London: Saturday, February 18, 1865The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1302, p. 154.
February 18, 1865
In the early part of the week came news from America which excited legitimate hope that the combatants were weary of the war. We were informed that agents from the South had been empowered to meet the heads of the Federal Government, and to discuss terms of compromise. We also learned that the authorities at Washington had consented to receive these Confederate gentlemen, and that a meeting had actually taken place. President Lincoln, having previously dispatched Mr. Seward to Hampton Roads, went thither himself, and met Messrs. Hunter, Campbell, and Stephens on board a steamer, and it is said that their "informal conference" lasted for four hours. The last mail confirms the intelligence that the meeting has been without a result, and that the parties have returned to their respective abodes.
We find ourselves unconsciously lingering over this detail, though it is a vain one. How gladly should we have narrated every incident in the history had we been able to end it with the intimation that the heads of a treaty had been agreed upon. There was not an honest-hearted man in England who did not hail the intelligence of the early part of the week with satisfaction, and, indeed, with gladness. It was felt that the period was opportune for pacification. The Northern armies had accomplished splendid things, and had so triumphantly vindicated the claim of the Federals to superiority of force that they could well afford to close the game, and leave the South unsubdued, and proud of the gallant soldiery that had held the capital against all corners. There was no loss of honour to the Confederates in giving in when every one of their ports was closed; for they were like to a brave garrison that had yielded to the power of the assailants to draw lines all round the fortress. On the great question of slavery, too, there seemed now but little on which the antagonists need contend; for while the North had for the second time confirmed the decree of freedom, the South had virtually conceded the same boon, by preparing to place arms in the hands of the negroes and giving them liberty in exchange for their services in the field of battle. There remained, as we thought, an admirable subject of debate, or pièce de resistance, on which treaty-makers might expend all their rhetoric and superfluous energy, and do battle with a not unwise hypocrisy, because such discussions would lead men's minds away from the savage feelings of war, and this was the financial question which has been so often declared to have been the rock on which the ship Union really split. Throwing aside State rights and an absolute Union until the promise of peace should have made men so resolved upon it that there could be no danger of the failure of the negotiations, the emissaries from the South and the authorities from Washington might have talked tariff until the minds of all were prepared for constitutional debate and the resumption of friendly relations.
It was not to be. Englishmen will again be told, both by South and North, that we sordid islanders have never been able to attain to the true estimate of an idea. The North will jeer us for thinking that it would ever give up the glorious fiction of Union; the South will ask us indignantly whether we believe that it would be content with the fact of independence unless it had the name also. And we can only reply that we are practical people, and are well satisfied to dispense with names when we can have things, and that we do not care to fight when nothing is to be gained by fighting. We know that a real Union, such as is dreamed of by the more sanguine Federals, is an impossibility; and that nothing can blend and fuse provinces which are really distinct nations, with different customs, creeds, and objects, into one harmonious whole. But the honour of the North might have been conserved by a treaty arrangement that should conserve the mighty idea. We know that the South must, unless foreign aid be granted, ere long succumb to the overwhelming power, numbers, and resources of its enemies, and that it cannot, therefore, demand a formal recognition of independence; but it has, by its gallantry, and by the terrible obstacles which it will for a long time be able to throw in the way of the Federals, earned the right to a real liberty, which might have been assured to it, informally, by a little judicious diplomacy. We may be taunted with the smallness of these views; but when we consider that our small scheme would instantly have checked the flow of blood and speedily have arrested the flow of treasure, while giving both parties all that they could reasonably desire, and that the grand ideas of each side have caused the negotiators to separate and the signal to be given for new slaughter and new expenditure, we are not so much ashamed of our insular pettiness as we probably ought to be. At all events, we are anxious to assure our American brethren on both sides that we hailed the tidings of possible peace with a satisfaction for which some of them will not give us credit, and that it was not a wild and childish greediness for good news that made us receive the intelligence so eagerly. We had thought over the situation, and perceived, as we believed, that it was far from an unhopeful one, both champions being in honourable attitudes, and the real causes of the war having been absorbed. We had therefore some right to be bitterly disappointed when the second mail told us that all has been in vain. Not quite in vain, however, for it is a good thing that the peace idea has so far made its way that Mr. Lincoln can meet the ambassadors of Mr. Davis. Let us hope that they may soon meet again, and to better purpose.