1860 were a very turbulent time in American History. The Civil War was about to break out in earnest after a few skirmishes in the 1850s in Bleeding Kansas. The country was about to be torn in two between the North and the South. In the North, there was a vocal faction of the Democratic party who opposed the war. Republicans began calling the anti-war Democrats “Copperheads” after the venomous snake. This group adopted the slur and reinterpreted the copper “head” as the symbol of liberty cut from coins they used for their badges. At their peak, they had the support of two senators, several newspapers and a strong base in the metropolitan areas. Members opposed the draft and the freedom of slaves and wanted the union back with slavery. They often met with Confederate agents and took money to encourage their activities.
The Knights of the Golden Circle became involved with the copperheads in 1861. The Knights were established earlier than that in the 1850s by George W. L. Bickley. The first group or “castle” was established in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854. After being driven from Cincinnati by debt collectors, Bickley traveled through the East and South promoting the society. The aims of the KGC were to annex the “golden circle”, which included Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and the northern part of South America. These would be made into slave states, Mexico alone was divided into 25 new slave states, which would tip the balance of power in Congress back into the hands of the slaveholders of the South. Once the war broke out in 1861, the KGC became politicized and joined with the copperheads as their secret arm. The KGC figured prominently in the temporarily successful takeover of southern New Mexico Territory by confederate forces in May 1861. They tried to join New Mexico to the new Confederate States of America, but were ultimately defeated.
In the North, the KGC stirred up trouble in the border states and became very strong in Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and Indiana. Some frauds sold tickets for a dollar to Pennsylvania Dutch farmers near the battle of Gettysburg, which supposedly protected the farmers from having their homes looted for supplies. Unsurprisingly, the tickets were not worth the paper they were written on and General Jubal Early took what he needed. Also in 1863, the KCG tried to buy a schooner in San Francisco to pick off shipments from the California gold fields to the east coast. They were caught on their maiden voyage.
The KGC rebranded as the Order of the Sons of Liberty under Ohio politician, Clement Vallandingham, a prominent copperhead. The group membership was radical enough to discourage enlistments, resist the draft, and shield deserters in some places. Vallandingham declared in May 1863 the war was no longer about the union, but being fought to free the blacks and enslave Southern whites. He was arrested by the army for “sympathy to the enemy”. Vallandingham was court martialed and sentenced to imprisonment. However, Lincoln commuted his sentence to banishment to the Confederacy. Incredibly, Vallandingham was still nominated for governor of Ohio in 1863 by the Democrats. How this would work, I don’t think anyone could be sure. He campaigned from Canada, but ultimately lost. However, don’t count Vallandingham out of the story yet.
In the absence of Vallandingham, the KGC tried to organize a revolt in the old Northwest Territory, consisting of the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Harrison H. Dodd was a KGC member and the leader of this would be rebellion, but a Federal investigation thwarted their plans. A series of trials followed and revealed plans to set free the Confederate prisoners held in the state. The culprits were sentenced by a military court to hang, but the case heard by the Supreme Court ruled they should have had civilian trials.
By this time, it was 1864 and the Democrats needed someone to run against Lincoln in the presidential election. Working behind the scenes from Canada, Vallandingham spearheaded the convention in Chicago and producing a largely Copperhead platform. He also engineered the selection of George Pendleton, a peace Democrat, as the vice president. However, the presidential candidate chosen was former general George B. McClellan, who was pro war. The dichotomy between the candidates weakened their position and helped Lincoln gain the victory. Between this and the Union victories, the public face of the KGC fell apart. However, there is speculation that they did not fold up and go away.
The KGC was supposed to be extremely rich as they collected and hid money to finance the war effort. No one is sure if this is true, but there are a lot of stories out there. They are have also been connected with the missing money from the Confederate Treasury that left Richmond just before its fall. There is also speculation that John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln, was recruited by the KGC and that the society planned the murder. However, as I said before, this is speculation. We know that Booth was in contact with Confederate agents and sympathizers, but that is all.
Additional speculation has been made that Jesse James was a member of the KGC. We know that James was a Confederate soldier and member of Quantrill’s raiders in a squad commanded by Fletch Taylor then onto a bushwacker group led by Bloody Bill Anderson. It is rumored that the robberies by the James Gang contributed to the lost KGC treasure. However, this is all speculation.
The KGC was definitely a fifth column element that existed during the Civil War. Anything past that is in the realm of theory.