Lincoln's Plans of Reconstruction

“Here were no humiliating terms of submission imposed on a brave people: no amnesty qualifications exacted; no banishment or confiscation laws; no test-oaths, to incite to perjury or foster the resentments of war.”

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President Lincoln came to Richmond on its surrender to the forces under General Grant in April, 1865. He came in the wake of the invading, victorious Federal army. He occupied for a short time the late presidential mansion of Jefferson Davis.

There was no longer any resistance. No useless signs of despair or defiance were exhibited. There was silence and calmness, but no unmanly regrets or re-pinings, no words of reproach or crimination. No people ever behaved with more firmness and dignity. The issue of the war—so disastrous to the Southern cause, to the hopes and wishes of the Southern people—had been foreseen and recognized for days, if not weeks, before it came; yet in the presence of the actual event, “The boldest held his breath for a time.” The, late Confederate president and his cabinet had departed in the rear of General Lee’s retreat. The governor of the commonwealth, the legislature and the officials, both State and Confederate, with many eminent and substantial citizens, had followed in the somewhat general exodus. Of course many remained in the Virginia metropolis because they could not get away, and many more from a generous and manly care for and sympathy with the weak, the timid, and the unhappy, who feared violence or ill-treatment from a rude soldiery, flushed with the triumph of victory and conquest, and scarcely capable of restraint.

Among the latter was the calm, patient, self-possessed, and venerated John A. Campbell, of Alabama, formerly one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States, and but recently Assistant Secretary of War of the Southern Confederacy. Regardless of his own personal safety, but full of sympathy with the citizens of Richmond and the people of Virginia, and rightly interpreting the duties and responsibilities of the hour, he went forward courageously and sought an interview with Mr. Lincoln. This was readily accorded.

Judge Campbell said, in substance: “The war is over. The Southern people have lost their cause, without any hope, I suppose, of redemption. This is neither the time nor the occasion to consider the right or wrong of the conflict, or the merits of the questions involved in it. You are here in triumph, and are certainly the victorious master of the situation. No resistance will be attempted further by those who remain in this city. It would be fruitless if it were designed or intended, but it is not even desired by any of the people of Richmond. I have felt myself at liberty, indeed impelled, in the interest of peace and humanity, to seek this interview and acquaint you with the spirit and temper of the people here, and to venture to remind you of what I am sure you will not forget, that with really great and good men the hour of victory and triumph is also the hour of moderation and magnanimity. Though not a Virginian myself, I know the people of Virginia to be brave and honorable, and they will scrupulously respect any pledge or promise they may make. They accept the result of the war without sullen resentment on the one hand or unmanly despair on the other, and will abide in good faith by any fair and equitable terms of pacification and adjustment that may be offered them.” He added that he had sought this interview in order to learn the president’s views as to his course, and that of the government, towards the people of the States lately at war with the Federal government, and particularly in respect to the people of Virginia, now that the war on her territory had ceased.

President Lincoln (who had listened with interest and earnestness) replied that he was so much impressed by the words of Judge Campbell, that, in order to consider his reply maturely, he would relinquish his intention of returning by steamer that evening to City Point on James River, and give the subject a full night’s reflection.

Accordingly, another and final interview took place the next morning on board the steamer Malvern, moored in the river below Richmond. The particulars of this meeting were preserved in a paper written by Judge Campbell very soon after the event, to which by his leave the writer has had access. As the subject is one of such curious interest and importance, and possesses a rare historical value in view of the quickly succeeding tragedy of President Lincoln’s death, and the events both political and social which followed, it seems every way proper that Judge Campbell’s narrative, hitherto unpublished, should appear.

He says: “I had recommended that he should sanction a meeting of the prominent, influential, leading men in Virginia at Richmond, and have their counsel and cooperation in reconstructing its political and social system so as to meet the new and extraordinary conditions of society. But the calling together of the political body, the rebel legislature, was the suggestion of Mr. Lincoln’s own mind. He mentioned it for the first time in our second interview as a matter he was considering, and that was desirable in many points of view, which he specified, adding that if he came to a satisfactory conclusion he would make it known to General Weitzel on his return to City Point, by letter. The general principles I had expressed included such a proposition, and I was grateful that the president had been led to its consideration; but I did not intimate such a course in any remarks of mine before he suggested it.

“At the interview on the Malvern, President Lincoln produced a memorandum in writing, which he read over, and commented on the various clauses as he read them. When he had concluded, he gave me the paper. It is not dated, signed, or addressed. The memorandum is, —

“As to peace, I have said before, and now repeat, three things are indispensable: —

“1. The restoration of the national authority throughout all the States.

“2. No receding by the executive of the United States on the slavery question from the position assumed thereon in the late annual message and in preceding documents.

“3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war and the disbanding of all force hostile to the government.

“That all propositions coming from those now in hostility to the government, not inconsistent with the foregoing, will be respectfully considered and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality.

“I now add that it seems useless for me to be more specific with those who will not say they are ready for the indispensable terms even on conditions to be named by themselves. If there be any who are ready for the indispensable terms on any conditions whatever, let them say so and state their conditions, so that the conditions can be distinctly known and considered. It is further added that, the remission of confiscation being within the executive power, if the war be now further persisted in by those opposing the government, the making of confiscated property at the least to bear the additional cost will be insisted upon, but the confiscations (except in case of third-party intervening interests) will be remitted to the people of any State which shall now promptly and in good faith withdraw its troops and other support from further resistance to the government. What is now said as to remission of confiscation has no reference to supposed property in slaves.

“The president, after reading and commenting upon the various passages of this memorandum, noticed that he had said nothing on the subject of fines and penalties as applicable to individuals. He said, in reference to this, that he supposed that he ought not to force a pardon upon any person who did not want it; that, for instance, ‘If Mr. Davis, whom we familiarly call Jeff. Davis, will not take a pardon, we ought not to press one upon him.’ But this he would say, that ‘almost anybody could have anything of that kind by asking for it.’

“My intercourse with President Lincoln, both here and at Hampton Roads, impressed me favorably and kindly towards him. I believe that he felt a genuine sympathy for the bereavement, destitution, impoverishment, waste, and overturn that the war had occasioned at the South, and that he fully and exactly discriminated the wide difference, both in reason and policy, between the mode of proceeding in reference to the disorderly or criminal acts of individuals which disturb the security of a state, and the course to be taken in regard to those civil dissensions and commotions which arise from the agitation of great questions involving the social and political constitution of a great empire, composed of distinct and in some respects independent communities.

“My direct interview with President Lincoln terminated with my visit to him on the Malvern. I never spoke to him or wrote to him afterwards.

“The following day General Weitzel sent for me, to read the letter of President Lincoln to him on the subject of calling together the Virginia legislature. Mr. Lincoln in the course of his conversation had expressed his object in desiring them to meet and to vote. It was desirable that that very legislature should recognize the national authority. It was ‘the situation of a tenant between two contesting landlords, who was called upon to attorn to the one who had shown the better title.’ This was his remark.”

Here were no humiliating terms of submission imposed on a brave people: no amnesty qualifications exacted; no banishment or confiscation laws; no test-oaths, to incite to perjury or foster the resentments of war. On the contrary, relief and protection should be denied to none, while the common rights of fraternity and citizenship should be freely accorded to all.

In propounding these conditions the president showed a just appreciation of the Southern people. Had the policy thus declared been carried out faithfully, what untold misery and sufferings would have been prevented! The humane and generous heart of President Lincoln repelled with horror the cruelty and weakness which would involve in punishments and penalties a whole people. Such wrongs and injuries, such injustice and impolicy, were reserved for those less moderate and magnanimous, who, on his violent and deplorable death, succeeded to the reins of government.

The president returned to Washington filled with joy that the war was ended, and satisfied with himself at having secured, as he supposed, just and generous treatment to the vanquished, who had suffered so severely in the late strife. His cruel death, so lamentable in itself and so disastrous in its effects, which occurred only a few days after these generous overtures of peace and kindness, inflicted new sorrows on the already crushed and smitten South.

We willingly draw the veil over the unwelcome picture, and remit its harsh features to the verdict of impartial history, or to that oblivion of wrong and folly which, happily for mankind, time and our better nature will ultimately bring.

Already there is a gratifying change of feeling springing up between the respective sections: a change of Northern sentiment as to the real condition and disposition of the Southern people, and a change in Southern sentiment as to the men of the North. Thus a new era of feeling and sympathy, the ties and associations of a common ancestry and a kindred destiny, will arise and be fostered until the wounds of the past shall be cicatrized and forgotten, and the removal of suspicions and prejudices can make the two sections again one and enable the people of each to see not the worst but the best phases of their respective disposition and character.