The Wooden Horse and the Golden Ticket: Part 1
As the Confederate soldiers marched or rode through York County during the invasion of June 1863, many of them were astounded at seeing multiple farmers along their route making strange hand gestures. At times, these Pennsylvanians also cried out, “Peace! Peace!” Some of these citizens also presented golden-colored pieces of paper purporting to be membership cards in the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secretive society reportedly founded in Kentucky in 1854 to advocate the extension of slavery into Mexico and the West Indies. During the war, pockets of the mysterious organization appeared in various Northern states promoting the Southern cause. Some period newspaper accounts suggest attempts to organize a KGC chapter in Berks County and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
In York County, for some time before the Rebels arrived, a group of strangers had traveled throughout south-central Pennsylvania selling these annual membership cards for $1 and teaching the buyers the password and secret signs and grips (special handshakes).
They were not authorized recruiters from the Knights of the Golden Circle.
They were, in reality, clever con men and greedy shysters from New York City who preyed on the fears of the naive farmers, telling them that when the Rebels arrived, all they had to do was show them the secret gestures, recite the password, and/or show the membership cards (often mentioned as “golden tickets.”).
But, these devious hucksters were not alone. Others since the beginning of the war had tried to take advantage of the strong anti-Lincoln feelings in the region. The press likened them, and their adherents, to the proverbial Trojan wooden horse, seemingly innocent but fraught with potential real danger.
In Part 1 of this Cannonball story, we will look at an article that 19th-century local historian George Reeser Prowell wrote for the June 23, 1905, edition of the York Daily. In subsequent blog entries in this brief series, we will look at various contemporary accounts of the Knights of the Golden Circle specifically in York County and the surrounded region.
Here is Prowell’s overview.
“What was known as the ‘wooden horse’ in southern Pennsylvania during the first two years of the civil war had a strange history. The organization was technically called the ‘Knights of the Golden Circle’ and also the ‘American Knights.’ The latter was strong and influential in certain parts of Indiana and also in Southern Ohio. It was claimed that Clement Vallandigham, of Ohio, was the originator of this society. [He wasn’t. That credit goes to George W. L. Bickley.] Innocent people were made to believe that if they joined it they would be protected by the southern army if it made invasions into the northern states. The officers of the society pretended that they were in communication with the leading officials of the Confederate government at Richmond.
“A number of the leaders of the ‘American Knights’ were brought to trial in the state of Indiana. President Lincoln had sent Judge Advocate [Joseph] Holt to that state to investigate the subject, and prosecute any persons who might be guilty of treasonous acts. After a trial that lasted several days Judge Holt succeeded in bringing a few men to justice, and breaking up the order in the west. The oath required to be taken by members who joined this order in Ohio and Indiana was the most remarkable in the whole range of history. A copy of it has been preserved in the war department in Washington.
“There was no conclusive evidence that the so-called ‘wooden horse’ of York County in 1862 and 1863 had any connection with the ‘American Knights’ of the west. Most of the members of this organization were innocent people, who were persuaded by certain fakirs to pay them a dollar or more yearly in order that their horses might be protected if General Lee made an invasion into southern Pennsylvania. The whole story of the ‘wooden horse’ was afterward looked upon as a huge joke, and the farmers of Pennsylvania who paid a dollar or more in annual dues were chagrined at themselves for having been so easily duped. There was no evidence produced that any of the farmers who belonged to the ‘wooden horse’ were disloyal to the government. When General Lee’s forces entered York county in June, 1863, many farmers had kept their horses at home instead of taking them across the Susquehanna as prudent people had done.
“That is the reason why the southern cavalrymen raiding through York county just before the battle of Gettysburg captured so many farm horses which they took with them. Frequently they exchanged old, worn-out nags for strong and useful horses. There were many of the York county horses killed in the battle of Gettysburg.”
So, there we have Prowell’s rather sweeping overview of the “wooden horse” in southern Pennsylvania. In our next Cannonball installment, let’s look more at specific references to the mysterious K.G.C., its golden tickets, and the interactions between the ticket-holders and the oncoming Confederate soldiers.
Many of the Rebels were highly amused at these unexpected encounters, often writing home about them.
The duped Keystoners, waving their golden tickets, frantically making the secret hand signals, and desperately crying “Peace! Peace!”, were most certainly not laughing when they discovered the truth.
Their hard-earned dollars had not bought them peace of mind, but instead had brought trouble and financial loss.