A Secret Society History of the Civil War

A Secret Society History of the Civil War

by Mark A. Lause
A Secret Society History of the Civil War

A Secret Society History of the Civil War

by Mark A. Lause

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This unique history of the Civil War considers the impact of nineteenth-century American secret societies on the path to as well as the course of the war. Beginning with the European secret societies that laid the groundwork for Freemasonry in the United States, Mark A. Lause analyzes how the Old World's traditions influenced various underground groups and movements in America, particularly George Lippard's Brotherhood of the Union, an American attempt to replicate the political secret societies that influenced the European revolutions of 1848. Lause traces the Brotherhood's various manifestations, the most conspicuous being the Knights of the Golden Circle (out of which developed the Ku Klux Klan), and the Confederate secret groups through which John Wilkes Booth and others attempted to undermine the Union. Lause profiles the key leaders of these organizations, with special focus on George Lippard, Hugh Forbes, and George Washington Lafayette Bickley.

Antebellum secret societies ranged politically from those with progressive or even revolutionary agendas to those that pursued conservative or oppressive goals. This book shows how, in the years leading up to the Civil War, these clandestine organizations exacerbated existing sectional tensions in the United States. Lause's research indicates that the pervasive influence of secret societies may have played a part in key events such as the Freesoil movement, the beginning of the Republican party, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Lincoln's election, and the Southern secession process of 1860-1861.

This exceptional study encompasses both white and African American secret society involvement, revealing the black fraternal experience in antebellum America as well as the clandestine operations that provided assistance to escaped slaves via the Underground Railroad. Unraveling these pervasive and extensive networks of power and influence, A Secret Society History of the Civil War demonstrates that antebellum secret societies played a greater role in affecting Civil War-era politics than has been previously acknowledged.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252080500
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/04/2014
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark A. Lause is a professor of American history at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of A Secret Society History of the Civil War and Race and Radicalism in the Union Army.

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Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03655-2


This is a secret society history of the Civil War period in American history rather than "the" history of the subject. American conditions at the time gave rise to a broad range of these kinds of organizations. More important, perhaps, the social and political circumstances in the United States encouraged a set of assumptions about the role of clandestine voluntary associations in shaping the course of history.

Massive new secret societies arose this side of the Enlightenment to cast their shadows across what would follow. One could argue that the sort of articulate, educated, successful, and politically active middle-class gentlemen who joined a secret society would try to influence events regardless of their membership. However, from the days of the American and French revolutions, critics and some supporters have emphasized the importance of secret societies in making revolutions, waging wars, and shaping events across the Western world.

Such bodies certainly occupied much of the rare leisure time of mid-nineteenth-century American gentlemen. Freemasons themselves assert the order's importance, as in Allen E. Roberts's House Undivided and, recently, Michael A. Halleran's Better Angels of Our Nature. Halleran reproduces data indicating that the country had more than two hundred thousand Masons on the eve of the conflict, and this seems to have counted only a few of the major bodies. There were a series of unrecognized rites of "fringe Masonry," or Prince Hall Masonry, among African Americans, and this is without considering the large rival organizations, such as the Odd Fellows, the Sons of Temperance, or other fraternal orders for social and mutual aid purposes. No antebellum community of any size failed to cultivate a lodge of some sort or other.

Yet the discussion of the numbers in a way that assumes something coherent misses the point. Notwithstanding Roberts's triumphalist title, neither antebellum Masonry nor fraternalism generally was "undivided." Just as abroad, Freemasonry and related secret societies drew members from diverse social strata and often remained independent of institutionalized political and spiritual authorities. The order provided the earliest model of widespread voluntary self-organization, and it brought together those with the general desire to foster secular republican governments. The lure of promised secrets made the dream even more interesting and marketable. The meaning is anything but straightforward.

Certainly, secret societies abroad proved essential to the making of the modern world. They formed the mortar of the nation-building process, the catalyst for new political parties, and the means to mobilize constituencies for or against reforms by which these new governments would foster the well-being of ordinary citizens. Such orders crystallized around the ideas ranging from the nationalism of Giuseppe Mazzini to the artisan insurrectionism of Louis Auguste Blanqui. By the time of the continent-wide upheavals of 1848–49, such orders expressed dissatisfaction ranging from the regime to governments, from thwarted national aspirations to the injustices of class society itself. In short, they contributed to shaping broader notions of nationhood, republicanism, and the social order, in part perhaps, as ruling elites reacted to their fears of pervasive conspiracies against their power.

On this side of the Atlantic, too, the importance of Freemasonry among the nation's founders is well established. Tracing its influence through the war years would involve a fruitful exploration that would surely lead, among other places, into very influential mass veterans' organizations. Here, as abroad, fraternalism embodied and structured the way middle-class men grappled with identities of community and gender.

American mythologies mediate some of these assumptions. Based on the alleged lack of repressiveness in the United States, the molders of its national self-perception have tended to posit an American exceptionalism that precludes the need for and discourages clandestine organizations. The vaunted openness of mid-nineteenth-century Americans politics not only failed to resolve those tensions around national identity and republicanism but also proved insufficient to keep those tensions from causing a civil war.

In fact, open public political organizations were also possible in mid-nineteenth-century Britain and Switzerland, which also gave rise to secret societies, so it should come as no surprise that we find them in the United States. Crystallized around the idea of an associative power, participants may also have had little reason for confidence that they would be free of repression or that their open organization would have much of a prospect of shaping policy. European radicals brought their associations and their norms of association to America after the repressions of 1848–49. Although often segregated from a general understanding of political history, African American fraternalism independently provided a similar model of a secret society with implicitly radical social criticisms. Nor have we done well in understanding such formations among homegrown white Americans such as the Brotherhood of the Union.

Despite the heavy weight of American exceptionalism, close students of the Civil War should be able to suggest several cases where secret organizations and conspiracies seem to have had a major impact on the broad flow of history. Talk of circumventing and resisting the official institutions of power and their policies ripened through the 1850s. The decade closed with John Brown's armed abolitionist raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, which brought to the fore the sectionalization of sentiment over the subject of fugitive slaves cultivated in Kansas. The identity of Brown's military adviser, the remarkably obscure Capt. Hugh Forbes—who headed a coalition of those European revolutionary societies reorganized by refugee émigrés in New York City—requires a more accurate appreciation of Brown's 1859 raid.

The historical contribution of secret societies to defining national identity raises a logical set of questions, but it is not through Freemasonry that an emergent secessionism makes its primary contribution. Hardly any booklength account of the conflict fails to mention George W. L. Bickley's Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC). Describing the KGC as a secret society of Southern sympathizers in the North essentially smudges it into the Democratic Party, on the one hand, and Confederate secret services, on the other hand. However, the KGC hoped to unite Mexico and the South, using the acquisition of Texas as their example. No less an authority than Horace Greeley wrote:

Before the opening of 1861, a perfect reign of terror had been established throughout the Gulf States. A secret order, known as "Knights of the Golden Circle," or as "Knights of the Columbian Star," succeeding that known six or seven years earlier as the "Order of the Lone Star," having for its ostensible object the acquisition of Cuba, Mexico, and Central America, and the establishment of Slavery in the latter two, but really operating in the interest of disunion, had spread its network of lodges, grips, passwords, and alluring mysteries all over the South, and had ramifications even in some of the cities of adjoining Free States. Other clubs, more or less secret, were known as "The Precipitators," "Vigilance Committees," "Minute Men," and by kindred designations; but all of them were sworn to fidelity to Southern Rights; while their members were gradually prepared and ripened, wherever any ripening was needed, for the task of treason. Whoever ventured to condemn and repudiate Secession as the true and sovereign remedy for Southern wrongs, in any neighborhood where Slavery was dominant, was thenceforth a marked man, to be stigmatized and hunted down as a Lincolnite, Submissionist, or Abolitionist.

In short, beneath the rhetorical fear of a "slave power conspiracy," prominent and respectable thinkers discerned a genuine mass secret society.

The KGC has gotten some serious study but clearly merits a more rigorous look. Most sensationally, perhaps, Simon and Schuster in 2003—the same year that Doubleday published Dan Brown's DaVinci Code—gave us a work that traces the KGC back through the Freemasons to the Templars and used aerial photography and surveys that seemed to transpose the same kind of geometry described around Rennes-le-Chateau into parts of rural Arkansas. While not drawn into the lineage of Jesus, it discloses the really important secret protected by the defunct KGC, the location of the missing treasury of the Confederate government, supposedly tucked away in Arizona's Superstition Mountains. At the opposite extreme of this popular sensationalism, Frank Klement's Dark Lanterns—the most complete scholarly look at Civil War secret societies—simply dismisses the KGC as a paranoid fantasy, substantiated only by Federal forgeries. While the evidence for government forgeries is as thin as that for hidden treasure, assumptions about the importance of the KGC seem to parallel the old nineteenth-century nationalist faith in clandestine planning and its inverse, the predisposition to believe in hidden conspiracies.

Along with the issue of national identity, a look at the secret society tradition in mid-nineteenth-century America also tests the extent to which the implicit plebeian dynamic abroad applied to the Second American Revolution. This study will look in various quarters, including the émigré circles, radical organizations, and African American fraternalism, for which American realities proved most similar to those of oppressed nations in the Old World.

This study will also have implications for the flip side of this discussion, an unbelievably pervasive American faith that the unseen hand of conspiracy moves history. The belief in the power of a secret society and the fear of conspiracy are opposite sides of the same coin. Both see a fragile and vulnerable status quo, the functioning of which may be disrupted by secret cabals and the defense of which justifies extraordinary clandestine measures. The reciprocal nature of this faith usually leaves me unimpressed by the blanket debunking of conspiracy theories, because those who do so are rarely consistent in their skepticism.

Fear of secret conspiracies festered in early American history until the 1826 disappearance of William Morgan, a Mason professing plans to expose the order's secrets. A wave of suspicion depleted the order of membership and power, leaving it even more fragmented in the United States than it was abroad. It is interesting that Antimasonry centered in New England, upstate New York, and the upper Midwest, whereas Halleran's figures on state membership indicate that Southern gentlemen joined the Masons in much larger proportions than their Northern countrymen. The sectional implications of this point merit some thought.

In a broader sense, the penchant for seeing secret cabals may or may not be pathological, but it is hardly a simple pathology distinguished from a reasoned and rational world view. The closer one looks, the more the line blurs between an unquestioned fear of an international Communist (or "terrorist") conspiracy, the threat of illegal aliens, and the menace of extraterrestrial aliens. Through my life, the dominant institutions of our society have all fostered world views centered on unfounded fears of secret cabals where the fear suits their policy purposes. At this moment, our TV remotes can dance us across lengthy and repetitive "documentaries" on bigfoot, alien abduction, ghost-hunting, and the afterlife. Interspersed in this muddle are laments about the state of education and the need to reform it by getting rid of teachers. The "news" spares us all sorts of potentially disturbing information about the environment or overseas wars in order to repeatedly revisit allegations of the president's secret foreign birth and his clandestine religious allegiances. An examination of the myth and reality of secret societies in the Civil War period offers us some insight in how the "paranoid style" reaches farther and runs deeper than the popular delusions or aspirations of the unlettered masses.


Excerpted from A SECRET SOCIETY HISTORY OF THE CIVIL WAR by MARK A. LAUSE Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction ix

Prologue. Old World Contours: Revolutionary Politics and the Secret Society Tradition 1

Part I Alternative Means

1 The Brotherhood of the Union: George Lippard and the Palestine of Redeemed Labor 21

2 Universal Democratic Republicans: Hugh Forbes and Transatlantic Antislavery Radicalism 37

3 Lone Stars and Golden Circles: The Manifest Destiny of George W. L. Bickley 51

Part II Challenging Power

4 Higher Laws: The Fulcrum of African American National Identity 69

5 Decisive Means: Political Violence and National Self-Definition 86

Part III Ends

6 The Counterfeit Nation: The KGC, Secession, and the Confederate Experience 107

7 The Republic Saved: Secret Societies and the Survival of the Union 125

Epilogue. Long Shadows: Lineages of the Secret Society Tradition in America 141

Notes 157

Index 203

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