The Union League, or Loyal League, was founded to promote the northern cause and the Republicans during the Civil War. In the Reconstruction Era, the league shifted its focus to securing the black vote for the Republican Party. In Alabama and other Southern states, the league, run locally by Freedmen’s Bureau agents and various pro-Union groups, mobilized labor protests and promoted voter registration. The Union League helped create the Reconstruction movement, and it established a tradition of black voting for the Republicans that lasted well into the twentieth century.
Abraham Lincoln The Union League originated in Ohio in 1862 as a northern patriotic organization backing the Lincoln administration. A secret society, directed by federal officials in Washington, its rituals included oaths to support candidates promoting the war effort and the Republican Party. Throughout the war, members distributed pro-Union literature, provided relief to soldiers, and recruited new troops. At war’s end, the Republican government officials running the league turned their attention to the states of the former Confederacy, absorbing local networks of white draft resisters and anti-Confederate groups.
The Alabama Union League gained a substantial constituency in the northern hill country, in places such as St. Clair, Blount, and Fayette counties. League branches sprang up in these areas when former draft resisters and native-born Union veterans found themselves a besieged minority after ex-Confederate soldiers returned to their homes. The league also provided a forum for opponents of Presidential Reconstruction, especially those inclined to organized self-defense, and played an integral role in the passage of military Reconstruction in 1867.
Many Union League members viewed freed blacks as potential allies prior to the imposition of military Reconstruction in March 1867. Therefore Congressional Republicans made appeals through the league to the newly enfranchised freedmen. Though white outsiders were the prominent organizers, local leadership was often African American. In Alabama, the Freedmen’s Bureau under Union general Wager Swayne assisted the league’s expansion, and the state secretary, John C. Keffer, ran the organization from the bureau’s Montgomery office. This joint relationship resulted in an unusually powerful organizing effort throughout the state.
The Alabama Union League drew a large following in cities like Mobile, where public activities were safest. It had the most profound impact, however, in rural areas, where opponents found it difficult to discover or prevent nighttime meetings at secluded locations. Although this secrecy alarmed many white landowners, it also allowed freed blacks to discuss Reconstruction and its implications. Such newfound freedoms led to a Wager Swayne massive politicization of rural freed blacks during the summer and fall of 1867, and tens of thousands flocked to league councils and similar local groups. League speakers offered instruction on the mechanics of voting, and the councils were generally effective in disseminating basic information. For freedmen, the main social concerns were plantation practices like gang labor, which was little different from slavery, and the Black Codes, laws that placed restrictions on almost every aspect of poor black farm workers’ lives. The organization’s Republican sponsors had narrow political goals, but many Alabama councils responded to agrarian grievances as well. Talk of land redistribution reportedly circulated freely in the leagues.
The resulting protests and social unrest among freedpeople contributed to disastrously poor harvests in the years after the war. Thus the extension of voting rights to blacks came at a crucial moment, as the centralized plantation system gave way to decentralized tenant farming—especially family-based “sharecropping.” The league mobilized virtually the entire male black population and thus contributed to the broader shift in agricultural practices.
In the early organization of Alabama’s Republican party, the league also functioned as an informal caucus of the “Radicals,” and its leaders were prominent in drafting the Reconstruction constitution of November 1867. However, in 1868, the terrorist Ku Klux Klan group and its offshoots effectively shut down the organization, assaulting or killing several prominent activists, including Daniel H. Bingham of Athens. In Sumter County alone, state representative George Houston and several other black league leaders were shot, and others, including representative Richard Burke, were killed. In all, at least 15 league activists met violent deaths between 1868 and 1871.
In this climate, the league’s Republican sponsors concluded that the secret organization had served its purpose, and it was formally abolished in Alabama in 1869. Vestiges of the organization survived locally, and it continued as a paper organization at the national level for decades. Though transient, the Union League recruited vast numbers of freedmen into the Republican party, and it also fomented lasting changes in the plantation system in Alabama and elsewhere.
Fitzgerald, Michael W. The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change during Reconstruction. 1989. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Storey, Margaret M. Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.