Union League

By: Carl H. Moneyhon

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: March 24, 2021

The Union League, also known as the Loyal Union League, Union Loyal League, and Loyal League, was a secret organization formed in the North in 1863 to bolster northern morale and support the policies of President Abraham Lincoln. Texas Unionists in exile formed a chapter at New Orleans before the end of the Civil War. William Alexander was chairman of the group's executive committee. Returning exiles brought the league to Texas with them in the summer of 1865. They joined with local Unionists to form local league councils. The first known council was the Loyal Union Association of Galveston, headed by Colbert Caldwell of Navasota. The association's purpose was political, and its members pledged to vote for no one who had freely supported the Confederacy and to support only Union men for public office. In the election of 1866 the Union League supported gubernatorial candidate Elisha M. Pease against the Democratic candidate, James W. Throckmorton. The league did not achieve the organization its leaders sought, and it proved ineffective. This lack of organization and the fact that Blacks could not vote contributed to Pease's decisive defeat.

In 1867 the newly established Republican party of Texas used the league to organize and mobilize Black voters enfranchised under the provisions of congressional Reconstruction. With its secret meetings and elaborate ritual, the league was an effective tool in providing identity and cohesion to the Republican voters. After Gen. Philip H. Sheridan removed Throckmorton from the office of governor on July 30, 1867, and replaced him with Pease, local league councils also became clearinghouses for identifying men for appointments to political office by the military. During the Constitutional Convention of 1868–69 rival factions of White Republicans within the convention struggled for control of the league. The league controlled Black votes, and control over the league ensured power in the state. The split was between the followers of Andrew Jackson Hamilton and Pease on the one hand and Edmund J. Davis and Morgan Hamilton on the other. The issues that divided them included the ab initio question, disfranchisement, division of the state, and support of the new state Constitution. At the annual Union League convention at Austin on June 25, 1868, the followers of Davis and Morgan Hamilton gained control of the league when they elected a Black man from Galveston, George T. Ruby, as its first state president. Ruby, an educated northern Black, pushed for immediate steps to end racial violence in the state and opposed the enfranchisement of former Confederates. As the leading Black spokesman in Texas, he remained influential in Republican party politics throughout Reconstruction because of his power within the league, and lent important political strength to Edmund J. Davis.

The league's most important political action took place in 1869, when its leaders influenced the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant to throw his support to Davis in his race against A. J. Hamilton for governor. James G. Tracy of Houston, who became the state grand president of the league in the summer of 1869, was chiefly responsible for turning the national Republicans away from Hamilton. In the state election held in November 1869 local councils organized behind Davis. The organization proved most effective in the state's Black counties. Despite the victory of Davis, however, the league was never fully organized in most of the state. On May 15, 1870, the league held its fourth state meeting at Austin, where it attempted a broader organization. At that meeting Secretary of State James P. Newcomb became the grand president. He held this position during the rest of the league's existence. As president, Newcomb used the league to support the policies of Governor Davis. He also tried to bring more Republicans, especially Blacks, into the league. But his efforts produced few tangible results; the league was always stronger in the eyes of its opponents than it ever was in fact.

During the congressional election of 1871 factions within the Republican party fought for control of the league, hoping to gain power over party machinery. A bolting wing of Republicans, led by state treasurer George W. Honey and others, attempted to replace Newcomb. At a state convention in Austin on July 7, the dissidents elected Johnson Reed, a Black justice of the peace from Galveston, as grand president. Newcomb withstood this assault on his control with the support of national leaders of the league. The result of such in-fighting, however, limited the effectiveness of an already weak organization. After the 1871 election the Davis administration abandoned the league because it could not always be relied upon. As the principal party unit at the local level, the league had become a base for strong county and district machines, which were frequently independent of the state leadership. State officials could never be sure of county league loyalty, and they did not have the means to demand it. In 1872 the league was replaced by a new group known as the National Guard. In 1873 Republican leaders used a similar secret club, organized along military lines. Opponents of the Davis administration, however, generally ignored these changes and referred to all Republican clubs as the Union League. The Union League faded under increased suppression during and after the gubernatorial election of 1873, in which Richard Coke defeated the incumbent, E. J. Davis.

Carl H. Moneyhon, Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980). James Smallwood, Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans during Reconstruction (London: Kennikat, 1981).

Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Carl H. Moneyhon, “Union League,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/union-league.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 24, 2021