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Knights of the Golden Circle

Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War

David C. Keehn

Publication Year: 2013

Based on years of exhaustive and meticulous research, David C. Keehn’s study provides the first comprehensive analysis of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret southern society that initially sought to establish a slave-holding empire in the “Golden Circle” region of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Keehn reveals the origins, rituals, structure, and complex history of this mysterious group, including its later involvement in the secession movement. Members supported southern governors in precipitating disunion, filled the ranks of the nascent Confederate Army, and organized rearguard actions during the Civil War. The Knights of the Golden Circle emerged around 1858 when a secret society formed by a Cincinnati businessman merged with the pro-expansionist Order of the Lone Star, which already had 15,000 members. The following year, the Knights began publishing their own newspaper and established their headquarters in Washington, D. C. In 1860, during their first attempt to create the Golden Circle, several thousand Knights assembled in southern Texas to “colonize” northern Mexico. Due to insufficient resources and organizational shortfalls, however, that filibuster failed. Later, the Knights shifted their focus and began pushing for disunion, spearheading pro-secession rallies, and intimidating Unionists in the South. They appointed regional military commanders from the ranks of the South’s major political and military figures, including men such as Elkanah Greer of Texas, Paul J. Semmes of Georgia, Robert C. Tyler of Maryland, and Virginius D. Groner of Virginia. Followers also established allies with the South’s rabidly pro-secession “fire-eaters,” which included individuals such as Barnwell Rhett, Louis Wigfall, Henry Wise, and William Yancey. According to Keehn, the Knights likely carried out a variety of other clandestine actions before the Civil War, including attempts by insurgents to take over federal forts in Virginia and North Carolina, the activation of pro-southern militia around Washington, D. C. and a planned assassination of Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore in early 1861 on the way to his inauguration. Once the fighting began, the Knights helped build the emerging Confederate Army and assisted with the pro-Confederate Copperhead movement in northern states. With the war all but lost, various Knights supported one of their members, John Wilkes Booth, in his plot to abduct and assassinate President Lincoln. Keehn’s fast-paced, engaging narrative demonstrates that the Knights proved more substantial than historians have traditionally assumed and provides a new perspective on southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-7

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-9

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Prologue: The Shadowy Knights

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pp. 1-5

Several stock actors from Richmond’s Dramatic Star Company joined a secret society that was spreading across the country during the summer of 1859. Called the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC), it was dedicated to promoting...

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1. Powerful Antecedents

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pp. 6-16

The mystic order of the Knights of the Golden Circle was the brainchild of a multitalented doctor and editor living in Ohio named George W. L. Bickley. George had been born at Bickley Mills (Russell County) in southwest Virginia...

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2. Formal Organization

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pp. 17-31

At least one active castle of the Knights was operating in Baltimore by early 1859, when Bickley arrived. It existed in the south central neighborhood near St. Vincent’s Church, where Wilkes Booth had grown up in a townhouse...

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3. The Drive for Mexico

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pp. 32-45

Nearly a quarter of President James Buchanan’s December 1859 annual message to Congress focused on the deplorable and deteriorating conditions in neighboring Mexico. Buchanan noted that “Mexico ought to be rich and prosperous...

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4. A Regional Coalition

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pp. 46-61

As a prelude to the Raleigh convention, Bickley issued General Order No. 546 on April 6, 1860, from the headquarters of the KGC American Legion at Mobile, Alabama. Sent directly to KGC state commanders and appearing...

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5. Transforming to Secession

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pp. 62-76

Bickley hadn’t even left for Texas on the scheduled rendezvous date of September 15, 1860, for the renewed expedition into northern Mexico. Instead, the KGC’s front man was in southeastern Tennessee, appearing on platforms with KGC chaplain...

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6. The Paramilitary’s Core

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pp. 77-88

In his November 10 speech at Marshall, Bickley described the KGC as “a nucleus around which Southern men could rally” and called for the formation of military organizations all over the South to keep down insurrections and repel...

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7. Seizure of Federal Forts and Arsenals

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pp. 89-99

The U.S. Army informer who had infiltrated the KGC’s November 1860 Council of War reported that “orders were given to seize Navy- Yards, Forts &c, while KGC members were still Cabinet officers and Senators.” Soon afterward, several seizures...

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8. The Plot to Seize the District of Columbia [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 100-112

The U.S. Army informer who infiltrated the Knights’ Texas conclave around November 1860 had reported that a plot “was designed to seize Washington and inaugurate Breckinridge.”1 As the Knights’ mission shifted to supporting...

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9. Rustling Texas Out of the Union

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pp. 113-126

A core group of committed secessionists convened in the Austin office of Attorney General George Flournoy in late November 1860 to come up with a way to precipitate Texas’s secession from the Union. John S. Ford, a KGC colonel and Texas...

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10. Spreading Secession

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pp. 127-139

After precipitating the secession of Texas and the seizure of its U.S. Army installations, the KGC tried to spread secession westward to Arkansas, Indian Territory, and the recently created Pacific coast states of California...

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11. Call to Arms

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pp. 140-155

On April 10, Confederate secretary of war Leroy Pope Walker forwarded his fateful order to General Beauregard, a former OLS sympathizer, authorizing the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston...

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12. The Struggle for Kentucky

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pp. 156-170

As the KGC state commanders concentrated on training their raw Confederate army recruits, George Bickley directed his efforts to expanding the Knights in the pivotal Border State of Kentucky. Both the Confederacy and the...

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13. A Rejuvenated KGC?

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pp. 171-184

As Bickley languished in prison and the KGC became increasingly dormant, another secret society called the Order of American Knights (OAK) was spreading across the midwestern and Border States. Phineas Wright, a quixotic...

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pp. 185-190

While it is possible that cells of the KGC continued around Washington City, it does not appear that the KGC’s prewar state regimental commanders were in a position to help orchestrate Booth’s 1864–65 abduction/assassination...

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pp. 191-192

In writing a research-intensive multistate book of this nature, I had to rely on assistance from archives, historical societies, and public and university libraries across the country, and I am most appreciative to the many staff people...


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pp. 193-260


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pp. 261-290


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pp. 291-308

E-ISBN-13: 9780807150054
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807150047

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Knights of the Golden Circle -- History.
  • Secret societies -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Secession -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Government, Resistance to -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Societies, etc.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Underground movements.
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