by Caveat Lector

Emerging onto the national scene during the summer of 1859, the semi-secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle had lofty goals. With their expansionist plans put on hold by the election of a Republican president in 1860, David Keehn’s Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War argues that the KGC’s leaders and members were guiding forces in taking several southern states out of the federal union, with key roles in seizing forts and arsenals and providing manpower for the Confederacy’s provisional army.

Originally conceived as a brotherhood of individuals seeking both protection of southern rights within the U.S. and slaveholding hegemony over the troubled Americas (the “Golden Circle” referring to Central America and the Caribbean), the KGC’s first target was northern Mexico. The leadership took great pains to distance itself from the filibuster tradition, publicly avowing that its members would comply with the neutrality laws, so much depended on invitation from Mexican sympathizers. When expected cooperation from the Juarez government was not forthcoming, the entire project fizzled.  It’s unclear what would have happened in the unlikely event that Mexican KGC support materialized, as there’s no indication that funding or manpower expectations were ever met.

With Lincoln’s election in 1860, the KGC’s focus quickly switched gears toward supporting secession and arming for defense. Keehn’s study focuses specifically on Knight activities in Texas, Virginia, and Kentucky. According to the author, the KGC largely disappeared from the scene when its members were absorbed into the Confederate army. Differing with previous historians and contemporaneous Union propaganda, Keehn believes that the anti-administration Order of the American Knights (OAK) and the later Sons of Liberty that spread throughout the Midwest and Border States during the second half of the Civil War should really be considered new entities, with their own rituals and goals, rather than offshoots of the KGC. The final section of the book discusses the possibility of KGC involvement in the various Lincoln kidnapping and assassination plots, but arrives at no firm conclusions.

While a great many Civil War era studies mention the KGC, insights into its founder are distinctly lacking, making Keehn’s extensive biographical treatment of George Bickley one of his most valuable contributions. The author was also able to uncover documents detailing the organizational structure of the KGC (composed of three steps or “degrees” — military, financial, and leadership — the latter the most secretive) and some of its rituals. The picture of Bickley that emerges out of Keehn’s research is that of a persuasive public speaker and tireless promoter who over time acquired a reputation as a bit of a shyster.  He also proved unable to guide any undertaking to a successful result.  His Mexico venture utterly failed as did all attempts to keep the military wing of the society under his personal command.  A KGC convention instead elected to disperse authority to the individual “castle” leaders, leaving Bickley essentially powerless.  During the war, he was arrested by U.S. authorities, his statements while under confinement increasingly erratic. Released in October 1865, he died two uneventful years later.

One of the book’s primary themes is Keehn’s contention that the scope of KGC influence and operations has been badly underestimated in the current historiography. He contends that the KGC was a guiding force in Texas’s secession movement and in sweeping Virginia’s secessionist minority into power. The problem with this argument is the lack of convincing documentation or even knowledge of who was or was not a KGC member. With all of Keehn’s great work in synthesizing the current scholarship and uncovering new sources (especially newspapers), the volume contains essentially no manuscript material from either leaders or rank and file members that specifically address KGC activities, a situation not surprising given the secretive nature of the group. To persuasively promote the idea of the KGC as a prime mover in the secession movements of at least two states, one must provide evidence of plans and actions derived directly from the group and its hierarchy. There’s little to none of this in the book. The fact that the KGC chose to disperse authority to local castles instead of creating some kind of central command structure itself would seem to preclude any kind of coordinated campaign.

Even if one finds a central argument of the study to be ultimately unconvincing, Knights of the Golden Circle remains a work of tremendous worth. More work remains to be done, but it is clearly the deepest examination of the origins and activities of the KGC to date, the ‘go to’ subject history for some time to come. Undoubtedly, the boldness of Keehn’s assertions will spark a lively conversation among academics in the field. Whether or not other scholars will take up Keehn’s challenge to delve even deeper is difficult to predict given the lack of attention in the past, but he’s certainly provided the building blocks for many future efforts.