“The Peacemakers,” by G.P.A. Healy, depicts President Lincoln conferring with generals Grant and Sherman and Rear Admiral David D. Porter near the end of the war. The men are in the after cabin of the Union steamboat River Queen, where the Hampton Roads Conference organized by Francis P. Blair took place. Lincoln himself and Secretary of State William P. Seward tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a truce with Confederate commissioners on Feb. 3, 1865. The painting hung in the White House during President George H.W. Bush’s administration.
The chessboard of the Civil War was nearing checkmate as 1865 dawned. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas—“The Rock of Chickamauga,” who had distinguished himself at the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, in 1862—had captured Nashville, while Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman—who, by his own admission, had gone “crazy” in Louisville in 1861—had concluded his March to the Sea by taking Savannah, Georgia. Sherman figuratively presented Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln by telegram as a “Christmas gift.” And a federal army-navy force had taken Fort Fisher, which protected the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, making the blockade of Southern ports nearly complete.
With large freshly reinforced Union armies on the march all over the South, and only broken Confederate units and stragglers standing in their way, thoughtful leaders began looking for opportunities to end the slaughter.
One was Francis Preston Blair, who had been not much more than an infant when his family moved to Lexington, Kentucky, from Abingdon, Virginia, about the time Kentucky came into being in 1792.
Francis Preston Blair
The Blairs were well connected politically in the new state, and young Francis attended Transylvania University, graduated in 1811, and moved to Frankfort, where his father, James Blair, was serving as the Kentucky’s attorney general.
The younger Blair soon became circuit court clerk and an officer in the Bank of the Commonwealth. He also began contributing to Amos Kendall’s influential Frankfort newspaper The Argus of Western America. The monetary crisis associated with the Panic of 1819 turned Blair and Kendall against Henry Clay, Kentucky’s favorite son and presidential candidate. The pair soon became politically aligned with Clay’s bitter rival, Andrew Jackson.
In 1828, when Jackson was elected president—becoming head of the brand-new Democratic party—he invited his two loyal Kentucky scribes to Washington, where Kendall became postmaster general and Blair took the editorship of The Globe, the new party’s political organ in the capital city. Both were members of Jackson’s celebrated group of unofficial advisers known as his “Kitchen Cabinet.”
By the 1850s, however, with the Democratic Party advocating the extension of slavery to new U.S. territories, Blair’s allegiance once again changed. Incredibly, he became a founder of the Republican Party, president of its 1856 convention, and a close adviser and political operative to President Lincoln. It was Blair who had carried Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union army to Robert E. Lee at the start of the war.
Lincoln appointed Blair’s son, Montgomery, to the Cabinet position of postmaster general. Another son, Francis Jr.—a member of Congress from Missouri—would become a Union major general and serve with Sherman in the March to the Sea.
Francis Blair Sr.’s political connections included Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders. The South’s precarious military situation at the start of 1865 led Blair to propose a peace conference, during which representatives of the two sides could perhaps negotiate an end to the war without further bloodshed.
Lincoln agreed, and Blair secured a pass through Union lines to visit Davis in Richmond on Jan. 12. Though Blair surprised Davis with the news that Lincoln himself was willing to negotiate with a Confederate delegation, Davis approved the plan. He gave Blair a note stating, in part, “I … am willing … to enter into negotiations … with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” Upon reading the note, Lincoln wrote to for Davis, expressing his willingness to restore “peace to the people of our one common country,” which Blair delivered.
The central point of contention still intact, Blair nevertheless was able to schedule a conference for Feb. 3. With an eye toward diplomacy, he had the meeting take place not on land, but on a steamboat, the River Queen, in the Union-controlled waterway known as Hampton Roads, near Norfolk, Virginia.
Lincoln himself, along with Secretary of State William H. Seward, met with Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell and Sen. Robert M.T. Hunter. The agenda included the status of slavery after the war and whether Southerners would be compensated for the loss of their slaves, a proposed U.S.-C.S.A. alliance against French intervention in Mexico, and rules for prisoner exchanges.
Nothing was decided during the four-hour meeting except an agreement to pursue prisoner exchanges, which took place almost immediately after what came to be known as the Hampton Roads Conference. Jefferson Davis used the conference as an attempt to obtain a cease-fire, allowing rebel forces a respite from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s constant attacks.
Lincoln, however, once again had matched political wits with a presumably equal adversary and bested him. The simple reality that Davis was willing to negotiate in light of the Confederacy’s precarious condition was an admission its days were numbered and tended to undermine the resolve of separate Confederate states and their citizens.
Recognizing this, the New York Herald hailed Lincoln as “one of the shrewdest diplomats of the day” and “a giant among the pigmies.”
In the end, Davis declared the meeting had been nothing more than a demand for unconditional surrender.
And so, the war went on.
Kentucky remained in chaos, with Confederate units periodically raiding the state to draw federal attention away from fighting in the east. Both Louisville’s famous Galt House hotel, at 2nd and Main streets, and its Union military prison burned to the ground in January, killing seven and injuring many.
As the situation deteriorated, rebels took to burning county courthouses, almost in mere protest, since such acts didn’t have a true military purpose. Commanders, however, claimed they did so because courthouses had been used to house Union troops.
Confederate Brig. Gen. Hylan B. Lyon, leading a detachment of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, ended his three-week raid into western Kentucky by burning the Cumberland County Courthouse in Burkesville on Jan. 3 before escaping into Mississippi.
Lyon’s purported purpose in conducting the raid was to draw Union strength away from the battle for Nashville, in addition to attempting to enforce a Confederate conscript law in western Kentucky, though he also raided stores, took horses, burned bridges and even attacked a train with 200 Union troops on board at Hardin County’s Nolin Station.
All told, Lyon’s cavalry burned at least seven county courthouses during the raid. The others were Cadiz in Trigg County, Princeton in Caldwell County, Madisonville in Hopkins County, Elizabethtown in Hardin County, Leitchfield in Grayson County and Hopkinsville in Christian County.
Copycat guerillas burned courthouses in Hartford in Ohio County, Hardinsburg in Breckinridge County, Owensboro in Daviess County, Albany in Clinton County, Marion in Crittenden County, Taylorsville in Spencer County and Hodgenville in Larue County.
The top agenda item for Kentucky’s politicians, however, was how to remove Maj. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge, commander of the Union’s Military District of Kentucky.
Still in effect was Burbridge’s General Order No. 59, which stated that four guerrilla prisoners would be shot for each loyal Union man killed by guerillas. By early 1865, the order had deteriorated into nothing short of murder, as Burbridge’s officers, responding to guerilla attacks, took to dragging out of their homes anyone living nearby who might be suspected of disloyalty and hanging or shooting those suspects on the spot.
It became a common sight along Louisville’s Main Street, at 15th and 18th streets, for men to be hanged or executed by firing squad. One of them was reported to have been 70 years old.
Particularly bloodthirsty was Brig. Gen. Eleazer A. Paine, commander of the Military District of West Kentucky, an attorney and a personal friend of Lincoln’s from Illinois. While headquartered in Paducah, Paine ordered the immediate execution of anyone who could be called a guerilla. One of his favorite pastimes was to set a prisoner free on an exhausted horse and order soldiers on fresh horses to chase and shoot the man to death.
Gov. Thomas E. Bramlette devoted his Jan. 6 annual message to the General Assembly to recounting his efforts to have Burbridge removed. He accused the general of a pattern of “malicious arrest and false imprisonment” of any citizen at his whim and of instituting a “shameful and corrupt system of partisan political corruption and oppression.”
The governor also recounted the Great Hog Swindle of 1864, in which all “surplus” hogs had to be sold to the federal government and none could be shipped out of state without a permit. Kentucky farmers had lost an estimated $300,000 by the time Lincoln countermanded the order.
A joint House-Senate committee of the state legislature was appointed on Jan. 14 to travel to Washington and ask Lincoln to act. Brig. Gen. Walter C. Whitaker of Shelbyville and Chief Justice William Sampson of Glasgow were appointed by the Senate, and Dr. Joshua Barnes of Sharpsburg, Rep. Alfred Allen of Hardinsburg and Rep. Joshua F. Bell of Danville were appointed by the House.
Kentuckians held their collective breath for the result, which came on the morning of Feb. 10: Burbridge had been relieved of his command and replaced by Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer. “Thank God and President Lincoln!” roared the Louisville Journal.