A striking building in a city of arresting architecture, the Union League of Philadelphia building stands at 140 South Broad Street in the heart of Center City. It was completed in 1865 and features a French Renaissance design.
The story of the League began in December 1862 when two weeks after the crushing Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dr. J. Forsythe Meigs held an organizational meeting for a “Union Club” at his Walnut Street home. Members dedicated themselves to upholding the Constitution and to supporting President Abraham Lincoln’s often unpopular policies. Lincoln’s vigorous measures to stifle disloyalty alienated many northerners already fatigued by a protracted war. Union Leagues (a.k.a. Loyal Leagues), including the Philadelphia chapter, lent their unwavering patriotism to a weary chief executive and to a grueling war effort. By the time of the Philadelphia Union Club’s founding, the pro-war enthusiasm of 1861 had dissipated. The peace wing of the Democratic Party enjoyed considerable strength in the city. Unconditional Unionists were disturbed. During the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in June-July 1863, lawyer and political essayist Sidney George Fisher wrote that in Philadelphia “the people looked careless & indifferent,” demoralized by popular rhetoric that portrayed the war as unwinnable (quoted in Weigley 408).
The Union Club sought to reinvigorate Unionist fervor. Originally limited to fifty members of Philadelphia’s aristocracy, the organization rechristened itself the Union League and expanded its membership to several thousand by the end of the Civil War. The League functioned as a society for the burgeoning business class being ushered in by rapid industrialization. Members supported many efforts on the home front, including the United States Sanitary Commission’s commitment to improving health conditions in military camps and hospitals. At the USSC Fair in 1864, the Philadelphia League raised money for wounded and disabled soldiers. Its Committee on Employment located jobs for thousands of veterans and widows.
Other Union Leagues sprouted up throughout the North and loyal areas of the South during the second half of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, ex-slaves and white Republicans in the former Confederate states formed leagues (although rarely together) in order to facilitate black voter registration and support for the Republican Party.
Today the Philadelphia Union League retains its philanthropic mission. Its 3,000 members are leaders in the realms of business, education, religion, the arts, healthcare, and technology.
- “History/Foundations: Timeline.” 2006. The Union League of Philadelphia. http://www.unionleague.org/timeline.php (accessed 10 July 2006).
- Weigley, Russell F., Ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
- Lawson, Melinda. “The Civil War Union Leagues and the Construction of a New National Patriotism.” Civil War History. 48, no. 4 (2002): 338-364.