War Governors' Conference - History of The Meeting

History of The Meeting

In the autumn of 1862, the war effort was going poorly for the United States and President 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 could announce the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Governor Andrew Gregg 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. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, another radical and sometime opponent of Lincoln, supported the meeting in order to promote more radical measures such as emancipation that he thought were the only path to victory, writing that he hoped "to save the Prest. from the infamy of ruining his country" (Neely, ed., Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 5). Altoona, Pennsylvania would be that "point" of location for the meeting.

The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 allowed Lincoln to claim the 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 near both the Midwest states as well as New England, and 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.

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 Alexander 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 who had arrived so far took a sight-seeing trip to the famous Horseshoe Curve, compliments of John Edgar Thomson and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

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 Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and how their individual states could aid the war effort.

One of the main topics of discussion concerned General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts took to the floor and openly began to criticize General 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 stated 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 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 Maryland still being a slave state. 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." Lincoln took their welcomed suggestions on internal management of the war effort,including recruiting, transport of troops, etc. However, the meeting became contentions when Governor Kirkwood of Iowa suggested that General McClellan was unfit for command. Lincoln refused to argue either way on the issue, and promptly concluded the meeting. Nevertheless, 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.

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