How a secret meeting in Pennsylvania changed the meaning of the war.
On the morning of September 24, 1862, a small group of men gathered at the Logan House Hotel in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The purpose of their gathering had been kept secret from the general public for safety reasons. Although long forgotten in the annals of history, this assembly could be considered one of the most significant political actions of the American Civil War. At this summit, 13 northern governors came together to advocate a new direction for the war and the nation. This was the Loyal War Governors' Conference.
The summer of 1862 had been a disastrous one for the Union. General George B. McClellan failed to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia and the Army of the Potomac had been horribly defeated at the Battle of Second Bull Run. President Lincoln's entire agenda was collapsing before his eyes. On September 6, Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania dispatched a message to all northern governors by telegraph. In this message, Curtin suggested that they all meet at a location in a Border State where they could discuss how to better serve the president in his mission. The leaders were to assemble in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a major industrial hub of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The exact site of the meeting was the Logan House, a luxurious hotel once known as the "mansion in the wilderness."
Although some state leaders refused or were unable to attend, 13 governors agreed to come or send representatives in their place. As word of the upcoming conference slowly spread into Washington political circles, rumor spread that the governors were actually planning a coup against the Lincoln Administration due to the unsuccessful course of the war. To dissolve any notion of this, Governors Curtin and John Andrew of Massachusetts quickly traveled to Washington to inform the president of the true purpose of their meeting. Lincoln was encouraged by their words and went on to discuss with them his desire to issue a proclamation of emancipation to free the slaves of the south. Curtin and Andrew insisted that such a statement be released at once rather than wait until their conference had concluded.
In the meantime, the Army of the Potomac had declared victory at the Battle of Antietam, Maryland on September 17. This provided Lincoln with much needed leverage to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which was released one day before the Governors' Conference.
As the governors commenced their meeting on that September 24, discussion on the war effort began with a rocky start. John Andrew along with William Sprague of Rhode Island demanded the immediate removal of McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, stating that his slow movements and cautious tactics had prolonged the war and nearly met with disaster on more than one occasion. Ohioan David Tod fired back, exclaiming McClellan won a great victory at Antietam and deserved praise. Curtin knew this argument was going nowhere and shifted the discussion towards the Emancipation Proclamation and the overall war effort, hoping to find common ground between the governors.
On this issue, the state executives could reach terms of agreement more easily. Most concurred that the proclamation would strengthen the war effort and redefine the conflict's meaning. No longer was the struggle only about preservation of the Union, but to help free a people from the bondages of slavery. In addition, it struck a major blow to the Confederacy's hopes of attaining foreign intervention through Britain or France. With the North altering its purpose for fighting, it effectively turned away European Powers who had long ago outlawed slavery from forming an alliance with the Confederate States. In the end, all the governors but Augustus Bradford of Maryland agreed to sign his name to their declaration of support to Lincoln. At that time, Maryland was still a slave state which remained with the Union. Bradford feared his political life would end if he were to sign his name to a document encouraging emancipation of the slaves. On the morning of September 26, the governors boarded a train for Washington to meet with the president.
The War Governors' Conference aided Lincoln with political support at a time when he desperately needed it. The state executives also called for 100,000 supplementary troops to help quell the rebellion (an action which eventually led to additional conscription). The governors pledged that their states would raise the appropriate quota of troops to serve on the frontlines.
The Loyal War Governors' Conference could be considered one of the great political events of the Civil War era. Its ramifications on the war effort could probably never be fully recounted. In the end, the governors stated that the conference and the Emancipation Proclamation gave "new life, new vigor, and new hopes to the hearts of the people" with a renewed sense of "devotion to the national cause."
Information for this section was contributed by Jared Frederick.
Jared Frederick is a history student at Penn State University as well as a board member of the Blair County Historical Society. He is the author and illustrator of three books, including Historic Pennsylvania. He can be reached through his website at www.historymatters.biz.
Image Courtesy of PA Historical and Museum Commission