If the limits of the President’s authority were vague, they might for that very reason be all the more extensive; and, wherever they might be set, he soon made it certain that he designed to part with no power which he possessed. On the evening of March 3 he went up, as usual, to the Capitol, to sign bills during the closing hours of the last session of the Thirty-eighth Congress. To him thus engaged was handed a telegram from General Grant, saying that General Lee had suggested an interview between himself and Grant in the hope that, upon an interchange of views, they might reach a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties through a military convention. Immediately, exchanging no word with any one, he wrote:—
“The President directs me to say that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee, unless it be for the capitulation of General Lee’s army, or on some minor or purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political questions. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meanwhile, you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.”
This reply he showed to Seward, then handed it to Stanton and ordered him to sign and dispatch it at once.
About this same time General Lee notified Mr. Davis that Petersburg and Richmond could not be held many more days. Indeed, they would probably have been evacuated at once, had not the capital carried so costly a freight of prestige as well as of pride. It was no surprising secret which was thus communicated to the chief rebel; all the common soldiers in the Confederate army had for a long while known it just as well as the general-in-chief did; and they had been showing their appreciation of the situation by deserting and coming within the Union lines in such increasing numbers that soon General Grant estimated that the Confederate forces were being depleted by the equivalent of nearly a regiment every day. The civilian leaders had already suggested the last expedients of despair,—the enrolling of boys of fourteen years and old men of sixty-five, nay, even the enlistment of slaves. But there was no cure for the mortal dwindling. The Confederacy was dying of anaemia.