4 February 2012


Mark A. Lause. A Secret Society History of the Civil War. University of Illinois Press, 2011

The influence of Freemasonry on American Independence is fairly well-known (e.g. from Baigent and Leigh, The Temple and the Lodge, which formed the basis for Dan Brown’s latest novel), but not much has been published, at least in Britain, about the involvement of secret societies in the American Civil War.
This book is not entirely easy to read, because, for one thing, it is assumed that the reader will know a lot about the American Civil War already, which is not true of the average Briton, and there were a bewildering number of political movements flourishing at the time, even before one gets to the secret societies.

The latter were generally organised on quasi-masonic grounds, but espoused between them the whole spectrum of contemporary political views (in contrast to the Freemasons themselves, who were and remain avowedly apolitical). At the outset we are told of the initiation ceremonies of the Brotherhood of the Union, at which a costumed herald announced “Behold the enemies of mankind!” Curtains then parted to reveal a table covered with scarlet on which were a Gospel and a copy of the Declaration of Independence, but then those present “expressed their contempt for the ethics of the Gospel and the values of the Declaration.” Apparently they were not, as would seem at first sight, unpatriotic, but thought that the constitution needed radical reform.

The John Brown League, founded after the execution of their eponymous hero in 1859, required their members to take an oath to devote their lives to the destruction of American Slavery: “Although it had officers, grips, signs, and obligations like a fraternal order, it was a paramilitary secret society . . . short-lived, it represented a considerable step toward the professionalization of revolutionary politics in America.”

At that time, the federal Fugitive Slave Law required that runaway slaves must be returned to whence they came, even if they fled to northern states that themselves had no slavery. The only way they could get to safety was to go all the way to Canada. In this they were aided by such societies as the African-American Mysteries, the Order of the Men of Oppression. Certain signs and passwords were used in the course of escape, so that an applicant might say “Cross” to which the counterword was “Over”, followed by a "seemingly meaningless exchange about travel” to “a place called Safety”. Or, the fugitive could inquire with a sign, “pulling the knuckle of the right forefinger over the knuckle of the same finger on the left hand. The answer was to reverse the fingers as described.” It was said that tens of thousands were helped to escape the United States by these societies.

One paradox of writing about secret societies is that, of course, if they were really secret, then nothing could be known about them, indeed there may well have been such societies whose very names are lost to history. This may explain why Lause has so little to say about, for instance, the “ultra-feminist Order of Patriarchs”, of which all he tells is the obvious remark that it was “oddly named”, and that it was followed by the Sacred Order of Unionists A great exception is the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC for short), who although nominally secret were much given to making public pronouncements about what they were doing and planning, so that there comes a different problem, that is, how much of what they said about themselves was true.

George W. L. Bickley

The founder, George Bickley (above), claimed to have been born in Russell County, Virginia, in 1823, yet, on other occasions, in Boone County, Indiana, or in 1819. He would say that he saw “his little brother and sister murdered by blacks during a servile insurrection, urged on by Abolitionists,” in 1831, which the surviving family records show was not true. He boasted that he had studied medicine in Baltimore, and surgery in London, for neither of which is there any evidence. In 1846 he allegedly fought against both the Mexicans and the Seminole Indians, though an extant letter locates him Florida at that time.

Returning at last to Russell County, he practised phrenology, the since discredited art of deducing personality from the bumps on the head, and helped found the first Masonic lodge in the community. About 1852 he moved to Ohio, and told people that he had retired from practising medicine. He was able to marry a rich widow. In March 1853 he delivered a ‘major address’ to the Grand Circle of Ohio, Brotherhood of the Union, in which he had become prominent.

Eventually, Bickley presided over the foundation of the Knights of Golden Circle, at some time in the 1850s – the exact date, needless to say, being obscured. The name derived from a term used by southern politicians to mean a hypothetical territory to be formed “by extending the United States west and south into Mexico, then east along the Yucatán, and up through Cuba.” Sometimes, Bickley would assert that it was a North American branch of a venerable and widespread Mexican order, Los Caballeros del Circulo de Oro. Though the details of their initiations do not seem to be known in detail, it included an oath to “do all I can” to keep “Negro, mulatto, Indian or mixed blood” people from obtaining citizenship, and to prevent any Roman Catholic for taking public office. In religion, Bickley espoused “what later Protestants would call Fundamentalism.” Naturally, they were for the Southern Confederacy.

Politically, the KGC were said to have been a continuation of the Know-Nothing party, who had unsuccessfully campaigned for the re-election of Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth president of the United States (1850-53, he installed the first bathroom in the White House) – it is understandable that they had little success under that name. Originally it was stated that their intention was to raise a company of men who would travel the country “giving exhibitions of the uniform and drill of the troops of all nations”, but, although there were plenty of ‘interested’ men, few if any could afford the $600 that Bickley demanded in advance from anyone who wished to join. Since his intention was not only to put on a show, but to invade Central America, he decided to reform it as a secret society, which he thought would produce a handsome income from (presumably more modest) initiation fees.

In June 1861 the Louisville Journal related how the Town Guard in Harrodsburg, investigating noises from an old shooting gallery, stumbled onto “an assembly of Knights of the Golden Circle in masks!” A guard knocked away the disguise of one of them, “and a lawyer and secessionist stood forth.” This is a little too reminiscent of fiction to be believable.

What the Knights of the Golden Circle actually achieved, apart from publicity, is unclear. They announced that they were going to invade Mexico, partly in order to seize the wealth of the Romish church there, but never did. The group ultimately “became largely a victim of its own self-promotion”, as from early 1862 there were arrests and trials for alleged involvement.

Bickley died in 1867, and it appeared that his organisation had died with him. Instead, “Secessionist sympathizers, as well as antiwar Northern Democrats – the “Copperheads” – tried to form local secret societies, under the name of the Mutual Protection Society, the Circle of Honor, or the Circle or Knights of the Mighty Host. Kentucky and Tennessee had a Night-Hawk Association.” An obscure man named Emile Longuemare founded the Order of American Knights, with an inner circle called the Sons of Liberty, “which may be the same association identified with the Copperheads.”

But shortly afterwards the Knights of the Golden Circle reformed, in Kentucky and Tennessee, as “the Greek for circle – Kuklos – with the alliterative addition of Klan”, under which name they have of course survived ever since. The name was later modified to the Ku Klux Klan, either because most of its members were only semi-literate, or because this was believed to be the sound made by the cocking of a rifle. In view of their continued anti-Catholic stance, it is ironic that their dress is derived from that worn by Catholic penitents. -
  • Gareth J. Medway.

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