Wednesday, December 4, 2013

SAN BERNARDINO: Knights of the Civil War


Gen. Edwin "Bull Head" Sumner sent troops to San Bernardino to discourage the Knights of the Golden Circle.
Spies were everywhere.
Rumors snaked through communities, growing as they went.
People wondered whose side their neighbors were on.
Lawmakers moved to break California in two.
And members of a shadow society crept into positions of power.
In 1861, the mood on the cusp of the Civil War was anything but detached in San Bernardino County. The balance between Northern and Southern sympathizers in the state, and especially in Southern California, was tenuous. At the turmoil’s center was Holcomb Valley.
In his book, “Los Angeles in Civil War Days,” John Robinson recounts some of the goings-on.
On June 3, he writes, Edwin A. Sherman, the editor of a Unionist paper called the San Bernardino Patriot, wrote a letter to Gen. Edwin “Bull Head” Sumner, commander of the Department of the Pacific, warning him of sedition in the thriving gold mining area near Big Bear Lake.
“Secret meetings continue to be held all over this lower country, and secession and disunion are boldly avowed in our streets,” Sherman wrote. “Shooting continues to be the order of the day, and drunken desperadoes and Southern cutthroats damn the Stars and Stripes and endeavor to create disturbances most of the time.”
Another paper, the Southern News, claimed 200 secessionists were prepared to march into Los Angeles and seize the government stores there, Robinson recounts. By the time the news reached Northern California, the 200 men had grown to 2,000.
And amid such rumors was the name of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Estimates of the group’s size in California range as high as 100,000. Robinson thinks 16,000 is a more realistic number. The bulk of the membership was in Southern California.
The history of the secret society goes as far back as 1835. By the 1850s, it had established a huge following in the South. Its goals were not just to preserve the South but to expand it by taking over Mexico.
In part, the group saw it as a duty to help the Mexican people by “Americanizing” them. But there were other, probably larger, motivations as well.
Addressing a convention of the knights in North Carolina in 1860, the group’s president, George Bickley, told the gathering that some of its members were already working with people in Mexico “to infuse such an American element in that country as will lead to the establishment of a permanent and just government.”
Bickely envisioned 15,000 Knights of the Golden Circle invading and capturing Vera Cruz. The move, he said, would divert attention from the saber-rattling of the North and South.
He also believed a conquered Mexico would be apportioned into 25 new states that would align with the South, overwhelmingly tipping the balance of power.
The knights also planned to covertly infiltrate the stronghold of the North. Part of this strategy was successful in California, particularly in San Francisco and the Central Valley, where members held key military and political positions.
But other than encouraging and aiding bands of volunteers in making their way to Arizona Territory and Texas to enlist, the group never took any cohesive action in California. The fear that they might, however, was widespread.
In his eventual response to Sherman’s letter, Sumner sent two companies to San Bernardino under the direction of Maj. William Ketchum. Hearing rumors of an impending attack, Ketchum urgently requested reinforcements.
Those reinforcements never arrived, and, as with much of the hype about the Knights of the Golden Circle, neither did the attack.
It was one fight the city managed to stay out of.
Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or
Mark Muckenfuss