested by my name, saying he had once won an important law-case on the authority of a decision of my kinsman the late Judge R. B. Magruder, of Baltimore, he asked me if I knew Judge Summers of the Virginia Convention then in session at Richmond. On my affirmative answer, he said he desired to see Judge Summers at Washington on matters of the highest importance, which he would not trust to the mail or telegraph; he preferred to send a special messenger requesting him to come to him at once, and to communicate with him confidentially ; he said he knew Mr. Summers, and that he thought very highly of him as a prudent and wise man; that he had great confidence in him; that indeed he “had confidence in all those Virginians; ” that although they might differ from him about secession, he believed they were men who could be depended on in any matter in which they pledged their honor, and that when they gave their word they would always keep it. He then said, “ Tell Mr. Summers I want to see him at once, for there is no time to be lost; what is to be done must be done quickly.” On my suggesting that it would be well to fix some time within which Judge Summers should come, and that it was even possible that he might not be able to come at all, — for I knew that an important vote was about to be taken in the convention, and that as he was a leading man in the body he might not feel at liberty to come as soon as the president desired, — Mr. Lincoln said, after a moment’s reflection, “ This is Tuesday; I will give him three days. Let him come by Friday next;" and he added, “ If Mr. Summers cannot come himself, let him send some friend of his, some Union man in the convention, in whom he has confidence and who can confer freely with me.”

Having received these instructions, I retired with Mr. Seward; the latter, I had observed, though present during the whole interview, had remained entirely silent, taking no part whatever in the conversation. On our way back to the State Department, I warmly expressed to him my hope that the step taken by the president in seeking the counsel of one so able, patriotic, and conservative as Judge Summers would lead to the adjustment of our unhappy sectional strife and to the pacification of the country. He replied that he did not doubt it, and seemed to be hopeful and even buoyant, remarking, “ These troubles will all blow over. There will be no war. The Union will be preserved. It only requires time and moderation to make all things right.” I told him that, while time was a remedy for some maladies, it exasperated others, and that I thought the president was right in saying “ there was no time to be lost;” then, with a view of extracting, if possible, some expression of opinion from him as to what the president proposed to do, I added, “ I hope the president will by a public proclamation withdraw the troops from Fort Sumter, and thereby relieve the Southern people from the menace which their hostile presence creates. I am sure such a step will prevent the secession of Virginia and the border States, and the cotton States will not persevere in their mad schemes without the aid and coöperation of Virginia and the other border States.”

Without directly responding to this remark, and as if unwilling to commit himself, he wished me a pleasant journey, bade me a courteous adieu, and we separated.

That night I went to Richmond, and on delivering my message to Mr. Summers it turned out, as I had anticipated, that he could not come, owing to the business of the convention. After private consultation with some few friends, as he informed me, he prevailed upon Colonel John B, Baldwin, a leading member of the convention from Augusta County, Virginia, to go. Accordingly on Wednesday night we left Richmond, and reaching Washington early next morning ( Thursday), I called about ten o’clock on Mr. Seward, and introduced Colonel Baldwin as the gentleman whom Mr. Summers had requested to come in his stead, to see the president.

What passed at the subsequent interview with Mr. Lincoln of course I only know from Colonel Baldwin’s version of it, given to me afterwards. Colonel Baldwin was my guest while he remained in Washington. He dined on that day at my house with some other gentlemen, at a somewhat early hour, as he was to make a public speech in Alexandria, Virginia, that evening. I had no opportunity to learn the particulars of the conference beyond a brief statement by Colonel Baldwin when he came in, to the effect that nothing was accomplished; that the president seemed embarrassed by his coming and was reserved as to his own future proceedings; that the president asked him, “ Why don’t you adjourn the convention ? ” adding, “ I can take care of the Union;” that Bald-

win replied, “ Adjourn the convention? Do you want to drive Virginia into secession? ” and on the president’s saying “No,” Baldwin rejoined, “The people of Virginia have delegated to us the duty of fixing the status of Virginia, of defining her position and course in this crisis, and should we adjourn and go home without doing so, another convention would be assembled in a few weeks and the State would inevitably be precipitated into the secession movement.” Mr. Lincoln said to him more than once, “ You came too late.”

Colonel Baldwin, who had gone to the interview full of hope and confidence as to its results, was obviously much depressed and disappointed at the unfavorable turn of affairs. He expressed to me his fears for the country; said that the president’s reserve, after having invited him to the interview, and sent a special messenger to him, convinced him that he had changed his mind; Mr. Lincoln refused to make any explanation of his remark, often repeated, “ You came too late,” and when Colonel Baldwin reminded him that he had said, on sending for Mr. Summers, that he must get there by Friday; that it was now only Thursday, and asked, “ Too late for what? ” he received no reply.

Colonel Baldwin, an honorable gentleman, a distinguished citizen, and an eminent lawyer of Virginia, in the front rank of her statesmen and civilians, is no more. It is fortunate, however, that he preserved in writing the particulars of this important and remarkable interview. His narrative is a clear and simple statement of the facts in the exact order in which they happened, and is full of dramatic interest. It is as follows: —

On the 3d of April, 1861, I was in the convention at Richmond. I was called out by Judge Summers, a member of the convention, who informed me that there was a messenger in Richmond, sent by Mr. Lincoln, asking him (Summers) to Washington, as the president wanted to have an interview with him, and stating that if for any reason he was unable to come, he would be glad if the Union men of the convention would select and send one of their number, who enjoyed their confidence and who would be regarded as a representative man, competent to speak their sentiments, as the president wished to have some communication with them. Mr. Summers told me that he and a number of other members of the convention, Union men (calling their names over) , had concurred in the opinion that I was the proper man to go, and that he wanted me immediately to get ready and return with the special messenger. I consented to come. Mr. Allan B. Magruder, who was at that time a lawyer residing in the city of Washington, turned out to be the messenger. We came to Washington, arriving about breakfast-time. I went to Mr. Magruder’s house. About ten or eleven o’clock we called at the Department of State, and I was introduced to Mr. Seward. Mr. Magruder informed him that I had been selected by the members of the Virginia Convention — the Union men — in accordance with the president’s request, and that I came indorsed by them as a person authorized to speak their sentiments. Mr. Seward said he would not anticipate at all what the president desired to say to me, but would take me immediately to see him. We went to the president’s house, and I was taken to the audience chamber. The president was engaged for some time; and at last Mr. Seward, when the president became disengaged, took me up and introduced me to him in a whisper, indicating, as I thought, that it was a strictly confidential affair. As nearly as I can recollect, the language he used was, “ Mr. Baldwin, of the Virginia Convention.” Mr. Lincoln received me very cordially, and almost immediately arose and said that he desired to have some private conversation with me. He started through to a back room, opening into another room, but we found two gentlemen there engaged in writing; he seemed to think that that would not do, and we passed across the hall into a corresponding small room opposite, and through that into a large front room immediately corresponding with the private

audience hall. There was a bed in it. He locked the door, and, stepping around into the space behind the bed, drew up two chairs and asked me to take a seat. Mr. Seward did not go in with us. As I was about sitting down, said he, “ Mr. Baldwin, I am afraid you have come too late.” “ Too late for what? ” said I. Said he, “ I am afraid you have come too late; I wish you could have been here three or four days ago.” “ Why,” said I, “ Mr. President, allow me to say I do not understand your remark; you sent a special messenger to Richmond, who arrived there yesterday; I returned with him by the shortest and most expeditious mode of travel known. It was physically impossible that I or any one else answering to your summons could have got here sooner than I have arrived. I do not understand what you mean by saying that I have come too late.” Said he, “ Why do you not adjourn the Virginia Convention?” I said, “Adjourn it! how? Do you mean sine die?” “ Yes,” said he, “ sine die. Why do you not adjourn it? It is a standing menace to me which embarrasses me very much.” It will be understood that I do not pretend to recollect the language at all, but this is about the substance of it. Said I, “ Sir, I am very much surprised to hear you express that opinion; the Virginia Convention is in the hands of Union men; we have in it a clear and controlling majority of nearly three to one. We are controlling it for conservative results; we can do it with perfect certainty, if you will uphold our hands by a conservative policy here. I do not understand why you want a body thus in the hands of Union men to be dispersed, or why you should look upon their sessions as in any respect a menace to you. We regard ourselves as coöperating with you in the objects which you profess to seek. Besides,” said I, “ I would call your attention to this view: if we were to adjourn that convention sine die, leaving these questions unsettled in the midst of all the trouble that is upon us, it would place the Union men of Virginia in the attitude of confessing an inability to meet the occasion; the result would be that another convention would be called as soon as legislation could be put through for the purpose, and the Union men of Virginia could not with a proper selfrespect offer themselves as members of that convention, having had the full control of one, which adjourned without effecting any sort of settlement. The result would be that the next convention would be exclusively under the control of secessionists, and that an ordinance of secession would be passed in less than six weeks. Now,” said I, “sir, it seems to me that our true policy is to hold the position that we have, and for you to uphold our hands by a conservative, conciliatory, national course. We can control the matter, and will control it if you help us; and, sir, it is but right for me to say another thing to you: that the Union men of Virginia, of whom I am one, would not be willing to adjourn that convention until we either effect some settlement of this matter, or ascertain that it cannot be done. As an original proposition the Union men of Virginia did not desire amendments to the constitution of the United States; we were satisfied with the constitutional guarantees that we had, and thought our rights and interests perfectly safe. But circumstances have changed. Seven States of the South (the cotton States) have withdrawn from us, and have left us in an extremely altered condition with reference to the safeguards of the constitution. As things stand now, we are helpless in the hands of the North. The balance of power which we had before for our protection against constitutional amendment is gone. And we think now that we of the border States, who have adhered to you against all the promptings of sympathy and association with the Southern States, have a claim on the States of the North which is of a high and very peculiar character. You all say that you do not mean to injure us in our peculiar rights. If you are in earnest about it, there can be no objection to your saying so in such authentic form as will give us constitutional protection. And we think you ought to do it, not grudgingly, not reluctantly, but in such a way as would be a fitting recognition of our fidelity in standing by you under such trying circumstances— fully, generously, and promptly. If you will do it in accordance with what we regard as due to our position, it will give us a stand-point from which we can bring back the seceded States.”

I cannot follow the conversation through, but he asked me the question, “ What is your plan? ” Said I, “ Mr. President, if I had the control of your thumb and forefinger for five minutes, I could settle the whole question.” “ Well,” said he, “ that would seem to be a simple process. What is your plan? ” Said I, “ Sir, if I were in your place, I would issue a proclamation to the American people, somewhat after this style. I would state the fact that you had become President of the United States, as the result of a struggle partaking of more bitterness than had usually marked such contests; that in the progress of that struggle there had naturally arisen a great deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the motives and intentions of both sides; that you had no doubt you had been represented, and to a large extent believed, to be inimical to the institutions and rights and interests of a large portion of the United States, but that however you might, in the midst of a partisan struggle, have been more or less excited at times, as all men are, yet, occupying the position of President of the United States, you had determined to take your stand on the broad platform of the constitution, and to do equal and exact justice to all, without regard to party or section; and that, recognizing the fact without admitting, but protesting against the right, that certain States had undertaken to withdraw themselves from the Union, you had determined to appeal to the American people to settle the question in the spirit in which the constitution was made, — American fashion,— by consultation and votes, instead of by appeal to arms. And I would call a national convention of the people of the United States, and urge upon them to come together and settle this question. In order to prevent the possibility of any collision or clash of arms interfering with this effort at a pacific settlement, I would declare the purpose (not by any admission of want of right, at all, but with a distinct protest of the right to place the forces of the United States wherever in her territory you chose) to withdraw the forces from Sumter and Pickens, avowing that it was done for the sake of peace, and in the effort to settle this dangerous controversy; and that you were determined, if the seceded States chose to make a collision, that they should come clearly out of their way to do it. Sir,” said I, “ if you take that position, there is national feeling enough in the seceded States themselves, and all over the country, to rally to your support, and you would gather more friends than any man in the country ever had.” He said something to the effect, as I understood him, that he looked with some apprehension to the fear that his friends would not be pleased with such a step, and I said to him, “ Mr. President, for every friend whom you would lose by such a policy, you would gain ten who would rally to you and to the national standard of peace and union.” Said he, rather impatiently, “ That is not what I am thinking about. If I could be satisfied that I am right, and that I do what is right, I do not care whether people stand by me or not.” Said I, “ Sir, I beg your pardon; I only know you as a politician, a successful politician, and possibly I have fallen into the error of appealing to you by the motives which are generally potent with politicians — especially the motive of gaining friends. I thank you that you have recalled to me the higher and better motive of being and doing right, and I assure you that henceforth I will appeal to you only by those motives that ought to influence a gentleman.” He laughed a little at my distinction between a politician and a gentleman. He then said something about a withdrawal of the troops from Sumter on the ground of military necessity. I said, “ That will never do under heaven. You have been president a month to-day, and if you intended to hold that position, you ought to have strengthened it so as to make it impregnable. To hold it in the present condition of force there is an invitation to assault. Go upon higher ground than that. The better ground is to make a concession of an asserted right, in the interests of peace.”

“Well,” said he, “what about the revenue? What would I do about the collection of duties?” I said, “Sir, how much do you expect to collect in a year ? ” He said, “ Fifty or sixty millions.” “Why, sir,” said I, “four times sixty is two hundred and forty: say two hundred and fifty millions would be the revenue of your term of the presidency. That is but a drop in the bucket, compared with the cost of such a war as we are threatened with. Let it all go if necessary; but I do not believe that it will be necessary, because I believe that you can settle it on the basis I suggest.” He said something about feeding the troops at Sumter. I told him that would not do. I said, “You know perfectly well that the people of Charleston have been feeding them already. That is not what they want. They are asserting a right; they will feed the troops, and fight them while they are feeding them. They seek the assertion of a right. Now the only way that you can manage them is to withdraw from them the means of striking a blow, until time for reflection, time for influence, can be brought to bear, can be gained, and thus settle the matter. If you do not take this course, if there is a gun fired at Sumter, —I do not care on which side it is fired, — the opportunity for settlement is lost.” “ Oh,” said he, “ sir, that is impossible.” I said, “ Mr. President, if there is a gun fired at Sumter, as sure as there is a God in heaven, all is lost. Virginia herself, strong as the Union majority in the convention now is, will be out in forty-eight hours.” “Oh,” said he, “ sir, that is impossible.” I said, “ Mr. President, I did not come here to argue with you. I am here as a witness. I know the sentiments of the people of Virginia, and you do not. As I understood it, I came here to give you information of the sentiments of the people, and especially of the Union men of the convention. I wish to know, before we go any further in this matter, for it is of too grave importance to leave any doubt of it, whether I am accredited to you in such a way as that what I tell you is worthy of credence.” He replied, “ You come to me introduced as a gentleman of high standing and talent in your State.” I said, “ That is not the point. Do I come to you vouched for as an honest man, who will tell you the truth? ” He said, “You do.” “ Then,” said I, “ I tell you before God and man, that if there is a gun fired at Sumter, war is inevitable. And I wish to say to you, Mr. President, with all the respect and solemnity that the occasion inspires, that if you intend to do anything to settle this question, you must do it promptly. I think another fortnight will be too late. You have the power now to settle it. You have the choice to make, and you must make it very soon. You have, I believe, the power to place yourself by the side of Washington himself, as the saviour of your country; or, by taking a different course, to send down your name on the page of history, notorious forever as the man so odious to the American people that, rather than submit to his domination, they overthrew the best government that God ever allowed to exist. It is you that have the choice to make, and you have, in my judgment, only a very brief time to make it in.” He seemed dissatisfied and irresolute, and after some further unimportant conversation, I took leave and withdrew.

The object I had in going to this interview was to meet what I regarded, and what our friends in the convention regarded, as an overture to what we had long desired — an understanding with Mr. Lincoln. We thought that if we could get into communication with him and could convey to him a clear and honest expression of the sentiments prevailing in Virginia, we could influence his policy in such a way as to enable us to bring about a settlement. It is proper to state that in the president’s rooms I saw and was introduced to a number of governors of the Northern States. It was at the time these governors, nine in number, had come to confer with the president; a time when there was an immense outside pressure brought to bear upon him, and designed to control his course. In Virginia, we thought that if we could only present fairly to the mind of Mr. Lincoln the necessities of our situation, the difficulties by which we, as Union men, were surrounded, and the prospect of success on the line of policy which we could suggest, we could win his confidence and contribute greatly towards settling the question. Such were, undoubtedly, the patriotic hopes and aspirations which inspired us all. For myself, I went to Washington, not with any defined purpose of action of my own, but with the general purpose of establishing a good understanding with the president, and of inducing him, as far as possible, to take the views which universally prevailed among Union men in the Richmond convention and elsewhere in the country.

I went to Alexandria that night, whither I had telegraphed an acceptance of an invitation to make a Union speech. I addressed to a large audience what I believe was the last Union speech made in Virginia before the war. I went thence to Richmond and reported to my colleagues in the convention, at whose instance I had gone to Washington.

It is due to Mr. Seward and to the complete statement of the transaction, to add Colonel Baldwin’s narration of his subsequent interview with Mr. Seward.

“ I went back to Mr. Seward’s from the president’s house that afternoon and had a long interview with him. I found Mr. Seward extremely earnest, as far as I could judge from his manifestations, in the desire to settle the matter. He seemed to have a shrinking from the idea of a clash of arms; and the impression that he made upon me was that he thought the days of philosophic statesmanship were about to give place to the mailed glove of the warrior, and that he was earnestly engaged in the effort to secure peace and safety as a means of averting the military era which he thought he saw dawning upon the country.”

Recurring to this remarkable interview and the imposing facts and circumstances preceding and surrounding it, it becomes a matter of deep interest to inquire, What was President Lincoln’s intention and purpose in seeking the counsel and advice of the Union convention of Virginia, through Judge Summers? What effected the president’s sudden and radical change of mind, in respect to the proper course to be pursued ?

It seems clear that Mr. Lincoln had fully resolved on the policy of peace, and did not mean to permit the war to be inaugurated, if it were possible — by patience and conciliation, by any patriotic sacrifice — to avert that calamity. There is no other possible solution of his plan in summoning to his confidence at this crisis so pronounced a Unionist as Judge George W. Summers, and his colleagues of the Virginia Convention, then pledged against secession by an overwhelming majority. All the facts of the case go to fortify this conclusion. Now, in my opinion, the only means of carrying out this object was undoubtedly the withdrawal of the troops from Fort Sumter and an earnest appeal to the country, by proclamation, to stand by the Union and the constitution, and stay the mad career of secession.

By this step actual hostilities would have been effectually prevented. It was, as I believe, the well-considered conviction of the coolest and wisest heads in the country that such a course — heartily approved and warmly supported as it would have been by the border States, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, with Arkansas and Missouri yet remaining firm and steadfast in the Union — would have arrested further disruption and even effected the restoration of the revolted cotton States. These, unsupported, could not and would not have encountered and sustained the unequal burdens resulting from separation from their Southern sisters, and would have ultimately yielded to the necessity which impelled their return. But it was not written in the book of nations that thus it should be.

The urgent appeals and the promises of aid and support in the programme marked out for Mr. Lincoln by the Northern governors already referred to, whose warlike spirit was intensified by the attrition of personal association in Washington in this crisis, proved too strong to be resisted, and the pressure they exercised upon Lincoln sufficed to defeat the policy suggested by Colonel Baldwin and the Virginia Convention.

It is well known that a preconcerted meeting of these governors was held at this time in Washington. The number of States represented in this conclave has been variously stated at seven and nine. It seems certain that Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan were all represented by their respective executive chief magistrates on the occasion in question. The Star of the West had been sped on her fateful mission to Charleston harbor before Colonel Baldwin, though summoned in a far different spirit, could repair to the appointed interview. Thus we have the explanation of President Lincoln’s uneasiness and embarrassment in the interview with Colonel Baldwin, and the meaning of the remark, oft repeated, “ You came too late. It is now too late.”

Allan B. Magruder.

  1. This court had been instituted and organized under the Buchanan administration.