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Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
04-07-2017, 08:45 AM
Post: #1
Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
At the close of the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of February 3, 1865, President Lincoln and Alexander Stephens made an agreement for an exchange of prisoners as a personal favor to Lincoln’s old friend. In return for President Lincoln’s release of Stephens’ nephew, Alexander Stephens was supposed to authorize the release of a Union “officer of the same rank imprisoned at Richmond whose physical condition most urgently requires his release.”

President Lincoln immediately obtained the release of Stephens’ nephew from the prison for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. He let John Stephens remain in Washington as long as he chose, which was five days, and on February 10, 1865, Lincoln gave Lieutenant John A. Stephens papers to enable him to pass through the Union lines and the following note addressed to his uncle, the Hon. A. H. Stephens, requesting that Alexander Stephens then keep his part of the bargain made with President Lincoln at the peace conference.

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Feb. 10, 1865
Hon. A.H. Stephens

According to our agreement your nephew, Lieut. Stephens, goes to you bearing this note. Please, in return, to select and send to me that officer of the same rank imprisoned at Richmond whose physical condition most urgently requires his release.

Respectfully, A. Lincoln

(Basler’s Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 8, page 287)

Apparently, things did not go as President Lincoln had planned. Alec Stephens had left for Georgia on the 9th of February and reached his home the 20th, where he remained in “perfect retirement,” until he was arrested by Union forces on the 11th of May. (“Our One Common Country,” by James B. Conroy, page 225.) Allegedly, “Lieutenant John Stephens was carried down the Potomac and transferred through the proper authorities to the Confederates, not paroled, but duly exchanged.” (“Lincoln Herald,” June, 1943, Volume XLV, Number 2, page 20 of “An Incident of Friendship,” pages 18-21, by Dr. Robert Stephens, a son of John A. Stephens)

In early May, 1865, “all of the Stephens’ blood and name in Georgia, accidently, or providentially rather, met at the old homestead. . . . John had just got home from Johnson’s Island where he had been a prisoner a long time . . . . Mr. Lincoln, at my request, had granted him a special parole, for which I was truly obliged; this parole he had promised me at Hampton Roads, and had complied with his promise. He had written me a letter by John which I never saw until after his assassination. I almost wept over the letter when I saw it. He had sent to Johnson’s Island for John. Had a personal interview with him [in Washington], treated him very kindly, spoke in kindly terms of his former acquaintance with me, all the particulars of which John gave me in detail. He let John remain in Washington as long as he chose, which was five days, I believe." (“Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens,” pages 141-42)

“[John A. Stephens] became attached to the staff of General John Echols with the rank of Major and served in this capacity until the surrender of the Confederate armies in April. He then began his long ride back to his home in Taliaferro County, Georgia, reaching there sometime around the first week in May. Soon after this he saw his uncle and delivered to him Mr. Lincoln’s letter. Mr. Lincoln had been dead several weeks when this letter reached Mr. Stephens.” (“Lincoln Herald,” June, 1943, Volume XLV, Number 2, page 20 of “An Incident of Friendship.”)

The implication of all this material is that Lieutenant John A. Stephens was exchanged for an unidentified Union officer or soldier(s) [I understand that one officer would be exchanged for three privates or one officer], and thus not meeting the specific terms of the agreement outlined by President Lincoln in his note to Alexander Stephens. This must have been a major personal disappointment for President Lincoln when the Union “officer of the same rank imprisoned at Richmond whose physical condition most urgently requires his release” never showed at the White House.

National Archives and Records Administration has records regarding such prisoner exchanges or paroles, I believe. Does anyone know how to access these records to answer the question regarding the specific terms of exchange for Confederate Lieutenant John A. Stephens?

I did find a reference to 31 pages of records regarding John A. Stephens of the CSA Signal Corp which would appear to be the correct person at http://www.fold3.com. This site is supposed to be free on a trial basis. However, it has been my experience that "free" things are too expensive. The website requires credit card information up front and disputes are settled by arbitration according to the terms of agreement.

"So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history." -- Plutarch
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04-07-2017, 09:17 AM
Post: #2
RE: Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
David, thanks for posting this information. I cannot help with your question, but I found an image of Lincoln's letter here.

Is it possible this was at first not an exchange agreement, but rather it was simply Lincoln originally promising (when the two men were together at the Hampton Roads Conference) to get Lieutenant John A. Stephens released as a favor to an old friend without asking anything in return (at that time)?
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04-07-2017, 02:32 PM
Post: #3
RE: Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
The record is for the right person, I've attached images of the most relevant documents in the file. The wording of Lincoln's telegram speaks of "an arrangement I made yesterday with his uncle", so that seems like it's more of an exchange agreement than a favor. Unfortunately, the last thing chronologically in the file is Stephens going to President Lincoln and doesn't have any specifics about his exchange.

If what you posted is correct and Stephens was immediately exchanged and not paroled, then there would not have been a Union officer released. It would have been up to Alexander Stephens to arrange the exchange/release of the Union officer after he received the letter.


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04-07-2017, 04:15 PM (This post was last modified: 04-07-2017 04:33 PM by David Lockmiller.)
Post: #4
RE: Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
(04-07-2017 09:17 AM)RJNorton Wrote:  David, thanks for posting this information. I cannot help with your question, but I found an image of Lincoln's letter here.

Is it possible this was at first not an exchange agreement, but rather it was simply Lincoln originally promising (when the two men were together at the Hampton Roads Conference) to get Lieutenant John A. Stephens released as a favor to an old friend without asking anything in return (at that time)?

The meeting had lasted about four hours when Stephens brought it to a close.

"Well, Stephens," Lincoln said, "there has been nothing we could do for our country. Is there anything that I can do for you personally?"

"Nothing," Stephens said. And then he thought of something. "Unless you can send me my nephew, who has been twenty months a prisoner at Johnson's Island," a famously uncongenial prison camp for Southern officers on Lake Erie.

"I shall be glad to do it," Lincoln said, "if you will send back one of our young lieutenants. Let me have his name." When Stephens happily obliged, the president wrote it down and asked considerate questions about Lieutenant John A. Stephens and his family. ("Our One Common Country," page 198.)

Therefore, Roger, it was a reciprocal promise of prisoner exchange made at the time of the Hampton Roads Peace Conference on February 3, 1865 of one Southern lieutenant named John A. Stephens released by Lincoln in exchange for an undetermined Union lieutenant to be released later by his friend Alec Stephens. The Union lieutenant to be exchanged was adequately described by Lincoln in his February 10, 1865 note to A.H. Stephens as "that officer imprisoned at Richmond whose physical condition most urgently requires his release." The note was to be carried by Lieutenant John A. Stephens to his uncle. ("Our One Common Country," page 229.)

(04-07-2017 02:32 PM)Steve Wrote:  The record is for the right person, I've attached images of the most relevant documents in the file. The wording of Lincoln's telegram speaks of "an arrangement I made yesterday with his uncle", so that seems like it's more of an exchange agreement than a favor. Unfortunately, the last thing chronologically in the file is Stephens going to President Lincoln and doesn't have any specifics about his exchange.

If what you posted is correct and Stephens was immediately exchanged and not paroled, then there would not have been a Union officer released. It would have been up to Alexander Stephens to arrange the exchange/release of the Union officer after he received the letter.

Steve,

Thanks for this information. The first item appears to be in the handwriting of Lieutenant John A. Stephens in which he promises not to divulge any Union military intelligence gained during the term of his time in Washington. Many years later, his son seems to be referring to a physical exchange of prisoners being made at or near the line between the opposing military factions.

"So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history." -- Plutarch
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04-07-2017, 05:13 PM
Post: #5
RE: Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
(04-07-2017 04:15 PM)David Lockmiller Wrote:  Steve,

Thanks for this information. The first item appears to be in the handwriting of Lieutenant John A. Stephens in which he promises not to divulge any Union military intelligence gained during the term of his time in Washington. Many years later, his son seems to be referring to a physical exchange of prisoners being made at or near the line between the opposing military factions.

David,
I only meant that Stephens would have been considered an exchanged soldier immediately when he crossed the lines where he could then join a Confederate unit instead of going to a Confederate parole camp or something similar and then waiting to be "officially exchanged".
If you look closely at the letter, Stephens' signature is in different handwriting than the rest of the letter. I think it was written out for him and told to sign it.
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04-07-2017, 07:22 PM
Post: #6
RE: Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
(04-07-2017 05:13 PM)Steve Wrote:  
(04-07-2017 04:15 PM)David Lockmiller Wrote:  Steve,

Thanks for this information. The first item appears to be in the handwriting of Lieutenant John A. Stephens in which he promises not to divulge any Union military intelligence gained during the term of his time in Washington. Many years later, his son seems to be referring to a physical exchange of prisoners being made at or near the line between the opposing military factions.

David,
I only meant that Stephens would have been considered an exchanged soldier immediately when he crossed the lines where he could then join a Confederate unit instead of going to a Confederate parole camp or something similar and then waiting to be "officially exchanged".
If you look closely at the letter, Stephens' signature is in different handwriting than the rest of the letter. I think it was written out for him and told to sign it.

Thanks again. You are correct about the handwriting being different. He probably had to sign the letter if he wanted to leave the prison.

But President Lincoln must have been absolutely clear with Lieutenant Stephens in the White House on February 10, 1865. The terms of the agreement were written in Lincoln's hand; Lieutenant Stephens saw Lincoln write the words; Lincoln failed to blot the words, but the words on the note were clearly readable. Lincoln also handed Lieutenant Stephens papers that were the authority for him to pass through the Union lines into Confederate territory near Richmond. Lincoln expected Lieutenant Stephens to return to Richmond and deliver the note to his uncle, the Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Hamilton Stephens. Lincoln expected his friend to honor the agreement that had been made between the two men on the night of February 3, 1865. Clearly, Alexander Stephens knew nothing of Lincoln's note until he met with his nephew at the family reunion in early May, 1865.

In 1943, the son of John A. Stephens wrote that his father was "not paroled, but duly exchanged.” An exchange means to me that a prisoner held by the Union was yielded in exchange for a prisoner or prisoners held by the Confederacy. [as previously posted by me, "one officer would be exchanged for three privates or one officer of equal rank, presumably"].

I did not understand the term "paroled" as used in the Civil War. So, I "googled" the word and found this response to the question:

It was an honor system early in the war that actually worked. Paroled meant you sat out the war someplace and did not participate until you were "exchanged" for a prisoner or paroled prisoner from the other side.

An interesting "parole" fact - the Union had a camp near Annapolis, Maryland where soldiers on parole were housed until they were exchanged and sent back to their units to fight (my gggrandfather and ggggrandfather went this route). The camp ultimately became a town, and it exists today, and it's called Parole, Maryland.

In short, for President Lincoln, as the poet Robert Burns wrote in "To a Mouse": “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley.”

"So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history." -- Plutarch
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04-08-2017, 04:39 AM
Post: #7
RE: Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
I found this in a February 15, 1865, letter from Charles Sumner to John Bright:

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"P. S. Did I mention, as showing the good nature of the peace conferences, that after the serious discussions were over, including allusions on the part of the rebels to what was gently called 'the continental question,' Mr. Stephens asked the President to send back a nephew of his, a young lieutenant, who was a prisoner in the North? The President said at once, 'Stephens, I'll do it, if you will send back one of our young lieutenants.' It was agreed; and Mr. Stephens handed the President on a slip of paper the name of his nephew, and the President handed Mr. Stephens the name of an officer of corresponding rank. This was the only stipulation on that occasion; and the President tells me it has been carried out on each side."
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04-08-2017, 11:22 AM
Post: #8
RE: Pres. Lincoln and Alec Stephens Agreement at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference
(04-08-2017 04:39 AM)RJNorton Wrote:  I found this in a February 15, 1865, letter from Charles Sumner to John Bright:

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"P. S. Did I mention, as showing the good nature of the peace conferences, that after the serious discussions were over, including allusions on the part of the rebels to what was gently called 'the continental question,' Mr. Stephens asked the President to send back a nephew of his, a young lieutenant, who was a prisoner in the North? The President said at once, 'Stephens, I'll do it, if you will send back one of our young lieutenants.' It was agreed; and Mr. Stephens handed the President on a slip of paper the name of his nephew, and the President handed Mr. Stephens the name of an officer of corresponding rank. This was the only stipulation on that occasion; and the President tells me it has been carried out on each side."

Thanks for that information, Roger.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).” In my post yesterday at 4:15 PM, I transcribed exactly what was written by James B. Conroy of the conversation between the two men on board the River Queen on this subject in his book at page 198. Mr. Conroy makes no reference to "the President hand[ing] Mr. Stephens the name of an officer of corresponding rank."

And, Alec Stephens makes no reference to such an occurrence in his book "Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens." If there had been such a specific agreement term, it would seem likely that Mr. Stephens would have made arrangements for the release of this specific Union officer in anticipation of President Lincoln keeping his part of the agreement. Mr. Stephens retired from the government of the Confederacy shortly after the Peace Conference and began his return journey to Georgia for a "perfect retirement" on February 9. President Lincoln penned his note addressed to A.H. Stephens on February 10.

Interestingly, the title of Chapter 18, the chapter describing the events and conversations of the actual conference on the night of February 3, 1865, are Lincoln's words following the four hours of discussion and introducing the topic of what he might be able to do personally for Mr. Stephens. The title of the chapter is "There Has Been Nothing We Could Do For Our Country." However, when I checked the notes for this particular chapter this morning, there is not a single entry specific to page 198. However, at the beginning of the notes listed for the chapter there is an extremely long list of references covering the entire chapter.

At the end of this list, Mr. Conroy writes the following: "The foregoing accounts are remarkably consistent and are woven together in this chapter with little need to weigh one against another. The sequence of the conversation is also recoverable with reasonable accuracy if not with precision."

With regard to the February 15, 1865, letter from Charles Sumner to John Bright, Mr. Conroy writes in his notes: "Lincoln or Seward must have passed on to Charles Sumner the references to the conference in Pierce, vol. 4, p. 205."

"So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history." -- Plutarch
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