- The Most Complete Political Machine Ever Known: The North's Union Leagues in the American Civil War by Paul Taylor
Union victory in the American Civil War required maintaining civilian support behind the lines as surely as it required the defeat of the Confederate military. More than a million northerners met this need by joining Union Leagues: semisecretive societies designed to promote unconditional loyalty to the Lincoln administration and to quash treason. In the first book-length treatment of Union Leagues, Paul Taylor provides an engaging study that documents their critical contributions to the war effort and speaks to multiple historiographical debates concerning nationalism, politics, and treason on the northern home front.
Taylor begins with a brief look at prewar antecedents—sociopolitical organizations such as the Freemasons and the Republican Wide-Awakes—before [End Page 657] ten relatively short chapters tell the Union Leagues' story from Lincoln's triumph in 1860 to his reelection in 1864. Although there is also a brief exploration of the attempts by Union Leagues to defend black rights and establish the Republican Party in the South during Reconstruction, the war years are the beating heart of the study.
While historians often portray the first year of the war as one of relative northern consensus, Taylor highlights wavering border states, rebel sympathizers in conflicted communities of the Old Northwest, and congressional committees ferreting out moles within the Washington bureaucracy. This kindling ignited after George B. McClellan's failure to take Richmond and the subsequent Militia Act and preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Democrats then won significant victories in the 1862 elections by howling against a war that forced poor whites to fight for the sake of African Americans. These circumstances left northern morale reeling and set the scene for the emergence of Union Leagues as the vehicles to resurrect Union spirit and counter the administration's internal enemies.
Taylor then thoroughly documents the complicated web of organizations that would fall under the Union League umbrella. The phenomenon began in the Midwest in the summer of 1862 with grassroots Union Leagues that subsequently sprang up all across the North, sometimes known as Loyal Leagues and eventually forming the Union League of America. Typically composed of men of military age, including former Union soldiers, these groups defended their neighbors through partisan and sometimes physical combat against local Copperheads. Elite alternatives soon sprang up in the Union League clubs of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. With an older, wealthier membership, these patrician clubs sometimes included War Democrats, and many sought to foster a nonpartisan sense of nationalism among the masses that would wash away parochialism. Women's leagues also took elite and popular form with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Women's National Loyal League hoping to bring the occasionally reluctant mass of women's leagues into alignment with their progressive agenda tying abolition and women's rights to the Union cause.
Once established across the North, all types of Union Leagues served three key roles: preventing seditious activity, raising civilian morale, and serving as powerful political adjuncts of the Republican Party. As quasi secret police, Taylor acknowledges, Union Leagues adopted secret initiation rituals, communicated with "cryptographic alphabets, cyphers, and secret signs," and engaged in everything from lynching to spying as they attempted to root out treason (50). Less secretly, Union Leagues stood at [End Page 658] the heart of a network of northern influencers—army officers, religious ministers, postmasters, and schoolteachers—all of whom harnessed their positions to socially ostracize northerners who showed insufficient patriotism. Most practically, the astonishing fundraising capacity of Union Leagues helped them raise and pay for United States Colored Troops units, buy arms for state governors, distribute welfare payments for bereaved families, and even send 225,000 pounds worth of poultry and trimmings to the troops for Thanksgiving in 1864.
Union Leagues' deep pockets also facilitated their most influential role as an unofficial arm of the Republican Party. During the 1864 presidential election, the North's...