The Wooden Horse and the Golden Ticket: Part 3
In our first two posts on the subject, we looked at 19th century historian George R. Prowell’s postwar overview of the “wooden horse,” pro-Confederate sentiment among south-central Pennsylvanians that led them to flock to join the secretive Knights of the Golden Circle. Membership tickets, secret hand signals, and passwords meant nothing; the Rebels took what they wanted from these duped farmers, while many pro-Union men had taken their horses across the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge to safety.
While it is clear that at least in Franklin, Adams, and York counties, the supposed agents of a New York lodge of the K.G.C. were in reality con artists not associated with the movement, it appears that in Berks County, an actual lodge of real Knights proved problematic for the authorities.
Those attempts ultimately failed, but newspapers across the commonwealth picked up the story.
The alleged ringleader in Berks County was Philip Huber, a businessman from East Coalico Township in Lancaster County. His brother-in-law, a pro-Union man, vehemently disagreed with Huber’s politics and his reported neglect of his family to serve the Knights of the Golden Circle.
He took legal action.
In April 1863, the brother-in-law learned of Huber’s involvement in “the treasonable organization.” He asked the deputy sheriff of Lancaster County to enforce certain claims against Huber, asking that Huber’s property be turned over to him.
Here is the rest of the story, from the April 28, 1863, Lewisburg Chronicle (quoting the Lancaster Express):
“The Deputy Sheriff who served the execution, found Huber’s family in a painful state of alarm, and from the admissions made by his wife, it appears that Huber had been engaged in initiating members of that treasonable society during the winter, to the neglect of his business. His wife frequently remonstrated with him, and told him if he did not desist he would get himself in trouble. Unfortunately for herself, her predictions were only too fully realized. Let this be a warning to others. Resistance to the laws will surely be followed by troubles.”
The Knights of the Golden Circle in Berks County were not harmless duped farmers who paid their dollar for the golden ticket. Yes, they did follow that methodology in the countryside in March and April of 1863 to raise money, telling people that the Rebels would come at “harvest time,” but they may have had a much more sinister intent, particularly after several alleged leaders were arrested on April 3 and charged with conspiracy against the United States government in opposing the conscription law. A large party of sympathizers and K.G.C. members, known locally as the “Heidelberg Brigade,” marched from Heidelberg in the western countryside into downtown Reading on April 9 to rescue their comrades. They remained angry for years at the Federal authorities and “Lincoln’s hirelings.”
These militant “Peace Democrats” and K.G.C. members had the direct support of Heister Clymer, a vocal opponent of the draft and a noted white supremist who would unsuccessfully run for governor in 1866 as a Democrat. Clymer reportedly personally presided over the K.G.C. initiation ceremonies in Heidelberg hosted by Huber and others, “holding a cavalry sabre over the heads of newly initiated members as they took the Knightly oath,” the Harrisburg Telegraph later claimed (October 8, 1866).
The June 8, 1863, Pittsburgh Gazette, reported a series of mysterious attacks on Joseph Dickerson, a Quaker from Brecknock Township, Berks County, who was the local army enrollment agent. The first incident, on a Thursday night, led to significant damage to Dickerson’s residence. The next day, Dickerson received a note that “his grave had been dug.” That night, someone or ones fired three shots at his sister’s house. The threats worked. Dickerson the following morning went into Reading and immediately resigned his commission. “The attack is believed to have originated with the Knights of the Golden Circle,” the reporter commented.
The violent activity of the Knights and their virulent supporters in Berks County had little parallel in York County, where it appears the only “members” were those naive farmers who had paid their buck for the golden ticket. They were harmless politically, unlike Huber, Clymer, and the others in Berks, but nevertheless their distrust of the government led them to pay the slick con men who freely promised protection from Rebel raiders.
They certainly did not find “Peace! Peace!” as the strangers had claimed they would.
Does anyone have an old membership card of the Knights of the Golden Circle still in your family? If so, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would like to photograph the golden ticket for documentation purposes.