Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘1860s’

Knights of the Golden Circle

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015


The Knights of the Golden Circle was an organization that existed in the United States from the 1850s through the 1860s which espoused the idea of a radical expansion, and realignment, of the United States into an extremely “pro-slavery” nation.  Their major goal was to promote the idea of the seizure, as part of Manifest Destiny, of additional territory for the United States in Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, with the ultimate goal being that each of these new territories be added to the United States as “slave states” – those allowing slavery.  This planned goal also aimed at potentially creating a new super-Confederacy of states/republics, if necessary, encompassing the Southern states in the United States and the other new territories, with a capital centered in Havana, Cuba.


Now this new nation, (shown above in green), would have represented a major investment of military and cultural power by the United States to be achieved and probably was beyond the immediate capacity of the nation in the 1850s.  However the idea had many adherents in the American South and southern portions of middle states, mainly due to the economic possibilities it presented and concerns about the growing power of abolitionism as a political force in the United States.  The Knights of the Golden Circle were strongly pro-Southern as regional tensions increased in the United States and the organization supported the seceding states in 1861.  Many Democrats in the northern United States during the Civil War expressed support for some ideas purported by the Knights of the Golden Circle and members of the organization took part in some early military actions by the growing Confederate forces.


The organization had less real impact during the American Civil War but it was a lightening rod for Northern concerns about Southern sympathizers acting as spies and saboteurs during the Civil War.  Members of the Knights of the Golden Circle were regularly targeted for arrest by United States law enforcement and its key leaders were expelled from northern territory when caught.  The image of the Knights of the Golden Circle in the United States as traitors was not helped by activities like the attempting to outfit a secret privateer boat in California to attack Pacific shipping by the United States.  The organization did not survive the defeat of the southern states in the American Civil War and its membership most likely dissolved after the war.


I say “most likely” because the Knights of the Golden Circle have become one of the darlings of conspiracy theorists who posit the group survived the end of the American Civil War and became a key player in efforts to prepare for a second American Civil War.  Such theories are grounded mostly in speculation than anything solid, but it does give the organization a lasting minor place even in modern United States history.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Golden Circle and the Knights of the Golden Circle

Dred Scott and the modern take on the Civil War [OPINION]

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015


One of the modern threads you will find in United States history is the debate on the causes of the Civil War, which mainly hinges on two major points of contention:  first that states had the right to secede from the union legally and second that the Civil War was fought over states rights.  On the second point the counter-argument brought up is “indeed, the right to have slavery in a state” – which sparks another round of debate.  Honestly though I personally find the argument about states rights as the key issue disingenuous as an argument when discussing the Civil War due to the reaction of many Southern radicals to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.  In that Supreme Court case an African-American sued for his freedom, claiming that because he had lived and worked in both a free-state and later free-territory, he and his family should be free individuals.  (A gross simplification but it will do for now.)


The United States Supreme Court, under Justice Taney, found that Scott was not freed, they also found that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to rule in the case technically and, as a “by the way”, Congress did not have the power to impose regulations in the territories regarding slavery.  Justice Taney had hoped his ruling would result in an end to the debates about the position of slavery within the United States, instead it sparked a massive uproar in the North and the South.


In the North it was felt that now the Supreme Court was only one ruling away from stating that individual states no longer had the right to outlaw slavery within the United States, on some vague notion it was “protected” in the Constitution.  In the South it was felt that Northern citizens should calm down and embrace the legal ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter.  It was also commonly felt that this ruling would open up the western territories to expanded slave ownership and create a new boom for economic development in the region, many Southern slaveholders after the ruling were excited about the idea of gaining access to cheap, productive land that could be tilled by slave labor.


Now to my eye the cornerstone problem with arguing states rights as a Civil War major cause occurs in this period, with Southern Radicals and their writing, whose ideas were upheld by many moderate Southern thinkers, that Dred Scott was the ruling that would pave the way towards a United States that allowed slavery to exist in every state, even those that had voted against it.  Some Southern Radicals called for the day that “slave auctions took place in Boston Commons” – ground zero for abolitionists.

To my eye, had the bulk of Southern opinion in response to those fears by the North been “What?  No, you have a right to not have slaves, we have a right to have slaves, calm down, lets pass a cross-sectional law that says as such.  We’ll hammer out the west out, the Supreme Court kind of pooped a biscuit here” – the Civil War would probably still have occurred but it might have been delayed or lessened in impact.  Certainly it would have sparked less paranoia in the North than the actual Southern reaction which could be summarized as “Hell yes!   Eat it North!  It’s SLAVING TIME”

The United States Civil War was a complex war, with roots resting in sectionalism, power balances within the nation, and economic impacts of slavery, along with the more common issues of property, role of national government, and states rights.  But as a common thread throughout all of that runs the solid line…of slavery.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Dred Scott Decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Slave Power

US Civil War – the little state that couldn’t

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014


The secession crisis of 1860 was one of the pivotal moments in 19th century United States history, the early stages of the crisis defined the civil war that followed and probably set the challenges, failures, and successes of the Lincoln presidency.  As the nation reeled under the question of what membership in the federal entity known as the “United States” was at least one state split over the issue of secession successfully, Virginia, leading to the states western territories breaking free and being admitted as a new state to the nation, West Virginia.  However Virgina was not the only southern state to face the challenge of secession with a sharply divided internal populous, the state of Tennessee went into the crisis facing the same problem.  When the crisis began Tennessee actually strongly leaned towards remaining in the Union, with most of its citizens believing that leaving the United States was a desperate solution to a problem that could be solved by other means, even the election of Abraham Lincoln was not enough to sway the majority of Tennessee citizen base towards the idea of leaving the Union.  Then Lincoln’s proclamation in April 1861 calling for an army of 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion in the South was issued and Tennessee’s position rapidly shifted to pro-secession.  Tennessee’s governor at the time, Isham G. Harris (pictured above) favored secession and worked to bring his state over into the new Confederate States of America.


However not all of Tennessee was interested in leaving the Union, Western Tennessee with its broader agricultural system, higher number of slaves, and economy based around large-scale agriculture was sharply in favor of leaving the Union.  However Eastern Tennessee, with a far smaller number of slaves, mountainous terrain, and an economy more based around mining and small-scale agriculture disagreed and held its own convention which decided that East Tennessee wanted to leave the state of Tennessee, form its own new state, and remain within the Union.  This would have taken about a third of Tennessee’s total land area away from the state, something that Harris was not going to have happen.  He ordered the commanding general of Tennessee’s own state army, Felix Zollicoffer (pictured above) to take a sizable force of troops into Eastern Tennessee to secure the region and prevent its pro-Union sympathies from coming to fruition.  This provoked a low-intensity guerrilla war by individuals in East Tennessee against the pro-Confederate, and after a short period fully Confederate, troops garrisoning the region.  In particular a mountainous region known as the “Nickajack” was a site of regular violence and efforts to undermine bridges, destroy communication lines, and ruin rail traffic moving through the state.  Although the Confederates oscillated between a light hand and spanking the region the Confederate States of America was never able to fully bring East Tennessee under control.


The situation came to an end during the Tennessee campaign in 1863 by Union General Ambrose Burnside (pictured above and yes, some believe the term “sideburns” does come from his fabulous whiskers) – who led a successful campaign to secure East Tennessee for the Union in the fall.  By the end of 1864 all of Tennessee was secured by the Union and knocked out of the war.  What, personally, I find particularly fascinating about the story of East Tennessee is the fact that it represents the very narrow view of “states rights” held by the various entities that made up the Confederate States of America – for that institution the idea of “state” was very tightly defined as the entity created by either an original charter or admitted to the United States with carefully enunciated boundaries.  Even the Confederacy, when facing the possibility of part of its own territory attempting to leave it, resorted to violence and military force to maintain its territorial integrity.  (Bonus tidbit – when Sherman led his 1864 march through the south a unit in his forces were composed of Southern men who volunteered to fight for the Union, most of that unit was made up of volunteers from Tennessee, specifically East Tennessee

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Tennessee in the U.S. Civil War, the Nickajack, Isham G. Harris, Ambrose Burnside, and Sideburns.  In addition the article “The Valley of East Tennessee” written by Ernest I. Miller, 1957.

Spencer M. Clark – Civil War Currency Lord & Sugar Daddy Extraordinare

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Ladies and Gentleman, meet Mr. Spencer Morton Clark, head of the newly formed Currency Bureau in the Treasury Department in 1861, he was the literal “money maker” of the US Treasury at the time.  Clark was responsible for producing the newest form of banknotes in the United States, federal banknotes, specifically the first incarnation of the ubiquitous “greenback.”  Up until the Civil War currency in the US was produced solely by private banks, each of which generated their own currency, backed by their own security reserves (gold, silver, external securities), and good over limited geographic areas.  But with the outbreak of the US Civil War the federal government was caught with inadequate reserves of coined money to meet their spending needs, and rather than resort to just increased taxation the US government turned to producing additional cash, backed by the faith and credit of the US government, and also usable to pay ones taxes and obligations to the government.  (In other words, modern money.  This gentleman was the person responsible for producing the actual physical bills.  He was also famous as the first person to hire women to work for the federal government, he hired young women to separate the sheets of bills.  He hired women, he said, because their work was neater and they were less “boisterous” than men.

What people didn’t realize for a couple of years was the other reason Clark hired female workers for these duties, he apparently enjoyed having a string of attractive young ladies available who he could seduce/coerce into having sex with him and other male employees at the treasury.  It became a minor scandal in Civil War Washington because female workers were known to often work late at the treasury, often leave work drunk, and Clark as well as other officers of the Treasury routinely spent the night with these young ladies at an infamous hotel known as the “Central Hotel” – well known to the people of the period as a place that rented beds for the night to whomever and asked no questions.  Now Clark got some negative press from this but his dalliances were generally tolerated, he didn’t land himself in real trouble until Clark did something very silly:

That right there is a five cent ($0.05) bank note – for complex economic reasons the US was short on small change at the time, and that is indeed Spencer Clark’s head on the bill.  As he was the currency lord and this was a new bill being issued, he figured “what the hell, I’ve got an awesome beard!”  Congress did not respond to this self-promotion well and seized the newly made currency and destroyed it.  They also passed a law prohibiting anyone being depicted on US federal currency until they were dead.  Clark was investigated by Congress, the minority report from the investigation found him officially an immoral man and a sugar daddy, but officially he was found to be a decent government figure who made a mistake (the above bill) and whose conduct was…questionable.

Unfortunately the report did not quote text from the testimony given by Clark’s former mistresses but by all reports of the period the relationships were “spicy.”  In some ways politicians never change.

Sources:  Greenback, Jason Goodwin; Congressional Edition, US Congress 1864; Spencer Clark on Wikipedia