Kirkus Star Review - "Awarded to Books of Exceptional Merit” - 11/17/13
"A brilliant account of the doomed effort to end the Civil War through diplomacy.
In February 1865 three "commissioners," all prominent members of the Confederate government, met with Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward on a riverboat near Hampton Roads, Va., to explore the possibility of a negotiated end to the Civil War, an event briefly portrayed in the recent film Lincoln. The project appeared hopeless from the start; schemes were launched to derail the conference before it could begin, deftly defeated by further chicanery on the parts of the commissioners and Ulysses Grant. Legal and political difficulties beset the conference as well, given the commissioners' lack of authority to conclude an agreement, Jefferson Davis' claim that he had no authority to dissolve the Confederacy, and Lincoln's refusal to recognize the existence of a separate government in Richmond. In this excellent debut, Boston-based attorney Conroy vividly captures the hope, weariness, despair and anger of the moment and the complexity of feelings on both sides. Everyone yearned for peace, but in the end, Southern hard-liners clung to an increasingly incredible denial of their impending defeat and Northern radicals bent on vengeance made agreement impossible even at this late stage of the war. The author lays out this tragic and fascinating story in a style that is witty, acerbic and ironic. His characters stand out as strikingly distinctive individuals, including the bitter, delusional dead-ender Davis, a man "with a politeness so studied as to be almost sarcastic"; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, with his "nerve-chilling stare and his perfumed beard"; and Stanton’s agent, the officious Maj. Thomas Eckert, who "descended from Washington City like the coming of the Lord." Towering over all is Lincoln, desperate to end the killing but, despite the fears of the radical Republicans, adamant about reunion and the end of slavery as the price of peace.
A splendid addition to any Civil War library."
THE CIVIL WAR MONITOR - 1/22/2014
"I suppose that it’s rare to begin a review with a disclosure—but in this case, it seems well worth mentioning that I began reading this book feeling an unusual common bond with author James B. Conroy. Both of us began our careers working on Capitol Hill for hard-driving liberal Democratic members of Congress from New York. At one point, our respective bosses even finished numbers one and two in a survey of the worst tempered officials in the House and Senate. And both of us turned, ultimately, to writing about Lincoln and the Civil War. I have tried to remain dispassionate about this shared professional arc, but I have to admit I began reading Conroy’s book feeling a sense of kinship. Although I’ve never met the fellow, I feel I’d like to, and assume we would have a grand time swapping stories not only about historical figures Alexander H. Stephens and Abraham Lincoln, but also about modern Congressional legends Bella Abzug and James Scheuer.
Until then, I’ve had to settle for reading this sparkling account of the former pair’s extraordinary, but historically neglected, peace meeting at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865—the culmination of more than a year of efforts by both Union and Confederate officials to spur armistice talks to end the Civil War. Imagine the scene: three southern “peace commissioners” bundled up against the late-winter cold and shuttled off to the no doubt dispiriting scene of the 1862 Monitor-Merrimack duel because Lincoln didn’t want them crashing the 13th Amendment party in Washington—or, worse, stanching the momentum to pass it in the House. Then imagine the giant Lincoln arriving by sea, then renewing his onetime acquaintance with the spectrally thin, sickly Confederate vice president Stephens, his onetime Whig Congressional colleague whose oratory, the future president once confessed, was so unexpectedly powerful it had brought tears to his “old, withered, dry eyes.” Finally, picture a summit predestined for failure—the Confederacy wouldn’t give up independence, the Union would not budge on emancipation—somehow being churned by the press into one of the epic “battles” of the war. How is it possible that this event has not inspired a book before this?..." - Harold Holzer
Publisher's Weekly - 10/07/2013
"In early February 1865, in the midst of the Civil War, a group of Southern and Northern politicians—including President Lincoln—met at Hampton Roads, Va., to negotiate peace between the two warring factions, however skeptically. Plans centered on a proposal to overcome their differences by invading Mexico together, and throughout the peacemaking attempts, the politicians sought secrecy (often in vain) because of strong disapproval from the media and certain peers. Needless to say, the peace conference was a failure. Conroy’s impressively thorough and engaging document details the events leading up to, during, and immediately after the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, which has never before been the sole subject of a book. The book illuminates the conflicting, passionate views on the Civil War—and on the appropriate way to end the war—while giving fascinating insight into the war’s major players: Lincoln and his secretary of state, William H. Seward; Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his vice president, Alexander Stephens; the Blair family of Washington power brokers; and generals Grant, Meade, Lee, and Longstreet. Conroy draws on private journals, official notes, newspaper reports, and more as he untangles this important, but often overlooked, moment in history." (Jan)
Real Clear Politics - 6/6/2014
"On May 13, 1865, John J. Williams, a handsome young private in the 34th Indiana Regiment Volunteer Infantry, was killed, along with an undetermined number of other Union soldiers, while fighting Confederate troops encamped near Brownsville, Texas. It’s called the Battle of Palmito Ranch, but it wasn’t much of a battle. It was a minor skirmish, and a pointless one: It took place more than a month after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, an event known to the combatants.
Private Williams, the last casualty of the Civil War, died for nothing. But he wasn’t the only one.
Each Memorial Day amid flag-waving, family picnics, and baseball, Americans come together to honor the dead—and the living—as a way of meeting a national desire that is more akin to a psychological need: assuring military families that their loved ones’ sacrifices were not in vain.
Speaking on that hallowed day last month at Arlington National Cemetery, after returning from Afghanistan, our current commander-in-chief addressed this topic directly..."
The Civil War Round Table - 4/2014
Review by Gordon Berg
" On Jan. 29, 1865, Captain Thomas Parker of Pennsylvania walked out into no-man's land along the Petersburg, siege lines. There, he met Lieutenant Colonel William Hatch of Kentucky. Both men were unarmed and under flags of truce. Hatch informed the dumbfounded Parker that three emissaries had just arrived from Richmond and wished to meet with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss terms for ending the war. Four days later, Lincoln, traveling alone, slipped into a carriage in front of the White House, bound for a fast steamer destined for Hampton Roads, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Only Secretary of State William Seward knew the purpose of Lincoln's clandestine sojourn. Thus began one of the most star-crossed secret missions of the Civil War, an audacious tale James B. Conroy tells with energy and eloquence.
Conroy, a lawyer and former DC publicist and speechwriter, gives lie to the shibboleth that a thoroughly researched, abundantly footnoted, monograph can only be written in parched, overly academic jargon, by denizens of collegiate ivory towers. Our One Common Country swings out at a quick step pace with a narrative strategy that manages to incorporate a myriad of detail and analysis into a universe of uncommon suspense. It resonates with illustrative anecdotes, pithy turns-of-phrase, occasional hints of irony, andbon mons enough to fill a gossip column. It's a Civil War story that experts and novices will find riveting and revelatory.
Rumors of a negotiated peace had been in the air at least since the summer of 1864 when influential Northern publisher Horace Greeley advised Lincoln to meet with Confederate agents on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The President declined. Re-elected in November 1864 and with the tide of battle turning in favor of the Union on every front, Lincoln was finally ready to do something no sitting President had ever done before or since: engage with the enemy in peace talks in the midst of a shooting war. That makes the meeting aboard the steamer River Queen on Feb. 3, 1865, a unique event in American history; an event that has, until now, escaped an in-depth investigation.
Conroy sets up his drama by giving readers incisive character portraits of the drama's leading players. His description of Greeley is as priceless as it is accurate: eccentric, fickle, and powerful all at the same time. Conroy conveys the essence of Ulysses S. Grant in two clear, concise, unpretentious paragraphs, a fitting tribute to the man himself. Conroy lets Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' own Shakespearian rhetoric eloquently invoke his startling image: "Weak and sickly I was sent into the world with a constitution barely able to sustain the vital functions.But all these are slight when compared with the pangs of an offended and wounded spirit." Conroy needs only seven choice words to bring Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens to life: "Richard III in a Prince Albert suit."
The Hampton Roads conference was spawned in the quixotic imagination of the Francis Preston Blair Sr., the senior Democratic senator from Maryland with influential friends throughout the North and South. With Lincoln's permission, the old man traveled to Richmond with a fantastic proposal the wily politician had concocted but Lincoln had never backed. Nevertheless, Confederate government officials were interested, although President Jefferson Davis set conditions that insured its failure. So the peace conference process, possibly the worst kept secret of the war, staggered forward. Conroy describes it with melodrama worthy of a Stephen Spielberg film noir.
The three Confederate peace commissioners, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, Senator Robert M. Hunter, and Vice President Alexander Stephens, expected to be received by General Grant and escorted to Washington. But Lincoln, a wily politician himself, had a different agenda. Congress was ready to consider the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and even a whiff of a negotiated peace might induce wavering Democrats to vote against it in hopes of ending the war without abolishing the "peculiar institution". While Congress debated, Lincoln connived to keep the peace emissaries far from The Capital. While they waited aboard the steamer Mary Martin, unaware of the machinations their visit had spawned, the Southern commissioners were treated like visiting royalty, replete with good food, cigars, and congenial conversations reminiscent of happier times.
While the commissioners cooled their heels, the diplomatic game played by various Union participants turned downright byzantine. Lincoln sent a carefully worded letter to the commissioners with conditions for a meeting. The commissioners responded with a letter of their own. Each side chose its words carefully, sensitive to nuance and innuendo. The telegraph lines between City Point and Washington sizzled with rumors and hopes. The parties began to founder on Lincoln's insistence of "our one common country" and Davis' commitment to "two nations" as a basis for any discussion. The talks seemed doomed before they had begun. Finally Grant, so far frozen out of this campaign, entered the fray. He sent an impassioned telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, confident that Lincoln would read it, too. Lincoln was moved by Grant's sense of the commissioners' sincerity and agreed to a meeting and so informed Seward, already at Fort Monroe.
No one kept a transcript of the four hour meeting but Conroy has clearly digested the recollections of all the participants. This allows him to recreate the diplomatic dance performed by the five old friends in dramatic tones befitting the grave issues discussed in the saloon of the River Queen. Through it all, Conroy contends, Lincoln's towering presence dominated the room. Ironically, it was on the issue of slavery that he held out the possibility for some measure of negotiation. Conroy reports Alexander Stephens recalling that Seward seconded the proposition that "A gradual end to slavery would be palatable if the war ended now and the South rejoined the Union freely. If not, the Thirteenth Amendment would end it abruptly, with the Southern states excluded from the process." But the commissioners, hide-bound by Jefferson Davis' delusions, had nothing to offer except a truce and possible renewal of trade. "It was far from good enough," Conroy concludes.
Back in Washington, the cat was now out of the bag. Many Democrats praised Lincoln's efforts for peace and reunion; many Radical Republicans chided him for showing magnanimity to the enemy when on the verge of victory. But Lincoln could not let go of the possibility of ending the war. Conroy relates the extraordinarily generous but little known "Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives" message written on February 5 that could have formed the basis of Lincoln's reconstruction policy had he lived. In it, he asked Congress to appropriate $400 million to compensate slaveholders and offered other lenient terms. Lincoln read it to the Cabinet. No one supported it. Saddened, Lincoln put it in his pocket, leaving his proposal to the judgment of history.
Lincoln's offer would have probably fallen on deaf ears because, in Richmond, Jefferson Davis quickly demanded that his commissioners write a public report, leaving out anything positive that emerged from the meeting and to include absolute fabrications that vilified the Lincoln Administration. Davis hoped to use the "doctored" report to steel the resolve of the South to endure even greater sacrifices. He seemed determined to lead Southern citizenry into his own private "Gotterdammerung." Senator William Graham of North Carolina would conclude "there has been a very great duplicity towards a large portion of the Southern people displayed in this little drama." The war continued in all its ferocity.
Conroy succinctly wraps up the final months of the war up to the assassination of Lincoln on April 14. As a final, dramatic, epilogue, he provides thumbnail sketches of the postwar fate of the drama's leading players. In the war's aftermath, Conroy poignantly quotes Confederate General Josiah Gorgas' May 4 diary entry. "I am as one walking in a dream, expecting to awake. I cannot see its consequences, nor shape my own course, but am just moving along until I can see my way at some future day."
Because of the failure of the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, thousands of young men in blue and gray never had a chance to see their way at some future day."
Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (www.cwrtdc.org). His reviews and articles appear in the "Civil War Times and America's Civil War", among other publications.