On February 3, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) and Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-72) met with three Confederate officials, including Vice President Alexander H. Stephens (1812-83), to discuss the possibility of negotiating an end to the American Civil War, which had begun almost four years earlier in April 1861. The Hampton Roads Conference, which took place aboard a steamboat near Hampton, Virginia, was a failure, as Confederate officials were not authorized to accept any settlement other than Southern independence, which Lincoln refused to consider. The war continued for another two months.

Hampton Roads Conference: Background

New York Tribune editor and abolitionist Horace Greeley (1811-72) provided the impetus for the Hampton Roads Conference when he contacted Francis Blair (1791-1876), an influential political figure and unofficial advisor to President Abraham Lincoln. After Greeley suggested that Blair was the right person to open discussions with the Confederates to end the war, Blair sought permission from Lincoln to meet with Confederate President Jefferson Davis (1808-89), anddid so twice in January 1865. Blair recommended to Davis that an armistice be forged and the two sides turn their attention to removing the French-supported regime of Maximilian (1832-67) in Mexico. This plan would help cool tensions between North and South by providing a common enemy, he believed.

Did you know? The Battle of Hampton Roads, on March 9, 1862, was history’s first duel between ironclad warships, the Monitor and the Virginia. Though the battle itself was inconclusive, it began a new era in naval warfare.

Meanwhile, the situation was becoming progressively worse for the Confederates in the winter of 1864 and 1865. In January, Union troops captured Fort Fisher and effectively closed Wilmington, North Carolina, the last major port open to blockade runners. Davis conferred with his vice president, Alexander Stephens, who recommended that a peace commission be appointed to explore a possible armistice. Davis sent Stephens, along with Senator Robert M.T. Hunter (1809-87) of Virginia and Assistant Secretary of War John Campbell (1811-89), to meet with Lincoln at Hampton Roads.

Hampton Roads Conference: February 3, 1865

The meeting convened on February 3 aboard the steamboat River Queen near Virginia’s Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Stephens asked if there was any way to stop the war and Lincoln replied that the only way was “for those who were resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance.” The delegation underestimated Lincoln’s resolve to make the end of slavery a necessary condition for any peace. The president also insisted on immediate reunification and the laying down of Confederate arms before anything else was discussed. In short, the Union was in such an advantageous position that Lincoln did not need to concede any issues to the Confederates. Robert M.T. Hunter,a memberof the delegation, commented that Lincoln was offering little except the unconditional surrender of the South.

After less than five hours, the conference ended and the delegation left with no concessions. The war continued for more than two months.