Colonel Baldwin Meets Mr. Lincoln

By John M. Taylor   |   Abbeville Institute

This essay is Chapter 13 in Mr. Taylor’s Union At All Costs: From Confederation to Consolidation(2016).

“I supported President Lincoln. I believed his war policy would be the only way to save the country, but I see my mistake. I visited Washington a few weeks ago, and I saw the corruption of the present administration—and so long as Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet are in power, so long will war continue. And for what? For the preservation of the Constitution and the Union? No, but for the sake of politicians and government contractors.”[1] J.P. Morgan—American financier and banker, 1864.

The assertion that Lincoln genuinely attempted to avoid war has been preached since General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The testimony of a Southern peace representative who spoke with Lincoln on April 4, 1861, in an effort to avert war provides keen insight into a side of the issue seldom heard or taught.[2] Some historians dismiss the importance of the meeting between Lincoln and Colonel John Brown Baldwin, but it is beyond dispute the meeting happened and pivotal issues were seriously discussed. On February 10, 1866, Baldwin testified before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in Washington, D.C. His comments appeared in a pamphlet published in 1866 by the Staunton Speculator and he provided his account to a fellow Confederate in 1865 just prior to the end of the war.

Reverend Robert L. Dabney, Chief of Staff to Stonewall Jackson, met Baldwin in March of 1865 in Petersburg, Virginia, when the Army of Northern Virginia was under siege. Baldwin told Dabney, that prior to hostilities, he had been selected by the Virginia Secession Convention to surreptitiously meet with Lincoln in April 1861 and negotiate a peaceful settlement. This meeting occurred at the time the Virginia legislature was debating the secession issue.

The citizens of the Southern States were well aware of the disadvantages they faced. The failure of the Peace Congress, rejection of the Crittenden Amendment, and the clandestine arming of the Federal government raised concerns in the South that war may be on the horizon.

There was lingering frustration in the South resulting from the failed compromise effort of A.B. Roman, Martin Crawford, and John Forsyth. As sectional hostility continued to fester, further attempts at peace became critical. Most Virginians were strong Unionists, a fact mirrored in the make up of the anti-secession Virginia Convention. Considering the situation dire, representatives from Virginia decided to make another attempt to diffuse the sectional schism.

William Ballard Preston, an anti-slavery defense lawyer and prominent member of the Virginia Convention, summed up the concerns of Virginians about the direction of the country:

If our voices and votes are to be exerted farther to hold Virginia in the Union, we must know (emphasis author) what the nature of the Union is to be. We have valued Union, but we are also Virginians, and we love the Union only as it is based upon the Constitution. If the power of the United States is to be perverted to invade the rights of States and of the people, we would support the Federal Government no farther. And now that the attitude of that Government was so ominous of usurpation, we must know whither it is going, or we can go with it no farther.[3]

Preston was disturbed about threats of coercion through federal overreach and the possibility of destroying the voluntary relationship of the compact. His view paralleled that of Robert E. Lee, who refused to participate in the invasion of the seceded States.[4]

Seward sent a messenger, Allen B. Magruder, to consult with members of the Virginia Convention and request that they send a representative to Washington to confer with the U.S. President. Lincoln’s preference was G.W. Summers, a pro-Unionist from the western part of Virginia. The Virginia group included Mr. John Janney, Convention President, Mr. John S. Preston, Mr. A.H.H. Stuart, and others. Since this mission was of a discreet nature, the Convention did not send Summers, but instead sent a lesser-known representative named John Brown Baldwin. Though Baldwin lacked the notoriety of other potential candidates, he was imminently qualified and widely respected. Also, as the brother-in-law of Stuart, he had strong inside support from a key convention member. Baldwin’s credentials included graduation from Staunton Academy and the University of Virginia combined with a reputation as a capable lawyer and man of integrity. He was also one of Virginia’s strongest Unionists. Though somewhat reluctant, Baldwin realized the magnitude of this mission and dutifully accepted the role as Virginia representative.

Dabney summarized Baldwin’s instructions:

Mr. Magruder stated that he was authorized by Mr. Seward to say that Fort Sumter would be evacuated on the Friday of the ensuing week, and that the Pawnee would sail on the following Monday for Charleston, to effect the evacuation. Mr. Seward said that secrecy was all important, and while it was extremely desirable that one of them should see Mr. Lincoln, it was equally important that the public should know nothing of the interview.[5]

Baldwin and Magruder prepared for their trip to Washington, choosing to travel the Acquia Creek Route. On April 4, Baldwin rode with Magruder, in a carriage with raised glasses (for maximum secrecy), to meet Seward. Seward took Baldwin to the White House, arriving slightly after 9:00 A.M. The porter immediately admitted him, and, along with Seward, led Baldwin to “what he (Baldwin) presumed was the President’s ordinary business room, where he (Baldwin) found him in evidently anxious consultation with three or four elderly men, who appeared to wear importance in their aspect.”[6] Though these gentlemen appeared to be very influential, it does not appear Baldwin knew them, as he did not identify them when he recounted the meeting.

Seward informed Lincoln of his guest’s arrival, whereupon, Lincoln immediately excused himself from the meeting, took Baldwin upstairs to a bedroom and formally greeted his visitor: “Well, I suppose this is Colonel Baldwin of Virginia? I have hearn [sic] of you a good deal, and am glad to see you. How d’ye, do sir?”[7]

Baldwin presented his credentials. Lincoln sat on the bed and occasionally spat on the carpet as he read through them. Once satisfied with the introduction, Lincoln conveyed that he was aware of the purpose of the visit.

Read More
%d bloggers like this: