Preventing War after Fort Sumter: The Schleiden-Seward-Stephens Negotiations

Preventing War after Fort Sumter: The Schleiden-Seward-Stephens Negotiations

With the firing on Fort Sumter, the secession crisis escalated into bloody conflict. Weeks of work to mend sectional relations in Congress and with the Peace Conference had failed; Secretary of State William H. Seward’s conversations with the southern peace commissioners had similarly lead to nothing when President Abraham Lincoln determined to make a stand at Fort Sumter. Seward had been a driving force trying to prevent sectional war, but the outbreak of hostilities meant he fell in line and supported the administration’s war effort. Meanwhile, Rudolph Schleiden, the representative of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, had closely watched Seward’s belligerent attitude leading up to Inauguration Day, sharing the Secretary of State’s hope for a peaceful reunion of the country.[1] Even by late April, Seward had not given up on his assumption that peace was still a possibility, if Unionists got sufficient time to reassert their influence in the seceded states.

In April 1861, Seward supported Bremen’s Minister Resident Rudolph Schleiden’s visit to the soon-to-be enemy capital Richmond, but Seward did not explicitly send the minister to meet with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens.[2] The meeting, which did occur, came to nothing because of the mutual distrust between the two sections. However, Seward’s support for Schleiden’s peace initiative indicates the continued perception that Unionists eventually could regain power in the seceded states and prevent further hostilities. Schleiden’s often overlooked trip to Richmond indicates how even a month into the war, the Union government continued its search for a peaceful solution, but not at any price.

Even after the first shots at Fort Sumter and the violence in Baltimore, Seward remained interested in preserving the Union and Bremen’s Rudolph Schleiden offered him an opportunity to do so. The violence in Baltimore had a deep impact on Schleiden, who had a humanitarian, even pacifist, streak in him.[3] In response to the foreseeable bloodshed, he contemplated mediating a truce between the two belligerents. As a former revolutionary, Schleiden approved of the right to revolution but like many Forty-Eighters, Schleiden did not grant the South that right. He believed that southerners had acted preemptively, or as he often termed it, on “sudden impulses.”[4] Furthermore, Schleiden knew from his experience how difficult it was for a state to survive against a larger, more powerful foe if the international situation was against that state.

Secretary of State William Seward and a Delegation of Diplomats at Trenton Falls, New York, 1863. 1. William H. Seward, Secretary of State; 4. Lord Lyons, British Minister; 5. M. Mercier, French Minister; 6. M. Schleiden, Hanseatic Minister. Taken by W. J. Baker, Utica, New York. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The idea of the diplomatic corps mediating was not new. In early January, Edward Everett approached the British minister Lord Lyons to inquire whether Great Britain, France, or Russia could mediate the sectional differences. Nothing came of the idea.[5] In March and April, foreign representatives in Washington were active trying to find some reconciliation between the two sides.[6] Schleiden’s attempt to mediate a truce was only one of many ideas that circulated in the diplomatic corps.

On the morning of April 24, 1861, Schleiden heard that Vice President Alexander Stephens was in Richmond. Knowing Stephens from his time in Congress when the two had resided in the same house, Schleiden secretly broached his idea to mediate a truce to both Salmon P. Chase and Seward. Where Chase refused to make any comment, Seward responded favorably, but with reservations. Schleiden’s concern to prevent bloodshed received Seward’s support and he reassured the minister that making contact with Stephens would not be held against Schleiden. However, Seward cautioned that the president and the government could not authorize such negotiations or provide specific terms. Nevertheless, Seward suggested that Schleiden talk with President Lincoln.[7]

That afternoon, Seward and Schleiden met Lincoln. The president thanked Schleiden for his willingness to help prevent bloodshed. He expressed a certain regret that he could no longer claim ignorance and wished that Schleiden had just gone to Richmond on his own. Schleiden countered that it would have been wrong for him to do so and would have exposed him to accusations of conspiring with the enemy against the only legitimate government.[8] Schleiden was painfully aware of why he was in the United States and not at home in Schleswig-Holstein. His role as an insurgent had made him an outcast once, but there was no need to become one for a cause Schleiden did not believe in.

Worried about the press misinterpreting his intentions, Lincoln insisted that the conversation be kept confidential. Despite his unwillingness to authorize negotiations, Lincoln promised that he would consider “with equal respect and care” all propositions that he would receive. Schleiden left the meeting with the impression that Seward and Lincoln wished for him, without official authorization, to consult with Stephens.[9] His official report and journal do not support the claim that Seward sent Schleiden.

On the way to Richmond, Schleiden noticed that his mission was unlikely to succeed. Throngs of young men filled the railroad stations eager to fight. The newspapers contained a belligerent tone. Richmond itself resembled an army camp. In the lobby of Richmond’s Spotwood Hotel, Schleiden found Senator Hunter and a few other prominent Virginians anxious to inquire about the reason for the journey.[10]

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, c. 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Schleiden immediately contacted Stephens and the two had a three-hour long conversation. Favorable inclined, Stephens doubted the prospects for success. Reminding Schleiden of the treatment the Southern commissioners had received in Washington, Stephens argued that Seward’s peacefulness could be easily discredited.

Recent developments increased Southern mistrust, according to Stephens. To him, Maryland had seceded by the actions of the mob in Baltimore and the Confederacy was honor bound to come to the state’s assistance if requested, which made the Potomac as a boundary unacceptable. Thus one aspect of the ceasefire had to be either Maryland’s inclusion in the Confederacy or the end of troop movements thought the state. In addition, the government could not risk demoralizing the people with a ceasefire. Finally, Stephens had no authority to negotiate. Nevertheless, Stephens decided to think about the offer. Schleiden requested a formal written statement.[11]

In the statement, Stephens regretted the “threatening prospect of a general war,” stressing that it was not the intention of the Confederacy to provoke a war. However, peace without independence was not acceptable. Stephens stressed his lack of authority, but provided some suggestions. The main point, which Lincoln would never accept, was to abstain from waging “a war for the recapture of former possessions . . . and subjugation of the people of the Confederate States to their former dominion.” Stephens asked the Lincoln government to make an authoritative proposal for consideration.[12]

With the formal statement as basis, Stephens and Schleiden debated for another two hours during which Schleiden impressed upon Stephens the need to modify passages of Stephens’s initial proposal. Schleiden told Stephens, “a significant amount of mistrust shined through the letter coupled with . . . a substantial amount of misplaced honor which threatened the impact of the letter because in Washington the letter would meet a similar mistrust and false, misplaced honor.” At the end of their conversation, both agreed to keep their talks confidential. Schleiden had lost faith and did not even record his second conversation with Stephens in his diary.[13]

After the final conversation, Schleiden returned to Washington on April 27. He immediately copied the proposal and correspondence, and added a cover letter, which he personally delivered to Seward. Seward listened attentively to the verbal report. Seward answered in Lincoln’s stead, thanking Schleiden for his effort. Seward confirmed that the Union was supreme and that restoration of the Union was the primary goal of the government. Lincoln saw no use to pursue the matter any further. Schleiden informed Stephens of the failure.[14]

The trip to Richmond shows Seward’s continued interest in using any means at his disposal to stall hostilities and allow Unionists time to regain control in the Southern states. Even by late April 1861, Seward was still under the assumption of strong Unionist sentiment in the South. However, there is no evidence that Seward was the instigator or that he directly provided Schleiden with terms and conditions to present to the Confederate Vice-President. Schleiden, as a former secessionist revolutionary, knew all too well how a civil war could tear a country apart and what violence and bloodshed that entailed. He brought his personal experiences along to Richmond. If anything, Schleiden’s trip in late April, one month into the war, illustrate the continued desire to find a peaceful solution. To some, the war, despite the firing on Fort Sumter, was not yet inevitable.


[1] Niels Eichhorn, “William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, March 23, 2018,

[2] Ralph H. Lutz, “Rudolph Schleiden and the Visit to Richmond, April 25, 1861,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1917): 207-16.

[3] Rudolph M. Schleiden, Schleswig-Holsteins erste Erhebung, 1848-1849 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Verlag von J. F. Bergmann, 1891), 352-360.

[4] Rudolf Schleiden to Syndicus Dr. Theodor Curtius, January 2, 1863, No. 8, US 27, Archiv der Hansestadt Lübeck.

[5] Lyons to Russell, February 4, 1861, James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes, Private and Confidential: Letters from British Ministers in Washington to the Foreign Secretaries in London, 1844-67 (Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna University Press, 1993), 240.

[6] Albert A. Woldman, Lincoln and the Russians (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1952), 56-59.

[7] May 4, 1858, 159, Book 18, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), Box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbliothek Kiel; Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, morning letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[8] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[9] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[10] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[11] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[12] Stephens to Schleiden, April 28, 1861, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[13] April 27, 1861, 237-38, book 19, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbibliothek Kiel; Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[14] April 27, 1861, 238, book 19, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbibliothek Kiel; Seward to Schleiden, April 29, 1861, Schleiden to Stephens, April 30, 1861, Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

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