On December 26, 2011, we will publish Mark Lause’s A Secret Society History of the Civil War, which unravels the influence and power of antebellum secret societies. Dr. Lause, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, answered our questions about the formation of these underground organizations and their impact on American wars.
Q: What are some of the secret societies that existed during the Civil War era?
A: Freemasonry, of one sort or another, existed in every state of the union and most communities of any size. The Odd Fellows, attempting the standards of Freemasonry with the reputation of religious unorthodoxy, became almost as large, particularly in those areas that have experienced that way of anti-masonry. Contrary to anti-Masonic fears, the order played no coherent political role in antebellum sectional crisis, though there are indications that local groups became involved one way or the other. In the far West, for example, there are indications that secessionists may have used lodges as a cover for their activities. Far more interesting, African Americans who joined the Masons or a similar fraternal order regularly participated in underground, very illegal activities, particularly assisting runaway slaves. This represents the same clandestine response of revolutionary nationalists in Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe.
As in Europe, however, masonry inspired a wide range of new organizations with explicit political goals. In the United States, a Brotherhood of the Union formed in 1850 and represented the same time idealized nationalism we see in German, Italian and other Old World orders. This became the prototype for other organizations, that sought to define the nature and purpose of national unity.
Q: How did these societies travel from Europe and reform in the United States?
A: I tried to present something in the background of the secret societies as they function in European history. With the defeat of the 1848-49 revolutionary upheavals abroad, French, Italian and other radicals came to the U.S. with their own organizations, with purposes ranging from a kind of warmed-over Jacobinism to those of the Communist League. Americans interested in promoting similar goals, collaborated with these emigre radicals in a variety of ways. At New York City, these”Universal Democratic Republicans” later affiliated with an International Association established in London in 1857. Politically, they became closely involved in maintaining the Free Democratic Party, an antislavery third-party that formed the core of what became the Republican Party in the mid-1850s.
On the other hand, George W. L. Bickley, another member of the Brotherhood of the Union started by far the most famous secret society associated with the Civil War, the Knights of the Golden Circle. The KGC never actually even existed the way it’s usually presented. Bickley simply hoped to draw in wealthy backers with his creative mix of white supremacism, misogyny, affinity for military rule, and its Christian Fundamentalism, and, in the process, his fizzled confidence game certainly provided the most obvious precedent for the postwar Knights of the circle or “kuklos.” It recalls the theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Q: Did any prominent members of the U.S. government belong to a secret society during that era?
A: Certainly, there were Masons prominent in both the Union and Confederate governments, though anti-masonry had been very strong in the Northeast, something that influenced the lack of interest in masonry among leading Republicans.
What interested me was the potential of the societies as vehicles for ordinary people to influence the course of events. It was widely believed in that civilization that individuals were masters of their own destinies and that a common collective organization to achieve certain consciously shared goals could change the course of history.
Such a belief also inspired irrational, but sometimes politically usable fears of clandestine conspiracies, immensely powerful while leaving absolutely no trace of their existence. That belief remains a persistent article of faith and an operative principle of American politics right up to the present.
Q: What is the main way that secret societies impacted the start of the Civil War?
A: Secession is the best example in our history of how conspiracies take place in the real world without any need for a secret society. The limited electorate of the antebellum South elected state governments with a mandate to make decisions over such matters as which state roads sould be paved and how. Instead, those governments voted to dissolve the United States because they had lost a national election. By the close of 1861, the Confederacy claimed 13 states with two territories, of which only three had permitted the qualified white male voters to cast ballots on the subject. Secessionists justified this action by citing secret abolitionist conspiracies within a US administration that had not even taken power yet.
On the other hand, Union officials increasingly blamed the session pre-existing secret society, which they believe to be the KGC. As the war continued, fears of this secret society in the north provided useful justification for all sorts of wartime repression.
Q: Do you think that secret societies made a substantial impact on any subsequent U.S. wars?
A: Perhaps, this is yet another way in which the American Civil War represents a first modern war. We tend to fear unseen abstractions, and to give our rulers unprecedented powers to protect us from threats, for which little or no evidence has been or needs to be presented. Our biggest and most powerful institutions rest firmly upon such fears, and people my age and younger are well conditioned to give every benefit of the doubt to officeholders who promised safety in return for only a bit more power.
Experience should teach us more skepticism rather than less, but I think there is less skepticism of such pronouncements anywhere in American civic culture today than there was in South Carolina’s when the secessionists successfully fostered fears of government-instigated assaults on Southern rights and a government-sponsored race war for slave liberation.
Q: How did you become interested in this aspect of the Civil War?
A: My earlier work on antebellum land reform for Young America and on postwar greenbackism for The Civil War’s Last Campaign encountered bits and bobs of secret societies. These were terribly important to the subjects I wanted to address. After all, the Knights of Labor represented the largest labor organization in 19th century American history. It seemed reasonable to pull together what information I could to understand this process in terms of labor history.
However, the nature of antebellum labor history is such that it seemed virtually impossible to separate such organizations from those with wider social and political concerns of importance to the broader sectional conflict. The more I looked at this, the more it seemed obvious that many ordinary Americans, including blacks and the foreign born, believed it to be possible that they could get control of their futures.
Inseperable from that story was that rather strange attempt to use the fear of the elite that such things were taking place.
Q: What is the most interesting thing that you learned during the research of A Secret Society History of the Civil War?
A: Most obvious is the importance of the new technologies that have made this kind of the subject much more easily studied. When researching my dissertation back in the 1970s and early 1980s, it took me many months to locate and pull together the sources I used in Some Degree of Power on the origins of the labor movement in America. Every thing that took me so long to find at that time would take me an hour or so today using electronic databases and search engines. This book would simply not have been possible, were it not for such databases that brought to light the myriad of newspaper articles and short notices on meetings appearing in the contemporary press.
My research into the secret societies and their political importance has also underscored the need to consider the political importance of antebellum spiritualism. Although the literature on spiritualism has been growing by leaps and bounds, it has not directly engage the politics of sectionalism and the emergence of the Republican Party, which I think is essential. Spiritualists themselves formed a secret society in a conscious attempt to promote political and social reform. If we were to follow the Universal Democratic Republicans of the 1850s through the Civil War, we would directly encounter Victoria Woodhull and the International Working Men’s Association, the so-called “First International” which formed in 1864 and actually succeeded the earlier International Association of the 1850s. The American dimension of the IWA became virtually inseparable from the course of the spiritualism movement. So that like secret societies, spiritualism speaks to both specific issues in labor history and broader questions of the sectional conflict.
My work on secret societies has also drawn me increasingly to consider related comparative and international issues. There are a number of projects I hope to pursue in European history. In particular, I hope to explore Garibaldi’s attempt to shape a cosmopolitan republican future for Europe and the world, which represents the culmination of sorts for the romantic ideals of 1848 and other secret societies those aspirations inspired.