The Knights of the Golden Circle or K.G.C. had its beginnings in the formation of Southern Rights Clubs in various southern cities in the mid-1830s. These clubs were inspired by the philosophies of John C. Calhoun (1782–1850). Calhoun had an illustrious political career serving as a congressman from his home state of South Carolina, a state legislator, vice president under the administrations of both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and a U. S. senator. In addition to the Southern Rights Clubs, which advocated the re-establishment of the African slave-trade, some of the inspiration for the Knights may have come from a little-known secret organization called the Order of the Lone Star, founded in 1834, which helped orchestrate the successful Texas Revolution resulting in Texas independence from Mexico in 1836. Even before that, the K.G.C.'s roots went back to the Sons of Liberty of the American Revolutionary period.
The Knights of the Golden Circle was reorganized in Lexington, Kentucky, on July 4, 1854, by five men, whose names have been lost to history, when Virginia-born Gen. George W. L. Bickley (1819–1867) requested they come together. Strong evidence suggests that Albert Pike (1809–1891) was the genius behind the influence and power of the Masonic-influenced K.G.C., while Bickley was the organization's leading promoter and chief organizer for the K.G.C. lodges, what they called “Castles,” in several states. During his lifetime, Boston-born Pike was an author, educator, lawyer, Confederate brigadier general, newspaper editor, poet, and a Thirty-third Degree Mason. From its earliest roots in the Southern Rights Clubs in 1835, the Knights of the Golden Circle was to become the most powerful secret and subversive organization in the history of the United States with members in every state and territory before the end of the Civil War. The primary economic and political goal of this organization was to create a prosperous, slave-holding Southern Empire extending in the shape of a circle from their proposed capital at Havana, Cuba, through the southern states of the United States, Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. The plan also called for the acquisition of Mexico which was then to be divided into fifteen new slave-holding states which would shift the balance of power in Congress in favor of slavery. Facing the Gulf of Mexico, these new states would form a large crescent. The robust economy the KGC hoped to create would be fueled by cotton, sugar, tobacco, rice, coffee, indigo, and mining. These seven industries would employ slave labor.
In early 1860 newspapers across the country reported that the Knights of the Golden Circle were recruiting troops in numerous cities to send to Brownsville, Texas, for the planned invasion of Mexico. History is unclear about what went wrong with this invasion, but most historians agree that the well-laid plans never materialized and the invasion never happened. Some say that it failed because George Bickley was unable to provide adequate troops and supplies, but with a civil war looming on the horizon, the invasion’s failure may have been caused by the K.G.C. leaders believing they could not go to war on two fronts simultaneously. They called off their plans for Mexico and started preparing for war with the North.
When tensions between the North and South were at a breaking point and the Civil War had not yet begun, the Knights of the Golden Circle held their convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, from May 7–11, 1860. George W. L. Bickley, as president of the K.G.C., presided at this historic event. The records of this convention have survived until the present day and provide an excellent view of this order's divisions or degrees, goals, accomplishments, and size.
The K.G.C.'s first division was described as being "absolutely a Military Degree." The first division is further divided into two classes: the Foreign and Home Guards. The Foreign Guards class was the K.G.C.'s army and was composed of those who wanted "to participate in the wild, glorious and thrilling adventures of a campaign in Mexico." Those of the second class or Home Guards had two functions: to provide for the army's needs and "to defend us from misrepresentation during our absence."
The second division or class was also divided into two classes which were the Foreign and Home Corps. The Foreign Corps was to become the order's commercial agents, postmasters, physicians, ministers, and teachers and to perform the other occupations that were vital to the achievement of K.G.C. goals. The second class of this degree was the Home Corps. Their job was to advise and to forward money, arms, ammunition, and other necessary provisions needed by the organization and its army and to send recruits as rapidly as possible.
The two classes of the third division or degree were the Foreign and Home Councils. The third division is described in the convention's records as being "the political or governing division." The responsibilities of the Foreign Council were governmental, and it was divided into ten departments similar to those of the United States federal government.
One little-known historical fact that is presented in the records from the 1860 K.G.C. convention is that the Knights had their own well-organized army in 1860, before the Civil War had even begun, so they were prepared in the event of war with the North. In May of 1860 the Knights of the Golden Circle reported a total membership of 48,000 men from the North, who supported "the constitutional rights of the South," as well as men from the South, with an army of "less than 14,000 men" and new recruits joining at a rapid rate.
Shortly before the Civil War began, the state of Texas was the greatest source of this organization's strength. Texas was home for at least thirty-two K.G.C. castles in twenty-seven counties, including the towns of San Antonio, Marshall, Canton, and Castroville. Evidence suggests that San Antonio may have served as the organization’s national headquarters for a time.
The South began to secede from the Union in January 1861, and in February of that year, seven seceding states ratified the Confederate Constitution and named Jefferson Davis as provisional president. The Knights of the Golden Circle became the first and most powerful ally of the newly-created Confederate States of America.
Before the Civil War officially started on April 12, 1861, when shots were fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and before Texas had held its election on the secession referendum on February 23, 1861, Texas volunteer forces, which included 150 K.G.C. soldiers under the command of Col. Ben McCulloch, forced the surrender of the federal arsenal at San Antonio that was under the command of Bvt. Maj. Gen. David E. Twiggs on February 15, 1861. Knights of the Golden Circle who were involved in this mission included Capt. Trevanion Teel, Sgt. R. H. Williams, John Robert Baylor, and Sgt. Morgan Wolfe Merrick. Following this quick victory, volunteers who were mostly from K.G.C. companies, forced the surrender of all federal posts between San Antonio and El Paso.
Perhaps the best documentation as to the power and influence of the Knights of the Golden Circle during the Civil War is The Private Journal and Diary of John H. Surratt, The Conspirator which was written by John Harrison Surratt and later edited by Dion Haco and published by Frederic A. Brady of New York in 1866. In this journal, Surratt goes into great detail when describing how he was introduced to the K.G.C. in the summer of 1860 by another Knight, John Wilkes Booth, and inducted into this mysterious organization on July 2, 1860, at a castle in Baltimore, Maryland. Surratt describes the elaborate and secret induction ceremony and its rituals and tells that cabinet members, congressmen, judges, actors, and other politicians were in attendance. Maybe the most significant revelation of Surratt's diary is that the Knights of the Golden Circle began plotting to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in 1860, before Lincoln was even inaugurated in 1861, and continued throughout the Civil War, resulting in President Lincoln's assassination by fellow Knight Booth on April 14, 1865.
After trying unsuccessfully to peacefully resolve the conflicts between North and South, the Knights of the Golden Circle threw its full support behind the newly-created Confederate States of America and added its trained military men to the Confederate States Army. Several Confederate military groups during the Civil War were composed either totally or in large part of members of the Knights of the Golden Circle. One notable example of K.G.C. military participation in the Civil War included the Confederate's Western Expansion Movement of 1861 and 1862 led by Lt. Col. John Robert Baylor and Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley.
In 1861 Albert Pike travelled to Indian Territory and negotiated an alliance with Cherokee Chief Stand Watie. Prior to the beginning of hostilities, Pike helped Watie to become a Thirty-second Degree Scottish Rite Mason. Watie was also in the K.G.C., and he was later commissioned a colonel in command of the First Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles. In May 1864 Chief Watie was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate States Army making him the only Native American of this rank in the Confederate Army. Watie's command was to serve under CSA officers Albert Pike, Benjamin McCulloch, Thomas Hindman, and Sterling Price. They fought in engagements in Indian Territory, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri.
One of the most feared organizations of all Confederates, whose members were in large part Knights of the Golden Circle, was what was called Quantrill's Guerrillas or Quantrill's Raiders. The Missouri-based band was formed in December 1861 by William Clark Quantrill and originally consisted of only ten men who were determined to right the wrongs done to Missourians by Union occupational soldiers. Their mortal enemies were the Kansas Jayhawkers and the Red Legs who were the plague of Missouri. As the war raged on in Missouri and neighboring states, Quantrill's band attracted hundreds more men into its ranks. Quantrill's Guerrillas became an official arm of the Confederate Army after May 1862, when the Confederate Congress approved the Partisan Ranger Act. Other leaders of Quantrill's Guerrillas included William C. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, David Pool, William Gregg, and George Todd. Some of the major engagements this deadly guerrilla force participated in included the Lawrence, Kansas, raid on August 21, 1863, the battle near Baxter Springs, Kansas, in October 1863, and two battles at and near Centralia in Missouri in September of 1864. The bulk of Quantrill's band wintered in Grayson County, Texas, from 1861 through 1864.
The K.G.C. played the major role in what is referred to as the Northwest Conspiracy. The Confederate plan was to use the great numbers of Knights in the Northern states to foster a revolution that would spread across Indiana, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and any other state in the North where it was feasible. The Baker-Turner Papers, part of the U.S. War Department’s conspiracy files, revealed much of the history of this widespread movement but were kept sealed for ninety years. James D. Horan, the first person ever allowed access to the U.S. War Department's Civil War conspiracy files and the Baker-Turner Papers in the early 1950s, published Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History in 1954, which details the Northwest Conspiracy. His work used these previously-sealed documents and information gathered by numerous investigators, including the private papers of Capt. Thomas H. Hines, C.S.A., of Kentucky, who was the mastermind behind the huge conspiracy.
Throughout the Civil War, one of the Knights of the Golden Circle's most important roles came in its infiltration of Union forces. Nowhere in the country was this influence more apparent than in the state of Missouri where K.G.C. members filled the ranks of the Enrolled Missouri Militia which was commonly known as the Paw Paw Militia. A newspaper article from the Daily Times of Leavenworth, Kansas, July 29, 1864, serves as a good example in their interview with a member of the Paw Paw named Andrew E. Smith. Smith said:
I am 22 years old and live in Platte county, about two miles west of Platte City I was a member of Captain Johnston's company of Pawpaw militia, under Major Clark, and served about six months.... I am a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. I joined them at Platte City, and was sworn in by David Jenkins of that place. All of the Pawpaw militia, so far as I know, belong to them....
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Most historians accept this date of surrender as the official end of the Civil War. The Knights of the Golden Circle as an organization, however, continued to work to achieve their goals, which included a prosperous South, for many decades after the Civil War. What had been a secret society adapted to changing conditions and, after the war, became even more secretive than ever before.
In October 1864 U. S. Judge Advocate Joseph Holt submitted a detailed warning to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about the dangers posed by the Knights of the Golden Circle that was, by that time, operating under various aliases. This document is commonly called the Holt Report, but its real title is A Western Conspiracy in aid of the Southern Rebellion.
After the war's end, the K.G.C. went underground and used many aliases to hide their activities which included making preparations for a second civil war should that option be necessary. Some K.G.C. members accompanied Confederate Gen. Joseph O. Shelby to Mexico. Some soldiers returned to their homes, while others relocated to more remote frontier areas like West Texas where they could help build towns and cities that conformed to their ideals. Some Knights like Jesse Woodson James, older brother Frank James, and Cole Younger turned to robbing Northern-owned railroads, businesses, and banks after the Civil War.
The Knights of the Golden Circle, according to most authorities, ceased its operations in 1916 for two primary reasons. The United States had entered World War I, and by that time most of the old Knights of the Golden Circle had died.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: An Authentic Exposition of the “K.G.C.” “Knights of the Golden Circle,” or, A History of Secession from 1834 to 1861, by A Member of the Order (Indianapolis, Indiana: C. O. Perrine, Publisher, 1861). Donald S. Frazier, Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996). Warren Getler and Bob Brewer, Rebel Gold: One Man’s Quest to Crack the Code Behind the Secret Treasure of the Confederacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). Dion Haco, ed., The Private Journal and Diary of John H. Surratt, The Conspirator (New York: Frederic A. Brady, Publisher, 1866). Joseph Holt, Report of the Judge Advocate General on “The Order of American Knights,” alias “The Sons of Liberty.” A Western Conspiracy in aid of the Southern Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: Union Congressional Committee, 1864). James D. Horan, Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954). Jesse Lee James, Jesse James and the Lost Cause (New York: Pageant Press, 1961). K.G.C., Records of the KGC Convention, 1860, Raleigh, N.C.
Jay Longley and Colin Eby