Fraternal Organizations

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Fraternal Organizations

Fraternal organizations have a storied and prominent place in the history and development of the United States; however, during the American Civil War fraternal institutions were largely dormant outside the military because the nation was preoccupied with the war. Prior to the Civil War, fraternal organizations had experienced an increase in popularity, while organizations that opposed them experienced a decline. For example, the 1832 presidential candidate of the Anti-Masonic Party was William Wirt (1772–1834), a former Attorney General of the United States and, coincidentally, a member of the Freemasons. College fraternities were slowly gaining popularity until the Civil War, when many colleges shut down or distanced themselves from their fraternal organizations. These trends, however, would prove to be temporary.

Military Lodges

Even though the three largest fraternal organizations at the time of the Civil War—the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias—were for the most part institutionally inactive outside the military, the fraternities' conceptions of manhood and the importance of individual character famously endured the war. Several Masonic lodges were founded as military lodges, and the practice of Masonry was continued by soldiers as a bonding experience, a connection to home life, and a kind of quasi-religious activity.

Many stories and legends were told of opposing soldiers coming to aid wounded brethren in battle, which surely appealed to those considering joining a military lodge. One story particularly treasured by contemporary Masons concerns Horatio Rogers of Rhode Island, a general in the Union Army and a Mason, discovering Masonic documents in the pocket of a fallen Confederate soldier. Rogers ensured that the soldier's body received a proper Masonic burial "by fraternal hands" (Dumenil 1984, pp. 101–102). Such stories are told among Masons in the early twenty-first century to teach that Masonic brotherhood transcends political or religious quarrels (Lowe 2001).

Toward the end of the Civil War and immediately following, a controversy erupted among several Masonic lodges regarding the accommodation of handicapped members in their facilities. Following the Masonic ideal of physical ability and bodily perfection, brothers who had lost limbs were often permitted to continue lodge membership, but handicapped new members were barred from joining the lodge as a means of emphasizing cultural norms of manhood of the time. Some Masons feared that if handicapped persons could join the lodge, women—who were considered physically inferior to men—would be next (Carnes 1989, pp. 142–143).

Other Fraternal Organizations

Following the Civil War, however, fraternal organizations flourished and multiplied. Such temperance societies as the Sons of Temperance, the Sons of Honor, and the Independent Order of Grand Templars, all founded before the war, grew in numbers and influence. The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, an anti-immigrant fraternity founded in 1844 that would later become the nucleus for the Know-Nothing and American Republican parties, spawned the Knights of the Golden Circle in 1861. A group of Knights organized themselves in "Castles." These "Castles" were largely safe spaces for Copperheads—Union men who sympathized with the Confederacy—to gather. The Ku Klux Klan was organized in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, though its influence directly after the war was not of much consequence (Carnes 1989, pp. 7–9).

Oliver Hudson Kelley (1826–1913), a clerk for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tried to capitalize on the popularity of postwar fraternal organizations by establishing the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry in 1867. Later known as the Grange, the Order promoted farming and animal husbandry. In 1880 several Grangers formed the National Farmers' Alliance. It had similar rituals and enjoyed significant political influence. New veterans' associations were created and emphasized ritual more than the veterans' organizations that predated the Civil War, such as the Military Order of the Loyal Legion (1865), the Grand Army of the Republic (1866), the Union Veteran Legion (1884), and the United Confederate Veterans (1888) (Carnes 1989, p. 8).

Postwar Fraternal and Anti-Masonic Groups

Many new fraternal organizations emerged following the war as insurance societies. The first of these was the Ancient Order of United Workmen in 1868, which blended Masonic and Odd Fellows rituals. Another, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was formed primarily for workers in the skilled trades, although it also admitted employers, women, and (after 1878) blacks. The order became so prominent—it claimed 730,000 members by 1886—that its rituals and activities became part of the day-to-day life of many tradespeo-ple (Carnes 1989, pp. 8–9). These groups and others later became the foundation of the modern trade union movement.

The anti-Masonic movement also revived and gained new influence following the war. Mormons, whose religion and history are closely tied to both the Freemasons and the Anti-Masonic Party, were forbidden to join Masonic groups and largely suppressed the history of their denomination's Masonic origins. An "Anti-Secrecy Crusade" began among evangelical Christians. The movement aimed to restore transparency to all aspects of American life, but particularly focused its attention upon Freemasonry. The Anti-Secrecy movemment was largely initiated by Jonathan Blanchard, founder of the National Christian Association; and spread by the revivalist Charles Finney, whose book The Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry, launched a mainstream religious attack on Masons and other secret societies that continues into the early twenty-first century. Despite the influence of anti-Masonic groups, by the turn of the twentieth century 5 million American men belonged to at least one fraternal organization; 854,000 of these were Masons (Vaughn 1990, pp. 9–13).

The Civil War provided the context for much of the mystery, excitement, and ritual surrounding fraternal organizations in the twentieth century. One example of this influence is the lore and revisionist history exhibited in D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the South, complete with a cameo appearance of Jesus Christ himself. The popularity of the film was partially responsible for the resurgence of the Klan, leading to its expansion to nearly 4 million members in the United States and Canada by the early 1920s. Another well-documented example of the ongoing fascination with the Civil War is the Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Pi fraternity in Dover, Ohio, whose rituals, perhaps as early as 1905, involved the skull of William Quantrill (1837–1865), a guerrilla leader who had grown up in Dover and is best known for his role in the Lawrence Massacre of 1863 (Leslie 1995, pp. 53–54, 58–60).


Carnes, Mark. Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Dumenil, Lynn. Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880–1930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Finney, Charles G. The Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry. Cincinnati, OH: Western Tract and Book Society, 1869.

Leslie, Edward. "Quantrill's Bones." American Heritage 46, no. 4 (1995): 53–60.

Lowe, Justin "Freemasonry and the Civil War: A House Undivided." California Mason Online, (2001). Available at

Roberts, Allen. House Undivided: The Story of Freemasonry and the Civil War. Fulton, MO: Ovid Bell, 1961.

Vaughn, William. "The Reverend Charles G. Finney and the Post-Civil War Antimasonic Crusade." Social Science Journal 27, no. 2 (1990): 209–222.

Christopher D. Rodkey