The Union Leagues were quasi-secretive, men’s clubs established during the American Civil War (1861–1865), to promote loyalty to the Union of the United States of America, the policies of newly elected 16th President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865, served 1861–1865), and to combat what they believed to be the treasonous words and actions of anti-war, antiblack "Copperhead" Democrats. Though initially nonpartisan, by the war's last year they were in open alliance with the Republican Party, pro-Union Democrats, and the Union military. The most famous of these clubs were formed in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston and were composed of prosperous men who raised money for war-related service organizations, such as the United States Sanitary Commission, which provided medical care to treat Federal soldiers wounded in battle at a time when the military was ill-prepared for the scale of need. The clubs supported the Republican Party with funding, organizational support, and activism. Union Leagues also existed throughout the land which were created primarily by working-class men. By the spring of 1863, these disparate councils were organized under the Union League of America (ULA) organization which was headquartered in Washington DC. Like-minded organizations aimed at the working class were also created in New York which became known as Loyal Leagues. Similar patriotic organizations also existed for women and were known as Ladies Union Leagues.
In December 1862, the Union League of Philadelphia was the first of the elite eastern Leagues to be established, though the first ULA council had formed in Pekin, Illinois in the summer of 1862. The famous Union League of Philadelphia building on Broad Street in center city Philadelphia, south of City Hall was built in 1865, and is designed in the Victorian style. It is still active, as are the Union League Clubs of New York and Chicago. Membership in the league is selective, and is comparable in social status to membership in a country club. Union League buildings often serve as private social clubs, with areas devoted to drinking establishments, meetings, lectures, libraries, dinners/banquets, speeches/addresses, socializing and relaxing, etc.
During the Reconstruction era, Union Leagues were formed across the South after 1867 as working auxiliaries of the Republican Party, supported entirely by Northern interests. They were secret organizations that mobilized freedmen to register to vote and to vote Republican. They taught freedmen Union views on political issues and which way to vote on them, and promoted civic projects. Eric Foner reports:
- By the end of 1867 it seemed that virtually every black voter in the South had enrolled in the Union League, the Loyal League, or some equivalent local political organization. Meetings were generally held in a black church or school.
The Ku Klux Klan was a secret organization of whites that resisted what they saw as the excesses of Reconstruction. They sometimes terrorized and even assassinated Union League leadership. Founder Nathan Bedford Forrest grew uneasy about the group’s tendency to lawlessness, and disbanded it in the late 1860’s.
After the Civil War, members of the Union League Club of New York broadened their support of other philanthropic purposes. For instance, they helped to found the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and funded construction of the Statue of Liberty's pedestal and Grant's Tomb.
Some former Union League buildings have been adapted for other uses; for instance, in Brooklyn, New York, the former Union League Club building now serves as a senior citizens' home. The former Union League building in New Haven, Connecticut is used as a restaurant.
In the post-World War II period, members of the Union League Club of Chicago raised contributions to found the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation in 1949 as a public, not-for-profit charitable and educational organization. The Foundation's mission is one of community enrichment.
- Eric Foner, "Black Reconstruction Leaders at the Grass Roots" in Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds. (1991). Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. p. 221.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Mitchell Snay (2010). Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction. LSU Press. p. 61.
- Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003). pp 165-205
- John K. Howat, "Founding friends – of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York", The Magazine Antiques, January 2000 issue.
- National Park Service Statue of Liberty website Archived August 31, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Landmark Architecture of Crown Heights North", Gothamist Archived 2006-08-21 at the Wayback Machine, July 20, 2006.
- Union League Cafe website Archived February 1, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
- Union League Civic and Arts Foundation
- Petterchak 2003, p. 11
- Union League of Philadelphia. The League, 1909
- Taylor, Paul (2018) "The Most Complete Political Machine Ever Known": The North's Union Leagues in the American Civil War. Kent, Oh.: Kent State Univ. Press.
- Fitzgerald, Michael W. (1989) The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change During Reconstruction
- Fleming, Walter L. (1905) Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama, New York: Macmillan, pp 553–59
- the most detailed study, full text online at the Gutenberg Project at link above
- Foner, Eric (1988) Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, , pp. 283–86
- Lawson, Melinda (2002) "The Civil War Union Leagues and the Construction of a New National Patriotism", Civil War History Volume: 48. Issue: 4, pp. 338+.
- Lawson, Melinda (2002) Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North
- Silvestro, Clement M. (1966) Rally Round the Flag: The Union Leagues in the Civil War
- Tremel, Andrew T. (Winter 2013) "The Union League, Black Leaders, and the Recruitment of Philadelphia's African American Civil War Regiments," Pennsylvania History, 80, pp. 13–36.
- Primary sources
- Fleming, Walter L. (ed.) (1906) Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational, and Industrial vol 2 pp 1–29.
- Loyal National League of the State of New York (1863) The Great Questions of the Times: The Great Mass Meeting of the League and Other Loyalists at Union Square, New York
- complete text online at link above