One of the several critical strands in the “Lincoln” movie concerns the controversy surrounding the Hampton Roads peace talks (February 3, 1865), where President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward met with Confederate envoys Alexander Stephens, John Campbell and Robert M.T. Hunter for secret discussions about how to end the war on board the River Queen in Union-controlled Hampton Roads, Virginia (near Fortress Monroe). No transcript exists for their conversations that day. Lincoln and Seward died before leaving any recollection of the affair. So historians have mostly relied upon on the dubious reminiscences of former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Partly for this reason, many Civil War historians consider the Hampton Roads talks as little more than a sideshow –one of several improbable efforts undertaken in the last year of the war to end the conflict. According to this view, Francis P. Blair, Sr. (Preston Blair / Hal Holbrook in the movie) was just one of several foolish old men (including the famous and eccentric Horace Greeley) attempting foolish things in the name of peace but having little effect. Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were implacable in their positions by the war’s end. Lincoln, for example, made his preconditions for peace clear from July 18, 1864 forward –an end to the rebellion, the restoration of the union, and the abandonment of slavery. Those three conditions never changed, making true “peace talks” impossible. Yet other historians are more willing to take the Hampton Roads conference seriously, since it did result in a real meeting between Confederate envoys and President Lincoln. Doris Kearns Goodwin takes the conference seriously in Team of Rivals (2005), but one of the best accounts available online which considers them significant and details the events surrounding the peace talks comes from an article by William C. Harris in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
The article helps illustrate ways that the movie takes major liberties in presenting Hampton Roads. The movie has Lincoln meeting with Preston Blair and his children at the Blair House in early January, reluctantly agreeing to secretly “authorize” an unauthorized trip to Richmond for the elder Blair in exchange for their support with the antislavery amendment. In reality, Blair and Lincoln met alone at the White House in December. Lincoln authorized a pass for Blair to travel into enemy lines but not to make any peace overtures. Blair began his journey on January 3, 1865, arriving in Richmond by January 12 and proceeded to outline a wild scheme to Jefferson Davis that included an end to the war followed by a joint expedition of former Confederate and Union troops to remove the French occupation in Mexico. Davis rejected some of Blair’s ideas but agreed to the possibility of talks for ending hostilities between the “two countries.” Blair returned to Washington on January 16 and met with Lincoln on January 18, 1865. The president agreed that Blair could take back to Richmond a message that the president would receive envoys who would be willing to secure peace for “our one common country.” Blair then presented this message to Jefferson Davis on January 21, 1865. Davis subsequently met with Alexander Stephens on January 27. Stephens was his Vice President but also one of his biggest critics. Davis appointed Stephens and two other notable critics of his policies, John A. Campbell and Robert M.T. Hunter, as his envoys (a sign for some historians, by the way, that he wasn’t serious himself about the talks, but wanted to show up his critics). Regardless of the motives, the men traveled toward Union lines on January 29 and met with General Grant on January 30 before they eventually spent the morning of February 3 with Lincoln and Seward.
The movie accelerates and rearranges this timeline pretty ruthlessly. It ignores the fact that Blair took two trips to Richmond (and most of that month) and instead presents him reporting back to Lincoln on or about January 10, 1865 with news that Davis had already appointed his three peace commissioners. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) then agrees to proceed with the talks if Blair (Holbrook) lobbies for the antislavery amendment. Blair objects to the “horsetrading” but accepts the condition. The next day, Seward (David Strathairn) reveals to Lincoln that he has found out about this deal with Blair and that he objects to it bitterly. ”It’s either the amendment or this Confederate peace,” he says sternly. ”You cannot have both.” This is a central premise of the movie –one only made possible, however, by rearranging historical chronology and omitting contradictory details. If the movie had accepted the actual timeline of events, then the connections between the peace talks and the amendment would not be so obvious, nor would the motivations of the key figures appear so starkly at odds. In other words, there would be less conflict, less drama and eventually less satisfaction in the movie’s resolution.
The movie also ducks the biggest historical controversy over Stephens’s account of Hampton Roads –one which definitely undermines a key element of the Spielberg message. According to the former Confederate vice president, Lincoln offered to allow southern states to reenter the union by ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment “prospectively,” suggesting that they could take up to five more years to put it into effect. Stephens also claimed that Lincoln offered payments of up to $400 million for the South to abandon slavery. Historian William Harris also cites recollections from the other commissioners Campbell and Hunter indicating that Lincoln offered compensation. There is no corroboration for Stephens’s outlandish claim about prospective ratification (which would be utterly unconstitutional) but there is contemporary evidence that Lincoln did consider paying southern states to end the war and abandon slavery. He drafted such a proposal and presented it to his cabinet on February 5, 1865, which unanimously opposed it. Lincoln then dropped the plan. Whether or not he was serious remains an open question. But it’s revealing that this idea –which certainly threatens to complicate views about Lincoln’s support for abolition– does not appear in the “Lincoln” movie at all. Doris Kearns Goodwin addresses it in her book, Team of Rivals (2005) and William Harris analyzes the issue extensively in his article and in subsequent book, Lincoln’s Last Months (2004), but here perhaps is a good illustration of the difference between works of history and historical fiction.
(This post has been excerpted from a longer essay, “Warning: Artists at Work,” that appears in “The Unofficial Guide to Spielberg’s Lincoln” which is part of the House Divided Project’s new Emancipation Digital Classroom).
Image courtesy of Dreamworks