Friday, January 7, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: Knights of the Golden Circle

The Writings of Gwen Mayo
Posted by Gwen Mayo at 1:25 PM
Thursday, January 06, 2011

A group of five men met in Lexington, Kentucky on Independence Day of 1854 and took the first steps toward organizing the Knights of the Golden Circle. They placed a compass on a map of the Americas, with its center point being Havana, Cuba and drew a circle that encompassed the entire Southern United States, portions of Mexico, Central and South America. These men claimed they would unite in a Golden Circle and take over the production of cotton, coffee, sugar, chocolate, rice and tobacco. Through controlling these New World crops they believed they could control the world.

Dr. George Washington Lafayette Bickley was the moving force behind organizing the Knights of the Golden Circle. He and his friends supported the reopening  and expanding of the slave trade, buying up huge tracts of land in the countries he wished to control, and most of all, building a Southern-controlled empire around the plantation model.

A lot of Southerners would take exception to the Knights of the Golden Circle being called thugs, but the bad guys in Circle of Dishonor deserve the name. The KGC was behind a rash of payroll robberies in Kentucky and Ohio. These robberies probably led to the rumors of a secret stash of Confederate gold that the KGC was charged with protecting. They were also behind the reported 5th column of the Confederacy. John Hunt Morgan believed that the KGC would rise up and take arms when he led his command into Kentucky and Indiana.

Counting on thieves, profiteers, and assassins to form an army was a mistake that cost Morgan dearly. The KGC plot to burn New York City was closer to their type of rebellion. The one Castle that did take action, by stealing a train and attempting to invade Mexico, gave up without firing a shot before their train got out of Kansas.

The KGC appeared on the scene with a plot to assassinate Lincoln before his inaugural train could reach Washington. Nobody knows if the story is accurate or if it was the invention of Alan Pinkerton to establish himself as the newly elected president's bodyguard. Certainly there were members of the KGC in Maryland, but how effective they were at that stage of their growth is impossible to know.

By the end of the Civil War, the KGC had established Castles (local chapters of the Knights) in every Southern state. At their peak, there were 20 Castles in Texas alone. Kentucky is estimated to have produced 400,000 members of the KGC. The population of the state and the pro-Union factions active in Kentucky make me believe that the actual number of members was far lower.

One of the problems I have run into when researching the KGC is the "Golden Ticket." A group of New York con men managed to travel through most of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois selling gold/yellow tickets that could be presented to General Morgan and his men to would keep them from stealing horses and other livestock from Confederate sympathizers. But as one parses through fact and fiction, the pieces clearly form a picture of men intent upon ruling the world at any cost.