Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Knights of the Golden Circle dreamed of a slave empire

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX. — Toward the end of 1860, large groups of strangers began arriving in Corpus Christi by steamer from New Orleans. They left Corpus Christi on foot. Who were they? Where were they going? What was their purpose? No one knew. It was all very mysterious.
Corpus Christi’s newspaper, the Ranchero edited by Henry Maltby, solved the mystery. The men belonged to a secret society called the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Knights had a plan to settle the problems Southern slaveholders had with their arch enemies, the so-called “bloody-fanged abolitionists” of the North. Their arrival in Corpus Christi was connected to that plan.
As an organization, the Knights of the Golden Circle was four years old, founded in Lexington, Ky., on July 4, 1856, by George Bickley. The secret society spread across the South. Local units were called “castles.” Members were formed in three orders. Those with a military assignment (most of the members) were called Knights of the Iron Hand. Those with a financial calling were Knights of the True Faith and those with political skills (the leaders) were Knights of the Columbian Star.
There was a saying in later era about making the world safe for democracy. Well, the knights’ agenda was to make the world safe for slavery. Their objective was the very opposite of abolition. Their plans called for “perfecting” the institution of slavery in a new empire of slavery. This empire, as they saw it, would be enclosed in a golden circle with Havana as the capital. It would extend to Central America and include much of Mexico and the West Indies. In the United States, this empire would stretch from Kansas to Maryland and include Texas and all the states of the South. The empire, as they envisioned, would hold a monopoly on tobacco, cotton, sugar, rice, and coffee. The South would control an empire that would become a world power, one to rival ancient Rome. Havana, in fact, would be called New Rome. With this wealth and power, the cities of the South would no longer be dependent on the abolitionist cities of the North.
That was the long-term goal. Short term, the Knights would assemble a force to conquer Mexico. If Mexico could be conquered, carved into states and admitted to the Union, the added representation in Congress would make the South politically dominant.
It was a slave-owner’s fairy tale, not to mention being morally repugnant, but the Knights had followers in Texas who were men of high rank. Ranger Capt. “Rip” Ford was almost surely a member. Alfred Marmaduke Hobby, later a Confederate leader, was a member. A large number of legislators were members. There were 30 “castles” in the state, with one in Corpus Christi. Reputed local members were hotelier Jacob Ziegler, George Pfeuffer, and Dr. Philip N. Luckett, an influential surgeon with the Texas Rangers.
In the fall of 1860, the Knights were on the march. The mysterious movement of men toward the border was part of the plan to conquer Mexico. The venture was badly organized. Several groups of men arrived in Corpus Christi and left on foot, walking toward the border. One rendezvous point was Brownsville and another in Encinal County (this county was later added to Webb County, at Laredo). One group reached Banquete and settled down to wait for an army of thousands.
J. Williamson Moses, a former Ranger who was postmaster at Banquete, was disdainful of what he described as a wild scheme. “This magnificent order, at least in name,” he wrote, “planned secretly to organize and when they had a sufficiently powerful host at their command, they were to swoop down on the land of Mexico, like Goths of ancient days. The leaders promised that the followers were to have a tract of 50 acres and five Mexican slaves, or peons, to till it for them. This was to be the allotment of privates. The officers, according to rank, were to get larger amounts of land and a greater number of slaves.” Some of the more optimistic among them were learning Spanish.
The country above Brownsville was filled with Knights. “Their campfires are increased every night by new parties arriving during the day,” a Galveston paper reported. So many arrived at Gonzales that Gov. Sam Houston ordered them to disband and return home.
Henry Maltby noted in the Ranchero on Sept. 15, 1860, that a detachment of Knights passed through Corpus Christi and, a week later, another detachment arrived. “Those who passed through last week are at Banquete,” he wrote. “It appears they are bound to suffer disappointment, as they expected to meet a large force subsequent to a march on Matamoros.” The paper said there were no large concentrations of Knights in Encinal County “or at any point in this section, hence the disappointment.” The Knights who passed through were said to be “orderly and gentlemanly in their bearing, and one would suppose them not likely to be gulled by the prospect of a rancho in Mexico.” But Maltby understood that they lacked the military force of arms to invade Mexico and he advised young men to stay home and forget the dreams of empire.
George Bickley, leader of the Knights, arrived in Texas and cited difficulties in raising money, buying weapons, and organizing such a large undertaking. He said he was postponing the Mexican invasion to await the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November. The dispirited phalanx of Knights who had come to South Texas to conquer Mexico headed home.
Corpus Christi’s “castle” turned out on the fifth birthday of the K.G.C., July Fourth, 1861. The Ranchero reported that the local Knights, “a numerous body, who have been regarded as a very mysterious order, marched through the streets, even as other members filed into Ziegler’s Hall. George Pfeuffer made a telling speech and the Knights made a telling impression on the good things spread before them, and numerous pert toasts were made.” That was their last hurrah before the “castle” disintegrated. Some of the first Confederate militia units were formed from the ranks of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Some secessionist leaders had been high in the order. But their dreams of preserving slavery in a new Empire of the Gulf was not to be, as the mysterious K.G.C. became one of the first victims of the Civil War, a casualty of history.
Murphy Givens is the retired Viewpoints Editor of the Caller-Times. His radio commentary airs on KEDT (90.3 FM) and KVRT-Victoria (90.7 FM) at 7:35 a.m. Friday. E-mail: