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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-rev...@lists.h-net.org>
Date: Sun, Feb 9, 2020 at 10:19 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Nationalism]: Zander on Taylor, 'The Most Complete
Political Machine Ever Known: The North's Union Leagues in the American
Civil War'
To: <h-rev...@lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revh...@mail.h-net.org>

Paul Taylor.  The Most Complete Political Machine Ever Known: The
North's Union Leagues in the American Civil War.  Civil War in the
North Series. Kent  Kent State University Press, 2018.  xiv + 322 pp.
 $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-353-0.

Reviewed by Cecily Zander (Pennsylvania State University)
Published on H-Nationalism (February, 2020)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera

Joining the growing tide of literature concerned with understanding
nationalism in the Civil War-era North, Paul Taylor's _The Most
Complete Political Machine Ever Known: The North's Union Leagues in
the American Civil War_ offers a detailed analysis of the creation
and maintenance of one of the war's least understood
institutions--Union Leagues. Union Leagues--private (sometimes
secret) clubs formed by civilians interested in expressing their
support for the Union cause, cultivating patriotic attitudes, and
policing treasonous dissenters--were, according to Taylor, "the
North's _primary_ arbiter of how loyalty and treason were defined" in
the loyal states during the conflict (p. 12). In the literature on
nationalism during the Civil War, a true study of these civilian-led
institutions has been absent, though much needed. By providing the
first full-length study of Union Leagues, Taylor offers historians a
chance to better understand how Civil War Americans understood
loyalty and treason, and, perhaps most critically, how they defined
and expressed the idea of the Union in the midst of a war of

Taylor's work builds on several recent studies in order to establish
the state of the field for studying civilians and their loyalties in
the Civil War-era North. Among the most important for understanding
the Civil War generation's baseline conception of the Union is Gary
W. Gallagher's _The Union War_ (2011). Gallagher's study took on the
challenge of synthesizing a scattered literature on Northern loyalty
during the conflict and argues that for the wartime generation the
preservation of the Union represented the paramount goal of the war.
Because the United States represented the "last, best hope" for a
successful democratic republic in a sea of monarchies and despotic
European regimes, Americans believed if they failed to sustain the
nation in the face of a secession threat, the democratic experiment
would be judged to have failed.[1] Taylor's depictions of the
political and social loyalties of Civil War Northerners, meanwhile,
are heavily informed by the studies of J. Matthew Gallman (_Defining
Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the
Union Home Front_ [2015]), Mark E. Neely Jr. (_The Union Divided:
Party Conflict in the Civil War North_ [2002]), and Adam I. P. Smith
(_No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North_ [2005]).

Taylor also relies on the work of scholars who have recently reopened
investigations into the legal and political questions of treason and
loyalty raised by the war. Critical for Taylor's treatment of the
question of treason is William A. Blair's _With Malice toward Some:
Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era _(2014). Blair's careful
analysis of the civilian North's response to secession helps explain
the rise of Union Leagues that hoped to use the printed word and
public condemnation to punish treason and reveal the activities of
traitors. Blair's research attempted to reconcile the widespread
sentiment he found among Northerners, which held that Southern states
had acted treasonously in leaving the Union, and the failure of the
Northern judicial system to respond to treasonous activity. Citizens,
Blair contends, often moved more swiftly than federal agents in
punishing traitors in their midst, forcing the government to rethink
its legal position on the question of treason. Taylor builds on
Blair's work by showing how quickly civilians escalated their crusade
against disloyalty--and how civilians came to believe that winning
the war for the Union depended as much on defeating secessionists at
home as it did on inflicting military defeats on the Confederacy.

Taylor begins his study with a brief overview of the antebellum
antecedents to Union Leagues. Almost all the institutions Taylor
identifies, regardless of geographical section, shared common traits,
including an economically elite membership and an affinity for secret
rituals. Prominent forebears of Union Leagues included the Free
Masons, the Nativist Know-Nothings, and the Wide Awakes, a youth
organization cultivated by the Republican Party to encourage young
voters to engage in the election of 1860. In the face of growing
sectional tensions, Taylor identifies the increasing politicization
of civilian societies. While the Union Leagues that emerged during
the war were not explicitly Republican, they did adopt the party's
adherence to the preservation of the Union as the war's ultimate

When historians of the Civil War trace civilian morale during the
conflict, they typically identify two major depressions in Northern
morale: one that stretched from the late summer of 1862 through the
spring of 1863 (resulting in dozens of Republicans losing their
congressional seats in the off-year elections of 1862) and a second,
far deeper morass, that emerged in the spring of 1864 and threatened
to destroy Abraham Lincoln's chances at reelection the following
November. These depressions correlated with the failure of Union
armies to achieve substantial victories in the war's eastern
theater--where a rotating cast of generals faced the intractable
Confederate commander Robert E. Lee. In response to the first of the
major declines in Union morale, following general George B.
McClellan's failure to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond
despite coming within fifteen miles of the city, the Lincoln
administration increased its demand for troops and Union Leagues
emerged across the North to identify, condemn, and oppose men who
attempted to avoid military service or expressed disloyalty to the

 Leading the way in setting the agenda for the newly forming Union
Leagues were the cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Taylor
explains that the men who formed pro-Union organizations in many of
the North's largest cities had deep connections to another wartime
institution, the United States Sanitary Commission, whose mission
involved supporting the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army
in an effort to raise morale among enlisted men and channel the
patriotic impulses of civilians who saw working with the commission
as a way to contribute time and money to the war effort. The clubs in
Boston, Philadelphia, and New York decided that their affiliations
would be with the Union, not the Republican Party. The primary goal
of each new club was to promote loyalty. Despite avoiding a partisan
stance in their charters, Taylor reveals, the leagues received the
backing of prominent members of the Lincoln administration, including
Secretary of State William H. Seward.

In tandem with the rise of the elite Union Leagues along the Eastern
Seaboard, many midwestern cities experienced a proliferation of the
clubs. Unlike their patrician eastern counterparts, pro-Union clubs
in the country's interior were open to any loyal man, regardless of
his personal wealth or social standing. Taylor explains that East
Coast Union Leagues were able to leverage the economic and social
status of their members to financially harm men deemed disloyal. If a
Union League decided that a man's words or actions had proven his
support for secession and the Confederacy, members would cancel
business contracts and terminate social friendships. These personal
attacks spread across the Northern business sector. Companies began
terminating employment contracts with men who were found to be
disloyal. Taylor suggests that the practice of threatening disloyal
men with economic consequences helped quash vocal anti-Union
sentiment in the North and ostracized Copperheads in the Northern
public imagination.

As their movement gained momentum, Union Leaguers turned to the
written word to distribute their message to a wider audience. Taylor
explains that several movements helped the leagues disseminate their
pro-war message, including the suppression of treasonous newspapers
by the army and the willingness of the postal service to work with
the leagues in conveying their pro-Union materials through the mail.
In examining hundreds of pamphlets and editorials, Taylor determines
that the literature disseminated by the Union Leagues aimed to
support the morale of troops and convey a message of support and a
reminder to disillusioned soldiers of their patriotic duty. As the
material spread across the North, Union Leagues gained control over
defining loyalty during the conflict. Taylor suggests that the broad
spectrum of men who organized clubs professing to support loyalty to
the nation, whether proletarian or patrician, had one belief in
common--"whoever is not with us is against us" (p. 135).

When Northern morale dipped again in the lead-up to the election of
1864, the Union Leagues prepared to wage a war on behalf of the
Republican Party. Though almost every club professed to abhor
partisanship, each organization embraced playing politics in order to
sustain the war effort. Every Northerner knew that the election would
mean the difference between continuing to wage the war to restore the
Union (the Republican platform) or ending the war and resulting in
permanent secession of the South (the Democratic agenda). Union
Leagues adopted several tactics during the election to help ensure a
Republican victory. Among the most important was the effort to allow
soldiers in the field to cast ballots. Union Leagues figured that
most men who wore blue uniforms would vote to reelect their commander
in chief (soldiers voted 3 to 1 for Lincoln over his opponent,
McClellan). Taylor suggests that great success of the Union Leagues
in distributing pro-administration, anti-Democratic propaganda and
limiting the distribution of Democratic materials helped to turn the
tide for the Republicans.

Taylor concludes with a chapter about the Union Leagues during
Reconstruction. The movement fizzled out in the decade following the
Civil War, Taylor argues, because initiatives to desegregate Union
clubs, who had welcomed newly freed African Americans to form
Southern chapters, led to their abandonment by whites who had never
fully embraced emancipation as a desirable outcome for the war. Thus,
Taylor concludes, the real importance of the Union Leagues lay in
their policing of treasonous and disloyal sentiments in the North
from 1862 to 1864. The major achievement of pro-Union organizers
proved to be their galvanization of the electorate in favor of
reelecting Lincoln. Leagues expertly manipulated the press and used
coercive measures to ostracize anti-Union individuals.

Taylor's conclusions offer good fodder for historians of Civil War
nationalism to consider as they continue to refine our understanding
of how loyalty and patriotism helped to define the politics and
prosecution of the conflict. Taylor suggests in his concluding
paragraphs that Union Leagues prompted the federal government to
action in better defining the law during a time of war. Union Leagues
had independently policed what they internally deemed to be
treasonous speech and disloyal action. Through their efforts to
define loyalty, they aided, Taylor claims, in transitioning the
nation from an autonomous collection of states into a republic where
power rested primarily in the hands of the federal government. The
new Union the leagues helped to shape thus looked radically different
than the one they had defended during the war.

Taylor's work will be of interest to a range of scholars, most
especially those interested in how laws governing censorship, freedom
of speech, and treason can be bent or reshaped in times of war. Wars
offer historians an unmatched platform for understanding
nationalism--as it is during periods of conflict that citizens are
forced to articulate and define their loyalties and conceptions of
the state. Taylor's study should prompt historians to take careful
note of the irony in that fact. Wars are exceptional and
understanding nationalism in the context of conflict can lead
historians to make claims that are exceptional. _The Most Complete
Political Machine Ever Known _strikes a commendable balance between
the fallacy of claiming more than evidence allows and the assured
argument that studying the activities of Union Leagues can allow
historians to see how the Civil War forced loyal Northerners to
define and defend their conception of Union, while also acknowledging
the sometimes violent, often coercive, measures undertaken in defense
of those ideas.


[1]. Roy P. Basler, Marion Dolores Pratt, and Lloyd A. Dunlap, eds.,
_The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln_, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press, 1953), 5:537.

Citation: Cecily Zander. Review of Taylor, Paul, _The Most Complete
Political Machine Ever Known: The North's Union Leagues in the
American Civil War_. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54851

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart
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