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Knights of the Golden Circle

Knights of the Golden CircleBy the year 1834, there were to be found, in Charleston, New Orleans, and some other Southern cities, a few politicians who earnestly desired the re-establishment of the African slave-trade and the acquisition of new slave territory. These men formed themselves into secret juntos, which, without any particular form or ritual, were called S.R.C.'s, (Southern Rights Clubs.) They had certain signs of recognition, by which they made themselves known to each other

The first efforts of the S.R.C.'s, therefore, were directed to the fitting out, manning, and equipping of secret slavers, which were to cruise around the African coast and kidnap negroes whenever a good opportunity was afforded. Between the years 1834 and 1840 it is presumed that at least six of these vessels were equipped and sent out. Some of them were successful, and filled the measure of their appointment, while others were captured by English and other fleets, to the great mortification of the S.R.C.'s, and the discouragement of their enterprise.

The South's expansionists had little success when they tried to extend slavery westward. As one after another of their plots failed, southern imperialists lost hope that their labor system might survive in the Union. Blaming northern Democrats and antislavery Republicans alike for their disappointed dreams, alienated southerners embraced secession as an alternative means to achieving the tropical slave empire that they craved. Had war not erupted at Fort Sumter, Confederates might have attempted to conquer the Caribbean basin.

Knights of the Golden CircleAmerica's Manifest Destiny became "sectionalized" in the 1850s, as southerners considered Caribbean expansion so important. They used their clout in Washington to initiate diplomatic schemes like the Ostend Manifesto and presidential attempts to buy the slaveholding island of Cuba from Spain. Southern filibustering plots against Latin American domains, included the aborted designs on Mexico of the colorful Knights of the Golden Circle and the actual invasions of Central America by native Tennessean William Walker. Walker struck a major blow for the expansion of slavery when he legalized it during his occupation of Nicaragua. The Caribbean plots affected American public opinion and ignited sectional friction in congressional debates. President-elect Abraham Lincoln might have saved the Union in the winter of 1860-61, had he agreed to last minute concessions facilitating slavery's future expansion towards the tropics. Caribbean expansion was the poison pill that killed the Crittenden Compromise and destroyed the only chance to save the Union in 1861.

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. 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. The several divisions of the K. G. G, according to the new constitution, were called Castles. As in the case of most other secret orders, there were subordinate castles, and a Grand Castle, State Castle, or Legion.

The year 1856 gave the Knights a new impetus, and added many to their numbers, in consequence of the very large growth of the anti-slavery sentiment in the North during that year, an especial manifestation of which was afforded by the Presidential campaign. It was now that the rank pro-slavery tree began to produce the buds of secession. The year 1858 found the Knights of the Golden Circle more highly organized, and gaining wonderfully in popularity. To the by-laws were added one strongly prohibiting any member from presenting the name of any new applicant unless he had the best of reasons for believing that such applicant was a good Southern man, and perfectly "sound on the nigger."

The Knights of the Golden Circle was formed primarily, it is asserted, for the destruction of the nationality of the Republic, the seizure of the richest provinces of Mexico and the island of Cuba, and the establishment of an empire with slavery for its corner-stone. That empire was to be included in a golden circle, as its projectors termed it, having its center at Havana, in Cuba, with a radius of sixteen degrees of latitude and longitude, and reaching northward to the Pennsylvania line, and southward to the Isthmus of Darien. It would include the West India Islands and those of the Caribbean Sea, with a greater part of Mexico and Central America.

Knights of the Golden Circle Knights of the Golden Circle

The organization composed of the Knights of the Golden Circle was the soul of all the "filibustering" movements from 1850 to 1857; and when these failed, its energies were concentrated to the accomplishment of one of its prime objects—the destruction of the Union.

In the summer of 1859 the secret organization calling themselves the Knights of the Golden Circle achieved national notoriety as an influential secret society formed to defend the rights southern slaveholders. Their early purposes included expanding southern imperial interests into the “golden circle” of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, however, the Knights turned their attention to encouraging secession from the union, and, more aggressively, paramilitary seizure of arsenals and forts to be used to supply the yet to be formed Confederate army.

The pro-slavery men across the USA banded together in Knights of the Golden Circle to resist the draft, and obstruct the prosecution of the war. Those in favor of the war, joined a secret order called the "Union League," and their aim was to render all the assistance they could to prosecute the war. In 1861 Members of the Inner Temple of the Knights of the Golden Circle are to be scattered all through Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland, for the purpose of harassing and injuring the friends and soldiers of the Union in every way they can.

Knights of the Golden CircleStrong evidence suggests that Albert Pike (1809–1891) was the genius behind the influence and power of the Masonic-influenced K.G.C. Boston-born Pike was an author, educator, lawyer, Confederate brigadier general, newspaper editor, poet, and a Thirty-third Degree Mason. Pike is the only Confederate military officer or figure to be honored with an outdoor statue in Washington, DC. After The Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, General Pike was faced with charges that his troops had scalped soldiers in the field. Major General Thomas C. Hindman also charged Pike with mishandling of money and material, ordering his arrest. Both these charges were later found to be considerably lacking in evidence; nevertheless Pike, facing arrest, escaped into the hills of Arkansas, sending his resignation from the Confederate Army on July 12th, 1862. He was at length arrested on November 3rd under charges of insubordination and treason, and held briefly in Warren Texas but his resignation was accepted on 11 November.

A number of members of the Order spent time in a basement in Indianapolis experimenting with Greek Fire, while the people thought they were at church. This Greek Fire was composed of Bi-sulphate of Carbon and Phosphorus, and was to be used for the destruction of United States Government property, and the Jeff Davis Government was to pay the organization of the Sons of Liberty 10 percent of the value of all United States Government property destroyed by the use of this Greek Fire, taking the estimates as given in the Northern newspapers of the value of the property destroyed; and that two steamboats burned in the spring at the wharf in Louisville, and steamboats belonging to the United States Government that had been destroyed on the Mississippi River, and elsewhere, had been burned by this Greek Fire.


With the Texan Knights, there was one great obstacle in the way of progress, viz.: the large free-laboring German population. The Germans in Texas had demonstrated to the world that they could even excel the "nigger" in the cultivation of the cotton , plant. This was considered as a very dangerous argument against the "peculiar institution." The great plea in favor of Slavery in the South had ever been that "cotton, could not be grown without African service," and that the whole intelligent world should see a practical demonstration of its fallacy was something that the "chivalry" never could submit to.

Two adventurers (George W. Bickley and his nephew) were busily engaged in the establishment of "castles" or lodges all over Texas, creating a powerful band of secret plotters against the Government, and receiving, as rich compensation for their work, all the initiation-fees paid by members. These "castles" included many members of the Legislature and active politicians in all parts of Texas. Sixty of these men, early in January, 1861, called a State Convention, to meet at Austin on the 28th of that month; and a single member of the Legislature issued a call for the assembling of that body at the same time and place. Already a system of terrorism had been inaugurated, and there was general alarm.'

Under the management of the Knights of the Golden Circle, or "K.G.C." as they styled themselves by initials, and the disloyal judges of Texas, an election of delegates to the Convention was held. The whole movement seemed so ridiculous, — so illegally and harmlessly revolutionary, — that the great body of the people regarded it as a farce, and not one-half of the voters of the State appeared at the polls.

The members of the K. G C. began and carried out such a system of abuse and oppression towards the valuable class of free-laboring German population, as finally resulted in the exodus of the entire German population (25,000) from Texas to Mexico, in the early part of the spring of 1861.


When the plan for a Pacific Republic was abandoned they planned the seizure of the Mexican province of Sonor1, which the French also coveted. At the commencement of the war, California secessionists had formed a league of Knights of the Golden Circle, taking oath to support a Pacific Coast Republ1c, and had planned the seizure of the Custom House and the Mint in San Francisco, the Navy Yard at Mare Island, and the depot at Benicia.

Oregon, California and Washington occupied a peculiar and at the same time most distressing position. It was a well-known fact that an organization familiarly known as the “Knights of the Golden Circle” was bound under an iron-clad oath to uphold the interest of the Southern Confederacy at any cost. The primary object of the movement, which numbered 100,000 men, was to take the Presidio, Mint and Custom House at San Francisco, also the navy yard at Mare Island, and the arsenal at Benicia.

A committee of trusted men was delegated to examine every gun at Alcatraz Island, note their calibre and condition, also their various locations. At this time Fort Point had not been turned over to the War Department, it being in charge of an engineer, and was still unfinished. The exposed condition of the Mare Island powder magazine was carefully noted, also the condition of the Benicia Arsenal with its small arms and fixed ammunition. Every government position at this time, with the exception of a few in the Mint, was held by a Southerner.

Shortly after Lincoln's election in 1860, Senator Gwin, of California, with the undoubted knowledge and cooperation of Joseph Lane, of Oregon, formulated a plan for a slave-holding republic on the Pacific coast, with an aristocracy similar to the old Republic of Venice, vesting all power in a hereditary nobility, with an executive elected from themselves. In the formation of a Pacific Coast Confederacy meant return to office, with a very good chance of enriching themselves under a lax and almost irresponsible government.

Should the Southern States succeed in withdrawing from the Union and setting up a Southern Confederacy without war, then with a continuous line of slave territory from Texas to the Pacific, the Pacific coast should combine with the South; but if war ensued between the North and South, then the coast should be captured, and the Venetian Republic be inaugurated separately, and slaves imported from the Isles of the Sea.

California was shipping about $4,000,000 in gold each month, without which the Government could not prolong the war, and yet it was left solely without protection. Had it not been for the unswerving fidelity of her citizen soldiery, everything belonging to the Government would have passed into the hands of the secessionists.

Unfortunately their plans failed, because the person chosen to lead the attack upon the public buildings named refused to accept the responsibility; and before another could be agreed upon. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, U.S.A., assumed command at the Presidio in San Francisco, thus relieving Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, who went into th* Southern States via Mex1co at once.


While California was doing its best to aid the Federal Government and at the same time protect itself, the State of Oregon was torn with strife. The “Knights of the Golden Circle” claimed thousands of Oregonians as members who were as active as the secessionists of California. Practically every movement of any consequence in California had strong support from former Oregon officials, and in some instances was planned by them. The eight hundred selected to capture the Government property at San Francisco, was headed by Senator William Gwin, of California. Closely associated with him were ex-Senator Lane, of Oregon, and James Tilton, SurveyorGeneral of Washington, under appointment from Presidents Pierce and Buchanan. The opposition was headed by James Nesbit, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin; Colonel George Wright, U.S.A.

Gwin of California, Lane of Oregon, and a man named Tilden of Washington, were the instigators and advisors of this second movement to steal the Pacific coast from the Federal Union and hold it for the forces of disunion and secession. They chose for a title the quaint and striking name of "Knights of the Golden Circle."

Rifles in cases were secretly smuggled into Oregon and concealed in barns in Benton and Lane counties, to be used in a hoped-for uprising in favor of the Southern Confederacy if the success of its armies in the field would justify the move. Provost marshal, Captain J. M. Koeler. with a corps of detectives, was sent to Oregon to watch the movements of certain men, and promptly arrest them at any attempt to organize armed opposition to the government.

The organization of secession sentiment in Oregon was represented in the Knights of the Golden Circle. There were about ten circles in the state—among them two at Portland, two at Salem and one each at Scio, Albany, Jacksonville and in Yamhill County.'8 Fortunately, their operations were seriously handicapped, as two spies employed by Oregon's AdjutantGeneral, C. A. Reed, kept him fully informed of the work and plans of the Knights.

The situation of Oregon at this time was one of peculiar danger. Both England and France were in open sympathy with the states in revolt. The French Government were setting up an empire in Mexico. England was causing trouble over the disputed boundary at the entrance to Puget Sound. Not a single fort or coast or river defense existed in either Oregon or Washington, and at any time these hostile foreign powers might combine with the Indians as they had done in earlier wars and with the disloyal and disaffected within.

A series of resolutions was introduced October 2, 1862, in the Confederate Congress and referred to the committee on foreign affairs, recognizing the practical neutrality of the States of California and Oregon and the Territories of Washington and Nevada. The resolutions suggested the advantages which would result to the people thereof upon an immediate assertion on their part of their independence of the United States and proposed the formation of a league, offensive and defensive, between the said states and Territories and the Confederate States of America.' It was well understood in Oregon that the plotters for a Pacific Republic were merely biding their time, waiting to strike until the further success of the Confederate armies should render the Union cause hopelessly desperate.

As far as actual political events were concerned, the year 1863 was an uneventful one in Oregon. There were no political campaigns—no elections. However, it was a critical year. The various fortunes of the conflict in the East were closely followed in distant Oregon. As the prospect for the success of the Union arms grew darker, secession sympathizers in Oregon became more rampant.

But in the dark days of 1863 the secession Democrats were not the only ones to whom the idea of an independent government on the Pacific Coast, appealed. One of the very prominent men in the state, both then and for nearly a half century afterward, a leading participant in the Union movement, argued openly in the state house with the state secretary and treasurer and before the Adjutant-General, in behalf of a Pacific Republic. "Now is the time to strike," he urged. "We are the natural allies of the South and the North will be in no position to oppose us." The Adjutant-General called him into his office and threatened him with arrest for treason if he repeated the expression of such sentiment. A few Union victories followed and the man in question made a public address in Salem in favor of upholding the Union.

At the second election of President Lincoln it was a known fact that the Knights had their arms cached in the neighborhood of the leading polling places, and intended to carry the election by force of arms. This was only prevented by the militia who were superior in numbers and who adopted similar tactics which proved effective. It was for this reason, together with the danger of Indian outbreaks, that the companies of the Oregon volunteer regiment of cavalry, which had been enlisted for service in the war, were retained in the Northwest.

About January 1st, 1864, the 'Knights of the Golden Circle,' under the title of the 'Order of American Knights,' changing soon after (February 22nd, 1864,) to the 'Order of Sons of Liberty,' their system was perfected, and their military organization assumed form and substance.


By May 1864 leaders in Indiana of a the organization known as the"Sons of Liberty,"and formerly as the "Knights of the Golden Circle," and as the "Order of American Knights, were going into the State of Kentucky to organize lodges of that treasonable organization. The Order of Sons of Liberty was the re-organization from the Knights of the Golden Circle, which had afterward become the Order of American Knights, and then the Order of Sons of Liberty.

It was claimed that the forces of Indiana and Ohio would concentrate in Kentucky, and make Kentucky their battle ground, and that the forces of Illinois would proceed to St. Louis, and co-operate with those of Missouri; that Illinois would furnish 50,000 men, Missouri 30,000 men, and that the rebel General Sterling Price would invade Missouri with 20,000 troops, and that with the 100,000 men they could occupy and permanently hold Missouri, while the forces from Indiana and Ohio, together with those from Kentucky and such troops as .the Confederate authorities would send into Kentucky under Buckner or Breckenridge could easily hold Kentucky, or make their way into the Southern Confederacy.

James A. Barrett of Missouri pledged 50,000 men for Missouri, and Illinois pledged 50.000 men. The forces of Illinois and Missouri were to co-operate with the rebel General Sterling Price, who would have 20,000 regular Confederate troops in Missouri, if Jeff. Davis could spare that many men to be sent into Missouri; and that Indiana was pledged to furnish 40,000 of the 75,000 men belonging to the Order in that State, which, together with such forces as Ohio might furnish, and Jeff. Davis was to send into Kentucky under either General Breckenridge or Buckner, both Kentuckians, such troops as could be spared for that purpose, to co-operate with the forces from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, and permanently hold the State, or join the Confederate army in the South.

The change of the name of the Order from that of "Order of American Knights," to the Order of Sons of Liberty, and the change of the Supreme Commander from P. C. Wright of New York, to Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, who was then residing in Canada, had been made at the meeting of the Supreme Council of the Order held in New York on the 22nd day of February 1864.

An Ohio Congressman, Clement Laird Vallandigham served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1858 until 1862. While in Congress Vallandigham became a leader of the Copperhead faction of anti-war Democrats. Vallandigham was a vigorous proponent of states' right, including the right to secede. He believed that the Union had no constitutional right to regulate slavery or to militarily attack the Confederacy.

Post-War Activity

On 14 April 1865 President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the hands of actor John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln died the next morning). Conventional wisdom held that Booth and a small group of accomplices committed this act (and the attempt to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward) alone. But evidence is slowly emerging that the “decapitation” plot and its execution came at the behest of a much larger, more organized cabal, the Knights of the Golden Circle.

By one account, the 13-man Inner Sanctum which ran the Golden Circle in the years immediately following the Civil War elected Colonel Elbert DeWitt Travis, alias William Clarke Quantrill and Charley Hart, as its chief. He served until his death in the middle 1890s. Secretary of the Inner Sanctum was “Uncle George” Payne, while Jesse James was elected treasurer and comptroller in 1867 when Emperor Maximilian donated $12.5 million to the group. The other ten members were said to be General Nathan B. Forrest, John Patterson (Jefferson Davis), Bud Dalton, Professor B.E.Bedeczek, Lewis Dalton, George Baxter, Captain John James, Coleman Younger, General J. O. Shelby, and Jack (Brac) Miller. As members of the Inner Sanctum died or became too old to serve, they were replaced up to 1916. Old Jesse James was the head of the Golden Circle when its executive body decided there wasn’t going to be a Second Civil War and sealed the records in 1916.

Possibly some or most of this account is fanciful. When dealing with the machinations of a secret society whose members were sworn to blood oaths of silence, coming up with incontrovertible “conclusive” evidence is near impossible.

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Page last modified: 19-10-2017 15:20:23 ZULU