200 Years of Illinois: Union Forever

union league smallerIn 1862, as the Civil War raged and a Confederate victory seemed quite possible, many of the tensions unleashed by the war found a stage in Pekin. There, on June 25, a group of pro-Union men organized the Union League. This organization, dedicated to the Union and abolition, met secretly on that June day, in part because the pro-slavery, secessionist Knights of the Golden Circle had embarked on an intimidation campaign in the town.

Like many central Illinois towns, Pekin had for a long time leaned pro-slavery. Yet the town also (secretly) was home to Daniel Cheever, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well as other abolitionists, and an influx of freedom-minded German immigrants in the 1850s had slowly brought the forces of slavery and abolition into something more approaching balance.

The Knights of the Golden Circle, or KGC, had in that era become a nationwide phenomenon. Mark A. Lause described the KGC in his book A Secret Society History of the Civil War:

The first goal of the KGC had been “to Anglicize the fairest portion of the Western Continent” by seizing Mexico and the rest of “the golden circle.” This would “introduce Anglo-Saxon energy and American prudence among a people who have heretofore been incapable of self-government, and who are actually inviting them to come and teach them how to live and be happy.” The KGC aspired “to Americanize and Africanize Mexico; that is to say, that Americans shall take Mexico, and establish Slavery there, and open the slave trade.” Because the growing infusion of white blood into the existing slave population supposedly threatened its necessary manageability, the KGC advocated the resumption of the slave trade and a direct infusion of African blood.

South of the border, the KGC would “reduce the Peon system to Perpetual Slavery.” It would then divide the enslaved people “to have and hold forever” among the KGC members. Members of the third, second, and first degree of the KGC would get, respectively, a sixth, a third, and half of the slaves. In short, the KGC urged driving out the free blacks from the slaveholding states, particularly pushing those from Texas into Mexico, after which the order would impose Anglo-Saxon order on that country and reenslave them.

Not surprisingly, the head of the KGC, a populist charlatan named George W. L. Bickley, proposed himself as “limited monarch” of this new Mexico.

The Union League, like the KGC, spread widely. Dedicated to the Northern cause and to negating the presence not only of groups like the KGC but pro-compromise forces like the Copperheads, the Union League proved vital in boosting morale, raising funds, and consolidating Republican policies and abolitionist opinion across the North. Union Clubs maintained their pro-Republican tilt after the War ended while expanding into politics, civic improvement, and other areas of public life.

Pekin, meanwhile, continued to wrestle with its legacy. In 1923, the Ku Klux Klan bought the local newspaper for use as a propaganda organ, while Pekin was considered a sundown town long after the Civil Rights era ended. In fact, it remains one of the few Illinois cities of its size without an African American population. That it called its high school team the Chinks until 1980 didn’t help its reputation, either.