The Union League is one of the most cryptic of Civil War and Reconstruction era topics even though it was a wellspring of tyranny. Together with the Loyal League identical twin, Southern chapters prompted the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to evolve from an obscure social club into a violent anti-Republican, and therefore anti-black, vigilante group.
The first Union Leagues lodges were formed in the North to support Republicans after Democratic gains in the 1862 wartime elections. According to historian Christopher Phillips the Leagues “demanded undiluted loyalty to the wartime polices of Abraham Lincoln.” They believed there was no such thing as a loyal opposition. Voters either supported Lincoln, or they were traitors. “Western Loyal Leaguers fought dissent with more than words. In central Illinois, one woman claimed that Republicans ‘were forming Vigilance committees to…[identify] every man and woman…not loyal to Lincoln.’” Even non-voters were not exempt from violence. In 1863 Leaguers tarred and feathered seven Ohio women, including one who was a widow of a recently deceased Union soldier.
At the end of the war, League chapters opened in the South to serve as rallying points for whites that had opposed the Confederacy. After Southern blacks were permitted to vote for state constitutional conventions by the dubious authority of the 1867 Reconstruction Acts, most Southern whites dropped out as blacks flooded into the Leagues. The remaining whites became Scalawags and were soon joined by Northern Carpetbaggers.
The new goal for the Southern leagues, which was shared with the Freedmen’s Bureau, was to make sure that blacks registered to vote and voted Republican. By terms of the Fourteenth Amendment, blacks composed a majority of voters in five of the eight former Confederate states permitted to vote in the 1868 presidential election. They composed a sizeable minority in the other three.
The Union League recruited members with a cult of secrecy and exaggerated promises. Members were indoctrinated to believe that their interests were perpetually at war with Southern whites that were falsely accused of wanting to put blacks back into slavery. Ex-slaves were told their continued freedom depended upon the supremacy of the Republican Party. Accordingly, they voted Republican like “hordes of senseless cattle.” Continue reading