The Willard: Where hope collapsed as slavery raged

One hundred fifty years ago this month, 132 delegates from 21 states bickered and bargained as they tried to bridge the chasm between them in a conference at the landmark D.C. hotel. They failed, and six weeks later, the Civil War began.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 11:47 PM

The delegates used separate hotel entrances: Pennsylvania Avenue for Northerners, F Street for Southerners.

They shouted, argued and one day almost came to blows before their chairman, a former U.S. president, yelled, "Order!"

Then, the day before Valentine's Day 1861, one of the aged attendees passed away in his hotel room, begging colleagues from his deathbed to save the Union so he could die content.

They failed.

Indeed, there wasn't much peace at all during the "Peace Convention" at Washington's Willard Hotel that winter. And despite the dying wish of sickly old Ohio Judge John C. Wright, his beloved Union was soon torn in half.

This week, as part of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, historians are gathering at the Willard InterContinental hotel to remember the failed, and largely forgotten, peace conference of 1861.

There, 150 years ago this month, 132 delegates from 21 states bickered, bargained and tried in vain to bridge the chasm that widened beneath them even as they met.

Six weeks after they adjourned, the war began. And the memory of the men and their meeting faded.

But for three weeks that February - the last winter of peace for four years - there was hope among the smoky parlors of the Willard that, as the Washington Evening Star wrote, "the threatening cloud is . . . rapidly passing off the horizon of the country's future."

On Friday, a symposium, sponsored by, among others, the Lincoln at the Crossroads Alliance and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, is scheduled at the hotel, followed by the dedication of a new outdoor plaque marking the anniversary. An existing plaque dates from 1961.

The Lincoln foundation is scheduled to hold its inaugural meeting at the hotel Thursday, when it will announce its mission, call for proposals and host a reading by actor Stephen Lang of Lincoln's famous "Farewell to Springfield" address.

The 2:30 p.m. plaque dedication is open to the public.

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