Union League of America

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Union League of America

The Union League (or Loyal League) was the first mass-based African-American political organization. During congressional Reconstruction it was the vehicle for mobilizing the newly enfranchised voters for the Republican Party. The league was severely maligned by historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but recently scholars have taken a more favorable view.

The Union League originated during the Civil War as a white patriotic organization supporting the Union war effort. Under its longtime president James M. Edmunds, it spawned both the patrician Union League Clubs and many mass organizations in the northern states, and these were generally secret and oath-bound. With the end of the war, Republican leaders decided that the clandestine character of the organization made it appropriate for southern operations, and during presidential Reconstruction thousands of white Unionists, particularly in the mountains, joined the order.

With the passage of the Military Reconstruction acts in March 1867, Republican leaders turned their attention to the freedpeople. Republican donors underwrote an organizing campaign, and paid speakers, black and white, swept through the southern states. Encouraged by a sympathetic Freedmen's Bureau and other government officials, hundreds of thousands of blacks joined in the spring and summer of 1867. This mobilization was the freedpeople's first introduction to partisan politics and the mechanics of voting, and it was instrumental in the over-whelming vote they gave the Republican Party. The league thus helped "reconstruct" southern governments under the congressional plan.

The social impact of the movement was pronounced as well, coming at a critical moment in the evolution of the plantation system. After the war, planters tried to reconstruct production on familial lines: gang labor, physical coercion, tight supervision, and women and children in the work force. The vigorous black response to the league can be seen as a measure of frustration with the similarity the freedpeople's condition still bore to slavery. Their politicization around egalitarian slogans undermined plantation discipline and encouraged the transition to decentralized tenant farming and sharecropping.

The Union League was repressed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1868 and after, and consciously demobilized by the Republican leadership as a conciliatory gesture. Its influence on black voting patterns and on the plantation system was to prove more enduring.

See also Politics in the United States


Fitzgerald, Michael W. The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change during Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 18631877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988, pp. 281345.

Lawson, Melinda. "'A Profound National Devotion': The Civil War Union Leagues and the Construction of a New National Patriotism." Civil War History 48, no. 4 (December 2002): 338.

Silvestro, Clement Mario. None but Patriots: The Union Leagues in Civil War and Reconstruction. Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1959.

michael w. fitzgerald (1996)
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Union League of America