Wednesday, November 17, 2010


John Hope Franklin

pages 124-128

"The most fantastic of all filibuster schemes evolved in the
1850*5 when the South keenly felt the pressure of Northern
abolitionist policies. This was the Knights of the Golden
Circle, the very name of which seemed worthy of a Southern
cause. While there was no formal organization by that name
until 1854, it had existed for many years, "like the earth in
its primordial condition 'without form and void/ " 92 As
early as 1834, there were various unaffiliated groups, com-
monly known as the Southern Rights Clubs, that advocated
the reopening of the slave trade and the extension of slavery
into new territories.* 3 They had signs of recognition, met
regularly, evolved a program for the development of the
South, and even equipped and manned some slavers.

By the 1850's some men were thinking of an effective,
formal organisation for the protection and promotion of
Southern rights. A group with such a view met on Independ-
ence Day 1854, at Lexington, Kentucky, and took the pre-
liminary steps toward the organization of the Knights of the
Golden Circle. The idea for the name came from the pro-
posal that, with Havana as the center and with a radius of
sixteen degrees, a huge circle could be drawn that would
include the Southern portion of the United States, the
Caribbean area, Mexico, Central America, and the Northern
portion of South America. This area they would unite in a
gigantic slave empire to rival in power and prestige the
ancient Roman Empire. Within this dream-empire were the
regions that produced nearly all the world's supply of
tobacco, cotton, and sugar, and much of its finest rice and
coffee. With a virtual world monopoly of these important
commodities, it would have been in fact a rich region,
stretching around the Gulf of Mexico like a great golden

The indefatigable physician-editor-promoter, George Wash-
ington Lafayette Bickley, was the founder and moving spirit
of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Little is known of this
native of southwest Virginia until 1850 when he appeared
in Jefferson (now Tazewell), Virginia, as a practicing phy-
sician. If his earlier years had been uneventful, he more than
made up for it in the following decade. He founded a histori-
cal society in Virginia, wrote a history of Tazewell, and
published a "manifest destiny'* novel, Adalaska, in 1853.
Early in the decade he became a professor at the Eclectic
Medical Institute in Cincinnati. Meanwhile he edited the
West American Review and established the Wayne Circle
of Brotherhood of the Union. In 1858 he gave up the practice
of medicine and became a promoter of the American Patent
Company of Cincinnati. In the following year he helped to
establish in Baltimore a filibustering newspaper, the Ameri-
can Cavalier. During half these years he was the dominant
figure in the Knights of the Golden Circle, calling himself
"President General of the American Legion, K.G.C."  

It was not until 1858 that the K.G.C. was promoted with
considerable vigor. The South's growing apprehension pro-
vided Bickley with an excellent opportunity to promote his
fantastic cause with some success. In August 1859, the K.G.C.
held an organizational meeting at White Sulphur Springs,
Virginia. Rapid growth followed. 96 By 1860, the Knights
were working throughout the South "with unabated energy
for the increase of their numbers and 'the firing of the
Southern heart/ " 87 Another meeting was held in Raleigh,
North Carolina, in May 1860, at which the claims of some
critics that Bickley was an imposter and a fraud were prompt-
ly disavowed. During much of this crucial year Bickley
toured the South and Southwest working up support for his
organization. At a meeting in Atlanta he succeeded in gener-
ating much enthusiasm. At Lynchburg he vowed that the
flag of the K.G.C. would fly over Mexico City on January
i, i86i. M Since the K.G.C. was an organization whose mem-
bers were pledged to secrecy, it is not possible to know the
size of the organization or who its members were. In Novem-
ber 1860, Bickley claimed to have 115,000 members, includ-
ing most of the important officials and leading citizens of
the Southern states. Ollinger Crenshaw, a careful student of
the movement, is convinced that these figures are exagger-
ated, that the members were not politically prominent." A
former member has insisted, however, that some of the most
important men of the South were active members. In an
obviously exaggerated Narrative of his experiences, Edmund
Wright asserted that John Breckenridge, Robert Toombs,
and John B. Floyd were devoted fellow members.  Another
former member, generally more sober in his account than
Wright, said, "There is no doubt that the original members
. . . were men of little, if any, moral character. They were
generally broken down hacks, gamblers, and drunkards. The
accession to their ranks of such men as Yancey, about the rime
of the Charleston Convention, gave new life to a concern that
was nearly defunct."

While the specific personnel and numbers remain un-
known, the qualifications for membership were widely
broadcast. Bickley welcomed any Southerner of good charac-
ter and "such worthy Northern men as live in the South and
heartily concur with us in our determination to stand by the
Constitutional rights of the South. 7 '

The organizational structure of the K.G.C. was most
elaborate and shot through with military trappings and an
atmosphere of conquest. There were three divisions: the first,
or military, degree, called the Knights of the Iron Hand;
the second, or financial degree, called the True Faith; and
the third, or political degree, called the Knights of the
Columbian Star. The Knights of the Iron Hand, the most
numerous, were to spearhead the invasion of new territories
as well as provide adequate defenses at home against insur-
rections and abolitionist subversion. It has been claimed that
upon initiation the Knights of the Iron Hand were addressed
in the following manner by one of the officials:

Gentlemen, we must now tell you that the first field of our
operations is 2 [Mexico] ; but we hold it to be our duty to offer
our services to any Southern State to repel a Northern army. We
hope such a contingency may not occur. But whether the Union
is reconstructed or not, the Southern states must foster any scheme
having for its object the Americanization and Southernization
of 2 [Mexico].

The new members were told of the plan to divide the South-
ern states into military districts, each to be presided over by
a colonel who would be responsible for raising a certain
portion of the four divisions of 4,000 men each, to be sent
into Mexico.  It has also been claimed that each local or-
ganization, called "Castle," was required to have regular
military drills, in order to prepare for the "impending crisis."

The members of the second degree bore the responsibility
for financing the program, while the Knights of the Colum-
bian Star were the governing arm. Bickley proposed to
acquire Mexico and cut it up into slave states, twenty-five
perhaps, thereby permanently establishing the political bal-
ance in the Union in favor of the South. If for some reason
this acquisition was delayed and secession became a reality,
then the K.G.C. would be in the forefront in any scheme to
acquire Mexico for the Southern Confederacy. Indeed, two
threatening moves were made, in the spring and fall of 1860,
toward the Mexican border. Lack of support and the grow-
ing unpopularity of filibustering due to the Walker debacle
prevented the successful prosecution of the scheme.

By 1860 it was impossible to rally any real support for
filibustering in the South, for it seemed necessary to direct
all militancy toward the North. While the South still felt it
desirable to expand, the task of holding on to what it had
was more urgent. Within a few months, the filibusters, like
others, North and South, were swept into the vortex of civil
war. It was fitting that most of those restless spirits who
survived the strange operations in Cuba, Mexico, and
Nicaragua should join the ranks of the Confederacy.
Several "Castles" of the K.G.C. joined the Confederacy en
masse; even Bickley, in 1863, was willing to give up his title
of ''General" in the K.G.C. to become a mere surgeon in a
North Carolina regiment of the C.S.A.""

The Knights of the Golden Circle Archive Research and Historical forum.