Historical Society of Southwest Virginia


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By James Hagy


George Washington Lafayett Bickley



On December 18, 1863, George Washington Lafayette Bickley, a prisoner of the United States government, wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln. Bickley was in solitary confinement "in a cell seven by three and a half feet, which contains besides myself, a bed, a stood and water and urinal buckets, so that when everything is put up compactly I have left me for exer - a space of six feet by eighteen inches, about the size of a common coffin." (1) Bickley's activities as the founder and leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle, ne of the most fantastic filibustering organizations of the 1850's and 1860's, had resulted in his arrest and jailing in 1863. (2) His career had come to an end; his coffin-like cell marked the demise of his extraordinary adventures.

    The story of the Knights of the Golden Circle has been written. Ollinger Censhaw, in an article in the AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW, (3) and other historians have traced the rise and fall of the Knights of the Golden Circle whose purpose was to unite Mexico and the South, using the acquisition of Texas as their example. Into an empire which would be ruled by "General" Bickley. The organization thrived and thousands of followers joined in the North and South. California was even reported to have many supporters of the K. G. C. Unfortunately for his grandiose dreams the Civil War intervened before he could carry out his plans, and federal forces captured him in 1863 during a puzzling attempt to cross into northern territory. Suspected of being a spy for the Confederate States, he spent the rest of the war in prison without trial where he occupied a great deal of his time writing letters to the President, the Secretary of War, and other officials. When the United States government released him at the end of the war, he had only a short time to live. 

    Upon the death of Bickley, in 1867, the ABINGDON VIRGINIAN of October 4, 1867, noted his passing in a lengthy article. This was only natural because Bickley was a native of Southwest Virginia; the editor of the Abingdon paper was very familiar with his schemes. He said that Bickley was "a man to whom more properly belonged the title of adventurer than any other individual in this country. He was a man in whose character there were many flaws, but his best justification would be a truthful statement of his life, and some time when this history of the early stages of the great Rebellion are fully written, the true character of the talented, handsome, vain, and unscrupulous George Washington Bickley may serve to illustrate it."

    The true character of Bickley will probably never be ascertained, but some letters which C. Bernard Gibson of Castlewood, Virginia, found hidden away in dusty old books might help to explain this very complex individual. The facts about Bickley's early life have proved very confusing to most authors. For example, one stated that Bickley was born in Boone County, Indians; (4) another said he was born in 1819. (5) Both were incorrect. Some authors listed his name as George William Lamb Bickley, but this was also erroneous. While the details of his youth "seem impossible to unravel," (6) perhaps some pattern can be discerned for his life prior to the formation of the Knights of the Golden Circle. By piecing the few facts together from the correspondence of the Bickley family, one can possibly better understand the character of George Washington Lafayette Bickley whose name alone undoubtedly had an effect on his personality.

    One of the problems in tracing the early career of Bickley is that he had difficulty in telling the truth. He apparently talked his way into a number of positions including that of teaching in medical school for which he seems to have had no training.

    According to his own statement, he read medicine with Dr. Patterson, of Baltimore, and afterwards attended the two principal medical schools of Philadelphia and New York. Going to Europe, he claimed to have completed his studies in the University of London, his diploma bearing the date, 1842, and such names as that of Elliotson. He then visited Edinburgh and Paris, and profited by the opportunities afforded. Being liberal minded, he attended phrenological lectures under Combs, Simpson, and Cox. After traveling through southern Europe, he returned to New Orleans, where he practiced Medicine for four years. He then returned to Virginia, where he practiced for two or three years. (7)

    Some writers have taken these statements at face value; others have accepted some of them and rejected others. Apparently little of the above information was correct.

    Even in writing to people who might compare his statements, Bickley did not tell the same story. In his letter to President Lincoln, he stated:
    The newspapers claim that I am Genl. Bickley of the Knights of the Golden Circle. To this I reply that I am a nephew of Genl. George Bickley, am no military man, never held a commission of any sort in my life, but have devoted myself to literature and science from my youth. (8)

     But to the Secretary of War, he later stated:
I suppose that my misdemeanor consists in my being the President of the K. G. C. organization in America, I admit this, and never denied it; indeed, why should I deny what ought to be known to every American North and South...(9)

    When Bickley died in 1867 in Baltimore, he was only 44 years of age. (10) His life began at Bickley's Mills, Russell County, Virginia. (11) His parents were George Bickley and Martha A. Bickley; his mother formerly lived in Sussex County, Virginia. (12) 

    While Bickley was still quite young, his parents moved from Russell County to Petersburg. His father who was born and raised in Russell County did not like Petersburg. In a letter to a cousin at Bickley's Mills, he wrote as so many people did when they left the hill country"
    I had no desire to leave your section of country - but reluctantly I done it to gratify a parcel of dissatisfied women, I. e., my wife and sister - but the fact is they are yet dissatisfied - and I believe they would...wish they had never had left the sweet mountains. (13)

    George Bickley studied medicine under a doctor in the city and his work, according to his statement, progressed well. But he was very poor and there was no work available. In addition to this his health failed him and a lawsuit regarding a brother's estate had not gone well. (14)

    If George Bickley ever completed his training in medicine, he practiced the profession for only a short time because on June 10, 1830, he died of cholera after a brief illness. His wife, Martha, at that time planned to return to live with a sister in Sussex County. (15) 

    The life of Martha Bickley, which no doubt had been a difficult one, became very unstable. She moved from place to place and received little welcome at any of them. Her son, only seven years of age at that time, could be of no aid. In August, Martha lived with a sister in Prince George. To complicate matters she was expecting another child. Lafayette, as her son was then called, was in "reasonable health" although he had been sick for some time. (16) Three months later, Martha was living in Richmond. By that time her second child, John Wesley Bickley, had been born. The family was in good health "tho poor Lafayette don't look well." (17) Martha mentioned the possibility of returning to Russell County to live with relatives there: however, late in November, 1830, she returned to Sussex. (18)

    The main source of information on young Bickley and his mother was Elizabeth Galt, the sister-in-law of Martha Bickley. By 1832, relations between the two women became quite strained resulting from a lawsuit involving Elizabeth and George Bickley. Elizabeth Galt blamed Martha Bickley for the entire difficulty. She stated that she had to sell her house and some other personal goods in order to pay her brother. Elizabeth's testimony thereafter was biased but possibly what she related was basically accurate. According to Mrs. Galt, "if ever one man experienced more from a disobedient wife I expect death would be a friendly welcome to him." (19) The trouble between the two women erupted when Martha went to live with Elizabeth Galt in April, 1832. She brought with her the two children - Lafayette and John Wesley - and remained for two months. Martha then left Prince George and went to Petersburg and in about 2 weeks the Lord was pleased to take the Dear Little infant home to Heaven where I am in hopes is with his father. I was told by several persons that she neglected the child all together and that it just cried itself to death. She then took Lafayette or rather sent him to Peter Harvils in Sussex and remained herself in Petersburg, bought many fine and costly dresses, had them made by a mantumakers? but let me tell you what deception there is in her after my poor Brothers death. She had a subscription rais'd in Richmond for the purpose of caring for herself and children to there father relations in the Western part of Virginia. I saw a gentleman with my own eyes hand her fifty dollars for that purpose and I do not expect that was half what she has received for that purpose in that way...I heard that she had 2 or 3 men waiting on her and she'd sent Lafayette to her brothers in Southhampton so she is as free as a lark now...(20)

    The home life of Bickley was not a happy one and the circumstances apparently were not the best for raising a boy of nine years. In the only extant letter by Martha Bickley, written in 1834, in her rough style, she reported that:
    George W. L. Bickley was in good health at Whitsintide, he was to see me. I had to put him out this years for his victuals and cloathes. Next year if wee boath lieve I wish him to goe to school. How I shall pay his board I cannot tel but I will see every exertion in my power for I know it will be all the schooling he will ever get for he must goe to a trade the yeare after. He appears to be a very apte child and I hope will try to improve his tiem ? For it greaivs me to think he will be ignorant. If I could only send him to school three or four years I shold bee glad but I am not abel. (21)

    In 1834, the world seemed a bleak place for Bickley. Although he showed some promise, there was no hint of the future he was to carve for himself in American history.

    Between 1834 and 1846 there are no records of Bickley. This period began when he was eleven years of age and he reappeared at the age of twenty-three. If Bickley received any medical training it would have had to be accomplished during these years. If he travelled abroad, he had to do it prior to 1846. A letter written at Bristol, Tennessee, which was found on him at the time of his capture is probably accurate. In it he related that "at an early age, I was thrown on the world pennyless and friendless; yet with great energy I educated myself and rose to eminence in the profession of medicine." (22)

    Apparently Bickley left home about the age of twelve and travelled southward. In October, 1846, he was in Milton, Santa Rosa County, Florida. Writing to a relative he asked for forgiveness for some unnamed incident in which he had been involved. He felt "assured that if you knew under what sircumstances I deceived you last spring that you would not sencure me. But sir under sircumstance, I fear that my time is too limited to attempt to go into the details of the failure. So I will humbly ask you to forbear sensury till I can clear my skirts of this failure." (23) He further stated:
    I have wound up my business in Geneva and have just commenced as my stock has not as yet arrived from New Orleans though I am expecting it. I intend to work faithfully in this place this winter and it is now a solemn resolution of mine to go home in the spring through the west. But I am determined never to make another promise. (24)

    Later in the same letter he said:
I pray God that time may speed his chariot wheels swifter and bring me to the hospitable home of my kinsmen. Oh, Sir, that word makes my heart flutter for it is strange to me. I have not for 12 years past been blessed with the tender smile of a relative. (25)
    This letter places him in western Florida at the time of the Mexican War. Indeed, he discussed the reports of the battles that had been received in Florida. Therefore it is unlikely that he served in that conflict as he sometimes later claimed. It proves also that he left home about the age of eleven or twelve. Judging from the letter he was engaged in some sort of trading business. The town of Geneva which he mentioned was probably the town of Geneva, Alabama, which is not many miles from Milton, Florida; however, there is no record in the 1840 census of his being in either of the two counties from which Geneva was eventually formed. (26) Since the census was taken of heads of households with the number in the household being merely listed, he could have escaped attention. In addition to this, the city directories of New Orleans for 1838, 1841, 1842, and 1843 have no record of Bickley living there. Furthermore the National Archives has no record of a passport being issued to him; however, they were not then required by law.

    In June, 1847, Bickley, true to his word for once, returned home to Prince George, Virginia. Leaving Milton, Florida, in late April, he travelled to new Orleans and then went to Green Castle, Indiana, where he visited some relatives. Bickley reported that:
    I never enjoyed myself better in all my life...I like the indiana asbury University very much. I shall either attend there for 2 or 3 years or one in Western Virginia. I found that I can attend at Green Castle for $100.00 per year." (27)

    This letter seems to refute any claims he later made regarding his education. Had he received medical training in London, why should he attend some obscure school in Indiana?

    According to one writer who was probably accurate, Bickley was married on February 3, 1848, to a V. F. Bell of North Carolina. The place of the marriage has not been determined. He fathered a son named Charles Simmons Bickley. His wife supposedly died in June, 1850, and Bickley apparently placed his son with another family. (28) The son lost contact with his father because there are a number of letters by him in the Bickley Papers in the National Archives written to President Grover Cleveland seeking information on his father. (29)

    In 1850 Bickley appeared in Russell County. The census of 1850 for that county listed him as the only member of his family. It gave his age as 26, his value as $400.00, and his occupation as phrenologist. Bickley stayed in Russell County only a short while. Sometime during 1850 or 1851 he moved to Tazewell County, opened as office in the Union Hotel at Jeffersonville (now Tazewell), and began to practice medicine. (30) Bickley stayed in Tazewell long enough to write a history of the county entitled HISTORY OF THE SETTLEMENT AND INDIAN WARS OF TAZEWELL COUNTY, VIRGINIA. In 1851 he moved to Cincinnati where he became a professor in the Eclectic Medical Institute. (31) In one year he progressed from a phrenologist to a physician to professor in a medical college. After that his career has been adequately and accurately reported. 

    While all the facts are not yet known, and probably would never be, regarding the early life of George Washington Lafayette Bickley, it seems clear that he suffered a very unfortunate youth to the degree that he ran away from home about the age of twelve. Apparently from this time until he appeared in Florida he wandered and worked wherever he could. It is unlikely that he ever traveled abroad or received any formal education. Considering this one must credit him with being extremely intelligent to be able to accomplish what he did in his short life. Although his dreams of empire failed, he was truly an unusual man, perhaps the most unusual to be produced in Southwest Virginia.


(1) G. W. L. Bickley to Lincoln, December 18, 1863, Bickley Papers, National Archives, Washington, DC. 
(2) For the story of his arrest, see: NEW YORK TIMES, July 28, 1863. 
(3) Ollinger, Crenshaw, "THE KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE: The Career of George Bickley," AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW XLVII (October, 1941), 23-50. A few of the other sources on Bickley and the K. G. C. are: Mayo Felser, "Secret Political Societies in the North During the Civil War." INDIANA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY XIV (September, 1918), 183-290; C. A. Bridges, "The Knights of the Golden Circle: A Filibustering Fantasy." THE SOUTHWESTERN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY XLIV (January, 1941), 287-302; George F. Milton, ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE FIFTH COLUMN (New York: 1942), Chapter IV; Bethania Meradith Smith, "Civil War Subversives," JOURNAL OF ILLINOIS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY XLV (1952), 220-240; c. o. Perrine, AN AUTHENTIC EXPOSITION OF THE KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE: (Indianapolis: 1861). 
(4) Bridges, "The Knights of the Golden Circle," 287. 
(5) Crenshaw, "The Knights of the Golden Circle," 24. 
(6) Ibid 
(7) H. W. Felter, HISTORY OF THE ECLECTIC MEDICAL INSTITUTE (Cincinnati, 1902), 111. 
(8) Bickley to Lincoln, December 18, 1863, Bickley Papers. 
(9) Bickley to Stanton, January 16, 1865, Bickley Papers. 
(10) Cincinnati DAILY GAZETTE, August 16, 1867. 
(11) Gloria Jahoda, "The Bickleys of Virginia," VIRGINIA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY LXVI (October, 1958), 478. The community was formerly called Castle's Woods; however, from 1832 to 1907 the post office was called Bickley's Mills. Today, it is Castlewood. 
(12) ibid 
(13) George Bickley to John Bickley, June 28, 1828. The family letters quoted in this article belong to C. Bernard Gibson, Castlewood, VA. 
(14) ibid 
(15) Elizabeth Galt to Charles Bickley, June 21, 1830, Bernard Gibson Collection 
(16) Elizabeth Galt to Charles Bickley, August 2, 1830, Bernard Gibson Collection 
(17) Elizabeth Galt to John Bickley, December 25, 1830, Bernard Gibson Collection 
(18) ibid 
(19) Elizabeth Galt to John Bickley, June 10, 1832, Bernard Gibson Collection 
(20) ibid (21) Martha Bickley to John Bickley, June, 1834, Bernard Gibson Collection 
(22) This letter which is in the Bickley Papers in the National Archives is dated December 14, 1862, Bristol, Tennessee. It is addressed to no one in particular...Despite the apparent truthfulness of the first part of the letter, Bickley went on to claim "I have built up practical secession and inaugurated the greatest war of modern times." 
(23) G. W. L. Bickley to John Bickley, October 23, 1846, Bernard Gibson Collection. 
(24) ibid 
(25) ibid 
(26) Geneva County was formed in 1868 from Coffee, Dale, and Henry counties. Coffee County was formed from Dale in 1841. See: W. Brewer, ALABAMA; HER HISTORY RESOURCES, WAR RECORD AND PUBLIC MEN (Montgomery: 1872), 185, 204, 258, 277. 
(27) G. W. L. Bickley to John Bickley, June 23, 1847, Bernard Gibson Collection. 
(29) His son, Charles Bickley, was living in New York at the time. Bickley was married a second time in 1853 in Cincinnati to Rachel Dodson. See: Hamilton County, Ohio Marriage Records III, 245. The editor of the ABINGDON VIRGINIAN, on October 4, 1867, said "He married and ran through the fortunes of three wealthy women." 
(30) In his history of Tazewell County, he lists himself as one of the doctors in the town. 

    Pages 64 to 74





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