Union Leagues

THE TRAGIC ERA, by Claude Bowers

Pgs 198-205



In the autumn of 1866, and through the winter and summer of 1867 strange men from the North were flocking into the black belt of the South, and mingling familiarly with the negroes, day and night. These were the emissaries of the Union League Clubs of Philadelphia and New York that have been unfairly denied their historic status in the consolidation of the negro vote. Organized in the dark days of the war to revive the failing spirit of the people, they had become bitterly partisan clubs with the conclusion of the struggle; and, the Union saved, they had turned with zest to the congenial task of working out the salvation of their party. This, they thought, depended on the domination of the South through the negro vote. Sagacious politicians, and men of material means, obsessed with ideas as extreme as those of Stevens and Sumner, they dispatched agents to turn the negroes against the Southern whites and organize them in secret clubs.

Left to themselves, the negroes would have turned for leadership to the native whites, who understood them best. This was the danger. Imperative, then, that they should be taught to hate —and teachers of hate were plentiful. Many of these were found among the agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and these, paid by the Government, were devoting themselves assiduously to party organization on Government time. Over the plantations these agents wandered, seeking the negroes in their cabins, and halting them at their labors in the fields,’ and the simple-minded freedmen were easy victims of their guile. One of the State Commissioners of the Bureau assembled a few blacks behind closed doors in a negro’s hut, and in his official capacity informed them that the Government required their enrollment in political clubs. Thus the Bureau agents did not scruple to employ coercion.

Orators were needed as well as organizers, for open agitation was as essential as quiet management, and soon the lowest types of the abandoned whites were being sent into the South to arouse the passions of the negroes with incendiary speeches. The Bureau agents summoned them to meetings in the fields at night. ‘My friends,’ the orator would say, ‘you’ll have your rights, won’t you?’ ‘Yes!’ shouted the eager freedmen. ‘Shall I go back to Massachusetts and tell your brothers there that you are going to ride in the street cars with white ladies if you please?’ ‘Yes!’ came the thundering response. ‘That if you pay your money to go to the theater, you will sit where you please, in the best boxes if you like?’ And the negroes would clap their hands and shout an affirmative reply) In North Carolina, Holden, the former Governor, was exciting their cupidity with false hopes. The year before, the State had raised one hundred thousand bales of cotton. ‘Whose labor made this cotton? Who got the money?’

More vicious, however, were the imported agitators ‘of the lowest character, destitute of principles,’ such as ‘Colonel’ James Sinclair, the ‘fighting parson,’ a Uriah Heep of humility, mingling socially with the negroes, and promising them the division of the white man’s acres among the blacks if they would vote the Republican ticket. One night he urged the negroes to hate their former masters and treat them with insolence and contempt, and under the exhilaration of his harangue, a negro speaker said that within ten years the problem would be what the blacks would do with the Southern whites. ‘If my colored brother and myself touch elbows at the polls,’ cried a carpetbagger in Louisiana, ‘why should not his child and mine stand side by side in the public schools?’

No imported emissary of hate and sedition surpassed the notorious James W. Hunnicutt of Virginia, a South Carolina scalawag, long a preacher, and later editor of a religious paper, who once owned slaves, voted for secession, and deserted the army to become a party leader and editor of the ‘Richmond New Nation,’ which exerted a dangerous influence over the negroes. At the moment the freedmen were refusing work, to meander about in threatening groups, and linger around the whiskey shops, it was Hunnicutt who advised them in a speech: ‘There is corn and wheat and flour and bacon and turkeys and chickens and wood and coal in the State, and the colored people will have them before they will starve.’ The gaping audience liked the sentiment and cheered wildly. On another occasion Hunnicutt aroused enthusiasm with another characteristic sentiment: ‘Yea, we would turn over Africa right into America if necessary, and those thick-lipped, flat-nosed, wooly-haired people that now swarm those sunny shores should be brought here as Irishmen from Ireland and in the same time be fitted for suffrage] just as well.’ What though the ‘New York Herald’ denounced such sentiments as ‘wicked and dangerous,’ Hunnicutt was doing his work well.

Soon the imitative negroes rivaled the instructors from the North in abuse and in exaggerated demands, and one of them, speaking for the Union League at Chattanooga, advised his race to ‘know the true thing in politics’ from ‘such men as Brownlow’ and to ‘teach your children. . that they may grow up big-mouthed Radicals.’ ~ When it was not yet certain that suffrage would be granted, Hunnicutt had shocked the staid people of a Northern city with the unclerical declaration that ‘if the next Congress does not give us universal suffrage we will roll up our sleeves, pitch in, and have the damnedest revolution the world ever saw.’ And now that the revolution had come, the passions, cupidity, hates of the negroes were being aroused and constantly fed. Everywhere a new spirit of arrogance had been awakened. When an old plantation preacher told his race that the former masters were the blacks’ best friends, a Radical paper noted that ‘there was no little muttering in the crowd.’’ Soon the whites, especially on remote plantations, were gravely apprehensive, amid an English woman living in Georgia could see nothing hut tragedy ahead with the governing forces ‘exciting the negroes to every kind of insolent lawlessness.’ Then it was that the rioting began. At Norfolk, when the negroes marched belligerently through the streets rattling firearms, the races clashed, with two fatalities on each side. In Richmond, the blacks, determined to ride with the whites, rushed the street cars, and troops were necessary to restore order. In New Orleans, where separate cars were provided, the negroes demanded the right to use the cars of the whites, who appealed to General Sheridan, without avail, and the blacks triumphed, and immediately demanded mixed schools and a division of the offices. It was under these conditions that the Union League was pushing the political organization of the freedmen, with the active aid of Bureau agents and a flock of ministers from the North, and Methodist pulpits were being converted into political rostrums. ‘Old Methodist,’ writing of the quarterly meeting, to the ‘McMinnville Enterprise,’ boasted that his church was as effective in making ‘loyal men’ as the secret societies. ‘Show me a Northern Methodist,’ lie wrote, ‘and I will show you a loyal citizen.’ Then, he concluded, let all the negroes and Radicals join the flock of Wesley.


Soon the Northern demagogues were carrying their satchels into the paradise of the carpetbaggers, to accentuate the distrust and hatred of the races, and Welles was complaining that Senator Henry Wilson was ‘stirring up the blacks, irritating and insulting the whites.’ But Wilson was the least offensive of the visitors, having been sent on a mission of conciliation to obliterate, if possible, the wretched impression made by the incendiary appeals of Hunnicutt. True, he appealed to the negroes to affiliate with the Republican Party, but he hoped also to gain the adherence of the Old-line Whigs. Unhappily the effect of his tour was to send others of less moderate views into the South, and soon ‘Pig Iron’ Kelley was fleeing in deadly fear from a howling Mobile mob that resented his brand of incendiarism. He had spoken in the loose, violent manner of the Northern Radical, inflaming both races and precipitating a riot he was afterward to trace to ‘a recreant Northerner.’ Returning North, a bit embarrassed by the notoriety, he had given glowing accounts of the superiority of negro genius and eloquence, for he had found among the blacks ‘one of the most remarkable orators in the United States,’ ‘and, in North Carolina, the ablest popular orator in the State,’ and had met a negro shoemaker who ‘had more sense than his master, though he was a Judge.’ This extravagance, republished by the carpetbag papers of the South, increased the growing arrogance of the blacks.

Meanwhile, day and night, Union League organizers were rumbling over the country roads drawing the negroes into secret clubs. There was personal persuasion in cotton fields, barrooms, and negro cabins, and such perfect fraternization that the two races drank whiskey from the same bottle, and the wives of some of the whites played the piano for the amusement of their black sisters. At every negro picnic, carpetbaggers mingled with the men and danced with the negro women. The time was short. An election was approaching. One July night in 1867, the fashionable Union League Club of New York, with the aristocratic John Jay in the chair, listened approvingly to a report from an organizer sent to Louisiana; and Mr. Jay announced that this was ‘part of the Republican programme for the next presidential campaign.’ The organizer in ninety days had established one hundred and twenty clubs, embracing ‘whites and blacks who mingled harmoniously together.’ It was an inspiration. Why, asked one member of the Union League Club, should not a club be established in every township in the South?

A master psychologist, familiar with the race, had devised the plan of organization. Night meetings, impressive, flamboyant ceremonies, solemn oaths, passwords, every possible appeal to the emotions and senses, with negroes on guard down the road to challenge prowlers, much marching and drilling — all mystery. And then incendiary speeches from Northern politicians promising the confiscation of the white man’s land. Discipline, too — iron discipline. Intimidation, likewise — the death penalty for voting the Democratic ticket. Strangers arriving mysteriously in the night with warnings that the native whites were deadly enemies. Promises of arms, too — soon to be fulfilled. And the negroes moved as a race into the clubs. And woe to the negro who held back, or asked advice of an old master. This, they were taught, was treason to race, to party. Persuasion failing, recourse was had to the lash, and many a negro had welts on his back. One stubborn black man found a notice posted on his door: ‘You mind me of the son of Esaw and who sold his birth Right for one mossel of meat, and so now you have sold your wife and children and yourself for a drink of Liquers and have come to be a Conservative bootlicker. Tom I would not give a damn for your back in a few days; you Conservative.’

Many were coerced through the agreement of negro women neither to marry nor associate with men who were not members.’ Soon, nine tenths of the negroes were enrolled, oath-bound, impervious to reason, race-conscious, dreaming of domination. Soon, some of the Union or Loyal Leagues were refusing admission to whites, and others were quietly arming.

A busy summer, that of 1867. Crassly ignorant or depraved organizers were exciting the passions of the blacks in Texas, and in Alabama luring them with promises of social equality, and winning one doubtful Benedict with the promise of a divorce, which was kept. Factions of the carpetbaggers worked at cross-purposes in Florida, competing in appealing mysteries and intimidations, with one group captivating the impressionable with initiations before a coffin and a skull, the leaders of the other rolling over the savage roads behind a mule team making personal contacts in the cabins. In North Carolina, under the leadership of Holden, the Leagues soon numbered eighty thousand members, who would soon make him Governor again. With sonic of the climbs converted into military companies drilling day and night in the highways, and with the understanding that fully a fourth were armed with pistols and bowie-knives, the white men lived in constant fear. Thus all over the South the consolidation of the blacks against the whites went on through the spring and summer.

To strengthen the incendiary speeches, inflammatory pamphlets were sent broadcast, on the strange theory that the negroes could read. Radical papers were established to accentuate the rapidly developing race antipathies. The Union League Clubs sponsored and published thousands of pamphlets, and Forney, of the ‘Washington Chronicle,’ advertised in the carpetbag press urging a large circulation of his paper among the blacks.’ One pamphlet, in the form of a catechism, set forth a favorite appeal:

Q. With what party should the colored man vote?

A. The Union Republican Party.

Q. What is the difference between Radicals and Republicans?

A. There is none.

Q. Is Mr. Sumner a Republican?

A. He is, and a Radical; so are Thad Stevens, Senator Wilson, Judge Kelley, Gen. Butler, Speaker Colfax, Chief Justice Chase, and all other men who believe in giving colored men their rights.

Q. Why cannot colored men support the Democratic Party?

A. Because that Party would disfranchise them, arid if possible return them to slavery and certainly keep them in inferior positions before the law.

Q. Would the Democrats take away all the negro’s rights?

A. They would.

Q. The colored men then should vote with the Republicans or Radical Party?

A. They should and shun the Democratic Party as they would the overseer’s lash and the auction block.

Lest the negroes had heard of the strong Republican States of the North voting down negro suffrage, another section was added:

Q. What is the reason that several of the Northern States do not give negroes the right to vote?

A. Chiefly because they have, in the past, been controlled by the Democratic Party.

These questions and answers were read over and over again to the blacks and drilled into their memories.


Out upon all this the brooding eyes of a strange woman looked critically from her plantation house of ‘Laurel Grove’ on the west side of the St. Johns River, near the village of Orange Park, Florida. Occasionally she wrote her observations to her brother in the North. ‘Corrupt politicians arc already beginning to speculate on

[the negroes] as possible capital for their schemes, and to fill their poor heads with all sorts of vagaries.’ One day she wrote the Duchess of Argyll in praise of Johnson and in criticism of the Radicals. ‘My brother Henry. . . takes the ground that it is unwise and impolitic to endeavor to force negro suffrage on the South at the point of the bayonet’ — and so thought the writer.

The lady writing from ‘Laurel Grove’ was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ who had taken up her residence in Florida in 1866.’