The President said that if he were there to assist in celebrating some great and decisive victory to our arms, or in hailing the establishment of peace, he should have been most happy. But, in times like those which are now upon us when dangers confront us and our path is beside the lee-shore and the breakers to witness the manifestation of such a spirit on the part of his countrymen as was there displayed, was more than happiness it was ecstatic joy! He had always looked with pride upon his countrymen. He had rejoiced in their patriotism and their courage. But he was prouder still when he contemplated the fortitude which plucks flowers from reverses, and beats high with hope in the presense of fresh calls upon its courage and endurance.
The President said it was meet that the spirit which inspired this meeting, should find its first utterance in Richmond. Here every day were heard the cannons of the enemy. Innumerable hillocks in the neighboring cemeteries, tell of the brave men from every State in the Confederacy who have given their lives for their country. On one of the hills of this city stands that sacred building, in which Patrick Henry and his compatriots, pledged life for liberty. Here, too, was the capitol of the Confederacy, and of that proud old State, which had been truly termed “the mother of statesmen” If the spirit which has been here indicated shall meet with a general response, and prove to be the universal sentiment of the land, of which he did not doubt, then, indeed, would he feel that we are on the very verge of success. [Loud cheers.] We should not again be insulted by such terms of peace as the arrogance of the enemy has lately proposed*; but ere many months had elapsed, our successes would cause them to feel that when talking to us they were talking to their masters. [Great applause.]
Does any one, he inquired, who has seen the Confederate soldiers, believe they are willing to fail? If so, the suspicion is most unjust! Go to our camps; go to our guarded lines; go where our pickets hold their dangerous watch, and to the posts where our sentinels tread their weary rounds, and you will find in none of those the place for grumblings and complaints. The resolutions of our soldiers exclaim with Patrick Henry, “Victory or death!” It is in the crowded mart, where these are found whose pockets are stuffed with ill-gotten gains, that you find the persons who grumble and complain. [Applause] The progress of events had, however, brought a pressure even upon these which would urge them to their duty. Their treasure is in danger, and their only security for it is in performing their duty to their country.
The time for argument, said the President, is passed. The duty that remains is to stand to our arms. He had just made an effort to secure peace, as he has done several times before. He had made it in the cause of humanity and the country. At the very organization of our Government, in Montgomery, his first care was to send Commissioners to Washington. They were rejected. At a later period, he had requested the second officer under the Government (Vice President Stephens,) to seek a conference; the avowed object being to make arrangements for the proper treatment and exchange of prisoners, but in addition to, and behind that, it was the object to institute, if possible, negotiations for peace. But our Vice President was refused an audience; not even allowed to approach the throne. Since that time he had in various ways, and on every proper occasion, proclaimed the desire of this country for peace, and his own anxiety to secure it, but until lately, no opening had presented for an advance toward negotiation. This recent opportunity he had embraced. He did it in the hope that some plan of accommodation might be agreed upon. He would be less than man if he had not felt an earnest desire, a yearning anxiety, to relieve the country from the sufferings of the war, and to send our soldiers to their homes. Anything honorable, and recognizing our independence as a basis, would have been gladly acceded to. The person did not know him who might suppose that, under any circumstance, he would consent to reconstruct the late Union.
We had now learned the terms on which the enemy are willing to accord peace. We are required to make an unconditional surrender. We are not even allowed to go back to them as we came out, but are required to take just what a conqueror may choose to give the conquered.
Man proposes, but God disposes. Relying on the courage and devotion of his countrymen and reverently appealing to Heaven for its aid to our cause, the President said his confidence was firm, that God would abase the arrogance of our enemies, and crown our exertions with triumph.
President Lincoln had, indeed, promised, that in the enforcement of his laws for the confiscation of our property and the hanging of our officers, his policy would be “liberal.” [Laughter.] Beecher in a late sermon at Washington had pictured a long line of rebels on their way to the gallows; and President Lincoln’s heart had, perhaps, softened at the length of the procession. The leaders whom they propose to hang are your servants, and they are not worthy to be your servants, the President said unless they were willing to be sacrificed in your cause, even unto death. [Applause.]
If the power of the enemy were ten times greater, and ours ten times less than it is, there are still some rights of which they could not dispossess us; the right to maintain our personal honor, and the right to fill an honorable grave. [Loud applause.] If faithful to the end, we shall stand proud among the proudest of the earth. Never before have any people remained so closely united, in so long a war. Never before have a country’s best citizens composed its armies. Our revolutionary forefathers were not united in a concord so perfect as ours though it is true they had less pressure upon them, the British rulers being more humane than those of our present enemies, and their generals belonging to a school that recognized the amenities of war. History affords no parallel, the President continued, to the struggle which our country is making to the cheerfulness with which our people have borne sacrifices, and the courage with which our armies have marched to the harvest of death. It was this magnanimous spirit which sustained him in the confidence that we should triumph in the end. We have been chastened, and may be again. Let us profit by the lesson reverses are designed to teach, that we are not to serve a friend merely because he is such, or strike an enemy when we might serve the country.
The President here said that his failing strength admonished him to close his remarks; but he yielded to loud requests to “go on.” We must, he said, lock shields together and go forward to save our country, or sink together to honorable graves. [Loud applause.] He was not of those who had expected no discord and no parties, but if our disagreements result from passion we must exorcise it, and make the good of our country our sole aim. If we will all do our duty, we shall reap a brilliant reward. If the absentees, from our armies will return, and if the local assistance be rendered which may be readily afforded, the noble Army of Northern Virginia will read General Grant a yet severer lesson than it taught him from the Rapidan to the James; while the gallant Beauregard will cause Sherman’s march across Georgia to be his last.
We had, said the President, in the conduct of the enemy wherever they had gained temporary rule over our people, the signs of what they would in case of our subjugation. Thus warned we were forewarned. Happy in such a case would be those who had fallen in the fight the miserable would be the survivors.
In conclusion, the President said, he had gratifying proofs of the spirit which animated the people whom he addressed. He had seen even the old men upon duty, careless alike of the piercing blast and whistling bullet; and your women have declared that they will fight the battle if you should recoil! God bless your proud spirit and manly fortitude! History will delight to dwell upon your praise!
The law, and the officers of the law, could not accomplish everything: there was much that could be effected only by a sound public opinion. Public opinion must make it a shame and disgrace for a man to skulk from his duty, or to enquire not what he is able to do, but what the law will make him do! Our women must take broomsticks and drive absentees and stragglers to their duty. [Loud cheers.] We have one cause to sustain, one country to defend. He who falls on the soil of Louisiana, or sheds his blood on the soil of North Carolina or Virginia, is alike an honored martyr. The inquiry among us must be, not what service we can escape, but instead of that a generous rivalry among citizens and States which shall do most, and give most to the cause. [Loud applause]
* At the Hampton Roads Conference (February 3, 1865) with Confederate commissioners, including Vice President Alexander Stephens, President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward met to discuss terms of peace. During the four-hour meeting, Lincoln was inflexible on the following terms: a “restoration of the National authority throughout all the States”; “No receding on the Slavery question,” including the Emancipation Proclamation; and “No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war [e.g., no armistice], and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.”
Source: Lynda L. Crist, Barbara J. Rozek, and Kenneth H. Williams (eds.), The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 11 (Baton Rouge, LA, 2003), pp. 383-86.