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Rail Splinters

A Book Tells a Story

May 23, 2023

The annual ABAA book show in New York City (held April 27-30, 2023) is a chance to see the “best of the best.” This year was no different: Shakespeare folios, map rarities, book treasures priced in the hundreds of thousands! While that strata is somewhat limited, a great deal priced for institutions (and yes, the usual crop of celebrities were present including Johnny Depp), the show likewise offers diverse material at more approachable prices.  One of our favorite dealers to visit, naturally, is Dan Weinberg from the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop.  Yes, he has the usual multi-thousand dollar Lincolniana, autographs, relics, but he also loves to present less-expensive ephemera that is just cool!

In his booth we found this wonderful imprint, a booklet in pictorial wraps. (That is the bibliophile term for a paperback with illustrated covers.)  “An Authentic Exposition of the ‘K.G.C.’ ‘Knights of the Golden Circle;’ or, A History of Secession From 1834 to 1861.” Written by James Hiatt, Indianapolis, 1861, it includes a wonderful preface that might work today as well:

“Dedication, To the Uncompromised Friends of American Freedom, Whether Living North or South; to those who prefer death to the destruction of the Union and the annihilation of the Constitution, this work is Respectfully Dedicated.”

This rare volume (we only found one example to sell in the last 20-years although copies are housed at quite a few institutions) was described in a catalog as “contains all the alleged rituals, chants and other insider secrets required to lend authenticity to a major work of over-wrought mumbo-jumbo designed to appeal to Northern political paranoia.”

As defined by Wiki: The Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) was a secret society founded in 1854 by American George W. L. Bickley, the objective of which was to create a new country, known as the Golden Circle where slavery would be legal. The country would have been centered in Havana and would have consisted of the Southern United States and a “golden circle” of territories in Mexico (which was to be divided into 25 new slave states), Central America, northern parts of South America… 2,400 miles. Originally, the KGC advocated that the new territories should be annexed by the United States, in order to vastly increase the number of slave states and thus the power of the slave-holding Southern upper classes. In response to the increased anti-slavery agitation that followed the Dred Scott decision (1857), the Knights changed their position: the Southern United States should secede, forming their own confederation, and then invade and annex the area of the Golden Circle to vastly expand the power of the South. The new country’s northern border would roughly coincide with the Mason–Dixon line, and within it were included such cities as Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Mexico City, and Panama City… As abolitionism in the United States grew in opposition to slavery, the KGC members proposed a separate confederation of slave states, with U.S. states south of the Mason-Dixon line to secede and to align with other slave states to be formed from the “golden circle”. In either case, the goal was to increase the power of the Southern slave-holding upper class to such a degree that it could never be dislodged.

The group did have their eyes on the 1860 President-elect as a target with some planning, albeit without much formulation. The idea was to seize Lincoln and inaugurate Breckinridge as president! Quite a number of President Buchanan’s outgoing administration were members of the Circle including several leading politicians including Vice President Breckinridge. The plot to overthrow the federal government was exposed and enveloped an ongoing history of fearing “secret societies” during the war. (Sound familiar?)

Southern sympathizers thought to belong to the Knights include no less than John Wilkes Booth, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jesse James, Samuel Mudd, and John Surratt. During the first years of the Civil War the Knights supported Copperhead politicians wanting an immediate end of the war and negotiated “truce.” They were active in some spasms of outrage, in fact one month after the firing on Fort Sumter, members of the KGC along with Confederate Rangers, attacked and burned to the ground a pro-Union newspaper in Texas.

The existence of the group as named all but disappeared in 1863 morphing into like organizations under different names, still with the same ideology.  And, their legacy lived on: The Knights of the Golden Circle became the inspiration for the Ku Klux Klan.

A lot of interesting history found in this one booklet!  Thanks Dan!