. . . . Got in to New York at 6 o'clock the 16th, Saturday, and, while I was washing my face, came up Greeley’s card. I went down to the parlor and delivered the [President's] letter to him. He didn't like it, evidently; thought he was the worst man that could be taken for that purpose; that as soon as he arrived there the newspapers would be full of it; that he would be abused and blackguarded, etc., etc. Then he said, if the President insisted on his going he would go, but he must have an absolute safe-conduct for four persons, saying the President's letter would not protect him against our own officers. This seemed to me reasonable, and I had even presented the matter to the President in the same way. I wrote the despatch, and sent it to Washington. About noon came the answer. I then wrote the safe-conduct and took it to the Tribune office. I left the names blank, and was going to let G fill them up, but he said “no,” in his peculiar, querulous tone: — “I won't write a word. I expect to be pitched into everywhere for this; but I can't help it.”I was going to write a safe-conduct for “H. G. and four others;” but he would not permit it. “I want no safe-conduct. If they will catch me and put me in Fort La Fayette, it will suit me first-rate.” I wrote the names in and gave it to him. “I will start to-night,” said he; “I shall expect to be in Washington Tuesday morning if they will come.”
He was all along opposed to the President proposing terms. He was in favor of some palaver anyhow; wanted them to propose terms which we could not accept, if no better, for us to go to the country on; wanted the government to appear anxious for peace, and yet was strenuous in demanding as our ultimatum proper terms.
As I left his office, Mr. Chase entered.
I went back to Washington, arriving there Monday morning (July 18). A few hours after I arrived, a despatch came from G. I took it to the President. He told me a few minutes afterwards to hold myself in readiness to start if it became necessary, — that he had a word to say to Mr. Seward in regard to the matter. In the afternoon he handed me the note, and told me to go to the Falls, see Greeley, and deliver that note, and, to say further, that if they, the commissioners, wished to send any communications to Richmond for the purpose indicated, they might be sent through Washington, subject to the inspection of the government; and the answer from Richmond should be sent to them under the same conditions. Provided that if there was anything either way objectionable to the government in the despatches sent, they would be returned to the parties sending them without disclosure.
I went over to see Seward; — he repeated about the same thing, adding that I had better request the commission to omit any official style which it would compromise our government to transmit; that they could waive it in an unofficial communication among themselves, and not thereby estop themselves of every claim.
I left Washington Monday evening, — arrived in New York too late Tuesday; took the evening Tuesday train and arrived at Niagara Wednesday morning (July 20) at 11½ Saw G. at once at the International Hotel. He was evidently a good deal cut up at what he called the President's great mistake in refusing to enter into negotiations without conditions. He thinks it would be an enormous help to us in politics and finance to have even a semblance of negotiations going on; — that the people would hail with acclaim such a harbinger of peace. He especially should have, as he said, shown his hand first. That he should have waited their terms — if they were acceptable, closed with them, — if they were not, gone before the country on them.
I, of course, combatted these views, saying that I thought the wisest way was to make our stand on what the moral sentiment of the country and the world would demand as indispensable, and in all things else offering to deal in a frank, liberal and magnanimous spirit as the President has done;—that the two points to insist on are such points, — that he could not treat with these men who have no powers, that he could do no more than offer to treat with any who came properly empowered. I did not see how he could do more.
Mr. Greeley did not wish to go over. He had all along declined seeing these people and did not wish to give any handle to talk. He thought it better that I should myself go over alone and deliver the letter. I really thought so too — but I understood the President and Seward to think otherwise, and so I felt I must insist on G’s going over as a witness to the interview. We got a carriage and started over.
We got to the Clifton House and met George Saunders at the door. I wrote G’s name on my card and sent it up to Holcombe, Clay being out of town at St. Kate’s.
Sanders is a seedy-looking rebel, with grizzled whiskers and a flavor of old clo'. He came up and talked a few commonplaces with G. as we stood by the counter. Our arrival, Greeley’s well-known person, created a good deal of interest, the bar-room rapidly filling with the curious, and the halls blooming suddenly with wide-eyed and pretty women. We went up to Holcombe’s room, where he was breakfasting or lunching — tea and toasting — at all events. He was a tall, solemn, spare, false-looking man, with false teeth, false eyes, and false hair.
Mr. Greeley said: — “Major Hay has come from the President of the United States to deliver you a communication in writing and to add a verbal message with which he has been entrusted.” I handed him the note, and told him what the President and Seward had told me to say, and I added that I would be the bearer of anything they chose to send by me to Washington, or, if they chose to wait, it could go as well by mail.
He said: — “Mr. Clay is now absent at St. Catherine's. I will telegraph to him at once, and inform you in the morning.”
We got up to go. He shook hands with Greeley, who “hoped to meet him again;” with me; and we went down to our carriage. Sanders was on the piazza. He again accosted Greeley; made some remark about the fine view from the House, and said, “I wanted old Bennett to come up, but he was afraid to come.” Greeley answered:— “I expect to be blackguarded for what I have done, and I am not allowed to explain. But all I have done has been done under instructions.”
We got in and rode away. As soon as the whole thing was over, G. recovered his spirits and said he was glad he had come, — and was very chatty and agreeable on the way back and at dinner.
After dinner I thought I would go down to Buffalo and spend the night. Went down with young Dorsheimer, formerly of Fremont’s staff. I found him also deeply regretting that the President had not hauled these fellows into a negotiation neck and ears without terms. He gave me some details of what G. had before talked about, — the political campaign these fellows are engineering up here. He says Clay is to write a letter giving three points on which, if the Democracy carry the fall elections, the South will stop the war and come back into the Union. These are: 1st. Restoration of the Union. 2d. Assumption of Confederate Debt. 3d. Restriction of slavery to its present limits and acknowledgment of de facto emancipation. On this platform it is thought Judge Nelson will run. . . . .
SOURCES: Abstracted from Clara B. Hay, Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, Volume 1, p. 212-8. See Michael Burlingame & John R. Turner Ettlinger, Editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete War Diary of John Hay, p. 211-2 for the full diary entry.