On April 23, 1865, the Confederate Cabinet, then meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, discussed the proposition from General Joseph E. Johnston to surrender his armies. The cabinet saw no other option but allowing Johnston to accept the terms (the terms as arranged through April 18, which were, at this moment 150 years ago, being invalidated by Federal authorities. You have to keep in mind the time lines in regard to the moving parts here.).
This was a heady decision. For the Confederate leadership, as I’ve presented before, Johnston’s command was the last card to play – trumped or not. The surrender of Johnston’s army would effectively signal an end to any thoughts of continuing a Confederate rebellion. Period. Leaders don’t make such decisions without weighing information available to them at the time. And it is important to separate what “we” know after the fact with full appreciation of the event from what “they” knew at the moment in time. On April 24, 1865, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory offered a lengthy letter to President Jefferson Davis to explain the position and suggest what should follow Johnston’s surrender. Mallory’s letter gives us a view of what the situation looked like from Charlotte. So allow me to present it here, at that length, for our discussion:
Mr. President: In compliance with your suggestion, I have the honor briefly to present the following views upon the propositions discussed in cabinet council yesterday: These propositions, agreed upon and signed by Generals Joseph E. Johnston and W. T. Sherman, may fairly be regarded as providing for the immediate cessation of hostilities, the disbandment of our armies, and the return of our soldiers to the peaceful walks of life, the restoration of the several States of our Confederacy to the old Union, with the integrity of their State governments preserved, the security of their “people and inhabitants” in their rights of person and property under the Constitution and the laws of the United States, equally with the people of any other State, guaranteed, and a general amnesty for and on account of any participation in the present war. The very grave responsibility devolved upon you by these propositions is at once apparent. To enter at all upon their discussion is to admit that independence, the great object of our struggle, is hopeless. I believe and admit this to be the case, and therefore do I advise you to accept these propositions, so far as you have the power to do so; and my conviction is that nine-tenths of the people of every State of the Confederacy would so advise if opportunity were presented them. They are weary of the war and desire peace. If they could be rallied and brought to the field, a united and determined people might even yet achieve independence; but many circumstances admonish us that we cannot count upon their cordial and united action.
The vast army of deserters and absentees from our military service during the past twelve months, the unwillingness of the people to enter the armies, the impracticability of recruiting them, the present utter demoralization of our troops consequent upon the destruction of the Army of Virginia, the rapid decrease by desertion of General Johnston’s army, which, as it retreats south, if retreat it can, will retain in its ranks but few soldiers beyond the by-paths and cross-roads which lead to their homes, together with the recent successes of the enemy, the fall of Selma, Montgomery, Columbus, and Macon, his forces in the field, and his vast resources, all dictate the admission I have made. I do not believe that by any possibility we could organize, arm, and equip, and bring into the field, this side of the Mississippi, 15,000 men within the next sixty days; and I am convinced that both General Beauregard and General Johnston are utterly hopeless of continuing the contest. A guerrilla warfare might be carried on in certain portions of our country for a time, perhaps for years; but while such a warfare would be more disastrous to our own people than it could possibly be to the enemy, it would exercise little or no influence upon his military operations or upon his hold upon the country. Conducted upon our own soil, our own people would chiefly feel its evils, and would afford it neither countenance nor support. Guerrilla warfare never has been, and never can be, carried on by and between peoples of a common origin, language, and institutions.
Our sea-board and our ports being in the enemy’s hands, we cannot rely upon supplies of arms and other munitions of war from abroad, and our means of producing them at home, already limited, are daily decreasing. The loss of Selma and of Columbus, where much valuable machinery for the construction of ordnance and ordnance stores was collected, must materially circumscribe our ability in this respect.
Our currency is nearly worthless, and will become utterly so with further military disasters, and there is no hope that we can improve it. The arms of the United States have rendered the great object of our struggle hopeless; have conquered a reconstruction of the Union; and it becomes your duty to secure to the people, as far as practicable, life, liberty, and property. The propositions signed by the opposing generals are more favorable to these great objects than could justly have been anticipated. Upon you, with a more thorough knowledge of the condition of our country, the character and sentiments of our people, and of our means and resources than is possessed by others, is devolved the responsibility of promptly accepting or of promptly rejecting them. I advise their acceptance, and that, having notified General Johnston of your having done so, you promptly issue, so soon as you shall learn the acceptance thereof by the authorities of the United States, a proclamation to the people of the Confederate States, setting forth clearly the condition of the country, your inability to resist the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, or to protect the country from his devastating and desolating march; the propositions submitted to you, and the reasons which, in your judgment, render their acceptance by the States and the people wise and expedient. You cannot, under the Constitution, dissolve the Confederacy and remit the States composing it to the Government of the United States. But the Confederacy is conquered; its days are numbered; Virginia is lost to it, and North Carolina must soon follow; and State after State, under the hostile tread of the enemy, must re-enter the old Union. The occasion, the emergency, the dire necessities and misfortunes of the country, the vast interests at stake, were never contemplated by those who framed the Constitution. They are all outside of it; and in the dissolution of the Confederacy and the wreck of all their hopes the States and the people will turn to you, whose antecedents and whose present position and powers constitute you more than any other living man the guardian of their honor and their interests, and will expect you not to stand upon constitutional limitations, but to assume and exercise all powers which to you may seem necessary and proper to shield them from useless war and to save from the wreck of the country all that may [be] practicable of honor, life, and property.
If time were allowed for the observance of constitutional forms I would advise the submission of these propositions to the executives of the several States, to the end that, through the usual legislative and conventional action, the wills of the people of the States, respectively, might be known. But in the present condition of the country such delay as this course would involve would be the deathblow to all hopes founded upon them. The pacification of the country should be as speedy as practicable, to the end that the authorities of the States may enter upon the establishment and maintenance of law and order. Negotiations for this purpose can more appropriately follow upon the overwhelming disaster of General Lee than at a future time. The wreck of our hopes results immediately from it. I omit all reference to the details, which must be provided for by the contending parties to this agreement, for future consideration.
Again, this is the assessment at that moment in time. Mallory did not see a “to the bitter end” fight as an option. Instead, the ultimate objective was “pacification of the country” in short order.
But, keep in mind that on the same day Mallory presented this letter to Davis, Sherman served notice that the terms were rejected in Washington. Hostilities would resume within 48 hours. Complications… complications….
(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 832-4.)