PBS to air Civil War documentary
Norm Callan’s reflection could be seen in the round maple table that shined with early evening sun, and inspired a PBS cameraman to reshoot a part of an interview about the table’s importance to the Union’s American Civil War victory.
“This table is believed to be the table that the Loyal War Governors sat around while signing their proclamation supporting President Lincoln’s war effort,” said Callan, Blair County Historical Society vice president.
PBS documentary executive director Roger Sharpe of Washington, D.C., was led to the table in Altoona on Monday by a photo – specifically a copy of what he said was the only known photo taken at the Gettysburg Address.
Sharpe held a copy of the photo taken by an 18-year-old in 1863 who was in the back of the crowd gathered to hear the Gettysburg Address. The teenager was hired by a newspaper for the event, but the photo was never made into an engraving for print, Sharpe said.
The photo shows a boy who must be younger than 13 on the platform with President Abraham Lincoln, who wasn’t wearing his top hat, Lincoln’s cabinet members, state governors – a total of 64 important people, all identified by some author or another over time, except for the boy.
Sharpe plans for his documentary to be aired across PBS affiliates nationwide in November about the “Boy who heard Lincoln.”
“No one has ever written it,” Sharpe said.
The connection between Altoona and the boy in the photo with Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address begins at that maple table in 1862, a demoralizing year for the Union, a year prior to Lincoln’s famous two-minute speech after the turning point battle of Gettysburg.
Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin formed the idea for the Loyal War Governors’ conference not soon before Gen. George McClellan gained the first battle victory for the Union at Antietam, a victory that was still not much of a gain in morale for states in the Union.
Curtin and two fellow state governors had called all Union governors to support Lincoln and to meet around that table in Altoona, at the Logan House – a fancy hotel in the city at the time.
Altoona was centrally located and provided a degree of secrecy the governors wanted. The governors’ conference lacks the glamour that would lend itself to a reenactment, so it remains largely unknown except to political and historical junkies, Callan said.
“But it is an important one,” he said.
The conference drew 13 governors who supported Lincoln. Their support was crucial because the federal government’s power was different from what it is today, Callan said. During the Civil War, the President could issue a draft from Washington, D.C, but he relied on state governors to accept the call for the draft and provide their quota of resources.
At that time of the conference, Lincoln had written his executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, that would establish abolition as a goal of the war and he was waiting for the best political moment to issue it.
To increase morale for the war, Curtin and fellow governors from Ohio and West Virginia sought to pressure Lincoln to make emancipation a main issue of the war, not only restoring the union. Lincoln subsequently issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
And with renewed support from the 13 governors who met in Altoona to draft a proclamation of support for Lincoln, the Union went on to stop the Confederate invasion of the North at Gettysburg in 1863.
As the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg approaches in November, the governors’ meeting is gaining some attention from PBS because of the boy in the Gettysburg Address photo.
Curtin was on the platform with Lincoln during his Gettysburg Address. Curtin’s son, William Wilson Curtin – the boy who heard Lincoln – was beside him.
“If you could hear the president talk and invite your son, wouldn’t you?” Callan said during the PBS interview.
“What would you want your children to take away from the Gettysburg Address, a sense of citizenship?” Sharpe asked Callan.
Callan said he would want his children to understand that the Union soldiers didn’t die in vain, that they were fighting for an ideal-equality.
Sharpe said he has spoken with five descendants of William Curtin who live in Bellefonte.
He said Curtin became a private businessman in the insurance brokerage industry in Philadelphia. He became mentor to half a dozen world leaders in the industry, and before he died he became successful enough to leave both of his daughters a million dollars to sustain them during the Great Depression.
Sharpe said he hopes to give Gov. Curtin’s conference of Loyal War Governors the recognition it deserves.
“My hope for the people of Altoona is that this is a worthy project,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe said the documentary will air on PBS affiliates nationwide in November.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.