The Knights Of The Golden Circle: The Secret Civil War Society That Wanted To Build An Empire Of Slavery

Published August 10, 2019
Updated August 15, 2019

The Knights of the Golden Circle sought to create a confederation that would encompass 2,400 square miles from the southern United States to South America — and run on the labor of slaves.

Knights Of The Golden Circle Founder George Bickley

Library of CongressOn the left is George W. L. Bickley, head of the Knights of the Golden Circle. There’s a conspiracy that Lincoln’s assassin was a member of this society.

Alexander the Great’s epitaph expressed the sentiment that “the world is not enough.” In the mid 19th century United States, a group of Southern men known as the Knights of the Golden Circle subscribed to a similar philosophy.

This secret society hatched a plot to protect and extend slavery, arguably the most contentious issue in the history of the United States. While we don’t have too much detail on the Knights and their history is mired in rumor, we do know their ultimate goal: to create an empire that would stretch from the Caribbean to the Pacific built on tobacco, cotton, sugar, and the blood and sweat of slaves.

Fodder For Pro-Slavery Groups Like Knights Of The Golden Circle

The Northern and Southern United States had adopted different approaches to slavery since the country was colonized.

While the North was certainly not slavery-free, its economic system did not rely solely on the forced labor of enslaved African-Americans. More importantly, the Northern states did gradually come to prohibit slavery.

But in the South, things were quite different. The free labor of slaves propped up the South’s economy and indeed, as an 1860 census showed, the region exploited the free labor of around three to four million slaves.

Dred Scott Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsDred Scott in 1857. He sued, unsuccessfully, for the freedom of himself and his family as they were living in the free state of Illinois. His case galvanized abolitionists in the North.

Naturally, the North and the South’s different approaches to slavery created significant tension. As early as the mid-1830s, Southern rights groups cropped up to promote slavery. This tension continued throughout the first half of the 19th century, as new territories were added to the United States of America.

The so-called Compromise of 1850 further extended this political tightrope. What was meant to diffuse the situation between pro-slavery and non-slavery states only added fuel to this fiery discrepancy. California became a free state, slavery in Utah and New Mexico territories would be determined by popular sovereignty, and the slave trade in Washington, D.C. was dissolved.

Pro-slavery Southerners were awarded the Fugitive Slave Act, however, which made it easier for slave owners to recapture and return escaped slaves.

With the decision of Dred Scott in 1857 that extended abolitionism in the States, many white Southerners saw the writing on the wall for slavery. Many of them were not willing to give it up, however, and dreamt of expanding the use of slaves such that it could never be extricated from them.

The Knights Of The Golden Circle Unite

George W. L. Bickley was one such man. What made him different, however, was the fervor with which he took to this task.

The Virginian doctor, adventurer, and editor envisioned the dawn of a new era in American slavery, and to do it, he would need to create a new organization.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the Knights of the Golden Circle originated in Lexington, Kentucky, fittingly on July 4, 1854. Gen. George Bickley assembled a group of five men whose names have since been lost.

Map Of The Proposed Golden Circle

The proposed territory of the “Golden Circle” included the Confederate States, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern parts of South America.

The overarching goal of Bickley’s secret organization was simple, if not a little grandiose: to create a slavery-fueled empire known as the “Golden Circle.”

This enormous empire would have a diameter of 2,400 miles. Its capital would be in Havana, Cuba and its influence would extend over southern North America into Mexico territory, Central America, much of the Caribbean, and parts of northern South America.

Mexico would be acquired and divided into multiple slave-holding states with an appointed congressman. Led by America’s Southern upper class, this empire would create a worldwide monopoly on tobacco, sugar, and cotton. The Golden Circle would ensure that the sun never set on the American system of exploitation.

The hope was that in establishing a large and successful domain run on slavery, the South could then secure the use of slavery nationwide.

Much of the Knights’ mission was based on another older secret society called the Order of the Lone Star (OLS). The OLS operated as something of an unofficial army which took it upon itself to invade South American countries and forcibly take control of them for the sake of America.

There were three different types of membership within the Golden Circle: military, financial, and governing. The latter was a leadership posting while the former were positions meant for the common member.

Knights Of The Golden Circle Rules

National Archives CatalogA list of identification rules for the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Unfortunately for the Knights, however, the tensions around slavery would come to a head in 1861 when the Southern Confederate States went to war with the Northern Union States in the Civil War, making their goals impossible to achieve.

Prominent Members

The group included notable figures such as Elkanah Greer, a colonel of the Third Texas Cavalry, and future governor of Texas L. Sullivan Ross.

Allegedly, Sam Houston — the Texas politician after whom the city of Houston is named — was also a member during the Knights’ early days, but left after becoming disillusioned with their perspective towards the Union States.

George Bickley Portrait

University of CincinnatiGeorge Washington Lafayette Bickley is often referred to as a “Cincinnati Conman” as he tried to pass for a medical doctor in the alternative field of “electric medicine” — but he was discovered to be without a degree.

Some sources even connect Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and the infamous folk outlaw Jesse James, to the secret society.

By 1858 the Knights of the Golden Circle had bylaws, rituals, and a constitution. Local chapters were known as “castles” and by the 1860s, Bickley claimed the group had over 100,000 members, but such numbers are almost certainly exaggerated.

John Wilkes Booth

Wikimedia CommonsAbraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was allegedly a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

However, it is possible that the Knights tallied closer to 50,000 by 1860, given that there was a membership of 16,000 in California, 8,000 in both Texas and Kentucky, and there were “castles” established in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and not to mention some 15,000 men who had joined up with the KGC following the dissolution of the OLS.

Pushing For Legislative Representation

While the Knights dreamt of a slave empire, their more immediate concern was Mexico. The secret society’s aim was to annex the entire peninsula to the United States and provide each American emigrant with 640 acres of land to farm — by way of slaves, of course.

An army of 16,000 men would protect the emigrants and the terms of the treaty with Mexico, thus ensuring American dominance.

Fifty states would be carved from Mexico, calling for 50 senators and 60 or more congressmen to represent their interests in the legislative branch of government and thereby ensure that the rights and desires of the South would be heard and acknowledged.

Seal Of The President Of The Knights Of The Golden Circle

National Archives CatalogSeal of the President of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Indeed, with that kind of representation, slave-holding states could stop any and all abolitionist policies organized by free Northern states.

Failed Plans For Mexico’s Invasion

Before the American Civil War, which would decisively end slavery in the United States, the Knights focused on invading and annexing Mexico. However, this dream of the Golden Circle would never be realized.

Bickley never did organize a successful raid and oftentimes, while he was off raising funds for the group, the Knights dissolved into anarchy. Such was the case in New Orleans in 1860 when a group of Knights, perhaps 1,000-large, descended into madness while Bickley was otherwise occupied.

Because the New Orleans men disbanded, they could not meet up with another contingency of Knights gathered around the Mexico border later in March 1860. There, a military wing of the Knights planned to march onto the Rio Grande, the river that separates Mexico and the United States and, at first, it appeared that their mission was picking up support. A journalist reported that:

“This section of the country is filled with members of this mysterious organization, and their campfires are increased every night by new parties arriving during the day…It is reported that 300 of them are in this vicinity and on the way to Goliad…A company of thirty came in today from Baltimore, under Lieut. Phillips and another party arrived on Saturday.”

But an unnamed U.S. soldier stationed near the insurgents wrote in a personal letter that although these men had gathered, their intentions seemed unclear and disorganized:

“There are three or four hundred men encamped here, supposed to be K.G.C’s or filibusters. I don’t know what their designs are. I presume we will receive orders soon to arrest them, to prevent them from going into Mexico.”

Despite the hundreds of Knights of the Golden circle who had swarmed near the Mexican border, the invasion never happened. Due to a lack of funds and a lack of faith in Bickley’s leadership, or perhaps a lack of organization as some have speculated, the Knights’ attempt at annexation fizzled out.

The American Civil War Dissolves The Circle

Though there were rumors that the Knights were involved in the infamous Confederate incursion known as Morgan’s Raid, which garnered some 2,000 men to draw out Union troops in Ohio and Indiana, these are not substantiated. Besides, Morgan’s Raid, like the Knights’ own attempts, failed.

Of course, the true battleground for slavery was the American Civil War, which took place between 1861 and 1865. The Confederate States lost the conflict to the Union States which spelled the end to slavery and the end to the dreams of the Golden Circle.

Many Knights of the Golden Circle fought for the Confederacy, including Bickley himself, who participated as an army surgeon before his capture for espionage and subsequent death in 1867.

Family During The Civil War

Timothy H. O’Sullivan/U.S. Library of Congress via Getty ImagesWilmer McLean and his family sit on the porch of his house, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed the terms of surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 in Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

With the abolition of slavery and the reintegration of the Southern United States into the Union, the Knights of the Golden Circle lost any popularity they might’ve had. However, that hasn’t stopped some people from suggesting that the organization is still active as an underground society today.

Treasure, Conspiracies, And Legacy

Perhaps more tantalizing are the rumors that the Knights of the Golden Circle hid treasures still undiscovered to this day. Supposedly, the hidden treasure was meant to finance another Civil War, and perhaps one that would prove more successful for the South.

One such cache was actually discovered by two Baltimore boys in 1934 who found 5,000 gold coins worth $10 million in today’s dollars. But people believe there are still more treasures to be found across the United States and potentially in Canada.

Ruins From The Civil War

U.S. Library of Congress/Getty ImagesRuins stand in front of the Confederate Capitol, circa 1865, in Richmond, Virginia.

The legend of this ill-gotten treasure lives on perhaps most strikingly in a man named Bob Brewer, who believes his ancestors may have hidden the gold in Arkansas and has since devoted his life’s work to finding it. After retiring from the Navy in 1977, Brewer set out for the treasure in such earnest that he’s become an expert on the matter. He even served as a consultant to the 2007 movie, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which touches on this legend.

But Brewer has found evidence enough that this legend is based in some reality. In 1991, he found a cache of 1800s coins totaling $400.

The sum of these treasures has been figured at about $2 million in the 19th century, which would make the mythic gold worth as much as $160 million today.

Though the theory is murky and evidence is thin, there is also speculation that the Ku Klux Klan was borne out of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Operating as the strong-arm military branch for the society, it’s plausible that the KKK was an offshoot that grew into its own organization over time.

One historian even asserted that the “KGC spawned the original KKK.”

Unfortunately, this bit of history — as is true with most of the Knights’ history — may remain just legend. Perhaps this should be expected, after all, for a secret society.

Find out more amazing stories of Civil War-era America, from John Wilkes Booth’s supposed sex addiction, to Harriet Tubman’s never-before-seen photo.

Andrew Milne
Andrew Milne holds a Bachelor's in journalism from Fordham University and his work has appeared on Bon Appétit and Food Network.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Milne, Andrew. "The Knights Of The Golden Circle: The Secret Civil War Society That Wanted To Build An Empire Of Slavery.", August 10, 2019, Accessed May 25, 2024.