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The Wooden Horse and the Golden Ticket: Part 2

Cover of a booklet issued during the Civil War detailing some of the inner workings of the secretive pro-secession Knights of the Golden Circle
Cover of a booklet issued during the Civil War detailing some of the inner workings of the secretive pro-secession Knights of the Golden Circle

In our previous post on the subject, we looked at 19-century historian George R. Prowell’s review of the so-called “wooden horse” in southern Pennsylvania, a secretive pro-Confederate organization that in other parts of the country was known as the Knights of the Golden Circle or the American Knights. Purported recruiters sold golden-colored membership cards for $1 to gullible farmers, telling them that if the Rebels invaded, they were to show the golden tickets, make certain gestures with their hands, and recite a secret password. If the civilians did that, the Rebels would know they were friends and would leave them in peace. Their horses, mules, farm crops, and possessions would be safe.

There was only one problem.

The cards were bogus and the salesmen were con artists.

When the Rebels showed up, they were initially astonished by the farmers strange behavior. It did not take the soldiers long to realize that these particular farms were inviting  targets. The horses and mules were still there. So were the chickens, pigs, and cows.

Here are contemporary accounts written by Confederate soldiers and local civilians during the June 1863 Gettysburg Campaign.

Shortly after marching his men into southern Pennsylvania on June 23, 1863, Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early heard in Waynesboro that thousands of people in the region were members of the Knights of the Golden Circle. It was an exaggeration, but plenty of residents apparently had paid their dollar for a membership card.

Captain William J. Seymour, the capable adjutant of the 9th Louisiana of Hays’ Brigade mentioned, “Soon after we entered the State of Pennsylvania, General Early was waited upon by a deputation of citizens who informed him that there were thousands of men in that part of the State who were opposed to the war & who belonged to the secret society called ‘the Knights of the Golden Circle.’ The distinctive signs, grips and countersigns were imparted to our general, who, in turn, gave them to his officers. 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.”

General Early noted, “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 [monetary] 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.”

Farmers in several counties in southern Pennsylvania tried in vain to convince the Rebels that they were their friends. Captain Seymour noted, “When we reached York, we found that these professions and demonstrations were hollow and hypocritical. 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… 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.”

In downtown York, a few days after Early’s men departed and fought in the battle of Gettysburg, Cassandra Morris Small, the daughter of prominent businessman Philip Albright Small, wrote in a letter to her cousin, “Only think, Lissie, it is the Copperheads that 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 [the Rebels] 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.”

One of the duped farmers, Jacob Leppo of near Hanover, later wrote, that he “had been persuaded to take the oath of allegiance to the Knights of the Golden Circle.” He paid his dollar to the con men, but when Jeb Stuart’s cavalrymen departed after the June 30 battle of Hanover, they took Leppo with them as far as Dover as a guide and confiscated three of his horses. He complained to General Stuart, who merely laughed and told him the tickets were “simply a money making business on the part of the members of the society.”

The Harrisburg Evening Telegraph noted on July 13, 1863, “In proof of what we have written, we will merely add one anecdote–perfectly reliable–of a certain victim of the ring in Codorus Township, York County, which, though a little ludicrous amid the poor fellow’s distress, fully confirms the points above stated, in regard to the “Knights.” (The township, by the way, though exceedingly copperheadish, seems to have been most terribly visited by Stuart’ s marauding band.) That the gusto of the story may not be marred, we will give it in the same Pennsylvania German brogue in which it was related, but in Roman characters.

One of our good Knights of Codorus, having been called upon by his “Southern brethren” for the use of all his horses for Jeff [Davis]’s service, besides sundry other accommodations, thus bitterly complained to a friend of the Union, in a half whining tone…
“Oh, they’ve taken all my horses, and all of ——‘s, and all of —-‘s, and it’s too bad how they have carried on in Codorus!”
“Indeed,” replied the Union man, “and didn’t you tell them, then, that you were Democrats?”
“Why, to be sure we did; and we told them, too that we belonged to the ‘Golden Ring,’ and besides that we showed them our papers, and it was all positively no use! And they told us we should take our papers back and get our dollar again!!”

The Philadelphia Press noted, “The rebels did not know what to make of the people of Codorus township. They said whenever they went into a stable the owners came and began making all manner of signs with their fingers, and muttering strange words, as though they wished to exorcise the rebels, who did not understand the signs; and the poor, deluded farmers lost their horses, though they had paid their dollars to the K. G. C. They are said to be very angry with their party leaders in town, who are now endeavoring to make their enraged followers believe that the invaders were “not the rebels, but Lincoln’s hirelings.”

There are numerous other similar accounts from soldiers, civilians, and reporters. The con men had already safely returned to New York City and were counting their windfall even as the farmers came into York looking for them.

Click to go to Part 3.


Willam J. Seymour diary, Library of the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Jubal A. Early, Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, C.S.A.: Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1912), page 238.

Cassandra Small to Lissie Latimer, July 8, 1863, Files of the York County History Center.

Jacob Leppo claim, York County Border Claims, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.

Harrisburg Evening Telegraph, July 13, 1863.

Philadelphia Press, July 10, 1863.