While writing my forthcoming novel, California Rifles: the Major, the Marshal, and la Mujer, I learned of the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC). The KGC turned out to be a great literary foil for my protagonists. Were the knights real? Let’s find out.
The KGC was a secret, paramilitary organization active prior to and during the American Civil War. The KGC was dedicated to preserving slavery and creating a southern empire in the golden circle region, which would encompass the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Northern Mexico. Some leaders envisioned an empire that stretched as far south as Central America and as far west as southern California.
The KGC was founded in Ohio in 1859. It is often associated with several aliases, e.g., “Knights of the Columbian Star,” “Order of the Lone Star,” “Order of American Knights,” and “Sons of Liberty.” It is not clear if all of the entities operating under these names were truly elements of one secret society or were loosely affiliated organizations with similar goals. While the KGC was represented in the rebel southern states, federal reporting indicates that it was most active in the Ohio Valley—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky—as well as Missouri. In 1864, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton received a report that delegates to the KGC supreme council claimed there were nearly one million members in the north, including an armed militia of 340,000. Federal authorities based their estimates on a variety of evidence, ranging from confessions, testimony, human intelligence, and seized documents, to include documents taken from an office associated with an Indiana U.S. Congressman. Although the magnitude of the KGC was likely exaggerated, Union leaders could not afford to ignore the claims.
In the west, the KGC plotted to merge California and Oregon into one independent, proslavery republic. This is not surprising. Pro-slavery sentiment was common in both states. As early as September 1861, “mysterious notices of the Knights of the Golden Circle…covered with mysterious characters” were being posted in Placerville, California. The Placerville reporting complements other reports in California of secessionist activity preceding the September 7th gubernatorial election. In southern California, the Knights were especially active in Los Angeles and San Bernardino. One newspaper estimated that there were 16,000 knights in California. In October 1864, a detective working for the Army Provost-Marshal provided a detailed report of KGC activity in San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles Counties. He reported that San Luis Obispo had 242 armed members and Los Angeles had 253, and that they met north of Los Angeles in Rock Creek for guerrilla warfare training.
KGC clandestine operations included smuggling, spying, communicating, propagating, plotting, and preparing for insurrection. In 1864, the KGC was reportedly planning to raise an army in Illinois by releasing and arming rebel prisoners in camps across the state. KGC leaders threatened “an extended revolt in the event of the re-election of President Lincoln.” John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln, was reported to be among its members.
The Knights were organized into lodges that they called “castles.” They were sworn to secrecy, relying on secret grips and passwords to protect themselves. The countersigns that I used in the story were reported in by a Union provost-marshal in California in 1864.
The grandest scheme of the KGC was to create an agricultural empire, driven by slave labor, stretching from the American south to Cuba, Mexico, and California. The knights perceived the turbulent fighting of the late 1850s between the Conservative and Liberal factions in Mexico as an opportunity to plant their flag. The French invasion of Mexico in 1862 might have dampened that plan, but the knights still perceived the possibility of exploiting the distracted belligerents. In the end, the KGC’s filibustering ambitions flickered out as did its influence in the north and west.
Some scholars suggest that the KGC was the predecessor of the Ku Klux Klan.
 Ollinger Crenshaw, “The Knights of the Golden Circle: the Career of George Bickley,” The American Historical Review, Oct. 1941, vol. 47, no. 1 (Oxford University Press), 23.
 Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General of the Army, report to Secretary of War E. M. Stanton, October 8, 1864, accessed 8/9/2023, https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/120/0935, 935-936.
 “The Knights About,” Daily Alta California, September 4, 1861, 1, col 7, accessed 8/9/2023, UCR, California Digital Newspaper Collection.
 David D. Keehn, Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 126, 129, accessed on 8/7/2023, https://ebin.pub/knights-of-the-golden-circle-secret-empire-southern-secession-civil-war-conflicting-worlds-new-dimensions-of-the-american-civil-war-illustrated-9780807150047-0807150045.html.
 Detective Gustav Brown’s report to Captain James A. Jones, Army Provost-Marshal, Southern District of California, October 16, 1864, accessed 8/7/2023, https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/106/1018.
 Newton Bateman (ed.), Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois (Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1905), 538, 671, accessed 8/7/2023, https://libsysdigi.library.illinois.edu/oca/Books2007-06/historicalencycl/historicalencycl02bate/historicalencycl02bate_djvu.txt.
 Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General of the Army, report to Secretary of War E. M. Stanton, October 8, 1864, accessed 8/9/2023, https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/120/0953, 953.
 David D. Keehn, Knights of the Golden Circle, 1.
 Robert Robinson, Captain and Provost-Marshal, letter to Brigadier General John S. Mason, Acting Assistant Provost-Marshal General, San Francisco, CA, August 10, 1864, accessed 8/9/2023, https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/106/0939.