Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Knights of the Golden Circle from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

American antifederal, proslavery secret society and political organization that flourished in the North between 1855 and 1864, and sympathized with those in the Southern states wishing to secede from the Union.

Summary Article: Knights of the Golden Circle
from American Civil War: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document collection

Secretive proslavery, proexpansion organization. Founded in 1854 in Cincinnati, Ohio, by Virginia-born physician and editor George W. L. Bickley, the Knights of the Golden Circle attempted to create a slaveholding empire in the southern United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Bickley's main objective, however, was to seek the annexation of Mexico. The acquisition of new territories following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) prompted a number of proslavery expansionists to seek additional territories encompassing the southern United States, the West Indies, Mexico, and even parts of Central America. The objective of the Knights of the Golden Circle was to expand the slaveholding society of the American South to encompass an area that approximated a circle some 2,400 miles in diameter in hopes of controlling its commerce and securing a complete monopoly of the world's supply of tobacco.

The term “Golden Circle” was selected to highlight the organization's efforts to restore the balance of power between the industrial North and the slaveholding South through the establishment of a ring of colonies encircling the Caribbean, Mexico, and the southern United States that would eventually evolve into new slave states.

The organization grew slowly, at least until 1859, and eventually reached its zenith around 1860. The membership was widely scattered from New York to the West Coast but was never very large. The organization was also poorly financed and lacked effective leadership.

Bickley eventually left Cincinnati and moved about throughout the East and South, promoting a filibustering campaign to seize Mexico and thereby establish a new domain for the plantation system. During the turbulent late 1850s, American adventurers referred to as filibusters were involved in numerous illegal military expeditions aimed at liberating Cuba and acquiring land in Mexico or Central America. Bickley's greatest support came in Texas, where he organized 32 chapters in various cities, including Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.

In the spring of 1860, the Knights of the Golden Circle attempted to invade Mexico from Texas. A small band reached the Rio Grande, but Bickley was unable to produce the large force that he claimed he was assembling in New Orleans, and the campaign quickly ended. Later that year he attempted to mount a second expedition to Mexico, but Abraham Lincoln's election forced Bickley and his followers to turn their attention to the secessionist movement. Bickley, now living in Tennessee, devoted his efforts to secessionism and transformed his Knights of the Golden Circle into a secret society dedicated to establishing Confederate rule in Kentucky.

This three-part wood engraving attributes John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln to the influence of the proslavery secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle. In the first panel (“Theory”) is a portrait of George W. L. Bickley, head of the Knights of the Golden Circle. The center panel (“Practice”) shows John Wilkes Booth holding a dagger behind his back. “Effect” is the death of President Lincoln, whose portrait at right is framed by black drapery. (Library of Congress)

During the Civil War, the organization was renamed the Order of the American Knights, and in 1864 it became the Sons of Liberty. Total membership of the order was between 250,000 and 300,000 people, principally in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and southwestern Pennsylvania. Among its leaders were Fernando Wood and Clement L. Vallandigham. Its primary objective now was to oust the Lincoln government in the elections of 1864 and give Democrats control of the state and federal governments, providing a mandate to make peace and invite the Southern states back into the Union on antebellum footing. Their efforts were foiled in 1864, however, with the arrests of various leaders and numerous confiscations of arms by U.S. authorities.

The Sons of Liberty essentially dissolved. Bickley, who had served for a time as a Confederate surgeon, was arrested in Indiana for spying in July 1863. Although never tried, he remained under arrest until October 1865 and reportedly died, disillusioned and dispirited, in Baltimore on August 3, 1867.

See also

Bickley, George Washington Lafayette; Slavery; Vallandigham, Clement Laird; Wood, Fernando

Further Reading
  • Crenshaw, Ollinger.The Knights of the Golden Circle: The Career of George Bickley.” American Historical Review 47(1) (October 1941): 23-50.
  • Curry, Richard O. A House Divided. University of Pittsburgh Press Pittsburgh PA, 1964.
  • Frazier, Donald S.; Shaw Frazier. Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest. Texas A&M University Press College Station, 1995.
  • Getler, Warren. Shadow of the Sentinel: One Man's Quest to Find the Hidden Treasure of the Confederacy. Simon and Schuster New York, 2003.
  • Klement, Frank L. Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, and Treason Trials in the Civil War. Louisiana State University Press Baton Rouge, 1984.
  • May, Robert E. The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861. Louisiana State University Press Baton Rouge, 1973.
  • Charles F. Howlett
    Copyright 2013 by Spencer C. Tucker

    Related Articles

    Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia

    A colorful example of antebellum southern expansionism, the Knights of the Golden Circle was a secret filibustering society that sought to...

    Full text Article KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (1854-1864)
    Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History

    The Knights of the Golden Circle was first established by Cincinnati physician George W. L. Bickley in 1854. Bickley founded the Knights as a...

    Full text Article Knights of the Golden Circle
    Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

    A secret antebellum organization founded in 1854 in Cincinnati, Ohio, by Virginia-born physician and editor George W. L. Bickley, which attempted to

    See more from Credo