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Civil War Loyalty Flag

20-star United States Flag used in initiation ceremonies to the Union League, where members swore to protect the Union and its values, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 1862-1865.
(Museum object #1951.213)

Most Americans believe that the Civil War consisted of two sides—the North and the South; the Union and the Confederacy. In reality, Northerners who sympathized with the South complicated this picture. Even as far north as Wisconsin, political struggle flourished. There were no battles, in the traditional sense, but the warring political parties fought for prominence in Wisconsin and other northern states. Because of the increasing popularity of Peace Democrats, or "Copperheads," the name given to northerners who sympathized with the South, Union Leagues formed across the North to promote loyalty and suppress dissent. Prairie du Chien formed such a League in 1862 and its members swore their allegiance to the Union over this flag.

In a letter to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Prairie du Chien Union League president Horace Beach gave a succinct summary of the League and this flag's role in it. During member initiation the American flag lay over an altar, serving as a symbol of loyalty and the American Union. Beach wrote, "Upon this alter [sic] lay the holy Bible upon which over one hundred loyal citizens swore to maintain the constitution, laws and government of the United States with their influence, property and if need be with their lives." Beach went on to say the members' "influence was most excellent in suppressing disloyal sentiments and acts, and making it possible for loyal citizens to dwell here in peace."

The first Union League formed in Ohio in 1862, when Confederate military successes coupled with political unrest in the North caused many to doubt a Union victory in the war. The Ohio Union League thrived and soon similar leagues spread to more than eighteen northern states. According to historian Clement M. Silvestro, Union Leagues proposed "to combat and crush the Knights of the Golden Circle, Sons of Liberty, The Order of American Knights, and similar clubs associated with the Democratic Party."

During the Civil War the Democratic Party in the northern states had split into two groups—the War Democrats and the Peace Democrats. Most of the War Democrats sided with the Republican Party and supported the Civil War. The Peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads, were a vocal anti-war group that promoted a peace settlement with the Confederates.

According to the Union League's Wisconsin Constitution, the group existed to "preserve liberty and the union of the United States, maintain constitutionality and supremacy of the laws, and put down enemies of the government and thwart the designs of traitors and disloyalists." Union Leagues also helped raise troops, pay their expenses, gather and send supplies to the soldiers in the field, and create and distribute political literature.

Union Leagues in Wisconsin published several pamphlets and other forms of political literature that passionately expressed their positions. J.B. Smith, a leader of the Grand Council of the Union League of America (GCULA), State of Wisconsin, demanded in an 1863 pamphlet that Union Leagues "rally to the rescue! As you value the life of the nation and as you would prevent Southern foes and domestic traitors from being yours and your children's taskmasters for all time to come…as you love freedom, and hate slavery, fail not do your duty in this last struggle, and all will be well."

Another pamphlet circulated and published by Wisconsin's GCULA declared, "The highest duty of every American citizen is to maintain against all enemies the integrity of the Union and the paramount authority of the Constitution and the laws of the United States." The pamphlet also reminded its readers not to compromise with the rebels.

In Prairie du Chien, a group of Copperheads formed and took control of the only local newspaper. The Crawford County Courier originally had only slight Democratic leanings, but after acquiring the paper in April 1856, V.A.W. Merrell turned it into a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. In response to the Courier's Confederate sympathies, Prairie du Chien Republicans established The Union newspaper in early 1864.

The Union publisher James Greene proclaimed in the opening statement of the first issue that "in times of peril, like the present, each patriot desires to know the political whereabouts of those around him, whether they are patriots like himself, or traitors seeking the protection of the government in their efforts to give aid and comfort to the enemy, or cold and indifferent to the struggle which is working out our future destiny."

Zealous statements like these from Merrell, Smith, and others show that conflict between Unionists and Copperheads thrived in small-town Wisconsin. After the war, having served their purpose, Union Leagues died out across the county. The last known use of Prairie du Chien's loyalty flag was in April 1865, when the League hoisted it at half mast after President Lincoln's assassination. Thirty-one years later, Beach donated this 20-star American flag to the Wisconsin Historical Society as a war relic.

[Sources: Letter from Horace Beach to Rueben Gold Thwaites, July 9, 1896; "Union League of America," Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 27, 1911, available online at http://encyclopedia.jrank.org; Union League of America, Grand Council of Wisconsin. Constitution of the Grand Council of the U.L. of A. of the State of Wisconsin (probably Milwaukee, WI: The Grand Council, 1863); President of the Kenosha U.L.A. An Appeal: The Duty of Loyal Men (Wisconsin, c. 1864); Silvestro, Clement M. Rally Round the Flag: The Union Leagues in the Civil War (Lansing, MI: Historical Society of Michigan, 1967); Klement, Frank L. The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960).]

EJS


Posted on June 12, 2008

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