The organization spread south during and after the war, attracting some members from the southern Unionist faction but mostly from among the millions of newly freed African Americans. The attraction of the Union Leagues was partly fraternal, with meetings marked by elaborate rituals, singing, and patriotic proclamations.
Union Leagues sprang into existence across South Carolina and the South in the years immediately following the end of the Civil War. Sometimes called Loyal Leagues, the postwar league descended from the Union League of America, a patriotic club formed in the North by hard-core Republicans during the war. The organization spread south during and after the war, attracting some members from the southern Unionist faction but mostly from among the millions of newly freed African Americans. The attraction of the Union Leagues was partly fraternal, with meetings marked by elaborate rituals, singing, and patriotic proclamations. The primary mission of the leagues, however, was the political education of the freedmen. League meetings discussed the leading issues of the day, such as public education, voting rights, land reform, labor contracts, and debt relief. League leaders also recommended candidates for public office who best pursued the interests of league members. These activities were vital in attracting newly enfranchised black voters to the ranks of the Republican Party.
Union Leagues were active in South Carolina as early as late 1866 and played a significant role in state politics in 1867 and 1868. In October 1867 the Charleston Daily News reported the presence of no fewer than eighty-eight league organizations in South Carolina, which had enrolled “every Negro almost in the state.” This network of Union Leagues was key to the election of Republican Robert K. Scott to the governor’s chair in 1868. Almost as quickly as it had come into existence, however, the Union League movement rapidly faded from the state’s political landscape. With the establishment of the Republican Party in South Carolina, grassroots organizations such as the league were no longer needed to build party strength. In addition, Union Leagues became a particular target of the Ku Klux Klan in the years following 1868, which further hastened their demise. Although they had largely disappeared from South Carolina by 1870, Union Leagues nevertheless had been an important means by which freedmen entered politics and staked their claim to citizenship in the postbellum South.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Silvestro, Clement Mario. “None but Patriots: The Union Leagues in Civil War and Reconstruction.” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1959.
Simkins, Francis Butler, and Robert Hilliard Woody. South Carolina during Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
Sweat, Edward F. “The Union Leagues and the South Carolina Election of 1870.” Journal of Negro History 61 (April 1976): 200–214.