KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE.
Jay Longley and Colin Eby
The Knights of the Golden Circle or K.G.C. had its beginnings in the
formation of Southern Rights Clubs in various southern cities in the
mid-1830s. These clubs were inspired by the philosophies of John C. Calhoun
(1782-1850). Calhoun had an illustrious political career serving as a
congressman from his home state of South Carolina, a state legislator, vice
president under the administrations of both John Quincy Adams and Andrew
Jackson, and a U. S. senator. In addition to the Southern Rights Clubs,
which advocated the re-establishment of the African slave-trade, some of the
inspiration for the Knights may have come from a little-known secret
organization called the Order of the Lone Star, founded in 1834, which
helped orchestrate the successful Texas Revolution resulting in Texas
independence from Mexico in 1836. Even before that, the K.G.C.'s roots went
back to the Sons of Liberty of the American Revolutionary period.
The Knights of the Golden Circle was reorganized in Lexington, Kentucky, on
July 4, 1854, by five men, whose names have been lost to history, when
Virginia-born Gen. George W. L. Bickley (1819-1867) requested they come
together. Strong evidence suggests that Albert Pike (1809-1891) was the
genius behind the influence and power of the Masonic-influenced K.G.C.,
while Bickley was the organization's leading promoter and chief organizer
for the K.G.C. lodges, what they called "Castles," in several states. During
his lifetime, Boston-born Pike was an author, educator, lawyer, Confederate
brigadier general, newspaper editor, poet, and a Thirty-third Degree Mason.
From its earliest roots in the Southern Rights Clubs in 1835, the Knights of
the Golden Circle was to become the most powerful secret and subversive
organization in the history of the United States with members in every state
and territory before the end of the Civil War. The primary economic and
political goal of this organization was to create a prosperous,
slave-holding Southern Empire extending in the shape of a circle from their
proposed capital at Havana, Cuba, through the southern states of the United
States, Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. The
plan also called for the acquisition of Mexico which was then to be divided
into fifteen new slave-holding states which would shift the balance of power
in Congress in favor of slavery. Facing the Gulf of Mexico, these new states
would form a large crescent. The robust economy the KGC hoped to create
would be fueled by cotton, sugar, tobacco, rice, coffee, indigo, and mining.
These seven industries would employ slave labor (see SLAVERY).
In early 1860 newspapers across the country reported that the Knights of the
Golden Circle were recruiting troops in numerous cities to send to
Brownsville, Texas, for the planned invasion of Mexico. History is unclear
about what went wrong with this invasion, but most historians agree that the
well-laid plans never materialized and the invasion never happened. Some say
that it failed because George Bickley was unable to provide adequate troops
and supplies, but with a civil war looming on the horizon, the invasion's
failure may have been caused by the K.G.C. leaders believing they could not
go to war on two fronts simultaneously. They called off their plans for
Mexico and started preparing for war with the North.
When tensions between the North and South were at a breaking point and the
Civil War had not yet begun, the Knights of the Golden Circle held their
convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, from May 7-11, 1860. George W. L.
Bickley, as president of the K.G.C., presided at this historic event. The
records of this convention have survived until the present day and provide
an excellent view of this order's divisions or degrees, goals,
accomplishments, and size.
The K.G.C.'s first division was described as being "absolutely a Military
Degree." The first division is further divided into two classes: the Foreign
and Home Guards. The Foreign Guards class was the K.G.C.'s army and was
composed of those who wanted "to participate in the wild, glorious and
thrilling adventures of a campaign in Mexico." Those of the second class or
Home Guards had two functions: to provide for the army's needs and "to
defend us from misrepresentation during our absence."
The second division or class was also divided into two classes which were
the Foreign and Home Corps. The Foreign Corps was to become the order's
commercial agents, postmasters, physicians, ministers, and teachers and to
perform the other occupations that were vital to the achievement of K.G.C.
goals. The second class of this degree was the Home Corps. Their job was to
advise and to forward money, arms, ammunition, and other necessary
provisions needed by the organization and its army and to send recruits as
rapidly as possible.
The two classes of the third division or degree were the Foreign and Home
Councils. The third division is described in the convention's records as
being "the political or governing division." The responsibilities of the
Foreign Council were governmental, and it was divided into ten departments
similar to those of the United States federal government.
One little-known historical fact that is presented in the records from the
1860 K.G.C. convention is that the Knights had their own well-organized army
in 1860, before the Civil War had even begun, so they were prepared in the
event of war with the North. In May of 1860 the Knights of the Golden Circle
reported a total membership of 48,000 men from the North, who supported "the
constitutional rights of the South," as well as men from the South, with an
army of "less than 14,000 men" and new recruits joining at a rapid rate.
Shortly before the Civil War began, the state of Texas was the greatest
source of this organization's strength. Texas was home for at least
thirty-two K.G.C. castles in twenty-seven counties, including the towns of
San Antonio, Marshall, Canton, and Castroville. Evidence suggests that San
Antonio may have served as the organization's national headquarters for a
The South began to secede from the Union in January 1861, and in February of
that year, seven seceding states ratified the Confederate Constitution and
named Jefferson Davis as provisional president. The Knights of the Golden
Circle became the first and most powerful ally of the newly-created
Confederate States of America.
Before the Civil War officially started on April 12, 1861, when shots were
fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and before Texas had held its election
on the secession referendum on February 23, 1861, Texas volunteer forces,
which included 150 K.G.C. soldiers under the command of Col. Ben McCulloch,
forced the surrender of the federal arsenal at San Antonio that was under
the command of Bvt. Maj. Gen. David E. Twiggs on February 15, 1861. Knights
of the Golden Circle who were involved in this mission included Capt.
Trevanion Teel, Sgt. R. H. Williams, John Robert Baylor, and Sgt. Morgan
Wolfe Merrick. Following this quick victory, volunteers who were mostly from
K.G.C. companies, forced the surrender of all federal posts between San
Antonio and El Paso.
Perhaps the best documentation as to the power and influence of the Knights
of the Golden Circle during the Civil War is The Private Journal and Diary
of John H. Surratt, The Conspirator which was written by John Harrison
Surratt and later edited by Dion Haco and published by Frederic A. Brady of
New York in 1866. In this journal, Surratt goes into great detail when
describing how he was introduced to the K.G.C. in the summer of 1860 by
another Knight, John Wilkes Booth, and inducted into this mysterious
organization on July 2, 1860, at a castle in Baltimore, Maryland. Surratt
describes the elaborate and secret induction ceremony and its rituals and
tells that cabinet members, congressmen, judges, actors, and other
politicians were in attendance. Maybe the most significant revelation of
Surratt's diary is that the Knights of the Golden Circle began plotting to
kidnap Abraham Lincoln in 1860, before Lincoln was even inaugurated in 1861,
and continued throughout the Civil War, resulting in President Lincoln's
assassination by fellow Knight Booth on April 14, 1865.
After trying unsuccessfully to peacefully resolve the conflicts between
North and South, the Knights of the Golden Circle threw its full support
behind the newly-created Confederate States of America and added its trained
military men to the Confederate States Army. Several Confederate military
groups during the Civil War were composed either totally or in large part of
members of the Knights of the Golden Circle. One notable example of K.G.C.
military participation in the Civil War included the Confederate's Western
Expansion Movement of 1861 and 1862 led by Lt. Col. John Robert Baylor and
Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley (see MESILLA, BATTLE OF; VALVERDE, BATTLE OF;
In 1861 Albert Pike travelled to Indian Territory and negotiated an alliance
with Cherokee Chief Stand Watie. Prior to the beginning of hostilities, Pike
helped Watie to become a Thirty-second Degree Scottish Rite Mason. Watie was
also in the K.G.C., and he was later commissioned a colonel in command of
the First Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles. In May 1864 Chief Watie was
promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate States Army
making him the only Native American of this rank in the Confederate Army.
Watie's command was to serve under CSA officers Albert Pike, Benjamin
McCulloch, Thomas Hindman, and Sterling Price. They fought in engagements in
Indian Territory, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri.
One of the most feared organizations of all Confederates, whose members were
in large part Knights of the Golden Circle, was what was called Quantrill's
Guerrillas or Quantrill's Raiders. The Missouri-based band was formed in
December 1861 by William Clark Quantrill and originally consisted of only
ten men who were determined to right the wrongs done to Missourians by Union
occupational soldiers. Their mortal enemies were the Kansas Jayhawkers and
the Red Legs who were the plague of Missouri. As the war raged on in
Missouri and neighboring states, Quantrill's band attracted hundreds more
men into its ranks. Quantrill's Guerrillas became an official arm of the
Confederate Army after May 1862, when the Confederate Congress approved the
Partisan Ranger Act. Other leaders of Quantrill's Guerrillas included
William "Bloody Bill" Anderson, David Pool, William Gregg, and George Todd.
Some of the major engagements this deadly guerrilla force participated in
included the Lawrence, Kansas, raid on August 21, 1863, the battle near
Baxter Springs, Kansas, in October 1863, and two battles at and near
Centralia in Missouri in September of 1864. The bulk of Quantrill's band
wintered in Grayson County, Texas, from 1861 through 1864.
The K.G.C. played the major role in what is referred to as the Northwest
Conspiracy. The Confederate plan was to use the great numbers of Knights in
the Northern states to foster a revolution that would spread across Indiana,
Illinois, New York, Ohio, and any other state in the North where it was
feasible. The Baker-Turner Papers, part of the U.S. War Department's
conspiracy files, revealed much of the history of this widespread movement
but were kept sealed for ninety years. James D. Horan, the first person ever
allowed access to the U.S. War Department's Civil War conspiracy files and
the Baker-Turner Papers in the early 1950s, published Confederate Agent: A
Discovery in History in 1954, which details the Northwest Conspiracy. His
work used these previously-sealed documents and information gathered by
numerous investigators, including the private papers of Capt. Thomas H.
Hines, C.S.A., of Kentucky, who was the mastermind behind the huge
Throughout the Civil War, one of the Knights of the Golden Circle's most
important roles came in its infiltration of Union forces. Nowhere in the
country was this influence more apparent than in the state of Missouri where
K.G.C. members filled the ranks of the Enrolled Missouri Militia which was
commonly known as the Paw Paw Militia. A newspaper article from the Daily
Times of Leavenworth, Kansas, July 29, 1864, serves as a good example in
their interview with a member of the Paw Paw named Andrew E. Smith. Smith
I am 22 years old and live in Platte county, about two miles west of Platte
City I was a member of Captain Johnston's company of Pawpaw militia, under
Major Clark, and served about six months.... I am a member of the Knights of
the Golden Circle. I joined them at Platte City, and was sworn in by David
Jenkins of that place. All of the Pawpaw militia, so far as I know, belong
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at
Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Most historians accept this date of surrender
as the official end of the Civil War. The Knights of the Golden Circle as an
organization, however, continued to work to achieve their goals, which
included a prosperous South, for many decades after the Civil War. What had
been a secret society adapted to changing conditions and, after the war,
became even more secretive than ever before.
In October 1864 U. S. Judge Advocate Joseph Holt submitted a detailed
warning to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about the dangers posed by the
Knights of the Golden Circle that was, by that time, operating under various
aliases. This document is commonly called the Holt Report, but its real
title is A Western Conspiracy in aid of the Southern Rebellion.
After the war's end, the K.G.C. went underground and used many aliases to
hide their activities which included making preparations for a second civil
war should that option be necessary. Some K.G.C. members accompanied
Confederate Gen. Joseph O. Shelby to Mexico (see SHELBY EXPEDITION). Some
soldiers returned to their homes, while others relocated to more remote
frontier areas like West Texas where they could help build towns and cities
that conformed to their ideals. Some Knights like Jesse Woodson James, older
brother Frank James, and Cole Younger turned to robbing Northern-owned
railroads, businesses, and banks after the Civil War.
The Knights of the Golden Circle, according to most authorities, ceased its
operations in 1916 for two primary reasons. The United States had entered
World War I, and by that time most of the old Knights of the Golden Circle
BIBLIOGRAPHY: An Authentic Exposition of the "K.G.C." "Knights of the Golden
Circle," or, A History of Secession from 1834 to 1861, by A Member of the
Order (Indianapolis, Indiana: C. O. Perrine, Publisher, 1861). Donald S.
Frazier, Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest (College
Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996). Warren Getler and Bob Brewer,
Rebel Gold: One Man's Quest to Crack the Code Behind the Secret Treasure of
the Confederacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). Dion Haco, ed., The
Private Journal and Diary of John H. Surratt, The Conspirator (New York:
Frederic A. Brady, Publisher, 1866). Joseph Holt, Report of the Judge
Advocate General on "The Order of American Knights," alias "The Sons of
Liberty." A Western Conspiracy in aid of the Southern Rebellion (Washington,
D.C.: Union Congressional Committee, 1864). James D. Horan, Confederate
Agent: A Discovery in History (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954).
Jesse Lee James, Jesse James and the Lost Cause (New York: Pageant Press,
1961). K.G.C., Records of the KGC Convention, 1860, Raleigh, N.C.
(http://gunshowonthenet/AfterTheFact/KGC/KGC0571860.html), accessed May 5,
2010. Dr. Roy William Roush, The Mysterious and Secret Order of the Knights
of the Golden Circle (Front Line Press, 2005).
Jay Longley and Colin Eby