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Shriber Lecture

Shriber Lecture: Civil War historian James McPherson
  discusses ‘No Substitute for Victory’

By Eric Coker

By the summer of 1864, more than 500,000 people had been killed in the Civil War. Families in both the North and South were feeling the losses of relatives or friends. The most popular song in the country was “When This Cruel War is Over (Weeping Sad and Lonely).”

Americans were discovering that it was far more difficult to end a war than to start one, historian James McPherson said at the Ninth Annual Shriber Lecture on April 29.

“The heady optimism of 1861 – the expectations on both sides of a short war and a glorious victory – had been replaced by a mood that bordered on despair and a desperate desire for this ‘cruel war’ to be over,” McPherson said.

McPherson, considered America’s pre-eminent Civil War historian, delivered a 40-minute talk called “No Substitute for Victory: The Failure of Peace Negotiations in the Civil War.” The lecture, held in the Engineering Building, was sponsored by Binghamton University’s History Department and celebrated a half-century-long doctoral program in the department.

George Henry Davis ’86 professor emeritus of history at Princeton University has written books on the Civil War such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Battle Cry of Freedom” in 1988 and the Lincoln Prize-winning “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War” in 1998. His most recent book is “The War That Forged a Nation: Why The Civil War Still Matters” (2015). In 2013, he gave the keynote address at the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. 

Three positions had emerged in 1863 to try to bring an end to the Civil War, McPherson said. The first was the official stances of the North and South: Peace would only be achieved through military victory. 

“For (U.S. President) Abraham Lincoln, victory meant surrender of the Confederate armies, the dissolution of the Confederate government and the return of the Southern states to the Union,” McPherson said. “By 1864, it also meant the abolition of slavery.

“For (Confederate President) Jefferson Davis, victory meant Confederate independence as a separate, sovereign nation.”

Neither Lincoln nor Davis was willing to compromise throughout the remainder of the war.

“When the survival of one or both governments, nations or societies is at stake, negotiated peace often seems impossible,” McPherson said. “That was to be the case with the American Civil War, when the issues of national sovereignty and eventually slavery and freedom were in effect non-negotiable.”

The inflexibilities of Lincoln and Davis did not mean that others weren’t advocating peace plans. A second position was held by War Democrats in the North such as George B. McClellan (who would face Lincoln in the 1864 election) and prominent Southern leaders such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown. They called for a cease-fire followed by negotiations based on conditions agreed to by both sides.

For example, McClellan vowed to negotiate with the South if the Confederacy agreed to reunion as a condition.

“All other issues were on the table, including slavery,” McPherson said.

The third position urged a cease-fire and negotiation without any prior conditions: Stop fighting, come to the table and work it out there. This position was taken in the North by Peace Democrats called “Copperheads” and in the South by Tories and Reconstructionists.

“These people came close to embracing the cost of peace at any price – even the price of defeat,” McPherson said.

These peace activists believed that the negotiating table represented the “first step” toward their goals: For Copperheads, it was the “brotherly reunion” of the North and South. For their counterparts, it was “recognition of Southern rights and sovereignty.”

The negotiation strategy gained momentum in the North during 1864, as Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman led offenses that got bogged down. In July 1864, Northern newspapers asked whether the “withered hopes” of the Union could be revived. Northern Democrats – and even some Republicans – believed that Lincoln was too adamant about abolition.

“Lincoln came under enormous pressure to drop emancipation as a prior condition,” McPherson said, adding that many believed Lincoln’s re-election was an “impossibility.”

But Lincoln was insistent that backing down on the issue would be a betrayal to the freed slaves working and fighting for the Union.

The fall of Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1864, caused morale to shift in both the North and South. Lincoln was re-elected and more military losses continued to hurt the Confederacy. At his 1865 State of the Union address, Lincoln reminded lawmakers that the issues of reunion and freedom could only be decided by military victory.

“The Confederacy’s days surely seemed numbered,” McPherson said. “Whether it took months or years, Lincoln intended to stay the course.”

Davis continued to remain defiant, even as a confident Lincoln met with Confederate envoys in Hampton Roads, Va., in February 1865.

“The Confederacy must fight on to victory,” Davis announced. “It could never submit to disgrace and surrender to his majesty Abraham I.”

Davis even went as far as saying that the Confederacy would win again on the battlefield – a prediction that Stevens called “the emanations of a demented brain.”

In reality, there was “no money, no credit and shortages of food and clothing “ in the South, McPherson said. “Railroads were broken down. There were no foreign imports.”

By the time Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, Davis was headed south and still unwilling to admit defeat.

“Davis still held out hope as he fled,” McPherson said. “’We must redouble our efforts.’ But no one was listening. … Jefferson Davis’ war was finally over. The nation was reunited. Slavery was gone with the wind.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17