Sunday, July 15, 2018

Author Q&A - Paul Taylor and "The Most Complete Political Machine Ever Known"

Paul Taylor is the award-winning author of a number of well-received Civil War titles, among them Glory Was Not Their Companion: The Twenty-Sixth New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War (2005), He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning: The Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly), September 1, 1862 (2003), Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer (2009), and "Old Slow Town": Detroit during the Civil War (2013). His latest book is The Most Complete Political Machine Ever Known: The North's Union Leagues in the American Civil War (Kent St Univ Press, 2018). It covers an important topic that until now has not received the full attention it deserves and is the subject of this interview.

DW: Do we know when and where the first Union League chapter formed? Is any particular individual regarded as the group’s founder?

PT: Several disparate organizations existed prior to summer 1862 that utilized the words “Union League” in their name, including a politically conservative New York organization that existed for a year or so prior to the 1860 election but folded soon after Lincoln’s win. The first council to form under what became the national Union League of America umbrella group is credited to the Pekin, Illinois council (Tazewell County) in June 1862. It was formed by 12 local and prominent men, some of whom had previously experienced the ravages of being a Unionist in Confederate-held East Tennessee. No one man can claim to be the “founder” of the Civil War’s Union League movement.

DW: What did the leagues see as their primary mission(s)?

PT: Their primary mission was to promote unqualified loyalty toward the policies and decisions of the Lincoln administration. The Leagues argued that in the midst of a civil war where the nation’s survival was at stake, there was no differentiating between the government and the administration. They were one and the same. As one of the Constitution’s definitions of treason is offering “aid and comfort” to the enemy, any resistance to the administration’s policies – especially if that resistance was overt and subversive – surely afforded the rebels aid and comfort, since the Confederacy would learn of such dissent through easy access to Northern newspapers. Therefore, this opposition or even “conditional” support was equated with treason. For many of the smaller Midwestern Leagues, a second though no less important reason for their formation was for protection against anti-Lincoln (Copperhead) violence. They considered themselves not only a patriotic society but also an armed home guard.

DW: What sort of political propaganda activities did they engage in?

PT: As I point out in the Introduction, it’s important to note that I use the term “propaganda” in the more classical sense, defined simply as “the shaping of public opinion.” Through their quasi-affiliated Publication Societies, the Leagues sponsored, prepared, and disseminated hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and broadsides that varied between heartfelt pleas for support of the Lincoln administration as well as open hostility toward their political enemies. One excellent example was the modus operandi of the New England Loyal Publication Society (NELPS). It sent out scores of inexpensive broadsides free of charge to hundreds of small town pro-Lincoln newspapers throughout the North. These broadsides featured previously published, pro-Lincoln newspaper articles or editorials. Many of those newspaper editors often struggled for timely, front-page material and therefore welcomed the NELPS broadsides. Thus, the NELPS became the unseen co-editor for scores of Northern newspapers. Though the Union League movement initially described itself as nonpartisan, by the last year of the war they were an open arm of the Republican Party, with League members working diligently on the party’s behalf. By the way, this clear alliance with the Republican Party was viewed by the Leagues as a consequence, as those “properly loyal” Democrats were already supporting the war with full vigor. I liken the Leagues to a forerunner of the modern political action committee.

DW: You mention that the movement spread rapidly into cities, towns, and villages. Was there any kind of central organization?

PT: As the movement began to build in the second half of 1862 and early 1863, the small and mid-sized town councils realized the need for some manner of coordination. This resulted in what became known as the Cleveland Convention in May 1863, where the Union League of America was born with its national headquarters in Washington D.C. It’s also important to point out that the aristocratic and wealthy Union League of Philadelphia, the Union League Club of New York, and the Union Club of Boston – each formed in late 1862, early 1863 – all chose to maintain their autonomy, though there was ample cooperation amongst these three elite clubs and the nationalized ULA.

DW: Did the Union League model any of its recruitment, initiation rituals, or any other practices on those of past or existing secret/fraternal orders? Would league chapters be best described as open or closed organizations?

PT: Secretive fraternal organizations were extremely popular to 19th-century men. Popular examples include the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and the Sons of Temperance. Like the Masons, the Union Leagues utilized secret handshakes, signs, and passwords so that members might be known to each other in areas where loyalty to the Union was contested.

League chapters were closed in the sense that proposed new members were discussed and then voted on by existing members. Those who were refused membership were not told why they were declined though, in some cases, they were told if and when they might reapply. In the case of the Union Leagues, a new member’s initiation rite featured prayers, oaths, and song that was akin to a solemn religious ceremony.

DW: When did the Union Leagues reach their peak in membership and influence?

PT: Probably during the 1864 presidential campaign and election’s home stretch. By that point, the Union Leagues, related offshoots, and other smaller yet like-minded groups represented a million-man civilian army working on behalf of the Lincoln administration.

DW: Did members frequently engage in violence or other acts of political intimidation (for example, at polling places during major elections)?

PT: Sometimes. During an election, a polling place’s exterior ground was deemed a public space. Both sides often used burly men to intimidate those voters known to be sympathetic to the other side. Democrats also accused League men of gathering at local businesses to “warn” employees what a vote for Democrats could mean for their future employment. In addition, Democrats accused “Union Leaguers” of smashing and torching Democratic newspaper offices and presses.

DW: Union Leagues fiercely advocated unconditional support of the Lincoln administration and all of its war policies as a loyalty test, an extreme position that would obviously clash with conservative proslavery Unionist majorities in states like Missouri and Kentucky. Outside of obvious Republican strongholds (ex. the city of St. Louis), did Border State communities generally welcome or oppose Union League chapters and their activities?

PT: It all depended on the community’s overall sentiment. In areas where proslavery, anti-Lincoln sentiment was strong, a Union League council served as a means of collective support and protection for its members and their families. Moreover, Union League men often served as a form of civilian informers for the Union military as the army made its way through a particular area. In far west California, for example, Union generals viewed armed Union League men as a reliable civilian paramilitary force, to the consternation of local Democrats.

DW: Do you believe the Union Leagues collectively were instrumental to the success of Lincoln’s reelection campaign?

PT: Absolutely. These men served as campaign workers, stood on sidewalks and handed out pro-Lincoln newspapers, went door to door ensuring that the residents (or resident soldier in the field) was properly registered to vote with all pertinent taxes paid. They also worked tirelessly to recruit new members; by 1864 the Leagues’ leadership realized there was no difference between Union League membership and a Republican vote.

DW: What roles did women play in the organization?

PT: Like almost all political activities of the era, the Union Leagues were originally created as a male-only domain. By the spring of 1863, however, pro-Lincoln women saw what their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were creating and wanted to take part as well. Thus, what became known as Ladies Union Leagues were formed by patriotic women, particularly in the Midwest. They continued the home front war in ways that men could not, such as occasionally punching Democratic women and ensuring that local merchants were properly patriotic. Those merchants who were not were often boycotted.

DW: Presumably, membership rapidly dwindled at the war’s conclusion. What responsibilities did remaining league members take upon themselves during Reconstruction?

PT: Having won the Northern home front war, the nationalized Union League of America turned its eyes southward during Reconstruction with the objective of organizing freedmen. Its twin goals of racial political equality and Republican Party dominance went hand in hand. For many post-war Southerners, there was no difference between a northern Union League man and a “carpetbagger,” regardless of the former’s intentions. Those southern-born men who joined or were sympathetic to the Leagues were known as “scalawags.”

DW: When did the leagues finally cease operation (at least in the capacity of political action groups)? You mention in the book that some survive to this day as tony social clubs.

PT: The small town councils were the first to close up shop in the summer and fall of 1865; their reason for being having ended. The aristocratic Union Leagues in Philadelphia and New York, as well as Boston’s Union Club continued on – essentially as social clubs – and still exist to this day.

DW: Thanks, Paul.

1 comment:

  1. While researching for my book: “Kentucky Barracuda: Parker Hardin French (1826-1878)” I found a reference for the “Union League” of the south from the summer of 1861.
    Background: In the summer of 1861 Parker Hardin French, under the alias of Carlyle Murray, presented himself to Amos Lawrence, a prominent businessman and philanthropist in Boston. Lawrence was active in trying to save Tennessee, or at least the eastern portion, for the Union. Carlyle Murray impressed Lawrence that he was a loyal unionist from Kentucky who was connected to border state unionists and especially to leaders such as Parson Brownlow, Emerson Etheridge and Senator Andrew Johnson. Parker French, operating under another alias of “Charles Maxey”, was later arrested and accused of being a Confederate agent and as a seditionist member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. He was jailed in Fort Warren with the rest of the political prisoners.
    In Lawrence’s notes written in September, 1861: “He professed to be a strong Unionist and active in extending the “Union League” of the South.” There were also references to French supporting the “free state movement in the south.”
    Joe Goodbody


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