Eyewitness 1862: Pittsburgh peace envoy was just full of humbug

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Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the Virginia couple who talked their way into a 2009 State Dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama, would have had a much easier time getting into the White House when Abraham Lincoln lived there.

As illustrated in the new Steven Spielberg movie about the 16th president, Lincoln devoted some of his office hours to a "public opinion bath" where visitors could petition or just visit with him.

On Nov. 19, 1862, Lincoln met at the White House with J. Wesley Greene, who described himself as a Pittsburgh businessman, to hear about two conversations the man claimed to have had in Richmond with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Greene said he "had done Mr. Davis some service during the Mexican war, which he (Davis) gratefully remembered," according to a story that appeared Dec. 11, 1862, in The New York Times. An unlikely choice as a messenger, Greene claimed that he had been selected as a go-between "because he was unknown to fame as a politician."

Greene worked as a journeyman japanner in a Pittsburgh metalware shop at the corner of Market Street and what is now the Boulevard of the Allies, according to a Dec. 13 story in The Pittsburgh Gazette. A japanner applied hard, black varnish onto decorative metal objects.

Greene's first-person account, which the New York newspaper quoted, had been published Dec. 10 in the Chicago Times. According to that story, Davis told Greene he "desired a termination of the war, and an amicable adjustment of the difficulties between the North and the South."

Among his proposed terms for an end to the Civil War, Davis purportedly wanted amnesty for himself and "all political offenders," the "restoration of all fugitive slaves" to their owners and the withdrawal of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 1863.

"Mr. Lincoln's Proclamation to liberate the slaves seemed to annoy Mr. Davis, who casually remarked, that 'It would play hell with us,'" Greene wrote. "Mr. Davis said that the proclamation of Mr. Lincoln was regarded throughout the South as a bid for a 'servile insurrection.'"

The White House confirmed that Lincoln had met once with Greene, but the president wasn't buying his tale after deciding "the entire story was a very shallow attempt at deception," the New York newspaper reported.

Greene was called "The Greatest Humbug of the Day" in a Dec. 13 headline in The Pittsburgh Gazette, which had investigated his background. He had arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1861. He presented letters of reference from ministers in Buffalo and Cincinnati to the pastor of the city's First Methodist Church attesting to his suitability as a preacher. Those letters turned out to be forgeries, the newspaper wrote.

The Methodists' investigation also found that Greene had left behind several ex-wives and children. He was "read out of the church" but otherwise "permitted to go his way."

A letter from Greene's employer, John Dunlap, punched the biggest hole in his mission-to-Richmond story. Dunlap wrote that he had been at work in Pittsburgh on the dates when he claimed to have been meeting with Davis.

Greene disappeared from the city before the Gazette's Dec. 13 story appeared. The woman believed to be his fourth wife had left days earlier, telling friends she was going back east. The newspaper concluded, however, that she and her husband probably had taken refuge in a place few Pittsburghers would ever willingly reside: Cleveland.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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