In the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln blessed a quixotic attempt by a Methodist minister named Colonel James F. Jaquess and a journalist named James R. Gilmore to broach with the Confederacy the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the Civil War. Jaquess and Gilmore crossed Union lines under the white flag of truce and called on Jefferson Davis, the rebel president, and Judah Benjamin, his secretary of state, in Richmond. The meeting was entirely unsuccessful.
Upon his return to Washington, Gilmore presented Lincoln with a report of Davis’s recalcitrance. The news did not displease the president; he saw political advantage in publicizing the obstinacy of his enemies. Lincoln asked Gilmore, “What do you propose to do with this?”
Gilmore answered: “Put a beginning and an end to it, sir … and hand it to the Tribune,” Horace Greeley’s New York newspaper.
Lincoln responded: “Can’t you get it into The Atlantic Monthly? It would have less of a partisan look there.”
Gilmore answered: “No doubt I can, sir, but there would be some delay.”
Lincoln suggested that the delay would be worthwhile, because the article “could be worth as much to us as a half a dozen battles” in the war.
Gilmore sent a short dispatch to a Boston newspaper, and then a longer—and definitive—account to The Atlantic.
We who are lucky enough to work at The Atlantic, and to celebrate, this month, its 160th birthday, are naturally captivated by the magazine’s history. The Jefferson Davis episode is one of the more fascinating stories from our past, for at least three reasons. Not least of them is the evident esteem in which America’s greatest president held this magazine. Presidents have written for The Atlantic with regularity. And we have tried, since the time Nathaniel Hawthorne served as our Civil War correspondent, to cover the presidency carefully, deeply, and critically.