In the autumn of 1862, the war effort was going poorly for the United States and Abraham Lincoln. The commander-in-chief wished to release a proclamation that would free the slaves in the southern states, but was afraid to do so for fear that the Union's border states still practicing slavery would secede. If he issued the proclamation prematurely, it would appear as a last cry for help to both the country and the world. Lincoln needed a military victory so that the Emancipation Proclamation could be announced. Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania sent out a telegram invitation on September 6 to all Union governors to "meet at a point in the border states" to discuss the states' involvement in the war effort and how best to serve the needs of President Lincoln. Altoona, Pennsylvania would be that "point" of location for the meeting.
The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 allowed Lincoln to claim that victory he so desperately needed. This key event would be a main topic among the governors. The state executives began to arrive at the Logan House Hotel in Altoona on September 23. The city was the ideal location for the meeting. It was central to both the midwest states as well as New England. It also provided excellent transportation and luxury due to the massive Pennsylvania Railroad center that was based in Altoona. In fact, during the Gettysburg Campaign, the city was strongly considered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a potential target should his forces have gotten that far. This obviously demonstrates the importance of such a rail town and why the conference was held there.
As more governors and delegates arrived, crowds of local onlookers and politicians began to gather on the train platform beside the hotel to get a better look at the dignified guests. Even General John McClernand and staff, who were passing through Altoona, decided to observe the spectacle. Also in attendance was a reporter from the New York Herald. (The article about the conference appeared on the front page of this periodical on September 29, 1862.) The day before the meeting was to begin, the governors that had arrived so far took a sight-seeing trip to the famous Horseshoe Curve, compliments of J. Edgar Thomson and the Pennsylvania Railroad. It would be one of the few recesses for the entire duration of the conference.
The meeting began the next morning. At that point, eleven governors, one representative, and a number of aides were in attendance. After an initial welcome by Governor Curtin, the group went right to business, debating a number of topics. These included ways they could support the Emancipation Proclamation and how their individual states could aide the war effort.
One of the main topics of discussion concerned General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union's Army of the Potomac. Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts took to the floor and openly began to criticize Gen. McClellan’s ability as a leader. Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island agreed, claiming that the Battle of Antietam fought less than a week earlier had been “a rebel victory,” and that the Confederates had not withdrawn “because they were defeated, but exhibited great military strategy in doing so.” Governor David Tod of Ohio refuted that he could not understand why some would want to remove McClellan and that he would block any attempt to do so. The debate continued until 12:30 a.m. until the topic of disagreement was exhausted.
Despite the many heated debates that took place during the meeting, all governors except Augustus Bradford of Maryland consented to the final address. Bradford's disapproval is most likely a result of his state still being a slave territory. In the morning, Governor Austin Blair of Michigan arrived late but joined the fellow delegates in going to Washington, D.C. the same day. With Blair's name, a total of twelve signatures were included on the address to be presented to the president. No official minutes of the meeting were kept for security reasons. Perhaps because of this, the event is often overlooked by historians.
Once the delegation reached the White House on September 26, they read the document proclaiming the “rightful authority” of the president and “the constitutional powers of Congress” depend on “the rights and liberties of the people.” The governors agreed “to continue in the most vigorous exercise of all our lawful powers, contending against treason, rebellion, and the public enemies until final victory and unconditional submission.” The address went on to promote “the military education of the people.” The address also suggested the removal of McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln took their welcomed suggestion on both issues. McClellan was relieved of command less than two months later and the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, 1863.
The address was sent to other Union governors that were unable to attend the meeting. Of them, the executives of Vermont, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, and Oregon all gave their approval of the document. It was declined by those of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri,the latter three of which were still slave states.
The War Governors' Conference that took place in Altoona that September is quite often overlooked when it comes to the history of the American Civil War. However, it can be argued that it played an important role in the policies of Abraham Lincoln. The president now had the re-affirmed support of the northern states to finish the war. In observance of the 50th anniversary of the event, the Altoona Mirror stated, “It was this conference...which more than any other thing strengthened Lincoln's hands in the darkest hour of the war period.”
The Emancipation Proclamation legally freed slaves in the southern states and also prevented countries such as Britain and France from supporting the Confederacy, for they would not support a state with the institution of slavery. Coincidentally, Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus in the United States the very same day that the governors met in Altoona. It is not known whether these two events are connected in any way. However, because of the meeting in Altoona, Lincoln was able to issue such a document with a new sense of authority and commitment that was delivered by the northern governors and the victory at Antietam.
Governors in Attendance
|Governor||State||Approval of Declaration|
|John A. Andrew||Massachusetts||Yes|
|Nathaniel S. Berry||New Hampshire||Yes|
|Andrew G. Curtin||Pennsylvania||Yes|
|Oliver P. Morton (rep. by D.G. Rose)||Indiana||Yes|
|Francis H. Pierpont||Virginia (Loyal)||Yes|
|William Sprague||Rhode Island||Yes|
The Logan House Hotel, where the conference was held, was built in 1854 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Dubbed "Mansion in the Wilderness," it was considered one of the grandest hotels in the country at the time. With 106 rooms, gas lighting, and hot running water, it was believed to be one of the most modern hotels of its age. One visitor stated that the hotel was "about the size of Rhode Island." Famous visitors to the hotel included presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William H. Taft. Also, Mary Todd Lincoln and her children spent a few summer days at the Hotel to escape the heat and congestion of Washington, D.C. Just a year after the Governors' Conference, David Wills of Gettysburg held a meeting there to begin plans for the establishment of the Gettysburg National Cemetery where Lincoln would deliver his immortal Gettysburg Address. Sadly, the hotel was closed in 1927 and the building was demolished in 1931. It is now the site of the Altoona Post Office.
In 1912, a massive ceremony was held in Altoona to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the conference. All the northern governors of the respective states at that time attended. Even President William H. Taft came to Altoona to take part in the festivities and give an address to the large crowds.
According to personal accounts and old photographs, bunting, decorations, and special events were everywhere. A massive parade was held on 11th Avenue downtown. This parade included old veterans of the Civil War and a massive float with a model of the USS Monitor including a revolving turret. Dozens of other large floats were entered as well by local groups. At the Cricket Field sports arena (now the site of a commercial retail plaza in front of the Altoona Hospital), a large festival with vendors, food, and souvenirs helped in commemorating the event. Planning is underway for an event such as this to be coordinated for the 150th anniversary as well.
It is in the hopes and plans of many in the Altoona that a museum is to be dedicated in honor of this historic event for the 150th anniversary in 2012. The museum would include exhibits on the conference, the area's rich Civil War History, and the Logan House in an educational and interactive setting for people of all ages.