Friday, October 21, 2011

Berks was home to Confederacy advocates


Q: Was there a group in Berks County that sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War?

Apparently there was.

The Knights of the Golden Circle, dubbed Copperheads by their critics, apparently had a strong following in western Berks County.

A clandestine organization with oaths and secret handshakes, it was bitterly opposed to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

The Knights and related groups, including the Order of the Sons of Liberty, argued that the Civil War was not being fought to save the Union but to free blacks and enslave Southern whites.

More favorable accounts said the group merely wanted peace and restoration of slavery to the Union, as it had been before the war.

Whatever the truth, historians say the Knights joined with groups that resisted the draft of 1862, encouraged Union soldiers to desert and circulated scurrilous pamphlets characterizing Lincoln as a traitor and murderer.

In Berks, the organization is the subject of a controversial book by the Rev. Francis Trout Hoover: "Enemies in the Rear: Or, a Golden Circle Squared. The Story of Southeastern Pennsylvania in the Time of Our Civil War."

Trout's 600-page fictionalized account was published in 1895. Original copies are rare, but paperback reprints are available online.

Earl W. Ibach, Womelsdorf historian, said Hoover gave his characters fictional names but that many people in western Berks knew their real-life counterparts.

"Their families bought up the books and destroyed them," Ibach said.

Indeed, Ibach said that his great-great-grandfather, Gabriel Filbert, held meetings of the Knights in a barn on his Marion Township farm.

"Wernersville had the most members," Ibach said. "Heidelberg Township had some, too."

Hoover, who grew up in western Berks, set the tone for the book in its preface.

He wrote that the Golden Circle was based on "a mixture, in about equal parts, of ignorance, hypocrisy and treason."

In one scene, Hoover creates a fictionalized account of a meeting where locals are sworn in as members of the Golden Circle.

"You do solemnly swear in the presence of Almighty God to never reveal the secrets of the Sons of Liberty, also known as the Knights of the Golden Circle, of which you herewith become a member," Hoover wrote.

All agree, and recite an oath in which they promise, among other things, to resist the draft, protect deserters, return runaway slaves to their owners and help abduct Abraham Lincoln, "the so-called President of the United States."

Hoover mixes fact and fiction.

In the book, an operative extols the deeds of former U.S. Rep. Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, leader of the Copperheads.

In reality, Vallandigham was court-martialed and sentenced to prison for siding with the enemy, but Lincoln commuted his sentence and banished him to an area behind Confederate lines.

In another passage, Hoover has a brigade of ax-handle-wielding Knights marching on Reading on April 7, 1863, where their leader, Philip Huber, was being held in prison.

Indeed, an item in the Philadelphia Press on April 3, 1863, said Huber and three others were arrested in Reading and charged with being connected with a treasonable organization. They had been taken to a Philadelphia jail, the item said, adding that "considerable excitement existed in Reading in regard to the affair."

Ask Ron is a weekly feature providing answers to quirky curiosities of the Berks County area. Is there something that you're curious about? Pose the question to Ron Devlin at 610-371-5030 or