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History's Headlines: Confederate secret society: Knights of the Golden Circle get in-depth look in book by local author

By Frank Whelan, Historian
Published On: May 03 2013 06:54:45 PM CDT
Updated On: May 04 2013 05:18:08 AM CDT

Think you know all there is to know about the Civil War? Think again.

David C. Keehn, former Allentown attorney for Air Products and a member of the board of the Lehigh County Historical Society, has something new to tell us all in his book, “Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War” (Louisiana State University Press; $39.95; 328pp). It's the first major publication on this little-known Confederate secret society that played a large role in encouraging the breakup of the Union in 1861. Among its best known members was Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. And the society even had “cells” (what they called castles) in Lehigh and Berks County at the height of the Civil War.

Keehn, who holds a degree in history from Gettysburg College and a juris doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, began his research roughly 7 years ago. He was doing some research on a paper about Lincoln’s struggle to keep the crucial border state of Kentucky in the Union in 1861. He kept coming across many references to the Knights of the Golden Circle in many newspapers of the era.

“I was surprised at the information that was available in the period from 1858 to 1865,” Keehn says. “There were hundreds of articles.”  He showed his research to his next door neighbor, Muhlenberg College history professor Dan Wilson. “Dan suggested, with all the research I had uncovered, I might want to think about doing a book on the KGC,” recalls Keehn. “He said he had seen very little written about them.” He received additional encouragement from Dr. T. Michael Parrish of Baylor University.

The result of that suggestion was Keehn’s recently published book by Louisiana State University Press. On Saturday, April 13th, a special event that included a talk by Keehn was held at the Lehigh County Historical Society’s Heritage Museum. Keehn includes in his acknowledgements LCHS director Joseph Garrera and his fellow board member, Allentown attorney Malcolm Gross, for furnishing “helpful comments and support along the way.”

Keehn notes that many Civil War historians offer little on the KGC. “Usually you get a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph,” he says. The reasons are unclear, but many have been offered over the years.

The tendency by academic historians to be skeptical of conspiracy theories led by people who wore “funny” uniforms and had secret oaths and handshakes may be one.  Another may be the desire to keep an eye on the major players like Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and a tendency to want to rush off to the excitement of the battlefield.

And a third may be just plain laziness- not wanting to do the original research that Keehn was willing to do, but simply rewrite what they learned at the knee of their professor advisor in graduate school.

But ignoring the KGC was not a mistake either Lincoln or Davis ever made. And Davis may even have been a member. Keehn believes that at the height of its influence the KGC may have had as many as 50,000 members across the South. Since it was a secret organization it did not publish membership lists. And members who did disclose the KGC rituals could face death.

The Knights were the brainchild of George W. L. Bickley, a native born Virginian who could have been created by the pen of Mark Twain. Although of limited education, Bickley was an excellent writer and what the 20th century would have called a propagandist. He was a frontier four-flusher who granted himself a medical degree and a professorship at Cincinnati’s Eclectic Medical Institute.

By marrying a wealthy widow he was able to dabble in his side interest- creating a secret society that would support expansion of the Union in Central and South America. Bickley’s plans were thrown off a bit in 1857 when his wife discovered he was trying to take over her property and had her banker brother kick him off her farm.   

In this period a number of what were called “filibusters” (largely southern soldiers of fortune) began to look south of the border with the hope of annexing Mexico and other Latin nations to the United States. Some saw it as bringing the benefits of democracy and industrial progress to those lands. But for others there was a not-so-hidden agenda to make these lands slave territories for a new American empire dominated by the South and its “peculiar institution.”

Bickley's success with the Knights was largely as a result of the fact that many people in the south and north shared the vision of an entire Western Hemisphere united under the Stars and Stripes. Many in Congress and the Democratic pro-Southern administration of James Buchanan shared this point of view. But the rise of the Republican party and the fear by the South that it would lose the control of the national government that it had held for many years led many to see leaving the Union as the only solution.

Keehn shows how Bickley was basically separated from the control of more powerful Southern leaders and how they used the Knights and later secret organizations to get state legislatures to support succession. It worked in Virginia but not Kentucky, where, thanks to Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s best friend, among others, the Blue Grass state remained uneasily in the Union. Keehn’s skillful use of John Wilkes Booth, a long standing, lower level KGC member, is another strong point of his book. He has written a masterful work of pioneering scholarship that deserves to find its way to the bookshelf of every serious student of American history.