In Civil War studies, there are books that rehash old, familiar narratives and books that use groundbreaking research to present something new. David C. Keehn’s history of the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) belongs to the latter group. This account expands our knowledge of the KGC and argues that its members were instrumental in bringing on the Civil War.
Keehn divides the history of the KGC into two periods, one marked by imperialism and the other by secessionist agitation. In the late 1850s, the proslavery society attracted national attention when it tried to mount an invasion of Mexico, part of a scheme to spread Southern hegemony and slavery across Latin America. The expedition fizzled before it began, and, in 1860, the KGC shifted its emphasis to supporting secessionism. “At this point,” Keehn explains, “the Knights became the strong arm of secession in many areas by promoting disunion through public meetings and political action and by intimidating countervailing voices into silence” (pp. 3–4). The “soldiers” of the KGC military degree were key players in the creation of a Southern war machine, but once the fighting started they actually weakened the group by transferring their loyalties to the Confederate government. In its short history, the KGC sank its claws deep into the South and shaped the destiny of the region, but the organization could not survive Confederate defeat.
Keehn’s work is exhaustively researched. The numerous newspapers, archival collections, and other sources he cites allow him to [End Page 132] provide the most detailed description of the KGC yet published. The narrative is driven by the actions of the men who headed the group, particularly its charismatic founder, George W. L. Bickley, and its state regimental commanders. Bickley’s extraordinary powers of persuasion enlarged the KGC’s numbers and influence during its heyday, particularly with the addition of the powerful, Texas-based Order of the Lone Star (OLS) in the late 1850s. Their roots in the OLS “enabled the Knights to involve all strata of southern society in a hierarchical structure where top leaders could pass down controversial goals and commands to KGC foot soldiers in oath-bound secrecy” (p. 188). Ironically, the same cloak-and-dagger behavior that fueled the KGC expansion also hurt its public image and recruiting campaign. In showing the extent of the Knights’ influence, Keehn undermines Frank L. Klement’s assertion that reports of secret societies in the Civil War era were mostly tall tales. Here, Keehn’s findings are more in line with those of Jennifer L. Weber, whose work also challenges Klement.
The reader learns a great deal about Bickley and other figures near the top of the KGC, but the rank and file of the group largely remains in the shadows. There is little material on the ordinary Knights or their backgrounds and motivations. Also troubling is the author’s tendency to quote KGC commanders’ startlingly high figures for membership without either confirming or disputing the numbers. In the prologue, Keehn promises to tackle these “sensational yet plausible claims” in the light of available evidence, but he more often quotes the estimates without comment (p. 4). A final quibble: Keehn snares our attention at the beginning of the narrative by hinting that John Wilkes Booth may have been a Knight. What a letdown, therefore, to read near the end of the book that there is no hard evidence of his membership in the KGC. Still, historians of the antebellum and Civil War South will value Keehn’s mining of primary sources and his demonstration of just how high these rather sinister Knights reached before they fell. [End Page 133]
William D. Hickox is a graduate student in American history at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.