As the author of a book about the Knights of the Golden Circle—a Civil War–era secret society—I believe that studying events of that era is important and relevant to what is happening today. The Civil War was the most pivotal point in our nation’s history: Prospects were real that our young democracy would be rendered into two antagonistic countries. Its outcome led to basic decisions as to what freedom means and whether we were merely a collection of states or an integrated nation. By studying the Civil War, we gain the wisdom and courage to address the similar issues we are facing today.
Unfortunately, militant secret societies with nefarious objectives continue to exist. Sinister people can gain foot soldiers by wrapping their controversial programs in mystique and ritual and establishing a hierarchical organization through which they can pass down their orders. They can influence public opinion by spreading half-truths and creating scapegoats. Learning about what happened with militant societies like the Knights provides a template on how to defeat them.
For example, in May 1861, KGC General-in-Chief George Bickley bombastically threatened that his Knights would assist in floating the Confederate flag over the capitol dome at Frankfort. The editor of the Frankfort (KY) Commonwealth responded that the Knights would first have to face “every Union man, woman and child in Frankfort county.” George Prentice, the determined editor of the Louisville Journal, published an August 1861 exposé on the Knights’ secret program, fully expecting that to do so would lead to his death. These courageous responses ultimately led to the demise of the Knights and helped keep the crucial border state of Kentucky in the Union.
The saga of the Knights also tells us something about the need for compromise in a democratic society and how a secret conspiratorial group can undermine mutual trust and understanding. Through half-truths and propaganda, the Knights (in conjunction with the fire-eaters) convinced many Southerners that Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” intended to immediately eliminate slavery leading to insurrection and mayhem, thus unleashing the powerful primordial instinct of self-preservation. On the other hand, Lincoln and his Republicans refused to consider compromise (such as the one proposed by Kentucky’s Senator John Crittenden) because it would allow filibustering groups like the Knights to pursue establishment of a slave empire in the southern hemisphere. The Knights’ program of intimidation and innuendo caused principled leaders in the North and the South to simply stop talking to each other. The end result was an horrendous protracted war in which more than 620,000 brave Americans died.
Finally, studying the Civil War provides important perspectives on what freedom means in our nation. During the war, our country was divided, with brother fighting against brother. This led to restraints being imposed by both sides on our cherished freedoms, including the suspension of habeas corpus and the suppression of opposition newspapers. Were such restraints justified in the face of internal threats and sabotage? We continue to ponder such questions today.