In his new book, David D. Keehn sheds light on the actions of the titular organization during its 1859–61 heydays. While he admits that finding credible information about the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) is difficult, he nevertheless sets out to respond to a series of allegations about the organization. Using information from various primary sources, he tries to determine whether members of President James Buchanan’s cabinet were Knights, [End Page 97] whether the organization played a major role in the push for secession or spearheaded conspiracies to capture Federal installations throughout the South, as well as capture or kill incoming President Abraham Lincoln, and finally, whether the Knights buried caches of gold after the Civil War in order to resuscitate the failed Confederacy.
This history of the KGC is a fascinating look into one of the myriad secret organizations that emerged during the nineteenth century. Like other organizations, this one was divided into three tiers, the First Degree (military), the Second Degree (financial), and the uppermost Third Degree (political leadership). While Keehn points out that much of the organization’s information, including the initiation rites for the lower tiers, appeared in various newspapers, the uppermost leadership nevertheless remained relatively secret. Only a handful of men ever confirmed their membership in the uppermost tier, also known as the Knights of the Columbian Star. One of those men was George Bickley, who created the first KGC castle in southern Ohio and remained in leadership positions until the organization withered and became subsumed by its successor, the Order of American Knights (OAK). Bickley, a supporter of the South, started the KGC as a filibustering organization. These groups existed to expand American influence through Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The KGC supported those goals, but within one year, as the sectional crisis worsened, the aims of the KGC transitioned to support for the South and the protection of slavery.
Through a careful examination of contemporary accounts, Keehn answers most of his proposed questions. He notes the actions of Buchanan’s secretary of war, John Floyd, who succeeded in distributing weapons and matériel to southern states on the eve of secession. The KGC’s fingerprints are equally apparent on the drive for secession, particularly in Texas and Virginia. Keehn describes at length the KGC castles in Texas, a state that proved to be a stronghold of the KGC. The organization worked hard to foster secessionist sentiment in Texas, threatening unionists and even going so far as to confront Governor Sam Houston and force him to the sidelines of the debate. After Texas seceded, the KGC attempted to spread secessionist sentiment in other states, such as California and Oregon, with limited success. Keehn also makes it clear that the KGC maintained a strong presence in Baltimore, a city Lincoln avoided due to death threats. Finally, though Keehn could not prove John Wilkes Booth was a member of the KGC, the actor-turned-assassin nevertheless fostered friendships with many KGC members and shared their beliefs. [End Page 98]
Only three minor points remain to detract from Keehn’s work. First, the author bases some of his information on the reports of an informant who infiltrated the KGC in its infancy, but he never identifies the informant. Beyond the fact that the informant was a member of the United States Army at the time, the reader knows nothing about the man. Second, Keehn mentions a KGC turncoat by the name of A. A. Urban, who passed many of the order’s inner secrets to a Kentucky newspaper editor (163). Again, beyond that he held membership in the KGC’s ultra-secret leadership tier, the reader knows nothing about Urban. Finally, beyond calling the idea “doubtful,” Keehn does little to dispel or support the rumors that the KGC cached gold to bring about a renewed Confederacy (189).
Aside from a few minor missteps, Keehn pulls together a wealth of disparate and scattered information to construct a compelling...