The Hampton Roads Conference The Hampton Roads Conference was held between the United States and representatives of the unrecognized Confederate States on February 3, 1865. The meeting took place aboard the steamboat River Queen in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to discuss possible terms to end the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, representing the Union, met with three commissioners from the Confederacy.
There are no official records of the conference, and all existing narratives originate from the subsequent commentary of involved parties.
Within the first 5 minutes it was clear that the conference wasn’t going anywhere. Because the Confederate commissioners were intent on finding a path to independence.
The three southern commissioners were high officers of the Confederacy: Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Senator Robert M. T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell. The two lengthiest accounts of the Conference—written by Confederates Stephens and Campbell—concur on most of the details.
Stephens, well known for the Cornerstone Speech, had become an anti-war agitator and dissident against the Davis government. Campbell had been a US Supreme Court Justice and had opposed secession and the war. He declined many offers in the Confederate government but did accept the post of assistant secretary of war. Hunter had been a confederate secretary of state and was a severe critic of President Davis.
Davis appointed them, but what they all had in common: at this stage, all 3 were political opponents of Davis and were openly opposed to the war. Some historians have suggested that Davis had purposely set up a conference that could not succeed represented by his enemies. The single condition Lincoln insisted on was the single condition the commissioners couldn’t agree to.
The existing accounts of the Hampton Roads Conference, along with secondary records from the archives of Lincoln and Seward, suggest that either Lincoln and Seward seemed to be open to discussion to compromise on the precise future of slavery but not its ending; or, more likely, that they were playing “good cop – bad cop” to test the seriousness of the negotiators.
At the Hampton Roads Conference, Lincoln would not compromise on independence or emancipation. He suggested that if the south rejoined it would have a place in the debate as to how the 13th amendment would be implemented. The 2 supposed concessions that were discussed at the Hampton Roads Conference was the possibility to delay the 13th amendment being approved or being enforced and the question of compensation for emancipation.
The reality is that Lincoln was unwavering on the issue of emancipation but perhaps flexible in its application if the war would end immediately with reunion.
In February 1865 Lincoln had zero reason to compromise on these questions. The war was over except for the final act. But he WAS willing to offer concessions on slavery.
But the Confederate commissioners did not have power to make these compromises. Additionally, were not inclined to accept them, even with the end of the war with total defeat in clear sight.