Peace & Unconditional Surrender

Abraham Lincoln and Peace
Hampton Roads Conference
Abraham Lincoln and Alexander H. Stephens
Francis P. Blair, Sr.
Horace Greeley
James Jaquess

In February 1862 just before the surrender of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, Union General Ulysses S. Grant told Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner: “No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.” Grant added: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Grant’s words became a Union battle cry, but they had first had been uttered by General Charles F. Smith, who earlier had barked: ““I’ll make no terms with rebels with arms in their hands — my terms are unconditional and immediate surrender!”1 Credit for the remark, however, went to Grant. One Union soldier remembered: “Those immortal words were not uttered nor written in the heat of passion, but they were so forceful and convincing in their terseness and so positive and pointed, that they inspired the heart of the nation to new hope and turned its watchful eyes to the ‘silent’ soldier as the man the country had watched and waited for after placing its trust in so many commanders, who proved either ‘short in the reach,’ or too slow in attempting to land a knockout blow.”2

Nearly eighty-one years later on January 24, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded a press conference at the end of the Casablanca Conference with his British allies: “Some of you Britishers know the old story – we had a General called U.S. Grant. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant, but in my and the Prime Minister’s early days he was called ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant. The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Japan and Italy. This means a reasonable assurance of future world peace. It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other peoples.” FDR added: “This meeting may be called the ‘unconditional surrender’ meeting.”3 Despite what Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later claim, historian Andrew Roberts maintained that “Churchill had not only given prior approval but had cabled the War Cabinet over the issue four days earlier, and his colleagues had not objected.”4

In both the Civil War and World War II, unconditional surrender was the sometimes declared, sometimes implicit policy of the United States and Britain. During the Civil War, there were a succession if people who proposed to President Lincoln that they should negotiate a truce with the Confederates. Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood, an erratic former mayor of New York City, pushed for a cease-fire in December 1862: “I strongly suspect your information will prove to be groundless,” the president informed the congressman. In May 1863, President Lincoln reluctantly approved an “unauthorized” peace mission by Methodist preacher James Jacques, whom Lincoln knew from Illinois. Biographer Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln approved a similar mission in the fall of 1863, undertaken by his chiropodist and troubleshooter, Isacher Zacharie, who did meet with Confederate cabinet members. The details of this venture are murky, and nothing came of it.”5

In June 1863 – after the Union defeat at Chancellorsville and shortly before the Confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania – General Robert E. Lee proposed to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that he try to undermine Union morale by appealing to peace sentiment in the North: “When peace is proposed to us it will be time enough to discuss its terms, and it is not the part of prudence to spurn the proposition in advance, merely because those who made it believe, or affect to believe, that it will result in bringing us back to the Union.” Davis asked Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, with whom Davis had a rocky relationship, to undertake a potential peace mission to Washington. Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “Stephens arrived too late to catch up with the troops; and he protested that the enemy would never receive him anyway if he accompanied the army. So Davis sent him under flag of truce to Fortress Monroe, where he arrived on July 2 and had word sent to Lincoln asking permission to come to Washington.” Lee thought a peace mission on top of his expected victory over Union troops in Pennsylvania would push the North to the negotiating table.6 Davis’s instructions to Stephens read: “Having accepted your patriotic offer to proceed as a military commissioner under flag of truce to Washington, you will receive here with your letters of authority to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. This letter is signed by me as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate land and naval forces.” He continued: “You will perceive from the terms of the letter that it is so worded as to avoid any political difficulties in its reception. Intended exclusively as one of those communications between belligerents which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces, care has been taken to give no pretext for refusing to receive it on the ground that it would involve a tacit recognition of the independence of the Confederacy….Your mission is simply one of humanity and has no political aspect. If objection is made to receiving your letter on the ground that it is not addressed to Abraham Lincoln as President…then you will present the duplicate letter, which is addressed to him as President and signed by me as President. To this latter objection may be made on the ground that I am not recognized to be President of the Confederacy. In this event you will decline any further attempt to confer on the subject of your mission, as such conference is admissible only on the footing of perfect equality.”7

Two things went wrong. Stephens was too late to accompany Confederate troops on their way north, and Lee was defeated at Gettysburg – “the high tide of the Confederacy.” Combined with the capture of Vicksburg, the Union government was at a high point of power rather than the low point that Lee had expected. President Lincoln delayed any action on Stephens until the Gettysburg battle concluded on July 3. His Cabinet discussed Stephens mission at a Cabinet meeting on July 4. Lincoln had know Stephens when both were Whig congressmen in the late 1840s. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “the President read a letter from Colonel [William H.] Ludlow…to Secretary [of War Edwin M.] Stanton, stating that Stephens had made a communication to Admiral Lee, which the Admiral had sent to the Secretary of the Navy. After reading them, the President said he was at first disposed to put this matter aside without many words, or much thought, but a night’s reflection and some remarks yesterday had modified his views. While he was opposed to having Stephens and his vessel come here, he thought it would be well to send some one — perhaps go himself — to Fortress Monroe. Both [Secretary of State William H.] Seward and Stanton were startled when this remark was made. Seward did not think it advisable the President should go, nor any one else. Lincoln initially wrote Rear Admiral Samuel Lee: “Your despatch transmitting a note from Mr. Alexander H. Stephens has been received. You will not permit Mr. Stephens to proceed to Washington, or to pass the blockade. He does not make known the subjects to which the communication in writing from Mr. Davis relates, which he bears, and seeks to deliver in person to the President, and upon which he desires to confer. Those subjects can only be Military, or not Military, or partly both. Whatever may be military will be readily received, if offered through the well understood Military channel. Of course nothing else, will be received by the President, when offered, as in this case, in terms assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States; and anything will be received and carefully considered by him, when offered by any influential person or persons, in terms not assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States.8 This telegram was not sent. Action may have been delayed until a Cabinet meeting on July 6 at which time Secretary of State William H. Seward had prepared a much briefer telegram to Admiral Lee: “The request of A. H. Stephens is inadmissible. The customary agents and channels are adequate for all needful communication and conference between the United States forces and the insurgents.”9

Lincoln’s cabinet was right to be cautious. Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr. noted: “After the war, Stephens claimed that he had hoped for little from Lincoln’s administration but thought his mission would work ‘through them, when the correspondence should be published, upon the great mass of the people in the Norther States, who were becoming so sensitively alive…to the great danger of their own liberties.’ In other words, he had not sought peace so much as victory, to be gained by playing on war-weariness. Whether that was true or not, Stephens’s attempt worked on Horace Greeley. The Tribune editor repeatedly flayed Lincoln for refusing to receive Stephens and make at least a gesture toward peace.”10 Lincoln was right not to receive Stephens because he and other Confederate leaders were merely interested in a propaganda victory, not a peace negotiation.

Confederate President Davis sought to salvage some kind of victory from the string of defeats. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Davis then issued a proclamation designed to bolster Confederate morale; it alleged that the Lincoln administration’s ‘malignant rage aims at nothing less than the extermination of yourselves, your wives, and children. They seek to destroy what they cannot plunder. They propose as the spoils of victory that your homes shall be partitioned among the wretches whose atrocious cruelties have stamped infamy on their Government. They design to incite servile insurrection and light the fires of incendiarism wherever they can reach your homes, and they debauch the inferior race, hitherto docile and contented, by promising indulgence of the vilest passions as the price of treachery. Conscious of their inability to prevail by legitimate warfare, not daring to make peace lest they should be hurled from their seats of power, the men who now rule in Washington refuse even to confer on the subject of putting an end to the outrages which disgrace our age, or to listen to a suggestion for conducting the war according to the usages of civilization.”11

As Davis’s proclamation suggested, a policy of unconditional surrender was a two-edged sword in both the Civil War and World War II. Critics feared it would only allow the enemy to rally morale and prolong resistance. In the Civil War, neither Abraham Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis wanted to negotiate – except on their own terms, which were completely unacceptable to the other side. Once black troops were incorporated into the Union army in 1863, Lincoln felt a moral commitment to add acceptance of emancipation to restoration of the Union as a condition of peace. As Lincoln stated in his famous Conkling letter in the summer of 1863 (which was addressed to critics of his policies): “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.” Lincoln added that “negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”12 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln’s moral sense dictated this bold insistence on emancipation as a basis for peace. If he had been motivated by political expediency alone, he could simply have avoided mentioning the slavery issue; he knew that the Confederate would reject any peace terms denying them independence.”13

Lincoln strengthened his commitment to emancipation just as he tightened the noose on the Confederates. “By July 1864, then, Republicans had come together to frame the issue of slavery as an institution that should be abolished everywhere by law, preferably by a constitutional amendment,” wrote historian Michael Vorenberg. Republicans included support for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in their national party platform. “The party was thus ready to make the election a referendum on the law question. This issues had a moral appeal, because it established the Republicans’ commitment to emancipation everywhere, even in the Border States, which so far had been immune (in theory at least) from the operation of federal emancipation policy.

Stressing the law issue also contained political benefits. By 1864, Democrats who objected to a constitutionally sound method of emancipation left themselves open to the charge of being archaic proslavery ideologues. Especially because of the success of black regiments, rank-and-file Democrats like David Lough of Iowa had turned against the ‘votaries of slavery in the North,’ those Democratic leaders who continued to uphold slaveholding rights. A few leading Democrats like Representative James Brooks responded to the turn in public opinion by pleading with his party to stop defending the dying institution of slavery. Democrats stood to lose even more ground on the slavery issue if they opposed the antislavery amendment in the 1864 election….

In mid-1864, however, it was unlikely that many Republicans appreciated this particular advantage of pressing the law question because the prospect of peace seemed remote. Ulysses S. Grant’s armies in the East suffered unprecedented casualties as the general took his armies into the wilderness and toward Richmond. In the West, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces moved as sluggishly in their quest for Atlanta. Until mid-July 1864, Northerners had little reason to think that the Confederacy was ready to collapse or to seek a peace. They conceived of slavery primarily as a dying institution that would be abolished for good not at the Confederate peace table but in Union legislatures and courts. Then Horace Greeley went to Niagara Falls, and everything changed.14

In July 1864, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley thought he learned of a Confederate peace commission across the Canadian border from Niagara Falls and urged President Lincoln to negotiate. The president was not inclined to negotiate and doubted the authenticity of the peace effort, but he also declined to alienate the influence editor. So, instead of taking personal charge of any negotiation, Lincoln deputed Greeley to do it, writing him on July 9: “If you can find, any person anywhere professing to have any proposition of Jefferson Davis in writing, for peace, embracing the restoration of the Union and abandonment of slavery, what ever else it embraces, say to him he may come to me with you, and that if he really brings such proposition, he shall, at the least, have safe conduct, with the paper (and without publicity, if he choose) to the point where you shall have met him. The same, if there be two or more persons.”15

Lincoln set two conditions he knew no real Confederate peace delegation would accept – and he suspected this was more a publicity stunt than an attempt at a real discussion of peace. Greeley was clearly uncomfortable in this diplomatic role and wrote Lincoln on July 10: “Whether there be persons at Niagara (or elsewhere) who are empowered to commit the Rebels by negotiations, is a question; but, if there be such, there is no question at all that they would decline to exhibit their credentials to me; much more to open their budget and give me their best terms. Green as I may be, I am not quite so verdant as to imagine any thing of the sort. I have neither purpose nor desire to be made a confidant, far less an agent in such negotiations. But I do deeply realize that the Rebel chiefs achieved a most decided advantage in proposing, or pretending to propose, to have A. H. Stephens visit Washington as a peace-maker, and being rudely repulsed. And I am anxious that the ground lost to the National cause by that mistake shall somehow be regained in season for effect on the approaching N. Carolina election.” He added: “I will see if I can get a look into the hand of whomsoever may be at Niagara, though that is a project so manifestly hopeless that I have little heart for it. Still, I shall try.”16 On July 15, Lincoln sent a response via Lincoln aide John Hay: “I suppose you received my letter of the 9th. I have just received yours of the 13 and am disappointed by it. I was not expecting you to send me a letter, but to bring me a man, or men.”17 Eventually, Greeley’s mission came to naught. Lincoln had craftily outsmarted both Greeley and the unofficial Confederate negotiators. Greeley had been embarrassed and Lincoln had been vindicated, but Lincoln’s political position was undermined by a continuing military stalemate in Virginia.

Northern public opinion was at a low point that summer. Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass reported: “The country was struck with one of those bewilderments which dethrone reason for the moment. Everybody was thinking and dreaming of peace, and the impression had gone abroad that the President’s antislavery policy was about the only thing which prevented a peaceful settlement with the Rebels…men were ready for peace almost at any price. The President was pressed on every hand to modify his letter, ‘To whom it may concern.”18 In August, Greeley joined other Republican dissidents in seeking to replace Lincoln as the Republican presidential candidate. The capture of Atlanta by Union General William T. Sherman on September 2 (combined with the nomination of General George B. McClellan on a Democratic peace platform) knocked the props from under such efforts. Lincoln had outmanueuvered the Confederates, the Democrats and Republican dissidents.

In a letter that Lincoln wrote but did not send in September 1864, the presdient observed: “Much is being said about peace; and no man desires peace more ardently than I. Still I am yet unprepared to give up the Union for a peace which, so achieved, could not be of much duration. The preservation of our Union was not the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced. It was commenced for precisely the reverse object — to destroy our Union. The insurgents commenced it by firing upon the Star of the West, and on Fort Sumpter, and by other similar acts. It is true, however, that the administration accepted the war thus commenced, for the sole avowed object of preserving our Union; and it is not true that it has since been, or will be, prossecuted by this administration, for any other object. In declaring this, I only declare what I can know, and do know to be true, and what no other man can know to be false.” In the draft of his letter to Isaac M. Schemerhorn in September 1864, Lincoln stated his moral commitment to black soldiers who fought for the Union:

In taking the various steps which have led to my present position in relation to the war, the public interest and my private interest, have been perfectly parallel, because in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union. The whole field has been open to me, where to choose. No place-hunting necessity has been upon me urging me to seek a position of antagonism to some other man, irrespective of whether such position might be favorable or unfavorable to the Union.

Of course I may err in judgment, but my present position in reference to the rebellion is the result of my best judgment, and according to that best judgment, it is the only position upon which any Executive can or could save the Union. Any substantial departure from it insures the success of the rebellion. An armistice — a cessation of hostilities — is the end of the struggle, and the insurgents would be in peaceable possession of all that has been struggled for. Any different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it. Nor is it possible for any Administration to retain the service of these people with the express or implied understanding that upon the first convenient occasion, they are to be re-inslaved. It can not be; and it ought not to be.19

Briefly near the end of August 1864 under pressure from Republican leaders fearful of an electoral disaster, President Lincoln did consider sending Republican National Chairman Henry J. Raymond to Richmond. Again, his cabinet demurred. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that “if Lincoln did really consider abandoning emancipation as a prerequisite for peace, it is not to be wondered at, for he may well have believed that insisting on it as a war aim guaranteed that the Democrats would win the election. To him it may have seemed preferable to save the Union by abandoning emancipation rather than losing both reunion and abolition by insisting on the latter. If such thoughts did occur to him, his keen moral sense trumped them. He hated slavery just as he hated to renege on promises. Even if it meant his defeat, he would not abandon emancipation.”20

Even that fall, President Lincoln reluctantly agreed to a number of “unauthorized” peace overtures to the Confederate government in Richmond. His motives in allowing these missions varied. For example, in the fall of 1864, President Lincoln dealt with an Illinois Democrat for whom he had previously expressed considerable antipathy, but whom he now believed might sow dissension in Democratic Party split over how hard to pursue the Civil War. Like Churchill, Lincoln was willing to work with a lesser devil to achieve his larger ends. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln had known [James W.] Singleton in prewar years, when he was a prominent Whig-turned-Democrat at Quincy and a close friend of fellow-townsman Orville H. Browning. During the war, the Virginia-born Singleton, whose brother served in the Confederate Congress, became the leader of Illinois’s radical Peace Democrats.” Burlingame wrote: “Shortly after the October elections,…Singleton urged Lincoln to announce that Confederate states could be restored without abandoning slavery. The president replied through their mutual friend Ebenezer Peck that while he respected the integrity of Singleton’s motives, he could not take his advice. According to Peck, the president said that the ‘favorable results of the recent elections, might subject him to the imputation of being willing now, to disregard the desires of the radical men, who have so reluctantly come in to his support, and thus subject him to the imputation of catering to new elements [i.e., Conservatives] in disregard of their opinion.”21 Singleton claimed that Lincoln said “that he never has and never will present any other ultimatum—that he is misunderstood on the subject of slavery—that it shall not stand in the way of peace”22

Lincoln cultivated the Copperhead Singleton. Lincoln was not adverse to using political and monetary greed to divide his opposition. Singleton’s anti-McClellan and racist rhetoric was used to split the Democratic Party – as was his interest in making money through cotton trading. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Singleton later claimed that he had made four or five trips to Richmond at Lincoln’s behest. When the president asked him what could be done to expedite peace, he replied that the Confederate leadership entertained false hopes inspired by some Northern Democrats who claimed that the war-weary North was on the verge o revolt. Lincoln, who viewed Singleton as ideally qualified to disabuse them of such a notion, told him: ‘if there is anybody in the country who can have an influence on those people, and bring about any good, you are the man. They must have confidence in you; you have been as much their friend as it was possible for you to be and yet be loyal to the government under which you live.’ Singleton responded that he was honored and would do his best to enlighten the Davis administration.”23,24 Burlingame noted: “In the fall of 1864, Browning had entered a business deal with Singleton, New York Senator Edwin D. Morgan, Robert E. Coxe, and Judge James Hughes of the federal court of claims; they planned to purchase cotton and tobacco in Virginia and sell it for a hefty profit to Northern merchants and manufacturers. Such commerce was legal under the 1863 Captured and Abandoned Property Act. Lincoln felt obligated to Singleton for helping to undermine McClellan’s 1864 presidential campaign by refusing to support the general’s candidacy.”25

The president did not ignore such non-military incentives to ending the war. “Lincoln’s belief that the South could be seduced into peace via the economic charms of the Union is the predominant factor behind the inordinate amount of time he devoted, and the undeserved importance he attached, to the subject of trading with the Confederacy, especially in cotton,” wrote historian Gabor Boritt. “The good Whig Lincoln saw commerce as a glue that bound the Union together. Throughout the war he showed much more leniency toward trade across hostile lines than did Congress, not to mention the military.” Boritt wrote: “As Lincoln shifted the tactics of his peace work in 1863, cotton came to play an increasing role in his thinking. He tried to be careful, recognizing inherent dangers in his policy, fearing an atmosphere where ‘profit controls all,’ even the army.”26 What might be good for the North could also be potentially good for the Confederacy. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “During the war, approximately 600,000 bales of Southern cotton made their way overland into the North illicitly, twice the amount that was lawfully trade. (Only 500,000 bales were shipped to Europe.) The proceeds helped keep the Confederacy relatively well supplied, despite the ever-tightening blockade and the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson.”27 In December 1864 Lincoln wrote General Edward R. S. Canby, commanding Union forces in Louisiana: “The way cotton goes now carries so much gold out of the country as to leave us paper currency only, and that so far depreciated, as that for every hard dollar’s worth of supplies we obtain, we contract to pay two and a half hard dollars hereafter. This is much to be regretted; and while I believe we can live through it at all events, it demands an earnest effort on the part of all to correct it. And if pecuniary greed can be made to aid us in such effort, let us be thankful that so much good can be got out of pecuniary greed.”28

In January 1865, Lincoln authorized more peace overtures by Francis P. Blair, Sr., even as the president lobbied for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. In a very delicate balancing act, Lincoln needed moderate and conservative House votes for passage on January 31 — along with the support of Radical Republicans who would be aggravated if word of any peace negotiations leaked out. “Under cover of a request to search for papers lost in a Confederate raid on his property, Blair put out peace feelers to Davis, proposed a joint effort against France in Mexico, advised Davis to negotiate so as to get better reconstruction terms, and gathered intelligence on Richmond,” wrote historian Robert W. Burg. “Blair’s efforts ultimately led to the Hampton Roads conference in February. In this as in other matters, Blair’s conservatism ably counterbalanced radical sentiments, serving Lincoln as the president thought best.”29 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “On February 1, when Henry Ward Beecher called at the White house to express alarm at Blair’s peace overtures, Lincoln explained that ‘Blair thinks something can be done, but I don’t, but I have no objection to have him try his hand. He has no authority whatever but to go and see what he can do.’”30

The very next day, President Lincoln snuck out of Washington to join Secretary of State William H. Seward in meeting with a Confederate peace commission led by Vice President Alexander H. Stephens along with Robert Hunter and John Campbell. The Union and Confederate representatives met on February 3. Nothing came of the meeting – other than a promise by Lincoln to release Stephens’ nephew from a Union prison. It was the last major peace initiative. Lincoln made sure that he would personally retain the power to negotiate any peace terms. Several days later, Hunter told a Richmond rally: “If anything was wanted to stir the blood, it was furnished when we were told that the United States could not consent to entertain any proposition coming from us as a people. Lincoln might have offered something….No treaty, no stipulation, no agreement, either with the Confederate States jointly or with them separately: what was this but unconditional submission to the mercy of the conquerors?”31 Historian Michael Burlingame noted: “Many members of the Confederate Congress, persuaded that the war was lost, had urged the appointment of peace commissioners to effect a surrender. Much later, they were surprised to learn of Davis’s unyielding instructions, which doomed the conference to failure before it began.”32

On March 3, 1865 – one day before Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wrote General Ulysses S. Grant: “The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army, or on some minor, and purely, military matter. He instructs to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost, your military advantages.” Lincoln was responding to a communication from Confederate General Lee to Grant the previous day: “Lieut. Genl. Longstreet has informed me that in a recent conversation between himself and Maj Genl [Edward] Ord as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties, by means of a military convention. Genl Ord stated that if I desired to have an interview with you on the subject you would not decline, provided I had authority to act. Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate with the hope that upon an interchange of views it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between belligerents to a convention of the kind mentioned.”

In such event I am authorized to do whatever the result of the proposed interview may render necessary or advisable. Should you accede to this proposition, I would suggest if agreeable to you, as we meet at the place selected by Genls Ord and Longstreet for their interview at 11 A M on Monday next.33

Questions of peace and unconditional surrender were just as complicated for Britain in World War II. While still First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1939, Churchill had declared: “Directions have been given by the Government to prepare for a war of at least three years. That does not mean that victory may not be granted in a shorter time. How soon it will be gained depends upon how long Herr Hitler and his group of wicked men, whose hands are stained with blood and soiled with corruption, can keep their grip upon the docile, unhappy German people. It was for Hitler to say when the war would begin, but it is not for him or for his successors to say when it will end.”34 In a June 22, 1941 BBC broadcast, Churchill said: “We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. From this nothing will turn us – nothing. From this nothing will turn us – nothing. We will never parley, we will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang. We shall fight him by land, we shall fight him by sea, we shall fight him in the air, until with God’s help we have rid the earth of his shadow and liberated its peoples from his yoke. Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid. Any nation or state who marches with Hitler is our foe.”35

Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert noted: “Churchill believed that this willingness to consider ‘decent terms’ was a misreading of the public mood, but he could not know for certain, and he had no veto on my majority decision that might be made against him. At this point in the discussion, however, he had to ask for a break in the War Cabinet meeting – which had already lasted for two hours – to meet, for the first time since he had formed his Government, the twenty-five members of his administration who were not in the inner circle: the Junior Ministers and those Cabinet Ministers who were not in the War Cabinet. That meeting, fixed for six o’clock, had been set up several days earlier. No sooner had these Ministers come into his room in the House of Commons – the War Cabinet having left – than Churchill told them that although Hitler would probably ‘take Paris and offer terms,’ as might the Italians too, he Churchill, had no doubt whatever ‘that me must decline anything like this and fight on.’”36 Historian Simon Schama wrote of Churchill’s appeal to junior ministers in late May 1940 that “something momentous happened to change British history.” Churchill ended his speech by saying that if he negotiated with “That Man…I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”37 The junior ministers left invigorated by Churchill’s rhetoric.

Churchill would never consent to surrender. “One of his most effective weapons, which he spent hours honing even when apparently more pressing matters awaited his attention, was eloquence,” wrote historian Richard Holmes. “As Ed Murrow put it, he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. It may be that over-familiarity has dulled our perception of the sheer virtuosity of his most famous peroration, delivered to the Commons on 4 June 1940. His rejection of compromise with Hitler was addressed to domestic capitulationists, and he added both a subtle appeal to the french to continue the struggle from their overseas possessions, and a plea to the Americans to recognize that Britain was now the front line of what would eventually become their fight.”38

Churchill, however, avoided any articulation of definitive war aims. Historian Angus Calder noted that was Information Ministry official Harold Nicolson “joined Lord Halifax in drafting a statement of war aims….Churchill, in January 1941, turned it down flat, giving the reasons in cabinet that ‘precise aims would be compromising, whereas vague principles would disappoint.’ In practice, Churchill violently deprecated any mention of war aims by his ministers.” Historian Angus Calder wrote: “The war aims of the new administration had been in one word: Victory.”39 A few months later, Churchill said in a speech on June 22, 1941: “We will never parley, we will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang. We shall fight him by land, we shall fight him by sea, we shall fight him in the air, until, with God’s help, we have rid the earth of his shadow and liberated its peoples from his yoke. Any man or state who fights on against Nazi-dom will have our aid. Any man or state who marches with Hitler is our foe.”40 When the King of Sweden proposed a peace conference in the summer of 1940, Churchill gave him a sharp rebuff, writing Foreign Secretary Edward Halifax “that the intrusion of the ignominious King of Sweden as a peace-maker, after his desertion of Finland and Norway, and while he is absolutely in the German grip, though without its encouraging aspects, is singularly distasteful.” Churchill observed that “a firm reply of the kind I have outlined is the only chance of extorting from Germany any offers which are not fantastic.”41

From January 14 to 24, 1943, Prime Minister Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Casablanca to discuss war strategy. The Americans had already considered a policy of unconditional surrender. The British did so in London during the conference. “The War Cabinet on January 20 [1943]…discussed the proposed announcement of ‘unconditional surrender’. The only comment which they had was to oppose the omission of Italy from the announcement,” wrote biographer Martin Gilbert. “The omission of Italy, the War Cabinet minutes recorded, ‘was liable to be misunderstood in, for example, the Balkans’. It ‘was such a mistake’, the minutes added, ‘at any rate at this stage, to make any distinction between the three partners in the Axis’.”42 Historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Roosevelt mentioned the phrase [“unconditional surrender”] to his military advisers before leaving for Casablanca. He told Churchill, who in his turn informed the war cabinet, proposing, however, that Italy should be left out. The war cabinet replied that Italy should be included. Churchill did not pass this message to Roosevelt – evidence how lightly he treated the war cabinet. However, Roosevelt included Italy at his press conference, without consulting Churchill further, and Churchill thought it best to endorse his statement.”43 The “Unconditional Surrender Declaration” stated: “The President an the Prime Minister, after a complete survey of the world war situation, are more than ever determined that peace can come to the world only by a total elimination of German and Japanese war power. This involves the simple formula of placing the objective of this war in terms of an unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy and Japan. Unconditional surrender by them means a reasonable assurance of world peace for generations. Unconditional surrender means not the destruction of the German populace, nor of the Italian or Japanese populace, but does mean the destruction of a philosophy in Germany, Italy and Japan which is based on the conquest and subjugation of other peoples.”44

Churchill later maintained: “I heard the words ‘Unconditional Surrender” for the first time from the President’s lips at the [Casablanca] Conference. It must be remembered that at that moment no one had a right to proclaim that victory was assured. Therefore, defiance was the note. I would not myself have used these words, but I immediately stood by the President and have frequently defended the decision. It is also to suggest that it prolonged the war. Negotiation with Hitler was impossible. He was a maniac with supreme power to play his hand out to the end, which he did, and did we.”45 Historian Ronald Lewis observed that Churchill’s “statement to the House of Commons after the war that ‘the phrase “unconditional surrender” was not brought before me to agree to in any way before it was uttered by our great friend, our August and powerful ally President Roosevelt’ may be described either as the result of an ageing man’s lapse of memory or as a terminological inexactitude.”46 Historian Warren F. Kimball observed: “A series of persistent myths has grown up about [Roosevelt’s] declaration. To start with, Churchill himself claimed shortly after the war that he had never heard the words until the president spoke them. Churchill carefully corrected that in his memoirs, but still managed to give the impression that the policy had not been agreed to in advance. In fact he had already consulted his Cabinet about such a declaration, in part to reassure the Americans that Britain would join the war against Japan once Germany was defeated. The president’s decision to make the statement to reports on January 24, the day the conference concluded, may have surprised the prime minister, but the policy had been developed jointly, with the British Cabinet even adding that the proclamation should apply to Italy as well as Germany.”47

Tuvia Ben-Moshe maintained “it was [Churchill] who had suggested that the President announce this policy at the concluding press conference, although he did ask that Italy be excluded from the demand.” The historian argued “that during the war Churchill and Roosevelt were in agreement, consistent, and convinced that their policy was just. Moreover, their versions of what transpired (supposedly in defiance of their intentions) are true, and together with the evidence which exists, support and complement each other…..But, as Roosevelt said, an unexpected mishap occurred during the press conference. Churchill could do nothing but accede and give the President’s announcement his unreserved support. The policy of unconditional surrender was thus born after an incomplete pregnancy.”48 Over a year later, speaking to the House of Commons on February 22, 1944, Churchill declared that “the term ‘unconditional surrender’ does not mean that the German people will be enslaved or destroyed. It means, however, that the Allies will not be bound to them at the moment of surrender by any pact or obligation. There will be, for instance, no question of the Atlantic Charter applying to Germany as a matter of right and barring territorial transferences or adjustments in enemy countries. No such arguments will be admitted by us as were used by Germany after the last war, saying that they surrendered in consequence of President Wilson’s fourteen points. Unconditional surrender means that the victors have a free hand. It does not mean that they are entitled to behave in a barbarous manner, not that they wish to blot out Germany from among the nations of Europe. If we are bound, we are bound by our own consciences to civilisation. We are not to be bound to the Germans as a result of a bargain struck. That is the meaning of ‘unconditional surrender.’”49

Historian Tuvia Ben-Moshe that there were two primary reasons “why Roosevelt and Churchill adhered to [unconditional surrender] until the end of the war (after the war, Churchill resorted to both in its defense.) First, they wanted to make the Germans realize that their country had been utterly defeated and thus avoid any sort of commitment to the losers. They wanted a free hand to carry out radical territorial and social changes in Germany.” Ben-Moshe wrote: “Second, the policy of unconditional surrender constituted a sort of lowest, and most convenient common denominator, serving to tighten the bonds between the three major parties to the alliance. Any attempt to achieve a joint definition of war aims and methods of surrender, quite apart from being very time consuming, would probably also have had an adverse effect on their mutual relations.”50 When in April Permanent Foreign Undersecretary Alexander Cadogan pressed Churchill to clarify the meaning of unconditional surrender, Churchill refused to do so, arguing it would simply cause more problems. Unconditional surrender was not only non-negotiable with Germany; it was non-negotiable among the Allies, and thus simplified their relations even though Stalin objected to it at the Teheran summit. None of the Allies wanted the another to negotiate a separate peace – a real worry early in the war when victory over Germany was not assured.

Unconditional surrender did have critics. General Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s top military aide, thought FDR’s comments about unconditional surrender were a mistake: “Everyone will agree that it is unwise for great men to give vent to public announcements without having their implications examined with scrupulous care. Everyone will agree that the quickest and cheapest way of winning a war is to make your enemy realise that nothing is to be gained by further fighting, and that his only sensible course is to sue for peace. A man robbed of hope will fight it out to the bitter end, and it is defeating your own object to let him think that the terms of surrender will be utterly merciless. This being so, no one will claim that the use of the formula of Unconditional Surrender at Casablanca served any good purpose. But I belong to the minority who doubt whether it made any material difference to the length of hostilities.”51 On the contrary, if the “unconditional surrender” policy got the Allies together without additional friction, it assisted in reaching a very important miltary objective. But there were critics. British historian Basil H. Liddell Hart took the same position as Hastings; in July 1943 he submitted a memorandum with his arguments that Germans would fight longer and harder under such a policy. Hart confirmed his diagnosis in interviews with German generals after the war. He concluded that they agreed “on the futility of having pursued the war beyond the summer of 1944, and certainly beyond the failure of the Ardennes offensive….All to whom I talked dwelt on the effect of the Allies’ ‘unconditional surrender’ policy in prolonging the war. They told me that but for this they and their troops…would have been ready to surrender sooner, separately or collectively. ‘Black-listening’ to the Allies’ radio service was widespread. But the Allied propaganda never said anything positive about the peace conditions in the way of encouraging them to give up the struggle. Its silence on the subject was so marked that it tended to confirm what Nazi propaganda told them as to the dire fate in store for them if they surrendered.”52 Surely, there were other factors on German officers or more would have participated in the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944 – which had the intention of hastening surrender to the Allies. The two-word policy of unconditional surrender was unambiguous to all.

Churchill argued that British policy of unconditional surrender was not inhumane. In January 1944, Churchill had written a memo defining unconditional surrender: “I mean that the Germans have therefore no right to any particular form of treatment. For instance, the Atlantic Charter would not apply to them as a matter of right. On the other hand, the victorious nations owe it to themselves to observe the obligations of humanity and civilization.”53 MP Harold Nicolson wrote of the parliamentary debate on Greece in December 1944, Churchill ‘had a good reference to ‘unconditional surrender’. Without actually repudiating that regrettable phrase, he made it clear that is signified only ‘total victory’, a victoire intégrale. He rebuffed all assertions that it was our intention to exterminate or trample on the German people. ‘Not at all’, he said – and then he took off his glasses and turned aside to face the Speaker. He struck his breast like an orang-outang. ‘We remain bound’, he shouted, ‘by our customs and our own nature.’ Very effective.”54 But in Churchill’s January memo, he had written: “I have myself wished to publish a list of some 50 to 100 outlaws of first notoriety with a view to dissociating the mass of the people from those who will suffer capital punishment at the hands of the Allies and of avoiding anything in the nature of mass executions. This would tend to reassure the ordinary people. But these proposals were scouted at Teheran as being far too lenient.”55

Churchill later worried that demands for unconditional surrender might lengthen the war, but on January 16, 1945, he said: “I am not of opinion that a demand for unconditional surrender will prolong the war. Anyhow the war will be prolonged until unconditional surrender has been obtained.”56 Churchill told the House of Commons: “I am clear that nothing should induce us to abandon the principle of unconditional surrender…but the President of the United States and I…have repeatedly declared that the enforcement of unconditional surrender upon the enemy in no way relieves the victorious powers of their obligations to humanity or of their duties as civilised and Christian nations…We may now say to our foes ‘We demand unconditional surrender, but you well know how strict are the moral limits within which our action is confined. We are no extirpators of nations, butchers of peoples. We make no bargain with you. We accord you nothing as a right. Abandon your resistance unconditionally. We remain bound by our customs and our nature.”

At Yalta summit of the Allied leaders in February 1945, Churchill declared: “If Hitler or Himmler were to come forward and offer unconditional surrender, it was clear that our answer should be that we would not negotiate with any of the war criminals. If those were the only people the Germans could produce, we should have to go on with the war. It was more probable that Hitler and his associates would have been killed or would have disappeared, and that another set of people would offer unconditional surrender. In that case the three great Powers must immediately consult and decide whether such people were worth dealing with or not. It was decided that they were, the terms of surrender which had been worked out would be laid before them; if not, the war would be continued and the whole country occupied by strict military government.”57

Historian Kenneth W. Thompson observed that Churchill’s understanding of tragedy formed his actions regarding surrender: “Almost alone among Western statesmen, Churchill preserved a sense of the tragic proportions of life and politics. Even President Roosevelt, great-hearted political genius that he was, lacked this capacity. Perhaps the depth of Churchill’s politics derived from recurrent experiences of heroism and shame, of darkness and light.”58 Thompson went on the quote from Churchill’s memoirs: “My principal reason for opposing, as I always did, an alternative statement on peace terms, which was so often urged, as that a statement of the actual conditions on which the three great Allies would have insisted and would have been forced by public opinion to insist would have been far more repulsive to any German peace movement than the general expression ‘unconditional surrender.’ I remember several attempts being made to draft peace conditions which would satisfy the wrath of the conquerors against Germany. They looked so terrible when set forth on paper, and so far exceeded what was in fact done, that their publication would only have stimulated German resistance. They had in fact only to be written out to be withdrawn.”59

“Unconditional surrender” was effectively the policy in both the Civil War and World War II, it was not always a cut-and-dried policy. Churchill’s comments about being “surprised” at FDR’s use of the term at Casablanca probably shows a lapse of memory. What the term meant among the Big Three leaders was probably different – certainly Stalin had problems with the term. Lincoln pursued unconditional surrender but always needed to suggest publicly that there was leeway for negotiations. Lee’s goals, however, were the same – peace on their terms. On May 8, 1945, the 70-year prime minister was able to announce to Parliament: “Mr. Speaker, I have just had the duty of making an official statement to the nation and the British Empire and Commonwealth, and I thought it might perhaps be convenient to the House if I repeated it.”

Yesterday morning, at 2.41, at General Eisenhower’s headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command and of Grand Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German land, sea and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force, and, simultaneously, to the Soviet High Command. General Bedell Smith, who is the Chief of the Staff to the Allied Expeditionary Force-and not, as I stated in a slip just now, Chief of the Staff to the United States Army-and General François Sevez, signed the document on behalf of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and General Susloparoff signed on behalf of the Russian High Command….

The German war, Mr. Speaker, is therefore at an end.60

For Further Reference

    1. “Ulysses S. Grant: The Myth of ‘Unconditional Surrender Begins at Fort Donelson,” Civil War Times Magazine,
    2. James L. Post, editor, Reminiscences by Personal Friends of Gen. U. S. Grant and the History of Grant’s Log Cabin, p. 59.
    3. Ronald Lewin, Churchill as Warlord, p. 181.
    4. Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 343.
    5. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 672.
    6. James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, p. 85.
    7. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VI, pp. 316.
    8. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 314-315.
    9. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 317 (Telegram from Abraham Lincoln to Samuel Lee, July 6, 1863).
    10. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 290.
    11. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 515.
    12. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 409 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James A. Conkling, August 26, 1863).
    13. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 672.
    14. Michael Vorenberg, “‘The Deformed Child’: Slavery and the Election of 1864, Civil War History, 47:3 (2001), pp. 245-246.
    15. CWAL, Volume VII, pp. 435 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, July 9, 1864).
    16. CWAL, Volume VII, pp. 440-441 (Letter from Horace Greeley to Abraham Lincoln, July 10, 1864).
    17. CWAL, Volume VII, pp. 440-441 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, July 15, 1864).
    18. Philip S. Foner, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, editor, Volume II, pp. 422-424 (Letter from Frederick Douglass to Theodore Tilton, October 15, 1864).
    19. CWAL, Volume VIII, pp. 1-2 (Draft letter from Abraham Lincoln to Isaac M. Schermerhorn, September 12, 1864).
    20. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 680.
    21. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 721.
    22. Ludwell H. Johnson, “Lincoln’s Solution to the Problem of Peace Terms” The Journal of Southern History, 1968, p. 579.
    23. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 755.
    24. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 754.
    25. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 754.
    26. Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, p. 243
    27. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 762.
    28. CWAL, Volume VIII, p. 164 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Edward R. S. Canby, December 12, 1864).
    29. Paul Finkleman and Martin J. Hershock, editors, The Political Lincoln, p. 64.
    30. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 753
    31. Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume III: Red River to Appomattox, p. 799.
    32. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 752.
    33. CWAL, Volume VIII, pp. 330-331 (Telegram from Edwin M. Stanton to Ulysses s. Grant, March 3. 1865).
    34. Martin Gilbert, editor, The Churchill War Papers: At the Admiralty, September 1939-May 1940, p. 194 (October 1, 1939).
    35. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 487 (June 22, 1941).
    36. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 23.
    37. Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 420.
    38. Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Church: A Study in Character, p. 217.
    39. Angus Calder, The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945, p. 98.
    40. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1121 (Broadcast, June 22, 1941).
    41. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 695 (August 3, 1940).
    42. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 302.
    43. A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, p. 576.
    44. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 310.
    45. Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, p. 664.
    46. Ronald Levin, Churchill as Warlord, p. 181.
    47. Warren F. Kimball, Forged in War, p. 188.
    48. Tuvia Ben-Moshe, Churchill: Strategy and History, p. 308.
    49. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, pp. 199-200 (February 22, 1944).
    50. Tuvia Ben-Moshe, Churchill: Strategy and History, p. 308.
    51. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, pp. 290-291.
    52. Basil H. Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk, p. 292-293.
    53. Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory: Winston S. Churchill, 1941-1945, p. 642 (January 10, 1944).
    54. Nigel Nicolson, editor, Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945, p. 429 (January 18, 1945).


  1. Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory: Winston S. Churchill, 1941-1945, p. 643 (January 10, 1944).
  2. Richard Langworth, Churchill By Himself, p. 395 (January 16, 1945).
  3. Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory: Winston S. Churchill, 1941-1945, p. 1179.
  4. Kenneth W. Thompson, Winston Churchill’s World View: Statesmanship and Power, p. 103
  5. Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, The Second World War, p. 689.
  6. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: The Power of Words : His Remarkable Life Recounted Through His Writings and Speeches, pp. 346-347 (May 8, 1945)
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