A Secret History of the Civil War

The origins of the Knights of the Golden Circle can be traced to Cincinnati con man George Bickley.

The origins of the Knights of the Golden Circle can be traced to Cincinnati con man George Bickley.

University of Cincinnati Civil War historian, Mark Lause, has a new book out titled A Secret Society History of the Civil War (University of Illinois Press). It’s a look at secret societies (societies similar to the Freemasons) that were active in the years leading up to and during the Civil War.


That secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, was the brainchild of a Cincinnati con man named George Bickley. He fund-raised for the group here in Cincinnati before the Civil War and envisioned it as a para-military organization. During the war, he offered the services of the Knights to the Confederacy, suggesting the organization could work as a fifth column among the North’s civilian population.

Explained Lause, UC professor of history,

The Confederates turned Bickley down, but the South did have a secret service that was active in the North during the war. The United States government was convinced the Knights of the Golden Circle were a big part of this Confederate secret service and spent resources tracking down the organization. However, it wasn’t the case, since the Knights and their numbers were greatly inflated by Bickley.

While the Knights were never actually a fifth-column force in terms of numbers, they and their ideas are thought to have influenced John Wilkes Booth, the stage actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Said Lause,

John Wilkes Booth is thought to have been either a member or sympathizer with the Knights of the Golden Circle who were in Baltimore at that time. A man named George Sanders, who was a member of the Confederate secret service, was reputed to have been Booth’s contact via the group. And Sanders was a member of another secret society that advocated assassination.

Depiction of an initiation ceremony of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Depiction of an initiation ceremony of the Knights of the Golden Circle.


On the other hand, some secret societies of the era, like the Prince Hall Masons, played a role in beginning and then sustaining the Underground Railroad.

In general, you can think of secret societies as umbrella organizations for those who want to break existing laws for what they believe are patriotic reasons,

said Lause.

On one side, there are groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle. On the other side, there are groups like the Prince Hall Masons.

The membership of the Prince Hall Masons was comprised of African-Americans, both free men and slaves. The order was founded by a black veteran of the American Revolution, and its purpose was to oppose the legal, social and cultural repression of blacks. “This group was the tap root that became the Underground Railroad, he stated.

A Secret Society History of the Civil War by by Mark A. Lause

A Secret Society History of the Civil War by by Mark A. Lause

Interestingly, the Louisville, Ky., chapter of the group held its meetings in New Albany, Ind. Said Lause:

Because slaves were members along with middle-class, free blacks, the group routinely rowed across the Ohio River in secret in order to safely hold meetings in a free state.


Founded in 1848, this U.S. secret society (NOT named for “Union” in Civil War terms) was loosely tied to other such societies in Europe. It pursued an anti-slavery agenda. In fact, members of the Brotherhood of the Union in Milwaukee, Wisc., are known to have taken civil disobedience so far as to successfully storm the local jail in order to free a runaway slave who had been captured and incarcerated under the Federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.


Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri (Shades of Blue & Gray), (University of Missouri Press), another new book by Lause, tells of a border-state military campaign that both the Union and the Confederacy wanted to forget even before it was over.

The Confederate campaign referred to in the title was initially begun to capture St. Louis and Jefferson City (the capital of Missouri). It quickly degenerated, bringing little credit to either side. As such, the available historical record – participant and eyewitness accounts, military records and newspaper accounts – have been little studied until now.

In studying that record, Lause interprets why St. Louis was never actually invaded — even though the forces commanded by Confederate Gen. Sterling Price greatly outnumbered Union army forces (commanded by Cincinnati industrialist Union General William Rosencrans) in the state and even though Price came to within 30 miles of the city.

According to Lause, there are important reasons Price, in the end, did not invade St. Louis even though newspapers in the city were openly publishing information about how few Union army forces were in the city to defend it – information that Confederate informants in the city would have shared with Price.

The city’s civilians would no doubt have taken up arms and transformed the fight from a “battle” between armies into high-casualty, building-by-building , street-by-street guerrilla war.

Why? Because they absolutely had nothing to lose, said Lause. For the population in Missouri, if a Union occupation was considered bad, a Confederate occupation was considered far worse. In the two-month campaign, the forces under Price engaged in ethnic cleansing as they passed through towns and territory: Brutalizing and killing blacks, German immigrants, Catholics, prisoners of war and anyone else who might be sympathetic to the Union cause.

Price actually tried to put a stop to the ethnic cleansing, but many of his forces were originally from the region. They felt disenfranchised and were determined to settle the score. They were already killing civilians and literally leaving the bodies out for hogs to eat. The German population in St. Louis knew what they faced and would have made it extremely expensive – if not impossible – in terms of casualties for the Confederates.

Another reason the Confederates did not invade St. Louis: They had suffered grim casualties in the two battles of the campaign. In the battle of Pilot Knob, about 1,400 local blacks, local militia and some Union Army forces fought about 8,000 Confederate troops, with the Confederates suffering “ghastly losses,” according to Lause, even though the pro-Union forces, in the end, gave up ground. In the subsequent Battle of Leasburg, pro-Union forces refused a demand to surrender and were able to hold off the Confederate forces.

More Masonic History.

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A devoted student of the Western Mystery Traditions, Greg is a firm believer in the Masonic connections to the Hermetic traditions of antiquity, its evolution through the ages and into its present configuration as the antecedent to all contemporary esoteric and occult traditions. He is a self-called searcher for that which was lost, a Hermetic Hermit and a believer in “that which is above is so too below.” Read more about Greg Stewart.

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