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The Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) was a secret society originally founded to promote the interests of the Southern United States. It was to prepare the way for annexation of a golden circle of territories in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to be included in the United States as slave states. Most members were recruited in the Southwest, in Texas, New Mexico Territory and California.[citation needed] During the American Civil War, some Southern sympathizers in the Northern states such as Ohio and Indiana and Iowa, were accused of belonging to the Knights of the Golden Circle. By 1863, numerous citizens and active politicians in areas bordering the north of the Ohio River were members or were in similar organizations influenced by it.[citation needed]

Early history[]

File:Knights of the Golden Circle History of Seccession book, 1862.jpg

An alleged secret history of the Knights of the Golden Circle published in 1863.

The association was founded by George W. L. Bickley, a Virginia-born doctor, editor, and "adventurer" who lived in Cincinnati. He organized the first castle, or local branch, in Cincinnati in 1854 and soon took the order to the South, where it was well received. It grew slowly until 1859 and reached its height in 1860.

Following the Mexican-American War of 1846, the group's original goal was to provide a force to colonize the northern part of Mexico and the West Indies. This would extend pro-slavery interests. The Knights became especially active in Texas. Bickley's main goal was the annexation of Mexico. Hounded by creditors, he left Cincinnati in the late 1850s and traveled through the East and South promoting an expedition to seize Mexico to establish a new territory for slavery. He found his greatest support in Texas. In a short time, he organized thirty-two chapters there.

In the spring of 1860, the group made the first of two attempts to invade Mexico from Texas. A small band reached the Rio Grande but failed otherwise.

Civil War and demise[]

In the Southwest[]

The South’s secession and the outbreak of the Civil War prompted a shift in the group's aims from Mexico to support of the new Confederate government. On February 15, 1861, Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch began marching toward the Federal arsenal at San Antonio, Texas, with a cavalry force of about 550 men, about 150 of whom were Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) from six castles. While volunteers continued to join McCulloch the following day, U.S. Army Gen. David E. Twiggs decided to surrender the arsenal peacefully to the secessionists. KGC members also figured prominently among those who, in 1861, joined Lt. Col. John Robert Baylor in his temporarily successful takeover of southern New Mexico Territory. In May 1861, members of the KGC and Confederate Rangers also attacked the building which housed the pro-Union newspaper, the Alamo Express, owned by J. P. Newcomb, and burned it down.[1] Other KGC members followed Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley on the 1862 New Mexico Campaign, which sought to bring the whole New Mexico Territory into the Confederate fold. Both Baylor and Trevanion Teel, Sibley's captain of artillery, had been among KGC members who rode with Ben McCulloch.

In the North[]

In early 1862, the Order was in the national headlines when Radical Republicans in the Senate, aided by Secretary of State William H. Seward, suggested that former president Franklin Pierce, who was greatly critical of the Lincoln administration's war policies, was an active member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Pierce, writing an angry letter to Seward, denied that he knew anything about the Knights of the Golden Circle, and then demanded that his letter be made public, which it subsequently was by California Senator Milton Latham, who entered the entire Pierce-Seward correspondence, which tended to exonerate the former president, into the Congressional Globe.

Appealing to the Confederacy's friends in the North, the Order soon spread to Kentucky as well as the southern parts of such Union states as Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. It became strongest among Copperheads, some of whom felt that the Civil War was a mistake and that the increasing power of the Federal government was leading to tyranny. In the summer of 1863, Congress authorized a military draft which the administration soon put into operation though others were just supporters of slavery. Loyalist Leaders of the Democratic Party opposed to Abraham Lincoln's administration denounced the draft and other wartime measures, such as the President's temporary suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and the arrest of seditious persons.

During the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, scam artists in south-central Pennsylvania sold Pennsylvania Dutch farmers paper tickets purported to be from the Knights of the Golden Circle for a dollar. Along with a series of secret hand gestures, these tickets were supposed to protect the possessions and horses of the ticket holders from seizure by invading Confederate soldiers.[2] When Jubal Early's infantry division passed through York County, Pennsylvania, they scoffed at the ticket holders and took what they needed anyway. They often paid with Confederate currency or drafts on the Confederate government. Cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart also reported the alleged KGC tickets when documenting the campaign.[3]

Also in 1863, Asbury Harpending and California members of the Knights of the Golden Circle in San Francisco outfitted the schooner J. M. Chapman as a Confederate privateer in San Francisco Bay with the object of raiding commerce on the Pacific coast and capture gold shipments to the east coast. Their attempt was detected and they were seized on the night of their intended departure.[4][5]

In late 1863, the Knights of the Golden Circle was reorganized as the Order of American Knights. In 1864, it became the Order of the Sons of Liberty, with Ohio politician Clement L. Vallandigham, most prominent of the Copperheads, as its supreme commander. In most areas only a minority of its membership was radical enough to discourage enlistments, resist the draft, and shield deserters. Numerous peace meetings were held. A few agitators, some of them encouraged by Southern money, talked of a revolt in the Old Northwest, which could have ended the war.[6]

Southern newspapers wishfully reported stories of widespread disaffection in the North. John Hunt Morgan's 1863 Great Raid into Indiana and Ohio was initiated in the expectation that the disaffected element would rally to his standard. Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana and General Henry B. Carrington effectively curbed the Sons of Liberty in the fall of 1864.

In early 1864, Rufus Henry Ingram formerly with Quantrill's Raiders arrived in Santa Clara County and with Tom Poole, (formerly one of Harpending's privateer crewmen), organized local Knights of the Golden Circle and commanded them in what became known as Captain Ingram's Partisan Rangers. In attempt to raise funds to support their unit they robbed two stagecoaches near Placerville of their silver and gold, leaving a letter explaining they were not bandits but carrying out a military operation to raise funds for the Confederacy. However they soon were hunted down and dispersed after a couple of dramatic shootouts near Placerville and San Jose.[7]

With mounting Union victories late in 1864 and the reelection of Lincoln, the order's agitation for a negotiated peace lost appeal, and the organization officially dissolved.

Alleged members[]

  • Confederados (some)
  • Lambdin P. Milligan
  • Franklin Pierce
  • John Wilkes Booth[8]
  • Jesse James[9]

Popular culture[]

A four-part comic book miniseries based on The Wild Wild West TV series entitled "The Night of The Iron Tyrants" was published in 1990-91, scripted by novelist Mark Ellis, penciled by Darryl Banks. It featured the Knights of the Golden Circle enlisting the aid of Dr. Miguelito Loveless to assassinate President Grant and the president of Brazil during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. The plot of the series was optioned for motion picture development.

The Knights of the Golden Circle were featured as the villains of the graphic novel Batman: Detective No. 27 by Michael Uslan and Peter Snejbjerg and published by DC Comics in 2003.

The Knights of the Golden Circle are featured as the villains in the CD-ROM game PONY EXPRESS RIDER, published by AMERIKIDS USA and McGraw-Hill's new division, McGraw-Hill Home Interactive.

The Knights of the Golden Circle were portrayed as the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination in the 2007 Disney movie National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.

See also[]

  • Filibuster (military)
  • Golden Circle (Slavery)
  • Nine Nations of North America


Additional reading[]

  • Boulard, Garry, "The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce--The Story of a President and the Civil War" (iUniverse, 2006)
  • Bridges, C. A. (1941). "The Knights of the Golden Circle: A Filibustering Fantasy". Southwestern Historical Quarterly 44: 287–302. 
  • Crenshaw, Ollinger (October 1941). "The Knights of the Golden Circle: The Career of George Bickley". American Historical Review 47 (1): 23–50. doi:10.2307/1838769. 
  • Curry, Richard O. (1964). A House Divided. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 
  • Dunn, Roy S. (April 1967). "The KGC in Texas, 1860-1861". Southwestern Historical Quarterly 70: 543–573. 
  • Frazier, Donald S.; Shaw Frazier (1995). Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 0890966397. 
  • Getler, Warren; Bob Brewer (2003). Shadow of the Sentinel: One Man's Quest to find the Hidden Treasure of the Confederacy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-1968-6. 
  • Hicks, Jimmie (July 1961). "Some Letters Concerning the Knights of the Golden Circle in Texas, 1860-1861". Southwestern Historical Quarterly 65: 80–86. 
  • May, Robert E. (1973). The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press. 
  • Milton, George F. (1942). Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column. New York, New York: Vanguard Press. OCLC 816967. 
  • Mingus, Scott L. (2009). Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Gordon Expedition. Columbus, Ohio: Ironclad Publishing. ISBN 0967377080. 
  • Schrader, Del (1975). Jesse James Was One of His Names. Arcadia, California: Santa Anita Press. 

External links[]