The most important pro-Southern secret society in the American Civil War, the Knights of the Golden Circle was founded in 1854 by George W.L. Bickley to support a campaign of American empire, in which US troops would conquer Mexico as a first step toward the expansion of the United States in a “Golden Circle” around the Gulf of Mexico. The Golden Circle project had a particular attraction for southerners, since the new territories were economically suited to slave plantations, and promised to make slave states a majority in the Union and thus block the influence of abolitionists in Congress. Though Bickley’s project went nowhere, the order was eagerly supported by members of the Southern Rights Club, a non-secret organization founded in 1852 to oppose the Underground Railroad and Northern antislavery efforts; by 1860 the Knights functioned mostly as a secret society supporting the project of Southern independence.

In 1861, with the outbreak of hostilities between North and South, the Knights spread to the Midwestern states, where many people opposed the war. The first Castle (local lodge) north of the Mason–Dixon line was organized in Williamson County, Illinois in April 1861, and by the autumn of that year Castles existed in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa as well as Illinois. The Knights took an active role in opposing Union enlistment and, from 1863 on, the military draft; assisting Confederate spies and escaped prisoners of war; smuggling contraband to and from the Confederate states; spreading propaganda; and organizing politically in an attempt to vote Lincoln and the Republican party out of office and force a negotiated peace. While its greatest strength was in the Midwestern states, by 1864 it had Castles (local lodges) in nearly every state of the Union, including a substantial presence in California.

The society’s effective head was Clement Vallandigham, the most vocal antiwar politician in the North. After a term in the House of Representatives, Vallandigham returned to the Midwest in March 1863 and organized resistance to the Union. In May he was arrested by order of the military governor of Ohio, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, and later the same month was expelled into Confederate territory; the Confederates smuggled him through the blockade to Canada, where he resumed his leadership of the Knights. He ran for governor of Ohio on the Democratic ticket in the 1863 election, but lost. After his defeat, many members of the Knights defected to another organization, the Order of American Knights (OAK), which pursued a more direct strategy of armed revolution; Vallandigham himself accepted the office of Supreme Commander in the OAK. See Order of American Knights.

Like many political secret societies, the Knights found it useful to organize under many different names. Their known pseudonyms included the Mutual Protection Society, the Knights of the Mighty Host, the Circle of Honor, the Circle, and the Peace Organization. Supporters of the Union dismissed them as Copperheads (the name of a poisonous snake) or Butternuts, after the gray-brown nut that provided dye for the classic Confederate uniform.

While the Knights of the Golden Circle ceased to exist as an organized force not long after the final surrender of the Confederate armies at Appomattox in 1865, the attitudes they expressed and fostered remained active long afterwards. The same Midwestern states that formed the backbone of the Knights in the war years became the heartland of a new secret society, the revived Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in the 1920s. See Ku Klux Klan.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006