The Union League, created in 1863, was the first African American-mass-based political organization. It originated in the border slave states among white unionists at the outset of the Civil War and then spread north during the war and south during Reconstruction. The league encouraged freed people to use political action to achieve economic and social improvement. It met violent resistance from conservative whites, spurring its relatively rapid decline after 1868.
In 1861, white unionists in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and eastern Tennessee, hoping to counter the efforts of secessionist public officials, formed secret, oath-bound societies to aid the Union cause. Although not Republicans, they supported Lincoln during the war and generally endorsed radical war measures such as emancipation and the creation of African American regiments. In 1862, a Tennessee member introduced the league to Republicans in Pekin, Illinois. It spread slowly until midwestern newspaper editors and governors, in the wake of Republican losses in the midterm elections of 1862, adopted it as a way to reenergize the party. Meanwhile in eastern cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, patriotic members of the elite abandoned social clubs patronized by war critics and founded Union League clubs, which raised money for new regiments and the publication of prowar pamphlets. A meeting in Cleveland in May 1863 adopted a common constitution and ritual, creating the Union League of America. James M. Edmunds, a friend of Lincoln from Illinois who held a patronage appointment in the Land Office, became president, operating the organization from his Washington office. The league distributed copies of the ritual, constitution, and Republican literature, but its pleadings for chapter reports reveals a decentralized organization that could not enforce ideological consistency. Leagues formed among soldiers and sailors, African Americans, and ethnic groups such as Germans and, in some instances, moved beyond Lincoln's positions on confiscation of rebel property and race relations. Some leagues opposed colonization, encouraged the vigorous confiscation of slaves, and favored the use of black officers; other units took less radical positions. The league claimed over 700,000 members representing 4,554 councils in late 1863.
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, a radical who favored franchisement of African Americans, sent numerous treasury agents who were league members to the South during the war. Their efforts to establish new, usually segregated leagues among southern loyalists in anticipation of Reconstruction were assisted by military officers, black soldiers, missionaries, and agents of the newly established Freedmen's Bureau. Particularly in southern cities, African Americans adopted the leagues as a way to promote equal rights. White loyalists, however, often preferred disfranchisement of Confederates and military occupation to African American voting. The level of league organization varied considerably among states. In April 1867 with new legislation franchising freedmen passing in Congress, the league sent Thomas Conway, a New Yorker and longtime freedman's advocate, south with the goal of introducing the league to every southern county. Arguing that the league would promote intelligent voting, respect for laws, and middle-class virtues of order and sobriety, league leaders hoped to blunt white opposition.
Paid agents, black and white, blanketed the South. The league mushroomed in rural areas among the African American population. Assembling secretly at member's homes, churches, or even outdoors under the protection of