The War within a War:
Emancipation and the Election of
With the high season of electioneering in front of them, Republicans in mid-1864 were ready to tie their fortunes to the antislavery amendment. James M. Ashley, the sponsor of the measure in the House of Representatives, believed that the coming political campaign would turn on the question of constitutional abolition. “We must go to the country on this issue, ” he told his colleagues.1 Yet, for reasons that no one could have predicted, the election of 1864 became both something more and something less than a referendum on emancipation and the amendment. The election did in fact help to decide the fate of black freedom-even the fate of the Union-but the issue of emancipation was nonetheless muted in the campaign.
No matter how much Republicans might have wished to make the election about emancipation, they knew that the most important issue to the northern people was the success of Union forces. These were pivotal times in military affairs. In northern Virginia, General Ulysses S. Grant gave up his first line of attack on Richmond, moved his army across the James River, and set his sights on Petersburg. Meanwhile, in Georgia, General William T. Sherman's troops were stalled by Confederate defenses at Kennesaw Mountain, only twenty miles northwest of their objective: Atlanta. Military events did more than overshadow the abolition amendment during the political campaign. They shaped the entire issue of emancipation. If Union arms were successful, the northern people would be inclined to support the administration and its policies, including emancipation. But if Union arms were unsuccessful, northerners were likely to take seriously the Democratic alternative: a negotiated settlement of the war with the Union-and slavery-intact. In the struggle over whether a peace could be negotiated or had to be won, the specific issue of the antislavery amendment sometimes faded from sight, even as the larger question of the relationship between the war and slavery loomed over all.____________________