Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Knights of the Golden Circle - Interview with Author David C. Keehn

If you have looked for titles on the "Knights of the Golden Circle," you'll generally find two choices: reprints of period pamphlets by or about the KGC or multiple titles about "lost Confederate treasure."

Until now.  David C. Keehn's recently published Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War (April 2013, LSU Press) is a serious, comprehensive, and thoroughly researched treatment of the KGC, including details on its founder, George Bickley, the KGCs initial filibustering plans and failed exploits, its influence in the push for secession, the transformation of its various "castles" into companies and regiments ready for service to the Confederacy, and its possible involvement in assassination plots against President Abraham Lincoln, either planned, failed, or - ultimately  successful.

My full review appears at the end of this post.

I am so pleased that author David C. Keehn agreed to answer some interview questions about his interesting book, which you will find below.

From the publisher:

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 in 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 prosecession 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 prosecession “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 prosouthern 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' influence proved more substantial than historians have traditionally assumed and provides a new perspective on southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War.

And...our interview!

Jim Schmidt (JS): Please tell us a little about yourself and your training/career.

David Keehn (DK): After graduating from Gettysburg College as a History Major in 1969, I decided to pursue a legal career and went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I then practiced law (mostly regulatory) for nearly forty years with the federal government, a Fortune 200 corporation, and a private law firm. I nevertheless continued my interest in history and decided to take early retirement to write an historically-related book. My wife Sally is a noted author of historical fiction for young people (her best seller is I Am Regina) and we had previously written a local travel book together titled Hexcursions: Daytripping in Pennsylvania's Dutch County. I wanted to see what I could do on my own and, after seven years of research and writing, I am proud of my book on the Knights.

JS: What inspired you to begin your research on the KGC?

DK: I began writing about Lincoln's struggle to try to keep Kentucky in the Union in early 1861. Both the Union and the Confederacy were vying for Kentucky given its substantial manpower and agricultural and industrial resources. I went to stay with relatives in Georgetown, KY and spent time reviewing the University of Kentucky's 1861 newspapers. There I discovered a fascinating interplay between George Prentice, the pro- Union editor of the Lousiville Journal, and George Bickley, the titular head of the Knights who wrote a May 30 letter to the pro-South Louisville Courier. Prentice said the KGC was "the central arm of the secession party in Kentucky" (and later exposed Kentucky's Knight leaders and secret rituals) while Bickley said "the work will be pushed with the utmost vigor until the tri-colored flag of the Confederate States floats in triumph over the dome of the capitol in Frankfort."

I showed several chapters I had written to my neighbor, a history professor at Muhlenberg College - he said he had never seen this material on the Knights before and recommended that I concentrate on them. I took his advice and published a 2008 article on the Knights as the strong-arm of secession in North&South magazine. I was then contacted by Dr. Michael Parrish of Baylor University and sponsor of LSU Press's Conflicting World series. Dr. Parrish also said a book is sorely needed on the Knights and he helped and encouraged me along the way.

JS: Why have scholar avoided the Knights until now?

DK: As you indicate, prior material on the Knights have been reprints of period pamphlets and modern books about lost treasure. Scholars had avoided it because digging out the true history of the Knights was a very time consuming and laborious process. It took me seven years to unravel the true story of the Knights (and there's likely further undiscovered material still out there).

There were several excellent Master's theses in Texas that showed the Knights had 8000 members in the Lone Star State and were a very powerful organization. I decided to find out whether they were equally powerful in the other Southern and Border States. I found hundreds of articles by searching contemporaneous newspapers. I also searched libraries and dusty archives to put together the true story of the Knights.  Much material was destroyed when the Knights were labeled treasonous by Union authorities during the Civil War, but fortunately, enough still exists to put the true story together.

A key breakthrough was the discovery of a secret circular letter written by Bickley in late April 1860 in which he identifies the Knights' state regimental commanders and the size of the Knights Army in each Southern and Border state. I discovered that the identified regimental commanders were substantial  leaders - men like Elkanah Greer in Texas, Virginius Groner in the Old Dominion, Paul J. Semmes in Georgia, and Robert Charles Tyler in Maryland. In most cases, they were tied in with the fire-eaters trying to push the South towards secession and they subsequently became Brigadier-Generals or Colonels,helping to form the nascent Confederate Army which went from nothing in Feb. 1861 to 200,000 men by Sept 1861.

JS: Did America have a tradition of secret societies, fraternal or otherwise, before the Civil War?

DK: Yes, a plethora of secret societies flourished before the Civil War. There was no TV and such societies served as a social outlet, especially for men. The things that made the Knights unique was that they were a militant society concentrating on military drill and training. They also were hierarchical.  Their super-secret top degree (the Knights of the Columbian Star) who weren't even identified to lower degree members, could pass down orders in secrecy that the lower degree members, including the Knights Army, were bound by oath to obey.

Interrogatory from Lincoln Assassination Trials - National Archives

JS: I appreciate that in the book you did not pursue a psychological analysis of Bickley; however, do you think he exhibited signs of megalomania?

DK: Bickley is a fascinating character. He was shunted off by his galavanting mother after his father died, ran away from home at age 14, and lived by his wits. He accordingly became a convincing prevaricator and somehow picked up enough knowledge along the way to bluff his way into a professorship at an upstart medical school in Cincinnati and convince Southern leaders to merge his Knights with their pre-existing Order of the Lone Star that had 50 chapters and 15,000 members. They described Bickley as a brilliant speaker and writer which is why they kept him around as the KGC's front-man. Bickley certainly had a high opinion of  himself but he was successful in recruiting men for the Knights particularly in Texas. He didn't really go off the deep end until after he was arrested in mid-1863 by Union authorities and sent to Fort Warren in Boston's harbor. Here he engaged in flights of fantasy reconstructing the history of the Knights and issuing orders to nonexistent followers even as the Civil War was winding down.

JS:  What were some of the challenges you faced in doing your research? What were some of the rewards/joys?

DK: In-depth historical research is not easy. Sometimes you look through tens of articles or manuscripts but find nothing of relevance. Much of the key material is on microfiche so I sometimes felt like my eyeballs were going to fall out. Also, my book covers the Knights across the country so each chapter was in essence a new story requiring its own in-depth historical research.

On the other hand, when you find a key historical discovery such as the Knights' circular letter noted above, it's quite exciting. Each piece of relevant information helps you put the story together and often leads to another discovery. I enjoy investigating things and putting the puzzle together - I call it "unraveling the secrets of the KGC". I also owe a debt of gratitude to those who helped out such as Chris Lyons from Texas who went all over the Lone Star State searching out primary sources or my boyhood friend Glenn Rambo who accompanied me on many of my trips and pitched in to help research.

JS: Why do you think it took so long for civil or military authorities to take the KGC seriously and/or infiltrate their operation?

DK: Before the Civl War broke out, many, including Democrats in the North, were sympathetic to the Knights' goal of expansion into the Southern hemisphere (although they were probably not privy to the Knights' secret objective of establishing a slave empire there to rival the grandeur of ancient Rome). Several key members of the Buchanan administration, including Vice-President John Breckenridge and Secretary of War John Floyd, were alleged to be leaders in the Knights so they wouldn't want to investigate themselves.

U. S. Army spies in Texas did infiltrate a Knights' Council of War in Texas around Nov. 1860 and found they had a secret program to take over federal forts in the South, seize the Capital at Washington, and prevent President-elect Lincoln from taking office (Knights led the cabal that planned to assassinate Lincoln when he passed through Baltimore in Feb. 1861).  Once the Civil War started, Union spies were active in infiltrating the Knights which led to many of their castles switching over to the more secure Order of American Knights and then Sons of Liberty in 1864.After that,the diminishing KGC order became a bogeyman used by the Republicans to foster Unionist sentiment and the 1864 re-election of Lincoln.

JS: Why is the popular legacy of the KGC a romantic tale of hidden CSA treasure and not treason?

DK: That's Hollywood for you - producers need something sensational to do a program. I'm frankly getting tired of programs showing parties going out to look for the gold that the Knights were rumored to have buried so the South could rise again (except of course the Disney movie National Treasure 2 which was a romp). I think the true story of the Knights is even more interesting. For example, at least six Knights (in addition to Booth) were involved in the abduction plot and assassination of Lincoln and they likely were behind it.

JS: What other sources would you recommend for people to learn more about the KGC and the book?

DK: Since my book is the only one that tells the Knights' true story based on meticulous and exhausting research, I can only refer folks back to the primary sources, some of which are noted above. I have a website which notes my upcoming appearances where I'll be presenting my 45 minute slideshow and lecture on "Unraveling the Secrets of the KGC" (I have an alternative slideshow that I presented to the Surratt Society in Maryland on John Wilkes Booth's role as a Knights' leader).

[I have embedded a couple of classic texts below: Narrative of Edmund Wright; His Adventures with and Escape from the Knights of the Golden Circle (1864) and An Authentic Exposition of the "K.G.C." (1861)

JS: Do you have any other special historical interests? Are you working on another book?

DK: I'm a big advocate for preservation of our historical sites that tell the story of our forebears and America. For example, except where there's involved citizen groups, many of our heritage sited in Pennsylvania -which demonstrate how William Penn founded our state on the principal of religious tolerance -  are closing. The government no longer can afford to keep them open so we've all got to pitch in and contribute or otherwise our heritage will pass away for our kids and their progeny. I am working on another book about Civil War secret societies but to make the research easier, it's concentrated on one place.

Thank you, David - and best wishes for success and inspiration in your research and writing!

My review:

When megalomania meets treason...

This is a serious, comprehensive, and thoroughly researched treatment of the KGC, including details on its founder, George Bickley, the KGCs initial filibustering plans and failed exploits, its influence in the push for secession, the transformation of its various "castles" into companies and regiments ready for service to the Confederacy, and its involvement in assassination plots against President Abraham Lincoln, either planned, failed, or - ultimately  successful. 

The author wisely avoids his own psychological analysis in the book but one can't help but get the feeling that KGC founder Bickley exhibited some signs of megalomania - especially in his waning days; even in the founding and early days of the KGC Bickley promised the support of large numbers of men and arms that simply didn't exist.

There are some heroes in the book, especially - in my mind - Unionists (but, alas, not abolitionists) such as Texan George W. Paschal who called Bickley and the KGC for what they were: a treasonous band of schemers who also usurped civil liberties by means of a secret police force.

Indeed, the book is good reading for Texas history as it explores how the KGC pressed for a secessionist convention and then suppressed the Unionist vote.  It made good supplemental reading to an absolute favorite of mine: Texas Terror by Donald Reynolds.

Likewise, Keehn devotes an entire chapter to similar KGC influence in Kentucky and another to interesting operations in Arkansas, the Indian Territory, and even California.

One is also struck by the paranoia of Southern fire-eaters over an imagined abolitionist conspiracy of arson, poisoning, and slave uprisings, while at the same time they were engaged in the all-to-real organized and secret plot against the government.  

The book is not without some faults: given the secret nature of the KGC, not all its members were explicitly named; the author is cautious in declaring whether a particular politician was, wasn't, or may have been  member of the KGC, but the doubt does become a bit wearing at times.  The author also tends to drift into a standard description of the move towards secession such that the KGC is not mentioned for paragraphs on end or only tangentially.  The biggest complaint, though, is that this book needed a much more careful eye in terms of editing: content and copyediting.  Numerous typos abound: names of people and places are often spelled two different ways in th every same paragraph; one , especially, reads more like the minutes from a KGC meeting rather than a narrative; and there are numerous instances of mixed tenses.  The missteps are never so much as to distract the reader or detract from the overall quality of the book, but given the generally long production schedules at university presses, this seems like it should have been fixed in advance of publication to better serve the author and the reader.

That said, as the first serious book on the KGC - and a well-researched one at that - Mr. Keehn has done readers a considerable favor and has made an excellent case for the organization's influence in the antebellum era owing to its filibustering dreams, its instigation of secession, its supply of "knights" to the Confederate army, and its involvement in plots to kill the president, from before his entry to office in 1861 to his assassination in 1865.

4 out of 5 stars.

I want to thank LSU Press for providing a review copy of the book.

1 comment:

Mark said...

This is cool! I never knew anything about the Knights of the Golden Circle...until now:)