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

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

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

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.’


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