Knights of the Golden Circle
Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War
328 Pages / 6.00 x 9.00 x 0.74 in / 14 halftones
- Paperback /
- 9780807179536 /
- Published: March 2023
- Hardcover /
- 9780807150047 /
- Published: April 2013
- eBook /
- 9780807150061 /
- Published: April 2013
Based on years of exhaustive and meticulous research, David C. Keehn's study provides the first comprehensive analysis of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret southern society that initially sought to establish a slave-holding empire in the "Golden Circle" region of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Keehn reveals the origins, rituals, structure, and complex history of this mysterious group, including its later involvement in the secession movement. Members supported southern governors in precipitating disunion, filled the ranks of the nascent Confederate Army, and organized rearguard actions during the Civil War.
The Knights of the Golden Circle emerged around 1858 when a secret society formed by a Cincinnati businessman merged with the pro-expansionist Order of the Lone Star, which already had 15,000 members. The following year, the Knights began publishing their own newspaper and established their headquarters in Washington, D. C. In 1860, during their first attempt to create the Golden Circle, several thousand Knights assembled in southern Texas to "colonize" northern Mexico. Due to insufficient resources and organizational shortfalls, however, that filibuster failed.
Later, the Knights shifted their focus and began pushing for disunion, spearheading pro-secession rallies, and intimidating Unionists in the South. They appointed regional military commanders from the ranks of the South's major political and military figures, including men such as Elkanah Greer of Texas, Paul J. Semmes of Georgia, Robert C. Tyler of Maryland, and Virginius D. Groner of Virginia. Followers also established allies with the South's rabidly pro-secession "fire-eaters," which included individuals such as Barnwell Rhett, Louis Wigfall, Henry Wise, and William Yancey.
According to Keehn, the Knights likely carried out a variety of other clandestine actions before the Civil War, including attempts by insurgents to take over federal forts in Virginia and North Carolina, the activation of pro-southern militia around Washington, D. C. and a planned assassination of Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore in early 1861 on the way to his inauguration. Once the fighting began, the Knights helped build the emerging Confederate Army and assisted with the pro-Confederate Copperhead movement in northern states. With the war all but lost, various Knights supported one of their members, John Wilkes Booth, in his plot to abduct and assassinate President Lincoln.
Keehn's fast-paced, engaging narrative demonstrates that the Knights proved more substantial than historians have traditionally assumed and provides a new perspective on southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War.
Scholars have been starved for a sound, book-length study that would tie the loose ends together about the Knights of the Golden Circle, differentiate between myth and substance, and convincingly establish this shadowy organization’s place in American history. David C. Keehn’s book ends the drought. Within a chronologically structured . . . and clearly written narrative, Keehn’s imaginative and logical detective work recovers the Knights of the Golden Circle’s history from its formative moments as a southern proslavery imperialist organization in the 1850s through its morphing into secessionist cells until its fading away approximately midway through the American Civil War. ~Robert E. May, author of The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854–1861
This well-written and extensively researched study retrieves the Knights of the Golden Circle from the shadows of popular lore and provocatively places them in the center of the historical narrative of the Civil War. The author provides persuasive evidence that the Knights had more prominent members, and a greater impact, than has been generally accepted by historians, and their influence lingered throughout the war. All scholars who study the leaders and events of this period will find much of interest in this work, which is certain to become a classic. ~Richard B. McCaslin, author of Lee in the Shadow of Washington
The Knights of the Golden Circle operated on the edges of American political life before the Civil War, a conspiratorial force devoted to the dream of creating a slaveholding empire across the Americas. Their dark maneuverings, as David C. Keehn brilliantly shows, was not the isolated and forgettable work of extremists. They established an organizational network throughout the South, channeling the sectional rage of southern men into a political crusade for secession. To tell the story of the Knights, Keehn has delved into unexplored document collections to discover a powerful story about a group of men who wanted to remain obscure in the historical record, who wanted their actions to appear mystical and remote, and who ultimately did not want their story told. ~Peter S. Carmichael, author of The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion