Monday, April 4, 2011


Two new Civil War histories by a UC Civil War historian are due out soon. They bring to light a vicious border state campaign and secret societies of the time.
By: M.B. Reilly

University of Cincinnati Civil War historian Mark Lause has a new book out later this year, titled “A Secret Society History of the Civil War” (University of Illinois Press). It’s a look at secret societies (societies similar to the Freemasons) that were active in the years leading up to and during the Civil War. And the Cincinnati connection to at least one of these secret societies is strong.

Knights of the Golden Circle: John Wilkes Booth a member
That secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, was the brainchild of a Cincinnati con man named George Bickley. He fundraised for the group here in Cincinnati before the Civil War and envisioned it as a para-military organization. During the war, he offered the services of the Knights to the Confederacy, suggesting the organization could work as a fifth column among the North’s civilian population.

Explained Lause, UC professor of history, “The Confederates turned Bickley down, but the South did have a secret service that was active in the North during the war. The United States government was convinced the Knights of the Golden Circle were a big part of this Confederate secret service and spent resources tracking down the organization. However, it wasn’t the case, since the Knights and their numbers were greatly inflated by Bickley.”

While the Knights were never actually a fifth-column force in terms of numbers, they and their ideas are thought to have influenced John Wilkes Booth, the stage actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Said Lause, “John Wilkes Booth is thought to have been either a member or sympathizer with the Knights of the Golden Circle who were in Baltimore at that time. A man named George Sanders, who was a member of the Confederate secret service, was reputed to have been Booth’s contact via the group. And Sanders was a member of another secret society that advocated assassination.”

“In general, you can think of secret societies as umbrella organizations for those who want to break existing laws for what they believe are patriotic reasons,” said Lause. “On one side, there are groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle....."

The Knights of the Golden Circle Research and Historical Archives