Review: Knights of the Golden Circle
by Caveat Lector
David C. Keehn. Knights of The Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. xii + 308 pages. ISBN 978-0-80715-004-7.
In the summer of 1859 an organization calling itself 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. At the onset of the war, the Knights were by and large absorbed into Confederate politics and the military. But at the war’s end, members of the order reemerged as central conspirators in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln.
David Keehn’s Knights of The Golden Circle traces the story of this secret society from its origins in the political turmoil of the late 1850s through the Civil War. Keehn’s study is an ambitious and well-researched work that seeks to demonstrate how a clandestine association of like-minded individuals turned the southern version of manifest destiny into an influential political force. His work is all the more interesting because secret societies are, well, secret. Thus, they are not the most reliable repositories of written sources upon which historians generally rely.
Keehn’s narrative divides into three time periods. The first extends from 1859 to 1860. During these years, the Knights’ primary goal was expansion of slaveholding interests into the Southern hemisphere, particularly Mexico. George Bickley, a big-talking vocationally adrift huckster, spearheaded the movement on the pattern of another secret society, the Order of the Lone Star (OLS). OLS members were active “filibusterers”—private military expedition forces who took it upon themselves to invade Latin American countries in the name of American interests. The Knights set out to conduct similar operations in northern Mexico, but the leadership did not wish to be associated with the filibuster tradition. They insisted its members would comply with Unites States neutrality laws, and that they would invade only if invited by Mexican sympathizers. An invitation was not forthcoming and the venture faded. Still, this period served to organize the Knights into a hierarchical structure that could direct and promote its purposes across the South.
The second period covers mid-1860 through 1861. With Lincoln’s election the Knights dropped their primary goal of invading Mexico and threw their efforts behind the southern governors who were lobbying for secession. They also disassociated themselves from Bickley’s leadership and reorganized on a decentralized model led by regimental commanders at the state level. Keehn argues that through this decentralized multistate network, the Knights became the most influential secret society advocating secession. In particular, they saw success in Texas, Virginia, and Kentucky. Also in this period, the Knights employed intimidation tactics to frighten southern unionists, and they initiated bold if not rash plans to secure federal forts and arsenals in the southern states. While most members of the Knights of the Golden Circle eventually joined the Confederate army, elements of the organization remained active early in the war only later to be absorbed into more transparent pro-southern groups such as the Minute Men and the National Volunteers.
Finally, Keehn examines the period from mid-1864 to the assassination of President Lincoln. Here, the story concentrates on the possibility of a rejuvenated Knights of The Golden Circle, intent on sabotage, kidnapping, and even murder as the Confederacy faced its inevitable demise. Keehn gives particular attention to John Wilkes Booth, a member of the Knights from its earliest days, and a core group his cohorts concentrated around Baltimore and Washington. While the evidence is largely circumstantial, Keehn implies that affiliates of the Knights of the Golden Circle aided and abetted Booth and company in a failed plot to kidnap the president, as well as in Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865.
The strength of Keehn’s argument lies in the first part the book in his treatment of George Bickley and his early efforts to establish the Knights into a paramilitary organization committed to southern slaveholding imperialism. His research provides the most extensive scholarship on Bickely to date, and Keehn offers a compelling account of how the Knights understood their mission in the political context of the times. Also of great value is Keehn’s contribution to our understanding of the organizational structure of the Knights of The Golden Circle. Membership consisted of three “degrees”—the military, the commercial and financial, and the governing, the first being the rank-and-file and the last being the leadership. Moreover, the work ably demonstrates how the intimidation tactics and militarism of an antebellum secret society translated with some ease into later extremist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
A weakness of the book is Keehn’s contention that the Knights played an instrumental role in Texas’s secession movement as well as in empowering Virginia’s secessionist minority. Keehn offers very little evidence that the Knights possessed such influence, nor does he provide a clear cause and effect relationship linking the group to the politics of secession in these states. Many organizations apart from the Knights were urging secession in Texas and Virginia in the early months of 1861, and if the Knights were as influential as Keehn claims more evidence needs to be forthcoming. Similarly, associating the Knights with the conspirators who assassinated Lincoln demands much more evidence than this study provides. Keehn includes many qualifiers in this section of his study—“perhaps,” “maybe,” “likely”—but again fails to establish causation.
Despite the unconvincing arguments mentioned above, Knights of the Golden Circle remains a valuable contribution to the field of Civil War studies. Keene’s work is the best examination of the origins and activities of the Knights of The Golden Circle to date, and will likely remain a required text on the subject.