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KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE McCLELLAN SADDLE – A VERY RARE ARTIFACT FROM A FASCINATING YET RELATIVELY UNKNOWN CHAPTER OF AMERICAN HISTORY OF THE SOUTH, THE CONFEDERACY, AND THE RECONSTRUCTION ERA:  This beautiful McClellan style mid-19TH Century saddle survives as an artifact from a chapter of American history with which relatively few people are familiar.  Purchased some years ago from a northeast Texas estate, this saddle includes many features which would have appealed to a man of some means.  Of particular note, the saddle is adorned with two 1” diameter silver metal medallions – one on each side of the pommel – bearing identical “star and crescent” designs which strongly suggest this saddle was owned by a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC). 

In 1861, an anonymous author wrote in An Authentic Exposition of the K.G.C., Knights of the Golden Circle the following description of KGC symbols on display in an KGC “castle”, as the organization’s local meeting halls were known:

“The symbols were a large bronzed crescent, or new moon, set with fifteen stars… The crescent represents the growing Southern Confederacy; …..its glowing sun and fifteen stars foreshadows the benign influence of a fully matured Southern Government extending its borders through Cuba, Mexico, and Central and South America….” 

As with any attempt to excerpt a period or event in history, choosing where to start and what to include in a necessarily limited space presents a definite challenge, and so it is with this effort to recount the history of the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC). 

As early as the mid-19TH Century, the difference between the future economic prospects of the northern states versus those in the south were becoming very apparent.  While the industrial north was able to increase its wealth with the same capital investments employed today – modernizing equipment, increasing the trained workforce, building additional factories, etc. – the only means of increasing wealth in the primarily agrarian south – the same solution in use today on modern farms - was the acquisition of more land.  Beginning with the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, passed by Congress in 1807, expansion or growth of the slave based economy of the south was restricted by ever increasing limitations imposed by several legislations up through the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  

The origins of the KGC has been traced back to the pre-secession sentiments raised in South Carolina in the 1830’s which called for the dissolution of the United States and the establishment of a Southern Empire.  The most commonly accepted references characterize the KGC as a militant pro-slavery, pro-secession movement which called for the creation of a geographic “Golden Circle” – an independent political and economic zone which would include the southern and border states, Mexico, Central America and Cuba.  This “circular” Southern Empire, with a radius of some 1,200 miles extending from Havana through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, would be a slave-based, agrarian society of plantations producing cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, and coffee to fuel the economy.  The proponents believed this empire would attract European investment and foresaw the creation of mines, an extensive rail network, and the development of manufacturing centers.   

The Knights of the Golden Circle is considered by many scholars to be the most powerful secret and subversive organization in the history of the United States, recruiting members from every state – north and south - and territory by the end of the Civil War.   In order to maintain this veil of secrecy, the members were sworn to blood oaths, and virtually no written records survived, instead they relied heavily on a system of symbols and recognition signs to identify fellow members - hence the decorations on horse equipment and arms such as these examples: 

Decorative medallions, like those which are present on this saddle, are seldom encountered on McClellan saddles.  However, as more pieces with identical or similar decorations came to light, I began to fully appreciate the historical significance of the design, and understand how wide spread the use of these emblems were on the horse equipment and weapons used by members of the Knights of the Golden Circle.  

Some time after acquiring this saddle, I was shown this Colt Model 1851 Navy Pistol which had been purchased from a family estate east of Corpus Christi, Texas.  The grip is decorated with an inlaid silver star and crescent design on one side and three silver stars on the other.  At the time the pistol was purchased, the family members told the buyer that the original owner of the pistol had served in the Confederate Army, had been a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, and he had the grips decorated to indicate his membership in the organization.  Knowing about the medallions on my saddle, the new owner of this pistol shared the information regarding the connection between the decorations on grips and the original owner’s affiliation with the KGC. 

Collecting has a serendipitous nature, and so after I acquired this saddle and viewed the Colt Navy, I was contacted by a couple in Vermont who in the course of building collection of antique bridle bits, purchased a mid-19th Century European bit decorated with brass medallions bearing the same star and crescent design as the medallions on this saddle.  The importation of horse equipment from Europe was not unusual during the 1800’s, especially during our Civil War and in particular by the Confederacy.  While the bit did not have any provenance or history attached to it, having studied the horse equipment of the period I am certain the bit is genuine and it dates to the Civil War era, and that the medallions date to the period of the bit’s use. 

Offered at auction some years ago was a hard used Civil War era musket decorated similarly to the Colt Navy described above, with a silver crescent and star inletted into the butt stock.    

In another auction during this same time frame, a Morgan Muley Saddle bearing the star and crescent medallions identical to those on the saddle offered here was offered as part of an identified Texas Confederate cavalryman's grouping.  In addition to the provenance, the Morgan saddle was fitted with a pair of the iron “Star Tread” stirrups that have been associated with Civil War Texas cavalry units.   

Worthy of mention is a famous portrait of Mexican War hero Major General John A. Quitman (later governor of Mississippi) depicting the general astride his horse during the Mexican War which shows a five pointed star above a crescent moon on the rear corner of his saddle cloth.  Quitman was an ardent supporter of the planned expansion of the South into Cuba and Central America, and was very active in the hierarchy of the KGC, so his display of these KGC emblems was certainly more than coincidence.   

Viewing these artifacts within the context of what is known of the symbolism of the KGC, coupled with the history of those items that can be dated or identified, these pieces offer compelling evidence that the distinctive star and crescent moon decorations were applied by members who wished to covertly identify themselves to brother members within an otherwise clandestine organization.  Other than the pieces described here, I have not seen any other similarly decorated pieces for sale.  It is of little surprise that KGC associated pieces are seldom encountered in the market.  Frankly, I don't think many of them survived, and if they did, it stands to reason that many of them are still being held by the descendants of the original KGC members.   

Early 1860 newspapers across the country reported that the Knights of the Golden Circle were recruiting troops in numerous cities to send to Brownsville, Texas, for the planned invasion of Mexico, however the civil war looming on the horizon may have caused the KGC leaders to reconsider, and the invasion never took place.   The KGC held a convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, from May 7–11, 1860, and reported a total membership of 48,000 men from the north in addition to those members in the south, and an army of "less than 14,000 men".  According to other authoritative reports, by late 1860 the KGC could call on 100,000 trained and armed men. 

Even before the Civil War began, Texas was the greatest source of the organization's membership, being home to at least thirty-two KGC “castles” in twenty-seven counties, including the towns of San Antonio, Marshall, Canton, and Castroville.  Evidence suggests that San Antonio may have served as the organization’s national headquarters for a time.  Before the Civil War’s opening shots were fired on Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, and before Texas held its referendum on secession on February 23, 1861, Texas volunteer forces, which included one hundred fifty KGC soldiers under the command of Col. Ben McCulloch, forced the surrender of the federal arsenal at San Antonio on February 15, 1861.  KGC troops were also instrumental in gaining the surrender of many of the federal military posts between San Antonio and El Paso. 

The KGC fully supported Confederate States of America and placed its military ranks at the disposal of the Confederate States Army.  KGC members acted as emissaries who negotiated treaties with Indian tribes on the western frontier, organized regular army regiments as well as bands of irregulars such as Quantrill’s Guerillas, and perhaps most significantly began an organized subversive effort to undermine the war capabilities of the North, to include establishing an espionage network.  These clandestine missions were well suited to the secretive nature of the KGC, and resulted in attracting the attention of the U.S. War Department’s anti-espionage efforts.   

In October 1864 U. S. Judge Advocate Joseph Holt submitted a detailed report, warning Secretary of War Edwin Stanton of the dangers posed by the KGC, however Holt’s report fell far short of defining the full scope, intent and financial resources of the organization.  It was far larger and more capable than the federal government could imagine.  Beginning in 1861, President Lincoln received repeated written warnings regarding the extent of the threat posed by the KGC, not only to the US government, but to the President’s personal safety – concerns that ultimately proved to be genuine.  

Some historians credit the KGC with organizing the bloody anti-draft riots in New York City in July, 1863.  Although the riots did not reach the desired goal of ending the draft and thereby limiting the North’s ability to maintain their manpower in the field, this failure did factor into what would become a radical change of focus for the organization.  Coupled with the defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg that same month, the KGC reached the conclusion that the Confederacy could not prevail in the conflict.  With these devastating defeats, any chance that the British or the French would intervene on behalf of the South disappeared, and without European assistance, many believed the South had insufficient capital, material and troops to prosecute the war.   

It was during that summer that the leadership of the KGC focused its attention on the future, fiercely determined that the American south would somehow, someday, prove victorious in a Second War of Rebellion.  By the end of that year, the organization was taken completely underground, concentrating their efforts towards putting into place an ingenious network of caches of arms and money, much of it stolen from the U.S. Government.  This enormous enterprise was carried out under a veil of strictest secrecy and it all but escaped scrutiny.   

With the fall of the Confederacy, the leadership of the KGC disbursed to Canada, England, Cuba, and Mexico, as well as throughout the Old Confederacy and into the western territories and states.  As a viable organization, the KGC continued to pursue their goals for many decades, in ways even more secretive than ever before, with the notable exception of two notorious individuals who left their unforgettable marks on the history of the United States.

A considerable number of well known historic figures have been associated with the KGC - such easily recognizable names as John Wilkes Booth, John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jesse James, Frank James, Ben McCulloch, John Hunt Morgan, William Quantrill, John Surratt – names readily connected with the Confederacy.  However, two of these names in particular stand apart, and through the years have continued to fuel virtually unlimited speculation - those of John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James.   

From period accounts that exist, it appears that Booth was indeed a member of the KGC.  Perhaps the best account can be drawn from The Private Journal and Diary of John H. Surratt, The Conspirator, written by Surratt, edited by Dion Haco, and published by Frederic A. Brady of New York in 1866.   Surratt provides great detail when describing how he was introduced to the KGC in the summer of 1860 by another Knight, John Wilkes Booth, and inducted into this mysterious organization on July 2, 1860, at a castle in Baltimore, Maryland.   Surratt describes the elaborate, secretive induction ceremony, detailing the rituals, and stating that cabinet members, congressmen, judges, editors, actors, prize fighters, and known criminals were in attendance. One of the most significant claims made by Surratt in his diary is that the KGC began plotting to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in 1860, before Lincoln was even inaugurated in 1861, and that they continued to foment these plans throughout the Civil War.  While Booth’s membership in the KGC is well established, how much direct support the KGC provided to Booth when he assassinated President Lincoln still remains in question, primarily due to the lack of any surviving written records.

It has been argued that the infamous James Brothers – Jesse and Frank - were not the outlaws history has described them to be, but rather they were employees and zealous members of the KGC.  Both of these sons of Missouri were veteran members of William Quantrill’s guerillas – a unit known to wear crescent moon & star shaped lapel pins on the upturned brims of their hats, suggesting more than a casual association with the KGC.  Within months of the end of the War, Cole Younger led a group of former Quantrill’s men who robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri, netting some $70,000 in cash, gold and bonds and establishing a pattern of raids and robberies which would plague the Trans-Mississippi region for years to come.  As with Younger, Jesse James emerged from the War with a specific skill set which led to him becoming arguably the most famous post-Civil War outlaw.  Described in one source as “the KGC’s master field commander”, a credible argument has been made that Jesse James was not a predatory outlaw out for personal gain, but rather was an ardent member of the KGC who was committing the robberies to fund the Second Southern Rebellion.  When one considers the impressive amount of treasure reported lost in the robberies attributed to James and his various gangs, it is impossible to ignore that he never displayed any unexplained appreciable wealth.  So, where did the money go?  In recent years the answer to this question has emerged as historians have identified, searched for, and in some cases, located caches of treasure buried by these post-war KGC Knights within a well designed and coded system of vaults.  While the ongoing story of this treasure is well beyond the scope of this description, it is well worth the telling.  I encourage you to obtain a copy of Rebel Gold by Warren Getler and Bob Brewer, a compelling account of the KGC and its post Civil War buried treasure.  Without the authors’ detailed research and easy to read style of writing, I would have been at a loss in writing this description. 

According to most authorities, the KGC ceased operations by 1916 – perhaps due to the United States’ entry into World War I.  And too, with the passage of time, most of the old Knights of the Golden Circle had died, and with them, their dreams of an independent Southern Empire. 

This saddle is of the style of other known private purchase saddles, acquired by officers, and in some cases enlisted men, with their own funds as opposed to those saddles issued by the armies.  Since the McClellan was the standard pattern of the period, many of these private purchase saddles followed the same design with some additional embellishments, determined by the financial ability of the purchaser.  Of particular note on this saddle are the two 1” diameter silver colored medallions – one on each side of the pommel – which bear identical “star and crescent” designs.   

This saddle is a classic Civil War era Officer’s McClellan Saddle.  Manufactured by an unknown maker, the saddle features the high quality work, special features, and design of the saddles the officers of both sides of the conflict special ordered and paid for from their own funds.  The short skirting forward of the pommel and behind the cantle, and the short “jocky’s” – the short skirts on each side of the seat, the decorative carving and stamped borders, and the red highlights – all attest that this saddle was made for a man of some financial means, able to afford these added, and expensive, touches.   

A finishing touch, the crests of the pommel and cantle retain the original brass molding, another extra that would have added to the cost of the saddle, and a very desirable feature when grading Civil War era officer’s saddles.  The brass has aged evenly and now has a dark patina.   

Highlighting the saddle are the two matching silver colored metal medallions – one on each side of the saddle, attached to the skirting immediately in front of the pommel.  The medallions feature the crescent moon and star in high relief, with light radiating from behind the star.  Both medallions are firmly attached and are in excellent condition with no damage, defacing or misshaping.   

The fully leather covered seat, pommel, cantle, side bar extensions, skirts and stirrup hoods are all made of a reddish-brown leather featuring stamped and hand carved designs.  The black leather suspended seat – a feature surviving from the saddle designs popular in the antebellum years – contrasts nicely with the brown finish on the balance of the saddle.  The edges of the brown leather are highlighted with red lacquer enamel paint, much of this trim surviving with a vibrant color.  The combinations of brown and black leather, and the red lacquer trim, are all characteristics that have been noted on a number of high grade saddles produced for senior ranking officers of the period.  While red is often associated with the artillery, in fact it was commonly used by senior officers of all the branches, to the point that some officers elected to ride saddles made entirely of bright red leather – a fashion statement, if you will, of the period.   

The saddle is in excellent condition with a bright, shiny surface to the leather throughout, with no significant wear or damage, and no missing components.  Both the outer and inner skirts are full form and intact, and both girth straps are present under each of the skirts.  The original stirrup straps, stirrups and both linen girths survived with the saddle – an unusual added value as in many cases, these components were separated from the officer’s saddles and lost through the years.   The saddle is fitted with equipment rings on both of the rear extension of the sidebars, a standard feature on saddles intended for extended travel away from the rider’s home base, another indicator this saddle was used by a man in military service.   

I am aware of two other Civil War period saddles which bear the same medallions as appear on this saddle – a total of only three.  In light of the literally thousands of 19TH Century American military saddles I have examined in the course of building my own collection, research I did for The American Military Saddle 1776-1945, appraising saddles in other collections, and conducting consulting work for museums and auction houses, I find it remarkable that only three bearing this same symbol have been noted.  For what it is worth, over the course of the sixty years he spent studying antique militaria, my co-author - who had a particular interest in the Confederacy, and was descended from a Confederate Missouri cavalryman - had never seen one of these saddles prior to my acquisition of this specimen.  This low number of specimens speaks volumes as to the rarity of these Knights of the Golden Circle saddles.  It is quite likely you will never have the opportunity to buy another.   

Civil War officer’s saddles in comparable condition, but lacking any specific historical association, command a premium on the market in their own right.  They survive in much lower numbers than do the saddles of the rank and file, and due to the manner in which they were constructed – lighter weight leather, carving and stamping which weakened the leather, etc. – they seldom survive in decent condition.  This saddle is not only an attractive specimen; it is in excellent condition and most importantly, enjoys the confirmed association with the Knights of the Golden Circle, making it a significantly historic saddle. (0509) $5500

NOTE:  This offering is for the saddle only - the Colt Navy and the bit are not included in the sale.



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