Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln And The Hampton Roads Peace Conference Of 1865, by James B. Conroy
The author states in the acknowledgements section at the end of this book that no one had ever written a book on the Hampton Roads Conference of 1865, the long-forgotten conference that foundered when eminent Confederate peacemakers Alexander Stephens (the Confederate Vice President), Judge John A. Campbell, former Supreme Court justice and Assistant Secretary of War, and Robert Hunter, President of the Confederate Senate were unable to come to terms with the remarkably generous peace terms of Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of State William Seward. There is good reason why. This is a book that wants to share a lot of context, much of which is interesting but not to the point. In the end, the book, like the Conference, had a lot of hopes but not a lot of action, and has the melancholy air of what might had been had the Confederacy been less stubborn . Had the South been wiser, though, they would never have gone to war, much less fight on for months after knowing that their defeat in conventional warfare was certain.
This book takes a largely chronological approach to the abortive efforts from both Union and Confederate leaders to make a principled peace before the eventual victory in 1865. At over 300 pages of material, though, it has the tendency to ramble a bit. Some of the stories, like the backgrounds of the main people involved and their experiences during wartime, are great stories, and probably make the book as worthwhile as it is to read even if they are somewhat tangential to the main point of the book. Overall, I think the book’s loss of efficiency in telling its story in order to tell the stories within the stories that show both Union and Confederate leaders as human beings, acting as human beings toward each other, is a worthwhile trade-off that serves to the benefit of the book as a whole. Most of this book consists of short chapters that tell the stories of various leaders on both sides as well as the halting efforts to set the context for peace and then try to sell that peace to the most important parties blocking the way, Northern radicals who the author calls Jacobins (a rather ferocious term) on the one side and Jefferson Davis on the other side. Ultimately, those who wanted to block peace got their way, and the South was destroyed in a fashion that ended up causing a great deal of lasting damage to the United States.
Overall, I think, the author has as his aim the demonization of Northern radicals who have been rather popular of late, the humanization of many reluctant rebels on the side of the Confederacy, and the showing of Abraham Lincoln as a principled man genuinely interested in peace far to the extent of his cabinet and many political leaders among the North. It is unclear whether this book or its presentation of Lincoln as a savvy man focused on peace will take hold within the general public, but as a book this is a compelling look at Lincoln’s humanity even towards his enemies, something that was in very short supply in 1865. Among the more touching moments of this book is the way that the author tells the story of a nephew of Alexander Stephens who, by Lincoln’s effort was freed from prison camp, given the liberty of Washington until he felt up to traveling home, and a pass through Union lines. His experiences and his arrival home to encourage his uncle who was awaiting capture at his home by Union troops is among the more poignant moments of a book with many such moments. This is certainly a book that takes a long time making its point, but it makes for a powerful read.
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