Editor’s Note: I’m sure it is frustrating to some of our readers that this series has been so focused on the eastern South due to it being so much older, but eventually we are going to take story out west and even further down south into the Caribbean and Latin America.
The following excerpt comes from David C. Keehn’s book Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War and sheds light on the KGC and their activities in Northern Mexico:
“U.S. filibusters had long been lusting after Mexico’s four northern-tier provinces – Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora. These provinces were barren and sparsely populated, but Sonora, as well as Guanajuato Province to the immediate south, were rich in silver, gold, and other minerals. In 1840, Texans had backed an attempt by Mexican Federalist Party leaders, including northern strongman Vidaurri, to declare independence from Mexico’s central government and create an independent “Republic of the Rio Grande” to include the four provinces. This was nipped in the bud by Mexico’s central army, but between 1849 and 1859, five separate U.S.-based filibuster expeditions had been launched to try to wrest portions of Mexico’s northern provinces. Participants in each risked the outcome of the 1857 expedition into Sonora led by California state senator Henry Crabb. In Crabb’s unfortunate case, the Mexican army captured and systematically executed him and his company of one thousand men.
Bickley and the KGC sought to use the shaky position of the Liberals to advance their goal of expansion southward. Northern Mexican stongman Santiago Vidaurri was a committed KGC supporter and actively cooperated with its leaders. Manuel Doblado, second in command of the Liberal army and governor of Guanajuato Province, also had reportedly reached an understanding with the KGC’s emissaries. “We have the invitation of four [Mexican] State Governors to come and shall receive their cooperation if only we take care of the people of those States.”
For those who are unfamiliar with antebellum filibusters, they were essentially like you and a group of your bros departing from the United States to conquer new territory in the Caribbean and Latin America. Northern Mexico and Cuba were the most popular targets. The most successful filibuster was a man named William Walker who conquered Nicaragua and briefly ruled as its president.
The Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society that sought to annex territory in Mexico and the Caribbean to the United States and later to an independent Southern Confederacy, grew out of an older established group based in Texas called the Order of the Lone Star:
“To continue the mission of freeing Cuba from Spanish rule and eventually annexing it to the United States as a slaveholding territory, Cuban ex-patriots and southern adventurers formed the Order of the Lone Star in 1851 at the offices of the pro-expansionist Lafayette (La.) True Delta newspaper. John Henderson, a Mississippi cotton planter and U.S. senator, formulated the OLS ritual, and Pierre Soulé, another U.S. senator from Louisiana, served as its president.
The OLS, like its KGC successor, was organized in a hierarchical fashion with three degrees, including the military degree at the bottom and a fund-raising benevolent degree above that. At the apex was the political degree, with the goal of supporting U.S. political candidates who would advance the society’s filibustering and proslavery objectives. A supreme council governed the group’s overall policy. …
Ford described the OLS’s secret initiation ceremony as highly ritualistic, with candidates passing through a succession of increasingly solemn steps incorporating cabalistic passwords. The final step was a dramatic conclusion that Ford said ended with something the initiate would never forget. An observer of a Lone Star encampment at Richmond, Virginia, similarly described the initiation ceremony as a “magnificent spectacle” that pantomimed with López expedition.”
The Knights of the Golden Circle became a mass membership organization by merging with the Order of the Lone Star:
“During his sojourn across the South, George was somehow able to convince the leaders of a preexisting southern society called the “Order of the Lone Star” (OLS) to merge with his Knights. This had truly an exponential impact since the OLS already had more than fifteen thousand members and at least fifty chapters spread across ten southern states with large concentrations in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama. It also had chapters in northern port cities including Baltimore and New York, where it operated out of Tammany Hall and the Empire Club. This merger with the OLS suddenly transformed Bickley’s nascent KGC into a truly powerful force with far-flung members and prestige.”
This is one of the most interesting stories that I have ever come across: the Mexican states of Coahuila and Nuevo León attempted to join the Confederacy:
“Yet 600 miles to the north of the Mexican capital, Quintero achieved one of the Confederacy’s most stunning diplomatic successes. In his negotiations with Santiago Vidaurri, governor of the Mexican border states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, the southern agent discovered a capable ally who offered more than his “great friendship”: Vidaurri promised border security, the supply of vital war material and an outlet for Southern cotton; most astonishingly, he proposed the outright annexation of his territories. …
Vidaurri then divulged his greatest ambition to Quintero, something his enemies and allies alike had long suspected: that the governor was “anxious to establish the Republic of the Sierra Madre.” With the coming of the Civil War, Vidaurri suggested the time was ripe for his region to break with the central government in Mexico City and join the nascent Confederacy. Vidaurri stressed the similarities between his region and the Southern states: Mexico’s northern frontier was more geographically and commercially aligned with Texas than distant Mexico City, and annexation would further the process of Americanization that was already in progress.
Vidaurri’s states’ rights philosophy was well-suited for the Confederacy. The caudillo in Mexico City had ruled Nuevo León and Coahuila since 1855 under the Plan of Monterrey, a constitution that asserted state sovereignty and maintained a militia independent from federal control. Vidaurri exercised this autonomy, time and again putting his regional interests before the concerns of national politics; on several occasions he withdrew his troops from the liberal forces in the War of the Reform in order to consolidate his position in the north.
So why was Vidaurri so eager to align with the nascent Confederacy? Political survival. He had lost his best general and military strategist, Juan Zuazua, to assassination that winter. With the end of the Reform wars, President Benito Juarez was consolidating federal control and was sure to challenge Vidaurri’s virtual independence along the northern frontier. And if Juarez did not unseat the northern caudillo, a European power might — France and others were already making noise about invading Mexico over its debts. …”
Though highly impressed with Quintero’s mission, Jefferson Davis wisely refused Vidaurri’s offer of annexation. …”
It was a great offer.
Santiago Vidaurri was a Golden Circle man. There were other Golden Circle sympathizers in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean who wanted to join an alliance of Slave Societies. The Confederacy, however, was in no position to annex Mexican territory though in 1861. Jefferson Davis simply couldn’t afford drawing Mexico into the War Between the States on the side of the Union.
It must have been extremely frustrating for Jefferson Davis who had been Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Davis himself had fought in the Mexican War with Robert E. Lee. It was Davis who urged President Pierce to send James Gadsden to Mexico to negotiate the Gadsden Purchase which brought Southern Arizona and New Mexico into the United States.
The original plan for Gadsden Purchase would have included Baja California, Baja California Sur, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. President Santa Anna was willing to sell the territory, but the deal was blocked by opposition from Yankee abolitionists who also blocked the annexation of Cuba. Afterwards, Yankee abolitionists formed the Republican Party to exclude slaveowners from the Western territories which they had shed blood to conquer in the Mexican War.
This was in keeping with New England’s traditional foreign policy of blocking Southern expansion. New England had also opposed both the Louisiana Purchase and the annexation of Texas. It largely opposed the Mexican War as well because it was feared the annexation of territory would strengthen the South.