A Cabinet-meeting to-day at 11 A.M. The principal topic was the mission of Alexander H. Stephens. The President read a letter from Colonel Ludlow, United States Agent for exchange of prisoners, to Secretary 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 Seward and Stanton were startled when this remark was made. Seward did not think it advisable the President should go, nor any one else; he considered Stephens a dangerous man, who would make mischief anywhere. The most he (Seward) would do would be to allow Stephens to forward any communication through General Dix. Seward passes by Admiral Lee and the Navy Department, through whom the communication originally came. Stanton was earnest and emphatic against having anything to do with Stephens, or Jeff Davis, or their communication. Chase was decided against having any intercourse with them. Blair took a different view. He would not permit Stephens to come here with his staff, but would receive any communication he bore, and in such a case as this, he would not cavil about words. Something more important was involved.
While this discussion was going on, I wrote a brief answer to Lee, and said to the President I knew not why Colonel Ludlow was intruded as the medium of communication, or General Dix, — that neither of them was in any way connected with this transaction. Admiral Lee, in command of the blockading force, received a communication from Mr. Stephens, and had made known to the Navy Department, under whose orders he is acting, the application of the gentleman who had a mission to perform, and was now with Admiral Lee waiting an answer. In this stage of the proceeding, the Secretary of State proposes that Admiral Lee should be ignored, and the subject transferred from the Navy to some military officer, or one of his staff. Was it because Admiral Lee was incompetent, or not to be trusted? Admiral Lee has informed Stephens he cannot be permitted to pass until he has instructions from the Navy Department. Nothing definite has yet been suggested in reply. He and the parties are waiting to hear from me, and I propose to take some notice of his application, and, unless the President objects, send an answer as follows to Admiral Lee: —
“The object of the communication borne by Mr. Stephens is not stated or intimated. It is not expedient from this indefinite information that you should permit that gentleman to pass the blockade with the Torpedo.”
None of the gentlemen adopted or assented to this, nor did they approximate to unity or anything definite on any point. After half an hour's discussion and disagreement, I read what I had pencilled to the President, who sat by me on the sofa. Under the impression that I took the same view as Chase and Stanton, he did not adopt it. Seward, in the mean time, had reconsidered his proposition that the communication should be received, and thought with Stanton it would be best to have nothing to do with the mission in any way. The President was apprehensive my letter had that tendency. Mr. Blair thought my suggestion the most practical of anything submitted. Chase said he should be satisfied with it. Stanton the same. Seward thought that both Stanton and myself had better write, each separate answers, Stanton to Ludlow and I to Lee, but to pretty much the same effect.
The President said my letter did not dispose of the communication which Stephens bore. I told him the dispatch did not exclude it. Though objection was made to any communication, an answer must be sent Admiral Lee. Everything was purposely left open, so that Stephens could, if he chose, state or intimate his object. I left the dispatch indefinite in consequence of the diversity of opinion among ourselves, but that I had not the least objection, and should for myself prefer to add, “I am directed by the President to say that any communication which Mr. Stephens may have can be forwarded.”
This addendum did not, as I knew it would not, meet the views entertained by some of the gentlemen. The President prefers that a special messenger should be sent to meet Stephens, to which I see no serious objection, but which no one favors. I do not anticipate anything frank, manly, or practical in this mission, though I do not think Stephens so dangerous a man as Mr. Seward represents him. It is a scheme without doubt, — possibly for good, perhaps for evil, — but I would meet it in a manner not offensive, nor by a rude refusal would I give the Rebels and their sympathizers an opportunity to make friends at our expense or to our injury. This, I think, is the President's purpose. Mr. Blair would perhaps go farther than myself, the others not so far. We must not put ourselves in the wrong by refusing to communicate with these people. On the other hand, there is difficulty in meeting and treating with men who have violated their duty, disregarded their obligations, and who lack sincerity.
I ought to answer Lee, and, because I have not, Ludlow and Dix have been applied to. Seward will make the Secretary of War or himself the medium and not the Secretary of the Navy, — Ludlow or Dix, not Admiral Lee. I proposed to inform Admiral Lee that his communication should be answered to-morrow, it having been decided we would not reply to-day. Seward said the subject would not spoil by keeping. The President thought it best to send no word until we gave a conclusive answer to-morrow.
At 5 P.M. I received a telegram that the Torpedo with Mr. Stephens had gone up the river. Another telegram at eight said she had returned.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 359-62