Peace Mission to Richmond Commences

July 7, 1864

“After some days of great heat, a thunderstorm has left us a deliciously cool and cloudy morning,” White House aide William O. Stoddard writes in an anonymous newspaper dispatch. “Perhaps the event of the past week was the generally unexpected resignation of Mr. Secretary Chase. The financial world do not seem to regard his retirement as a national calamity, and in a political point of view the general opinion here is that he has injured himself far more than any one else. The people are not in a temper to regard with favor any officer, civil or military, who ‘resigns in presence of the enemy without sufficient cause. Every one who knows anything at all about it, knows that Mr. Chase did not resign for any principle, or because any great measure of his had been defeated, or because the Government or Mr. Lincoln did not sustain him; but becuase for once, among so many thousand appointments, he could not have his own way.”

William Pitt Fessenden begins his work as the new secretary of the treasury. Journalist Noah Brooks writes: “Probably no man ever took up the administration of the affairs of our National finance with so much relief and satisfaction on the part of the public as has William Pitt Fessenden, ex-Senator from Maine….He is a practical financier, which Chase was not when he assumed control of the finances. Chase was always topsy-turvy and behindhand, but Fessenden is cool, methodical and immovable. Fessenden is democratical, and finds himself ill at ease in the palatial splendors of Chase’s newly built quarters at the Treasury building. Chase was inaccessible, dignified beyond all account, and aristocratical. Let me not be understood as attempting to depreciate the great abilities of the ex-Secretary; his services are known to the country, and to the country he will stand or fall by the system of finance which he has himself inaugurated. There are divers opinions as to the real merit of that system, but it is now too late to make a radical change it, and it is too early to predict its success.

The faults of Chase above mentioned are minor in character, and the overweening weakness in his character was that desire to control everything which finally brought on his retirement from the Cabinet. The only issue of any moment between Chase and the President was whether the President or the Secretary should appoint the successor of Assistant Treasurer Cisco; the former preferred Hillhouse, a man of unblemished integrity and great financial ability, urged for the place by Senator Morgan of New York. Chase, who has heretofore controlled every appointment, from that of the humblest tide-waiter to a New York Collector, made a sine qua non of his staying in the Cabinet of the appointment of M.B. Field, a gentleman of ability, perhaps, but against whom some popular prejudices have become fixed for the reason that he parts his hair in the middle, wears a white neck-tie and lemon-colored kids, and has not specially distinguished himself in the Treasury Department as yet further than to superintend the fitting up of Chase’s private offices with Axminster carpets, gilded ceilings, velvet furniture, and other luxurious surroundings which go to hedge about a Cabinet Minister with a dignity quite appalling to the unaccustomed outsider. If Chase had been less strong in his pride of self-opinion he would have been more practicable as a Cabinet Minister and would always have harmonized with the President…”

John Hay writes in his diary of a visit to the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward: “The Secretary had the New York Tribune in his hand giving the reasons of Mr. Chase’s resignation: simply enough stated: that he wanted to appoint Mr. Field, & the President desired him to select some other man on account of the political opposition to Mr. Field: but he states disingenuously that he resigned because the President refused him an interview, thus showing a want of confidence in him. The Secretary said that this statement was absurd, as nobody ever wanted to see the President who did not – that there was never a man so accessible to all sorts of proper and improper persons. He then continued his comments on the matter very severely adverting to Chase’s iron and unbending obstinacy in the matter of appointments and in matters strictly with the scope of the President’s authority.”

Two persons, James R. Gilmore, a journalist friend of Greeley, and Colonel James Jacques were allowed to conduct a peace mission to Richmond.   Jacques (whose name is subject to different spellings) had tried once before in 1863. Historian David Long wrote in The Jewel of Liberty: “Gilmore and Jaquess set sail for City Point (now Hopewell, Virginia) on July 7, the day Greeley initiated his correspondence with Lincoln that led to the Niagara Falls meeting.   They got an interview with Davis and Judah P. Benjamin on July 17, probably about the time that Lincoln was drafting his call for 500,000 troops and his ‘To Whom it May Concern’ memorandum. Gilmore made it clear that they were private individuals but professed the sentiments of the Northern people relative to an adjustment of the differences existing between the North and South.’ Davis was charming and cordial, but he stated an initial ultimatum that set the tone for the conference: ‘This war must go on till the last of this generation falls in his tracks and his children seize his musket and fight our battle unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery.   We are fighting for independence, and that, or extermination, we will have.’”

Civil War historian Shelby Foote wrote in Volume III of The Civil War: “Colonel James F. Jaquess, a Methodist minister who had raised and led a regiment of Illinois volunteers, had become so increasingly shocked by the sight of fellow Christians killing each other wholesale – especially at Chickamauga, where he lost more than two hundred of his offices and men – that he obtained an extended leave of absence to see what he could do, on his own, to prepare the groundwork for negotiations. He had no success until he was joined in the effort by J.R. Gilmore, who enjoyed important Washington connections. A New York businessman, Gilmore had traveled widely in the South before the war, writing of his experiences under the pen name Edmund Kirke, and he managed to secure Lincoln’s approval of an unofficial visit to Richmond by Jaquess and himself, under a flag of truce, for the purpose of talking with southern leaders about the possibility of arriving at terms that might lead to a formal armistice. On Saturday, July 16, the two men were conducted past one of Ben Butler’s outposts and were met between the lines by Judge Robert Ould, head of the Confederate commission for prisoner exchange. By nightfall they had were lodged in the Spotwood Hotel, in the heart of the rebel capital, Jaquess wearing a long linen duster over his blue uniform. Next morning, amid the pealing of church bells, they conferred with Judah Benjamin, who promised to arrange a meeting for them that evening, here in his State Department office, with the President himself. They returned at the appointed time, and there – as Gilmore later described the encounter – at the table, alongside the plump and smiling Benjamin, ‘sat a spare, thin-featured man with iron-gray hair and beard, and a clear, gray eye full of life and vigor.’ Jefferson Davis rose and extended his hand. ‘I am glad to see you, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘You are very welcome to Richmond.”

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