The word “campaign” has its origins in 17th-century battles, the term referring to an army’s field operations. By the beginning of the 19th century, “campaign” took on its current political meaning. And 150 years ago, it was aptly applied to both.
For on June 8, 1864, the delegates of the National Union Party, a hastily assembled group of Republicans and politicians known as War Democrats, gathered in Baltimore for its nominating convention. The Civil War Battle of the Wilderness was a month in the past, the Battle of Cold Harbor was coming to an end, the selection of Abraham Lincoln’s onetime top general, George B. McClellan, for the Democratic presidential nomination, nearly a dozen weeks off.
The two meanings of the word “campaign” converged in a calamitous way. The country was battered and bloodied. A year earlier Abraham Lincoln had elevated the war to a moral crusade, a fight now not only for Union but also for freedom. Yet the killing continued, as did slavery. Lincoln had reason to fear that holding the moral high ground might not ensure that he held the country — or that he would continue to hold the White House.
The convention’s opening prayer June 8 conveyed some of the delegates’ mood, speaking as it did of the “shackles of oppression” and “the light of freedom and of liberty.” The platform resolved “not to compromise with Rebels” and was uncompromising on slavery, describing it as the cause of the war and calling for its “utter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic.”
Everywhere on the floor there was brave talk but little confidence. You can read the proceedings today and be astonished at the high rhetoric. But you can thumb through the fourth volume of the Library of America’s anthology of letters and speeches from the war, this latest from the conflict’s last year, and you will be struck less by how the convention rhetoric soared than by how the national spirit plunged. America’s heart hurt, and the hurt reached the heart of America, in the Confederate states, of course, but in the North as well.