Historians have long delved into the dynamics of the 1860-61 secession crisis, exploring how a fire-eating minority engineered the departure of eleven southern states from the Union. Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey have become household names in the history of disunion. To such familiar faces, David C. Keehn adds an often-overlooked group: the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC), a “militant oath-bound secret society dedicated to promoting [white] southern rights.”According to Keehn, the Knights, formed by businessman George Bickley in 1858, were a “powerful force” that became by 1860 the “strong arm of secession” across the South (2). Keehn thus situates the KGC at the center of the secession crisis.
While the KCG, as Keehn claims, became the leading edge of disunionism, the society originated in the expansionist sentiments that swept the slaveholding South in the 1850s. Alongside filibusters like John Quitman, Bickley worked to build a slaveholding empire in the “Golden Circle region” of Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean (2). The KGC merged with the expansionist Order of the Lone Star in 1858, and in 1859 the group planned an ultimately aborted invasion of Mexico in concert with Texas Senator Sam Houston. By 1860, however, the Knights had morphed from a centralized filibustering organization into a “loose coalition” of regional chapters aimed at fomenting secession (53). State regimental commanders, in concert with influential members like Ben McColloch and allies like Henry Wise and John Pettus, turned the KGC into the paramilitary spearhead of the secessionist movement. The group, Keehn claims, became the “secret inner core within the quasi-military organizations rising in the South” in 1860, such as the South Carolina Minute Men. Keehn asserts that the 8000 Texas Knights, employing strong-arming tactics, “rustled Texas out of the Union” in February 1861 (126). The KGC also extended its long conspiratorial tendrils into other plots. The group, alongside Wise and Pettus, developed a plan to seize federal forts across the South. The successful seizure of a number of forts during the secession winter was “likely related” to the Knights. McColloch, for example, organized KGC volunteers to seize the Alamo from the United States Army in February 1861. The same month, the KGC “orchestrated” the purported assassination attempt on President-elect Lincoln by the Baltimore hairdresser Cipriano Ferrandini (184). The vocal warnings of William Seward and other Republicans about a KGC conspiracy to destroy the Union were thus, according to Keehn, quite warranted.
Keehn concludes his narrative by extending the influence of the KGC into the Civil War. In the early months of the war, Knights like Virginius Groner became Confederate officers and tapped into KGC networks to recruit troops. The Knights thus played a “key early role in supporting the Confederate war effort” (141). While the group waned in influence as the war dragged on, Keehn casts its pall over one last significant event: John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy against Lincoln. Booth, a registered Knight, tapped old organizational networks for aid in his initial kidnapping and later assassination plans. While Keehn does not go so far as to claim that the “KGC was involved in the assassination on an organizational basis,” he nonetheless suggests its influence on the events of April 1865 (184).
As fascinating as its narrative is, Keehn’s book contains a number of shortcomings. Keehn does not delve into the reception of the KGC in a diverse white South. As William Freehling has demonstrated, expansionism was largely a southwestern phenomenon opposed by slaveholders in South Carolina. Did southeasterners disdain the KGC, then? How did the group’s jettisoning of expansionism in favor of secessionism in the late 1850s change its popularity across the South, given that many southwestern expansionists like Houston were Unionists and slaveholding South Carolinians were the most virulent disunionists? Keehn’s treatment of the South as monolithic prevents him from delving into the potentially rich nuances of the organization’s shifting influence in the region.
In addition, Keehn cannot prove that the KGC spearheaded the plots that rocked the Union in the 1850s and 1860s. Just because key figures like Booth were Knights does not mean that the organization itself was the source of such plans. The main proof that the KGC was the all-powerful organizer of vast conspiracies consists of Republican claims to that effect. As historians from David Potter to Elizabeth Varon have revealed, however, conspiracy fears in each section emerged in paranoia-filled atmospheres. Just because northerners claimed that the KGC was a substantial threat did not make it one. Moreover, Republicans interested in riling up anti-southern sentiment may have latched onto the KGC because of its provocatively secret nature, rather than because of the group’s actual power. Keehn lacks proof that Republicans were not blowing the influence of the KGC out of proportion. Indeed, the author can only speculate about the origins of the federal fort seizure, Ferrandini, and Booth conspiracies in KGC machinations. Moreover, Keehn admits that only eleven of the 177 delegates at the Texas state secession convention were actual KGC members. Given his sources, Keehn ought to be content with illustrating the KGC as one organization among many in a broad secessionist movement, rather than forcing it into the role of theomnipotent puppeteer pulling the strings of disunion.
Despite its flaws, however, Keehn’s extensively researched book makes a strong contribution to the historiography of secession. No other scholar has offered as detailed and informative an account of the Knights as Keehn. The author persuasively demonstrates that the organization deserves more scholarly attention than has been afforded it—if not as the leader of secession than as an influential and illustrative organization within a diverse fire-eating mosaic too often reduced to figures like Rhett. Indeed, the evolution of the KGC from expansionism to secessionism is a fascinating one that underscores the significance of the escalating events of the late 1850s in pushing southerners toward drastic actions. Moreover, Keehn’s fluid prose makes the book an enjoyable read. Knights of the Golden Circle thus comes highly recommended for scholars and lay readers alike.
Frank J. Cirillo is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Virginia.