Knights of the Golden Circle: Southern Empire, Secret Society

George W. L. Bickley was a man with a troubled childhood, a scheming brain, and a thirst for fame and power. Add to that a well-read mind and real talent as an author and speaker, and you have the ingredients for a founder of a secret society that rocked the United States to its core in the 1860s.

Bickley formed the Knights of the Golden Circle on July 4, 1854. Membership sputtered along until Bickley managed to convince the already existing Order of the Lone Star – and its 15,000 members ranging from New York to Texas – to merge with the KGC. Suddenly he had a national organization worthy of the name. 

The goal? To annex Mexico to the United States for a start, and later grab Cuba and other South American countries to create an empire – a “golden circle” of Southern states.

Annexation and Ambition

Annexing southern countries was not an idea unique to Bickley. Cuba, still under the power of Spain, had multiple uprisings for freedom in the 1800s. Due to its proximity to the United States, many Americans looked favorably upon the idea of taking possession of it, both to extend US territory and to neutralize any possible enemy attacks from that location. Of course, Texas had been annexed to the US in 1845. Therefore, many were eyeing the bordering country of Mexico as more fruitful land to add to the US’s “Manifest Destiny” of expansionism. Furthermore, many South American countries were in the midst of revolutions to overthrow their parent European countries’ domination. They seemed ripe for possible annexation as well.

Bickley tapped into these American expansionist ambitions to cull support for his own ambition – to be part of the ruling elite of a Southern empire. 

Goals of the Empire

Of course, it’s no fun to simply conquer an empire and leave it at that. Bickley had much larger visions. In his own twisted way, he wanted to bring a utopian prosperity and morality to mankind by ruling them with a benevolent rod of iron. 

In a long, windy and somewhat contradictory declaration in “General Order 52,” Bickley observed that while some say that peace is “a national blessing,” on the contrary, “all civilization is the fruit of war.” And it was just fortunate, according to Bickley, that there was a war for expansion and annexation just crying out to be fought. 

Non-Anglo culture desperately needed the intervention of white Americans, in Bickley’s mind. Bickley remarked loftily, “The Anglo-American race has shown its moderation in government, its justice in trade, its generosity in war, and its superiority in all the walks of life; and the K.G.C. firmly believe that Providence has ordained it to evangelize and civilize the world....there is a land open to our occupancy; there is a people who beg our intervention.”

Somehow, he and other KGC members deceived themselves into believing that non-Anglos (blacks and Hispanics in particular) were all part of inferior cultures that needed the firm ruling hand of the Anglo-Saxon race. Unfortunately, this was an all-too-common belief throughout the western world in the middle 1800s. Thus, expanding KGC membership by tapping into the “Anglo-Saxon” superiority complex was fairly easy.

Bickley's KGC badge.
Courtesy of Christopher Lyons
Badges, Codes and Rituals

Secret societies were all the rage in the 1800s. They were much like social clubs, and each society had its own aims and benefits. The KGC was primarily a military organization, but it had accompanying benefits such as the support of maimed veterans and widows. Local chapters were called “castles” and members were promised regular pay and rations when they went to war. And there was the promise of free land and presumed prosperity once the KGC’s aims of southern annexation were realized. 

Special tokens, badges, handshakes and secret signs were spelled out for the KGC members. This was more than mere playacting for fun – the society’s goals of militant empire-building were actually illegal under the 1818 US Neutrality Act. Secrecy was a practical requirement.

Though there were a number of badges and tokens specified, Bickley relied on one theme over and over: a star and a golden circle. The "Rules, Regulations and Principles of the KGC" command that, "All commissioned officers shall wear the great emblem of the legion…on the right breast." The emblem was described as "Gold circle encasing Greek cross, in center of which is a star.” A photograph exists of Bickley wearing his KGC badge and a badge of this description was found in Bickley’s effects after his arrest. Christopher Lyons, an historian of the KGC, has taken measurements of Bickley’s original badge and was a great help to me in recreating it for my customers.

Secession and Demise

As tensions rose between North and South in 1860, the aims of the KGC began to shift from planning annexation to supporting secession. By 1860, the KGC already had or was recruiting many members in positions of power. Government officials, legislators, and military officers throughout the US either became members or worked with the KGC to strengthen the position of the Southern states in case of secession and war. 

George Bickley, wearing his KGC badge.
By 1860, the KGC claimed at least 48,000 members in the North alone. There were castles from California to the Eastern seaboard. These were organized military units, not merely names on a club roster. Military service was a requirement for membership. By the time the conflict began at Fort Sumter in April 1861, KGC troops were already taking military posts across the South, including the large federal arsenal at San Antonio, Texas. In many cases, the nucleus of a Southern unit raised early in the war was a local KGC castle. KGC castles were also instrumental in “persuading” (peacefully or otherwise) state conventions to vote for secession.

As KGC castles became absorbed into the Confederate army, their fame dissipated. By the end of the war, the KGC had disappeared. Some claimed that it continued and simply reorganized under other names. But so far, no historic proof has been found for that theory. 

And what happened to Bickley? In June 1863, he headed north, possibly to help arrange support for Morgan’s Raid. His activities were deemed suspicious and he was eventually arrested and incarcerated for two years without trial. Ever concerned first with his own advancement, Bickley offered numerous plea deals, including a plan to instruct all KGC members to vote for Abraham Lincoln in 1864! (The deals were rejected.) He was released in 1865 upon his oath of amnesty with no charges ever being filed against him. He died in relative obscurity two years later. 

No comments:

Post a Comment