The Union League of Texas


Walter Moses Burton, black state senator also served as the president of the Fort Bend County Union League.


Union League of America

The elections of 1867-68 showed that the Negroes were well organized under the control of the radical Republican leaders and that their former masters had none of the influence over the blacks in political matters which had been feared by some Northern friends of the Negro and had been hoped for by such Southern leaders as Governor Patton and General Hampton. Before 1865 the discipline of slavery, the influence of the master's family, and of the Southern church had sufficed to control the blacks. But after emancipation they looked to the Federal soldiers and Union officials as the givers of freedom and the guardians of the future.

From the Union soldiers, especially the Negro troops, from the Northern teachers, the missionaries and the organizers of Negro churches, from the Northern officials and traveling politicians, the Negroes learned that their interests were not those of the whites. The attitude of the average white in the South often confirmed this growing estrangement. It was difficult even for the white leaders to explain the riots at Memphis and New Orleans. And those who sincerely wished well for the Negro and who desired to control him for the good of both races could not possibly assure him that he was fit for the suffrage. For even Patton and Hampton must tell him that they knew better than he and that he should follow their advice.

The appeal made to freedmen by the Northern leaders was in every way more forceful, because it bad behind it the prestige of victory in war and for the future it could promise anything. Until 1867, the principal agency in bringing about the separation of the races had been the Freedmen's Bureau which, with its authority, its courts, its rations, clothes, and its "forty acres and a mule," did effective work in breaking down the influence of the master. But to understand fully the almost absolute control exercised over the blacks in 1867-68 by alien adventurers, one must examine the workings of an oath-bound society known as the Union or Loyal League. It was this order, dominated by a few radical whites, which organized, disciplined, and controlled the ignorant Negro masses and paralyzed the influence of the conservative whites.

The Union League of America had its origin in Ohio in the fall of 1862, when the outlook for the Union cause was gloomy. The moderate policies of the Lincoln Administration had alienated those in favor of extreme measures; the Confederates had won military successes in the field; the Democrats had made some gains in the elections; the Copperheads* were actively opposed to the Washington Government; the Knights of the Golden Circle were organizing to resist the continuance of the war; and the Emancipation Proclamation had chilled the loyalty of many Union men, which was everywhere at a low ebb, especially in the Northern cities. It was to counteract these depressing influences that the Union League movement was begun among those who were associated in the work of the United States Sanitary Commission. Observing the threatening state of public opinion, members of this organization proposed that "loyalty be organized, consolidated and made effective."

* See "Abraham Lincoln and the Union", by Nathaniel W. Stephenson (in "The Chronicles of America"), pp. 156-7, 234-5.

The first organization was made by eleven men in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 1862. The Philadelphia Union League was organized a month later, and in January 1863, the New York Union League followed. The members were pledged to uncompromising and unconditional loyalty to the Union, to complete subordination of political views to this loyalty, and to the repudiation of any belief in state rights. The other large cities followed the example of Philadelphia and New York, and soon Leagues, connected in a loose federation, were formed all through the North. They were social as well as political in their character and assumed as their task the stimulation and direction of loyal Union opinion.

As the Union armies proceeded to occupy the South, the Union League sent its agents among the disaffected Southern people. Its agents cared for Negro refugees in the contraband camps and in the North. In such work the League cooperated with the various Freedmen's Aid Societies, the Department of Negro Affairs, and later with the Freedmen's Bureau. Part of the work of the League was to distribute campaign literature, and many of the radical pamphlets on reconstruction and the Negro problem bore the Union League imprint. The New York League sent out about seventy thousand copies of various publications, while the Philadelphia League far surpassed this record, circulating within eight years four million five hundred thousand copies of 144 different pamphlets. The literature consisted largely of accounts of "Southern outrages" taken from the reports of Bureau agents and similar sources.

With the close of the Civil War the League did not cease its active interest in things political. It was one of the first organizations to declare for Negro suffrage and the disfranchisement of Confederates; it held steadily to this declaration during the four years following the war; and it continued as a sort of bureau in the radical Republican party for the purpose of controlling the Negro vote in the South. Its representatives were found in the lobbies of Congress demanding extreme measures, endorsing the reconstruction policies of Congress, and condemning the course of the President. After the first year or two of reconstruction, the Leagues in the larger Northern cities began to grow away from the strictly political Union League of America and tended to become mere social clubs for members of the same political belief. The eminently respectable Philadelphia and New York clubs had little in common with the leagues of the Southern and Border States except a general adherence to the radical program.

Even before the end of the war the League was extending its organization into the parts of the Confederacy held by the Federal forces, admitting to membership the army officers and the leading Unionists, though maintaining for the sake of the latter "a discreet secrecy." With the close of the war and the establishment of army posts over the South, the League grew rapidly. The civilians who followed the army, the Bureau agents, the missionaries, and the Northern teachers formed one class of membership; and the loyalists of the hill and mountain country, who had become disaffected toward the Confederate administration and had formed such orders as the Heroes of America, the Red String Band, and the Peace Society, formed another class. Soon there were added to these the deserters, a few old line Whigs who intensely disliked the Democrats, and others who decided to cast their lot with the victors. The disaffected politicians of the up-country, who wanted to be cared for in the reconstruction, saw in the organization a means of dislodging from power the political leaders of the low country. It has been estimated that thirty percent of the white men of the hill and mountain counties of the South joined the Union League in 1865-66. They cared little about the original objects of the order but hoped to make it the nucleus of an anti-Democratic political organization.

But on the admission of Negroes into the lodges or councils controlled by Northern men the native white members began to withdraw. From the beginning the Bureau agents, the teachers, and the preachers had been holding meetings of Negroes, to whom they gave advice about the problems of freedom. Very early these advisers of the blacks grasped the possibilities inherent in their control of the schools, the rationing system, and the churches. By the spring of 1866, the Negroes were widely organized under this leadership, and it needed but slight change to convert the Negro meetings into local councils of the Union League.* As soon as it seemed likely that Congress would win in its struggle with the President the guardians of the Negro planned their campaign for the control of the race. Negro leaders were organized into councils of the League or into Union Republican Clubs. Over the South went the organizers, until by 1868 the last Negroes were gathered into the fold.

* Of these teachers of the local blacks, E. L. Godkin, editor of the New York Nation, who had supported the reconstruction acts, said: "Worse instructors for men emerging from slavery and coming for the first time face to face with the problems of free life than the radical agitators who have undertaken the political guidance of the blacks it would be hard to meet with."

The native whites did not all desert the Union League when the Negroes were brought in. Where the blacks were most numerous the desertion of whites was general, but in the regions where they were few some of the whites remained for several years. The elections of 1868 showed a falling off of the white radical vote from that of 1867, one measure of the extent of loss of whites. From this time forward the order consisted mainly of blacks with enough whites for leaders. In the Black Belt the membership of native whites was discouraged by requiring an oath to the effect that secession was treason. The carpetbagger had found that he could control the Negro without the help of the scalawag. The League organization was soon extended and centralized; in every black district there was a Council; for the state there was a Grand Council; and for the United States there was a National Grand Council with headquarters in New York City.

The influence of the League over the Negro was due in large degree to the mysterious secrecy of the meetings, the weird initiation ceremony that made him feel fearfully good from his head to his heels, the imposing ritual, and the songs. The ritual, it is said, was not used in the North; it was probably adopted for the particular benefit of the African. The would-be Leaguer was informed that the emblems of the order were the altar, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the flag of the Union, censer, sword, gavel, ballot box, sickle, shuttle, anvil, and other emblems of industry. He was told to the accompaniment of clanking chains and groans that the objects of the order were to preserve liberty, to perpetuate the Union, to maintain the laws and the Constitution, to secure the ascendancy of American institutions, to protect, defend, and strengthen all loyal men and members of the Union League in all rights of person and property, to demand the elevation of labor, to aid in the education of laboring men, and to teach the duties of American citizenship. This enumeration of the objects of the League sounded well and was impressive. At this point the Negro was always willing to take an oath of secrecy, after which he was asked to swear with a solemn oath to support the principles of the Declaration of Independence, to pledge himself to resist all attempts to overthrow the United States, to strive for the maintenance of liberty, the elevation of labor, the education of all people in the duties of citizenship, to practice friendship and charity to all of the order, and to support for election or appointment to office only such men as were supporters of these principles and measures.

The council then sang "Hail, Columbia!" and "The Star Spangled Banner," after which an official lectured the candidates, saying that though the designs of traitors had been thwarted, there were yet to be secured legislative triumphs and the complete ascendancy of the true principles of popular government, equal liberty, education and elevation of the workmen, and the overthrow at the ballot box of the old oligarchy of political leaders. After prayer by the chaplain, the room was darkened, alcohol on salt flared up with a ghastly light as the "fire of liberty," and the members joined hands in a circle around the candidate, who was made to place one hand on the flag and, with the other raised, swear again to support the government and to elect true Union men to office. Then placing his hand on a Bible, for the third time he swore to keep his oath, and repeated after the president "the Freedmen's Pledge": "To defend and perpetuate freedom and the Union, I pledge my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor. So help me God!" "John Brown's Body" was then sung, the president charged the members in a long speech concerning the principles of the order, and the marshal instructed the neophyte in the signs. To pass one's self as a Leaguer, the "Four L's" had to be given: (1) with right hand raised to heaven, thumb and third finger touching ends over palm, pronounce "Liberty"; (2) bring the hand down over the shoulder and say "Lincoln"; (3) drop the hand open at the side and say "Loyal"; (4) catch the thumb in the vest or in the waistband and pronounce "League." This ceremony of initiation proved a most effective means of impressing and controlling the Negro through his love and fear of secret, mysterious, and midnight mummery. An oath taken in daylight might be forgotten before the next day; not so an oath taken in the dead of night under such impressive circumstances. After passing through the ordeal, the Negro usually remained faithful.

In each populous precinct there was at least one council of the League, and always one for blacks. In each town or city there were two councils, one for the whites, and another, with white officers, for the blacks. The council met once a week, sometimes oftener, nearly always at night, and in a Negro church or schoolhouse. Guards, armed with rifles and shotguns, were stationed about the place of meeting in order to keep away intruders. Members of some councils made it a practice to attend the meetings armed as if for battle. In these meetings the Negroes listened to inflammatory speeches by the would-be statesmen of the new regime; here they were drilled in a passionate conviction that their interests and those of the Southern whites were eternally at war.

White men who joined the order before the Negroes were admitted and who left when the latter became members asserted that the Negroes were taught in these meetings that the only way to have peace and plenty, to get "the forty acres and a mule," was to kill some of the leading whites in each community as a warning to others. In North Carolina twenty-eight barns were burned in one county by Negroes who believed that Governor Holden, the head of the State League, had ordered it. The council in Tuscumbia, Alabama, received advice from Memphis to use the torch because the blacks were at war with the white race. The advice was taken. Three men went in front of the council as an advance guard, three followed with coal oil and fire, and others guarded the rear. The plan was to burn the whole town, but first one Negro and then another insisted on having some white man's house spared because "he is a good man." In the end no residences were burned, and a happy compromise was effected by burning the Female Academy. Three of the leaders were afterwards lynched.

The general belief of the whites was that the ultimate object of the order was to secure political power and thus bring about on a large scale the confiscation of the property of Confederates, and meanwhile to appropriate and destroy the property of their political opponents wherever possible. Chicken houses, pigpens, vegetable gardens, and orchards were visited by members returning from the midnight conclaves. During the presidential campaign of 1868, the North Carolina League sent out circular instructions to the blacks advising them to drill regularly and to join the militia, for if Grant were not elected the Negroes would go back to slavery; if he were elected, the Negroes were to have farms, mules, and offices.

As soon as possible after the war the Negroes had supplied themselves with guns and dogs as badges of freedom. They carried their guns to the League meetings, often marching in military formation, went through the drill there, marched home again along the roads, shouting, firing, and indulging in boasts and threats against persons whom they disliked. Later, military parades in the daytime were much favored. Several hundred Negroes would march up and down the streets, abusing whites, and shoving them off the sidewalk or out of the road. But on the whole, there was very little actual violence, though the whites were much alarmed at times. That outrages were comparatively few was due, not to any sensible teachings of the leaders, but to the fundamental good nature of the blacks, who were generally content with mere impudence.

The relations between the races, indeed, continued on the whole to be friendly until 1867-68. For a while, in some localities before the advent of the League, and in others where the Bureau was conducted by native magistrates, the Negroes looked to their old masters for guidance and advice; and the latter, for the good of both races, were most eager to retain a moral control over the blacks. They arranged barbecues and picnics for the Negroes, made speeches, gave good advice, and believed that everything promised well. Sometimes the Negroes themselves arranged the festival and invited prominent whites, for whom a separate table attended by Negro waiters was reserved; and after dinner there followed speeches by both whites and blacks.

With the organization of the League, the Negroes grew more reserved, and finally became openly unfriendly to the whites. The League alone, however, was not responsible for this change. The League and the Bureau had to some extent the same personnel, and it is frequently impossible to distinguish clearly between the influence of the two. In many ways the League was simply the political side of the Bureau. The preaching and teaching missionaries were also at work. And apart from the organized influences at work, the poor whites never laid aside their hostility towards the blacks, bond or free.

When the campaigns grew exciting, the discipline of the order was used to prevent the Negroes from attending Democratic meetings and hearing Democratic speakers. The leaders even went farther and forbade the attendance of the blacks at political meetings where the speakers were not endorsed by the League. Almost invariably the scalawag disliked the Leaguer, black or white, and as a political teacher often found himself proscribed by the League. At a Republican mass meeting in Alabama, a white Republican who wanted to make a speech was shouted down by the Negroes because he was "opposed to the Loyal League." He then went to another place to speak but was followed by the crowd, which refused to allow him to say anything. All Republicans in good standing had to join the League and swear that secession was treason--a rather stiff dose for the scalawag. Judge (later Governor) David P. Lewis, of Alabama, was a member for a short while but he soon became disgusted and published a denunciation of the order. Albion W. Tourgee, the author, a radical judge, was the first chief of the League in North Carolina and was succeeded by Governor Holden. In Alabama, Generals Swayne, Spencer, and Warner, all candidates for the United States Senate, hastened to join the order.

As soon as a candidate was nominated by the League, it was the duty of every member to support him actively. Failure to do so resulted in a fine or other more severe punishment, and members who had been expelled were still considered under the control of the officials. The League was, in fact, the machine of the radical party, and all candidates had to be governed by its edicts. As the Montgomery Council declared, the Union League was "the right arm of the Union-Republican party in the United States."

Every Negro was ex colore a member or under the control of the League. In the opinion of the League, white Democrats were bad enough, but black Democrats were not to be tolerated. It was almost necessary, as a measure of personal safety, for each black to support the radical program. It was possible in some cases for a Negro to refrain from taking an active part in political affairs. He might even fail to vote. But it was actually dangerous for a black to be a Democrat; that is, to try to follow his old master in politics. The whites in many cases were forced to advise their few faithful black friends to vote the radical ticket in order to escape mistreatment. Those who showed Democratic leanings were proscribed in Negro society and expelled from Negro churches; the Negro women would not "proshay" (appreciate) a black Democrat. Such a one was sure to find that influence was being brought to bear upon his dusky sweetheart or his wife to cause him to see the error of his ways, and persistent adherence to the white party would result in his losing her. The women were converted to radicalism before the men, and they almost invariably used their influence strongly in behalf of the League. If moral suasion failed to cause the delinquent to see the light, other methods were used. Threats were common and usually sufficed. Fines were levied by the League on recalcitrant members. In case of the more stubborn, a sound beating was effective to bring about a change of heart. The offending party was "bucked and gagged," or he was tied by the thumbs and thrashed. Usually the sufferer was too afraid to complain of the way he was treated.

Some of the methods of the Loyal League were similar to those of the later Ku Klux Klan. Anonymous warnings were sent to obnoxious individuals, houses were burned, notices were posted at night in public places and on the houses of persons who had incurred the hostility of the order. In order to destroy the influence of the whites where kindly relations still existed, an "exodus order" issued through the League directed all members to leave their old homes and obtain work elsewhere. Some of the blacks were loath to comply with this order, but to remonstrances from the whites the usual reply was: "De word done sent to de League. We got to go." For special meetings the Negroes were in some regions called together by signal guns. In this way the call for a gathering went out over a county in a few minutes and a few hours later nearly all the members in the county assembled at the appointed place.

Negroes as organizing agents were inclined to go to extremes and for that reason were not so much used. In Bullock County, Alabama, a council of the League was organized under the direction of a Negro emissary, who proceeded to assume the government of the community. A list of crimes and punishments was adopted, a court with various officials was established, and during the night the Negroes who opposed the new regime were arrested. But the black sheriff and his deputy were in turn arrested by the civil authorities. The Negroes then organized for resistance, flocked into the county seat, and threatened to exterminate the whites and take possession of the county. Their agents visited the plantations and forced the laborers to join them by showing orders purporting to be from General Swayne, the commander in the state, giving them the authority to kill all who resisted them. Swayne, however, sent out detachments of troops and arrested fifteen of the ringleaders, and the League government collapsed.

After it was seen that existing political institutions were to be overturned in the process of reconstruction, the white councils of the League and, to a certain extent, the Negro councils were converted into training schools for the leaders of the new party soon to be formed in the state by act of Congress. The few whites who were in control were unwilling to admit more white members to share in the division of the spoils; terms of admission became more stringent, and, especially after the passage of the reconstruction acts in March 1867, many white applicants were rejected. The alien element from the North was in control and as a result, where the blacks were numerous, the largest plums fell to the carpetbaggers. The Negro leaders--the politicians, preachers, and teachers--trained in the League acted as subordinates to the whites and were sent out to drum up the country Negroes when elections drew near. The Negroes were given minor positions when offices were more plentiful than carpetbaggers. Later, after some complaint, a larger share of the offices fell to them. The League counted its largest white membership in 1865-66, and after that date it steadily decreased. The largest Negro membership was recorded in 1867 and 1868. The total membership was never made known. In North Carolina the order claimed from seventy-five thousand to one hundred and twenty-five thousand members; in states with larger Negro populations the membership was probably quite as large. After the election of 1868, only the councils in the towns remained active, many of them transformed into political clubs, loosely organized under local political leaders. The plantation Negro needed less looking after, and except in the largest towns he became a kind of visiting member of the council in the town. The League as a political organization gradually died out by 1870.*

* The Ku Klux Klan had much to do with the decline of the organization. The League as the ally and successor of the Freedmen's Bureau was one of the causes of the Ku Klux movement, because it helped to create the conditions which made such a movement inevitable. As early as 1870 the radical leaders missed the support formerly given by the League, and an urgent appeal was sent out all over the South from headquarters in New York advocating its reestablishment to assist in carrying the elections of 1870.

The League had served its purpose. It had enabled a few outsiders to control the Negro by separating the races politically and it had compelled the Negroes to vote as radicals for several years, when without its influence they would either not have voted at all or would have voted as Democrats along with their former masters. The order was necessary to the existence of the radical party in the Black Belt. No ordinary political organization could have welded the blacks into a solid party. The Freedmen's Bureau, which had much influence over the Negroes, was too weak in numbers to control the Negroes in politics. The League finally absorbed the personnel of the Bureau and turned its prestige and its organization to political advantage.


The Sequel of Appomattox : a chronicle of the reunion of the states
by Walter Lynwood Fleming 1874-1932


Image: UTSA’s Institute of Texan Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 076-0069.