99.9% of conspiracy theories are steaming piles of bull poo, but every once in a while, one comes along that turns out to be true. One of those was the secret society of antebellum America, the Knights of the Golden Circle.
After the Dred Scott Decision in 1857, both slave and free states knew war was coming. The nation had reached an impossible stalemate: the northern states would not tolerate slavery and the southern states would not abandon it. This could not last; or, as President Lincoln eloquently said in his famous Biblical allusion, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
The legislative advantage rested entirely with the northern states. More northern bodies meant more congressional representation, a circumstance that southern states saw as unfair and dictatorial. Over the last several decades, the United States Congress had isolated and restricted slavery a little at a time. In the mind of pro-slavery sympathizers, it was only a matter of time before the practice would disappear all together, razing the southern economy.
Talk of secession grew, but the Confederacy hadn’t started in earnest yet. Until then, there were the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC).
Both domestic and international support for abolition grew dramatically after the horrific Dred Scott Decision (which deemed no Black person, free or enslaved, could be considered a full citizen of the United States). Slavery’s proponents collected into a formal association, recycling its name and mission from a group founded in 1854 by a Cincinnati doctor. Rather than an all-out war with the United States, the Knights of the Golden Circle sought a permanent legislative solution. Instead of battling superior numbers in Congress, why not just increase the number of states supporting slavery?
In the late 1850s, the KGC attempted to raise an army of 16,000 volunteers to conquer countries in Central America and the Caribbean (specifically Cuba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and others), as well as most of Mexico. By conquering these populated regions and bringing them into the fold of the United States, the Knights of the Golden Circle could increase their pro-slavery legislative strength.
In fact, the “Golden Circle” referred to the area in which the Knights found (and hoped to find) the most support. This included some northern territories as well. While Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa did not support slavery, the states contained a substantial number of citizens who supported slavery. The Knights hoped to carve out these portions.
This movement had teeth. Two members of President James Buchanan’s cabinet were part of the “Order” (as it was also known) and secretly ordered industrial manufacturing and military supplies from northern states to southern ones, stockpiling in anticipation of war. The plot was discovered and these members were forced to resign in disgrace…although they were not charged with treason.
A Texan official and future Confederate general put together a substantial force of 4,000 soldiers, all members of the Order. This private army requested permission to guard American trade routes in Mexico, which was a barely-disguised prelude to invasion and usurpation of the Mexican government. Luckily, the US Senate denied the Order permission. This army remained in Texas and would eventually fold into Confederate forces.
Elements of the KGC in the northern states transformed into the Copperheads, northern Democrats demanding peace and concessions to the Confederacy. They saw Lincoln as overly aggressive and tyrannical. Lincoln’s administration fiercely pursed this group and other elements of the KGC, arguing their opposition to the war effort bordered on treason.
Although some conspiracy theories claim the Knights of the Golden Circle lived on after the Civil War, this is extremely unlikely. The Order didn’t disappear as much as fade away, morphing into the Order of the American Knights in 1863, then the Order of the Sons of Liberty in 1864. Wisps and rumors continue to this day. Much like the KKK today, groups that call themselves the KGC may exist, but it is in name only. Nonetheless, the Knights of the Golden Circle received a powerful role in the 2007 blockbuster National Treasure: Book of Secrets as well as antagonist roles in Batman and the Wild Wild West comics.