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Mourning Lincoln with the Union League

May 20, 2015 Think THF

Union Loyal League (alt)

We all have a unique and individual story, whether it started in this country before or after the Civil War, and the collective history of our past is the relevant ingredient that we all share. The social, political, technological, medical and scientific innovations from the Civil War were transformative and vast that serve as the foundation of the many attributes we still benefit from today.  As we get ready to celebrate Civil War Remembrance at The Henry Ford, we ask you to join us in honoring all veterans for their sacrifices and achievements in protecting, sustaining, and preserving the promise of the Constitution of the United States for “a more perfect Union.”

Brian Egen is Executive Producer at The Henry Ford.

Guests to Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village 2014 may have been surprised to find the Tintype Studio transformed into a living history exhibit for the weekend. The small building was outfitted as a period social club called the Loyal Union League, serving as a Lincoln campaign headquarters for the 1864 presidential race. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection to a second term in office and the exhibit explored how local Union Leagues throughout the country participated in the campaign.

The previous year, The Henry Ford's Executive Producer Brian Egen and Senior Manager of Creative Programs Jim Johnson, along with members of The Petticoat Society (a living history organization), discussed the creation of a special program and interpretative scenario utilizing the Tintype Studio building. This site, because of its proximity to activities taking place at the Pavilion, Town Hall and the Village Green, was a perfect location for visitors to step back in time and experience the excitement and uncertainty of the 1864 election season.

Who Are We?

The Petticoat Society is an independent living history group based in the Chicago area.  Established in 2008 by a group of like-minded historians and museum professionals with a personal interest in nineteenth and early twentieth-century domestic life and material culture, The Petticoat Society has a sincere desire to educate the public through authentic living history interpretation. Our members strongly believe living history is the most effective tool not only to teach ourselves about life in the past, but to engage the public, fostering meaningful connections to historic events and lives. We specialize in mid-nineteenth century and Civil War era impressions, tailoring our clothing, gear, demeanor, etc. to correspond to each event scenario.  Our impressions run the gambit from Confederate refugees/displaced persons to middle class workers to upper class society. We portray both Union and Confederate, rich and poor, educated and uneducated to suit the site’s specific interpretive needs. Through partnerships with other living history groups, museums, and historic sites our hope is for the average person to come away from our events with a renewed interest in history, finding relevance in the authentic stories of the past and inspiration for life in the present.

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History of the Union League

Union Leagues, also known as Loyal Leagues, were men’s clubs established during the American Civil War to promote loyalty to the Union, the Republican Party and the policies of President Abraham Lincoln.  Women’s leagues also existed and sometimes partnered to promote shared causes. Members were generally upper middle class individuals who funded and aided like-minded organizations such as the United States Sanitary Commission, Christian Commission, etc.  These efforts included providing medical supplies, care packages, refreshments, and other comforts to the troops. The Leagues soon took on a political stance and began to lobby for the Republican Party, with an increase in activism during the election of 1864. Many members held abolitionist beliefs which influenced the League’s backing of candidates who supported ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The establishment of Union Leagues drew influence from earlier Know-Nothing Party lodges.  These fraternal organizations were somewhat secretive with ritualistic practices including initiations, raising the flag, and oaths upon the Bible swearing loyalty to the political party. As the war drew into its second year, the Union League of Pekin, Illinois was established in 1862; becoming the first among many in the nation.  By December 1863, the Union League claimed almost one million members nationwide. By the end of the Civil War, membership in the Union League of America grew to two million.

Recreating the Loyal Union League

IMG_1607The public had the opportunity to walk into a recreated Loyal Union League building furnished much as it would have been based on the historical record. Members of The Petticoat Society referenced period photographs, engravings, and written descriptions of similar clubs to recreate the look of a historic interior. Large cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago boasted grand clubhouses for their members, built of costly materials and lavishly furnished in the latest fashion. Small towns may have set aside a separate building for the league, but these would be much humbler with simple yet comfortable furnishings for club members.

Had Greenfield Village been an actual town in 1864, its Loyal Union League may have been furnished rather modestly. Using this as our inspiration, The Petticoat Society gathered original artifacts and good reproductions from our personal collection to outfit the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio for the weekend. A mid-nineteenth century wood drop-leaf table was the central feature, staged with artifacts including original drinking flasks, smoking paraphernalia, and Civil War-era games such as dice, dominoes, poker chips and cards. An étagère on the south wall was laden with period political books and histories of the young nation, parian busts of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and cut glass whiskey decanters. Along the north wall, we provided a modest table for league members to dine in between campaign activities. At the front of the room, a small exhibit of artifacts included original patriotic silk rosettes, carte de visite photographs of President Lincoln, and a portrait of a Wide Awake in full uniform (Wide Awakes were another club that rallied for Lincoln’s election in 1860.) The exhibit was completed with reproduction campaign posters, banners, ballots, and poll books.

Premier event photography by KMS Photography

Guest Experience

Guests to the Loyal Union League were greeted by members of The Petticoat Society wearing white sashes painted with “Union” in blue and adorned with patriotic rosettes. Guests were offered a presentation on the history of the 1864 election and the formation of Loyal Leagues throughout the country, including their impact on the social and political climate during the American Civil War.

President Lincoln’s opponent, former General George McClellan, was running on a peace platform. He and half the Democratic Party were willing to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy, putting an end to the fighting, and allowing the Confederate States of America to exist as a separate nation permanently. The other half of the party, so-called War Democrats, believed the war should continue until the rebellion could be decisively put down and the secessionist states brought back into the union. This war platform closely resembled the view of Lincoln and his Republican Party. In an unprecedented political move, the Republican Party decided at its convention in Baltimore on June 8, 1864 to change its name to the National Union Party and invited the War Democrats to join them under the new banner. The Union Party ran a bipartisan ticket with Abraham Lincoln for president and a War Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, as vice president.

A broad political base would not be enough to secure Lincoln’s reelection, however. The American people needed a compelling reason to continue with the war. That would come in a military victory just prior to the election when General William T. Sherman and the Federal army captured Atlanta in September 1864. These two things, the bipartisan ticket and a decisive military victory, helped in winning over the voters and catapulted Lincoln to a second term.

A Nation Mourns

Mourning Badge, 1865 THF 8129

The country was riding high on Lincoln’s victory at the polls in November and the surrender of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia the following spring. Nobody could have foreseen the devastating tragedy to befall the president at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Having succumbed to his wound at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Lincoln’s assassination was a shock to the nation and its reaction reflected the deep sense of grief experienced by citizens. The Union League once again rallied to the aid of its now fallen leader, overseeing official funeral activities in many small towns across America.

Plans are in the works for Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village 2015 with a continuation of the Union League exhibit and commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death. We hope that you will join The Petticoat Society along with The Henry Ford by visiting Greenfield Village and the Loyal Union League this year as we mourn this significant loss, remembering Lincoln and the impact his legacy has made on our collective history.

Steve LaBarre is the head of adult services and reference for a public library. He is a historian, researcher, and author of Mid-19th Century United States History and the American Civil War.  Becky Young LaBarre is a museum professional at two historic house museums in Chicago’s Prairie Avenue Historic District- Glessner House (1887) and Clarke House Museum (1836).They reside in the south suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.

Civil War Remembrance

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