The infamous Union League movement originated in the secret fraternities of mid-1850s anti-immigrant Know Nothing lodges, later becoming a political party and which merged with the Republicans. New members had to be voters and recite a pledge of allegiance in elaborate rituals of burning incense, US flags and the Bible. Each swore to “sustain the existing [Republican] administration in putting down the enemies of the government and to thwart the designs of “traitors and dis-loyalists.”
Prior to Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, the Republican party disguised itself as a “Union” party to paint Democratic opposition with disloyalty. The Union League later moved into the occupied and conquered South to organize freedmen into the League and Republican party.
That freedmen vote enabled Grant’s slim victory over Democrat Horatio Seymour in 1868, and helped maintain Republican political hegemony.
Immaculate Patriots and Crude Partisans
“The first Union League was founded in Pekin, Illinois by a Republican Party activist, George F. Harlow. As war weariness deepened, and the restraint that had held back dissenters in the early months of the war fell away, loyal Republicans became alarmed by the resurgence in support for the Democratic Party.
To combat this, they formed a secret society “whereby true Union men could be known and depended on in an emergency.” The new movement gained the support of Illinois Governor Richard Yates . . . Traveling agents administered the league’s oath to local political leaders and provided the new councils with league chapters. By the end of 1864 the Leagues claimed more than a million members.
In the face of what many [Lincoln] administration supporters saw as organized disloyalty from the Democratic Party and its allies, the leagues put into practice the exhortation from John Forney’s Philadelphia Press. In May 1863, the Press urged that the North unite “by any means” and called on Unionists to “silence any tongue that does not speak with respect of the cause and the flag.” The League’s existed, they proclaimed, “to bind together all Loyal men, of all trades and professions, in a common union to maintain the power, glory and integrity of the Nation.”
A nonpartisan style colored every utterance of these organizations . . . [pledging] that their only object is to unite to support the National Government in its efforts to suppress the rebellion now being waged against its authority by a portion of the people of the Union, and not to create a political party.
Union Leagues institutionalized the denial of legitimate partisanship by conflating political opposition to the Union Party with disloyalty to the United States. [The] Leagues quickly established themselves as a powerful political force [to advance] a radical agenda. “The triumph of the Union League is complete,” concluded an editorial in the Chicago Tribune after the Union League of America persuaded Lincoln to remove a conservative general, John M. Schofield, from command of the western Department.
The League’s construction of a patriotic national community – the claim to be the “real” nation – alienated their opponents as surely as it enthused their supporters. Samuel J. Tilden, a wealthy New York railroad lawyer . . . complained to a correspondent in June 1863 that the Union League’s were creating a climate in which it was impossible for normal political campaigns to take place.
Another Democrat, David Turnure, also resented the administration’s demand that he should give “unhesitating fealty to and unquestioning endorsement of all their acts.” To him, the “immaculate patriots” who carped about loyalty were simply crude partisans, who had “abolitionized” the government and were now subverting the Constitution “under the sacred mantle of patriotism.”
Even stronger words came from Maryland Democrat, Severn Teackle Wallis . . . [who wrote to Republican] Senator John Sherman in early 1863. “You have . . . borrowed from the vocabulary of despotism the name “disloyalty,” he thundered. Such a word was “not known to free institutions” but had been created by Unionists to describe the activities of those who “question . . . the wisdom . . . or, if need be, resist the corruption and usurpation of those who temporarily hold and prostitute power.”
(No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North, Adam I. P. Smith, Oxford University Press, 2006, excerpts pp. 68-71)