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The Knights of the Golden Circle

The Knights of the Golden Circle was a secret organization during the Civil War years that was sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Members were supposedly involved in plots to invade Mexico for the South, as well as to incite unrest in the North. They were strongest above the Mason-Dixon Line in southern Ohio and Indiana, where the Copperhead movement had gained significant traction.
There were no known actual cells within York County, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War, but did not stop some enterprising shysters from New York from exploiting their name during the Gettysburg Campaign.

Captain William Seymour of the Louisiana Tigers was among the few Confederates who noted the apparent presence of the KGC in southern Pennsylvania. He recorded in his diary as the Rebels entered Waynesboro in southern Franklin County, PA, and observed strange behavior from the onlookers: “Many belonged to a secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle, who had their distinctive signs, grips and countersigns; all of which were imparted to the General [Jubal Early], who in turn, gave them to his officers.”
He later added as the army marched eastward toward York County: “Much to our surprise, hundreds of people in the towns through which we passed greeted us with these signs and we joyfully accepted them as proofs of the anti-war feeling that pervaded the country.”
As Early’s division reached York, Pennsylvania, on June 28, Captain Seymour noted numerous farmers who apparently were open Confederate sympathizers, greeting the passing column with friendly words and the unusual hand signals, which he took as signs of welcome. He soon discovered the truth, “When we reached York, we found that these professions and demonstrations were hollow and hypocritical.”
Seymour soon discovered the reason. “Just in advance of our army, two Yankees from one of the New England States traveled through the country, professing to be high officers of a New York lodge of the ‘Knights of the Golden Circle’ and that they were empowered to receive any number of persons as members of the Order, on payment of the small fee of five dollars per capita.” The shysters purported that their Northern branch of the society was closely aligned with a similar group in the South, and all members and their property would be respected by the Confederate army. He added, “Thousands of people were induced to pay their money for the privilege of being accounted as friends of the South; hence our apparently cordial greeting along our line of march. A shrewd Yankee trick, that.”
Major General Jubal Early, in command of the division that included the Louisiana Tigers, added, “As we moved through the country, a number of people made mysterious signs to us, and on inquiring we ascertained that some enterprising Yankees had passed along a short time before, initiating the people into certain signs, for a consideration, which they were told would prevent the “rebels” from molesting them or their property, when they appeared. These things were all new to us, and the purchasers of the mysteries had been badly sold. *
* [Early’s footnote: The “mysterious signs” referred to were supposed by the Confederates to be made by Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret organization said to sympathize with the South, but of which our soldiers knew nothing.]
A few days after the Battle of Gettysburg, York resident Cassandra Morris Small reflected on the Rebels’ visit to York, and she touched upon the same topic from a slightly different perspective: “Only think, Lissie, it is the Copperheads that have suffered all through the country. In many cases Union men living beside them were untouched, and now, these poor ignorant people come into town in crowds to some smart people here, bringing their tickets of the Knights of the Golden Circle and saying: “Here, we want our dollar back, we showed the ticket, and made the signs, but it did no good. They struck it out of our hands, and said we don’t care for that now, and made us give whatever they wanted.” In many cases, when they were told that the horses had been sent away, they made them pay as much as the horses were valued at.”
In the York County Civil War border claims, out of more than 700 York Countians who lost property to the Confederates, only one man was brave enough to add to his sworn testimony a notation that he indeed had purchased one of these tickets for a buck and tried in vain to convince a Rebel raiding party that the tickets were real and offered him protection. Jacob Leppo, a West Manheim Township farmer who lived near Hanover, testified that J.E.B. Stuart‘s Confederates forcibly took his 7-yr-old bay horse and two bay mares. Leppo told the court that before the Rebels arrived, the con men paid him a visit. He “had been persuaded to take the oath of allegiance to the Knights of the Golden Circle.” He paid $1.
Leppo not only lost his horses to amused Confederate raiders, he was taken prisoner and forced to serve as a guide to the Rebel column. At one point, he encountered General Stuart, who laughed and told him it was “simply a money making business on the part of the members of the society.” Leppo was forced to guide Rebel column to Dover; and was finally released on July 1. He never saw his three horses again.

Title page of a “tell-all” 1861 book written by a purported member of the KGC.

Author and KGC member Charles O. Perrine reveals what these mysterious signs likely were, and corroborates the fees charged to the York Countians who were duped by these con men, although his expose book was written two years before the Gettysburg Campaign. Still, it gives the best insight that I have found into what William Seymour, Jubal Early, J.E.B. Stuart, Cassandra Small, Jacob Leppo, and thousands more Pennsylvanians and Confederates likely witnessed on the lengthy march through the Keystone State:
“I will now give you the signs, grips, password, and token of the First Degree of the K. C. G. (Of course a misprint for K. G. C.). This Degree has a name, which I may now give you–it is the “I,” (Knight of the Iron Hand.) The first great sign of the Order is thus made, 7, (Hands open, palms touching and resting on the top or the head, fingers pointed upwards.) The answer to this is 8 (open hands touching shoulder where epaulettes are worn; elbows close to the side.) These are battle-field signs, and are not to be used under ordinary circumstances.
The common sign of recognition is 9 (right forefinger drawn across upper lip under nose, as if rubbing.) The answer 10, (with forefinger and thumb of left hand take hold of’ left ear.) To gain admission to a Working Castle, or the room of any K. G. C., give 11 (one distinct rap) at the door, The Sentinel on duty will then raise the wicket and demand the countersign, which is 12, (SOLDIERS, always lettered except at Castle door.) You will then pass to the center of the room and give the true sign of the K. G. C.; it is 13 (left hand on heart; right hand raised.) This will be recognized by a bow from the Captain, when you will at once take your seat.
The sign of assent is 14, (both hands up) of dissent 15, (one hand tip) the grip is 16, (press with thumb one inch above second knuckle) the token 17 (Golden Circle encasing block bands dosed on scroll : the whole to be the size of a dime). Every member may wear the sign of his degree.
And now, reader, yon know as much about the signs, grips, tokens, &c., of the Knights of the Golden Circle as they themselves do. We may here remark that the initiation fee for the First Degree is one dollar, for the Second five dollars, for the Third ten.”
The KGC recently received some Hollywood treatment as their mythical buried treasure was sought by explorer Nicolas Cage in the blockbuster movie National Treasure 2.
I’ve always been curious if one of those old fake membership cards sold in June 1863 to York Countains might still exist. Could one be tucked away in an old Bible, or drawer, or box of heirlooms in Dover Township, North Codorus, Codorus, West Manheim, or other townships where the smooth-talking New York con men plied their trade and piled up the dollars at the expense of the unknowing (and anxious) farmers? Who knows? Perhaps someone reading this blog entry might know the whereabouts of one of these long ago fake membership cards. If so, please allow me to take a photograph of the old yellow / goldenrod ticket.