From Insurance to Empire: Cockades of Fraternal Orders

From providing life insurance for firemen to plotting a North-South American empire, fraternal organizations had a huge impact on the Victorian era.

Fraternal orders were popular from the 1700s through the early 1900s. Freemasons are probably one of the most well-known and oldest fraternal organizations (a number of American founders were Freemasons). But there were hundreds of other orders founded as well. Some were merely for socializing and financial support of the members' families. Others had deep-laid and secret plans for empire-building.

All of them had unique rites - and cockades!

Masonic Hat Cockade

Empire Building

The Freemasons claim to be the oldest order in America, starting in Europe previous to the Revolution. Contrary to popular books and movies, the Freemason society had little to do with the Revolution itself, as rebellion against the state is against the society's principles. However, Freemasonry had a great deal to do with the establishment of the new United States, as the order's ideals of freedom and equality became founding national principles.

As the young nation grew, more fraternal societies formed - and political factions formed as well. In the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s, a couple of orders in particular were created that were destined to have major impact on America's future: the Southern Rights Club and the Order of the Lone Star. One was destined to birth the secession movement, and the other won Texas from Mexico. Both of them were precursors to the Knights of the Golden Circle, an organization with mighty aims.

A Texas member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, with cockade.
DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

The KGC and Secession

Before the Civil War even started, the KGC had its first Confederate victory - in Texas. Trained KGC troops under the command of Col. Ben McCulloch, forced the surrender of the federal arsenal at San Antonio in February 1861.

The Knights, comprised of local chapters called "castles,"  had originally formed in order to create a southern empire including Cuba, Central America, Mexico and the Southern United States. At the outbreak of the Civil War, they abandoned this aim and instead joined forces with the Confederate army. Their influence for secession was undoubtedly major.

A fascinating (and Union-biased) "Exposition of the KGC" published in 1861 reports the following: "All the principle castles now put on their holiday garments, and men were heard in the streets to thank God that the 'hour for Southern deliverance had come.'...No sooner had the news of the election of Lincoln been received, than every Knight in Charleston mounted a cockade on his hat and ran through the streets shouting, 'GLORY! we are free! we are independent!'"

In addition to the Southern "castles," the Knights were the primary force behind many Copperhead movements throughout the North and West. In fact, Southerners planned on the aid of these Knights to quickly win the war. The "Exposition" observed:

"At no time previous to the bombardment of Fort Sumter was it presumed that the number of men to be counted on from the North would fall below 100,000 and with these, and the assistance of Northern capitalists, Northern engineers, manufacturers, etc., together with the heavy drafts to be made on the U. S. Treasury and the U. S. Arsenals, it was confidently apprehended as nothing more than a breakfast spell to 'clean out the Abolitionists,' capture the Capital at Washington, and kick Uncle Sam into nonenity."

The KGC aims died with the Southern cause, but the KGC organization lasted until the death of its members in the early 1900s.  Besides many Confederate generals and officials, famous members of the KGC included John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James.

Insurance and Social Clubs

Fraternal organizations with benign aims existed as well. After the war, a "Golden Age of Fraternalism" occurred, continuing into the early 1900s. Some sources believe that at least 50% of the male population belonged to at least one fraternal organization during this time. The goals of the orders were as varied as the orders themselves: insurance, politics, social functions, and heritage. In general, an order's aim was to provide aid and socialization for its members.

The Grand Army of the Republic was formed for Union veterans to continue their wartime camaraderie. The United Confederate Veterans served the same purpose.

The Knights of Pythias was formed for insurance and aid purposes. The Order of the Elks (now the Elks Lodge) was originally created as a social club in New York. The Woodmen of the World was an insurance and aid organization, and continues as an insurance company to this day. In addition to these well-known orders, thousands of small and local fraternities were created for socialization and aid for firemen, coal miners, factory workers, and more.
Knights of Columbus hat with cockade


The Orders Today

The Great Depression hit the fraternities hard, many people not being able to afford extras like membership fees and insurance. Then government welfare and commercial insurance companies took the place of many fraternities devoted to aid. Some dissolved and others simply turned into insurance companies themselves.

However, military and patriotic fraternities gained members during the World Wars and many continue to this day. Orders for charity and aid still exist as well, such as the Knights of Columbus or the Fraternal Order of Police.

The legacy of the Victorian orders continues through modern times in insurance companies, unions, college fraternities, and heritage organizations. And if you look at their badges and cockades, many of them still retain the original symbolism of the fraternal orders!


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