There was a listing in a sale catalog for a book about a Southern secret society that hid gold after the war in expectation of a revival of the Confederacy. It sounded fairly interesting--despite the instant suspicion aroused by “secret society” you know somebody somewhere did this--and was in my library so I checked out Warren Getler and Bob Brewer’s Shadow of the Sentinel: One Man's Quest to Find the Hidden Treasure of the Confederacy.
It looked solid enough: a mainstream publisher, one author an investigative journalist, plenty of source notes. But then flipping through I noticed that the authors approvingly mentioned the whole Rennes le Chateau/Holy Blood nexus which was not a good sign. In fact the book’s story collapses almost immediately. It’s told in alternating chapters, one thread about Brewer’s personal treasure hunting adventures, the other a supposedly historical reconstruction of the background.
The premise centers around the Knights of the Golden Circle, a genuine and well-documented secret society that operated in the South before and during the War. The KGC appears to have been a fairly vague, low-level group with some espionage ties, almost the sort of thing you would expect to see Barney Fife’s ancestors running. In Getler and Brewer’s account the KGC was something completely different. It was a vast, rich, well-organized group that helped get Lincoln elected because it knew that would lead to the South breaking apart from the Union. At the end it may have helped assassinate him (one of the rare times Getler & Brewer back off from dubious claims is when they say perhaps the KGC wasn’t involved or perhaps Booth expanded on his instructions). Rather than disbanding during the War, the KGC lasted much longer, at least until the 1950s and possibly even until today. It hid millions of dollars in gold from Georgia to Arkansas to Arizona and left sentinels to guard them and astonishingly complex maps to mark the spots. Oh yeah, the KGC created the Ku Klux Klan to draw attention away from their postwar activities, Jesse James was one of their operatives (and even faked his death, doing their work until the middle of the 20th century), the Lost Dutchman Mine was actually a KGC storehold and the whole thing masterminded by Masons. Somewhere in Foucault’s Pendulum somebody says that the true test of kook literature is when they mention the Templars and in fact Getler and Brewer bring the Templars into the story. What possible connection could they have to Confederates? Well none but that’s why this book is pretty much fiction and not history.
Throughout Shadow of the Sentinel Getler & Brewer mention something as a possibility and then afterwards act as if this possibility had been proven. For instance, they bring in Albert Pike, a key figure in the development of American masonry, and while they do point out that Pike had no documented connections to the KGC or anything related to it, they afterwards mention him in the story whenever possible. This location, they might say, is actually just a short hop from someplace Pike stayed, this event occurred when Pike was meeting secretly in Europe, etc. Pike is just one of the more obvious examples; most of the time they try to hide this even more. One sample (p72): “There can be little doubt that the hidden KGC spawned the original KKK. Ample circumstantial evidence supports this. There is the ever-important symbolic trail and the persistent whiff of a familiar modus operandi.” Just a wild guess that despite the little doubt almost no historians have heard this idea before.
In fact Getler & Brewer don’t even bother to bring up evidence for most of their key points. One of the schematics reproduced to show how the KGC buried huge supplies and treasure was apparently just written by another treasure hunter. There’s nothing to support the idea that sentinels guard the treasure spots (Brewer’s great-uncle hinted to him when he was younger about treasure around their town but the rest is pure invention). There’s nothing to connect the Lost Dutchman to the KGC, the Confederacy or even really to much gold. And so it goes.
In fact Getler seems to have done some sloppy background research. He does source some material in the National Archives and from academic journals but my library has four entire books on the KGC (not counting this one) as well as a microfilm with the by-laws of a KGC chapter. Getler mentions none of these sources which is odd if he’s trying to claim that conventional historians have ignored the KGC. Then again who knows what he might have done with them. For example, on page 51 he writes “According to authoritative reports, the KGC could call on 100,000 trained and armed men by late 1860.” Follow the footnote and you’ll see that Getler’s source is an anonymously written pamphlet which is hardly either authoritative or “reports” plural. Getler even helpfully quotes the pamphlet since it’s unlikely any of us will see it (though the Kansas City Public Library has it on microfiche): “At no time previous to the bombardment of Fort Sumter was it presumed that the number of men to be counted on from the North would fall below 100,000.” As you can see no mention of these men being trained or armed or even that they existed just presumed to exist. It’s not even clear what the point is since the KGC obviously never fielded such an army and using even a fraction behind the scenes would have left more documentation.
He’s not the only one; take a look at what Brewer did with a treasure map. Like the bulk of the material in the book it’s of dubious provenance (some of the other items even Getler & Brewer admit they don’t know the source; for most of us that’s a red flag, for them just support that a secret society is operating). Anyway, the map takes Brewer “over 1000 hours” to decode and this is what he does. He wants to come up with the letters that will anagram out to a word. So he finds the first letter clear enough at the bottom. The second letter he claims was hidden behind another (it doesn’t look like that to me but on the map reproduction it’s in the center of the gutter so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt). The third letter is on the opposite side of the map, sideways and in a different case. The next letters are also upside down in different parts of the map (which by the way is dense with letters, numbers, figures and general scratches so there was a lot to choose from and creatively reinterpret) though they look more like scribbles. The last two letters? They don’t appear to exist so Brewer “finds” them by using a Confederate secret code! All this is only a portion of the solution (which involves more anagrams and old surveyor’s maps and symbols and such) which makes me think it would have been easier to just memorize the treasure location than the key to the map.
After all that work, Brewer does in fact determine the precise location for the KGC treasure. Except that, well, he doesn’t. He finds no treasure and no evidence that there ever was any. This is all explained away by another duplicitious hunter that he implies stole the location and schemed with the land’s owner but then this is just a story. The simple fact is that Brewer’s solution reveals nothing, not even that it wasn’t some wild concoction. Conveniently the other location that Brewer determines is on Federal land and can’t be dug up.
You do have to wonder about the picture Getler & Brewer create of the KGC. Supposedly it’s a group in this for the long haul but the key signs for their hidden treasure include inscriptions in bark, deformed trees and assorted bric-a-brac like axe heads oriented in precise directions. Maybe for gold you’re coming back for in a few months but what kind of geniuses use such easily distorted or destroyed markers for something they know might be years or even decades later? And what kind of masterminds come up with maps so complex that their own people apparently can’t remember how to use them? Or set up generations of hillbillies and poor white trash to guard millions of dollars? Or for that matter never even bother to use the money?
Oh, I’ll have to admit that Shadow of the Sentinel is continually amusing but then I also love all those Templar/Holy Blood books even though they’re obviously lies or at best true paranoia (defined by the PDR as “systemized delusions”). It is kinda fun to think that Poussin was busily encoding his paintings with secret information or that Cocteau, who led one of the most heavily documented lives ever, still managed to head a secret society. To be fair to Getler and Brewer (though there’s probably no reason to do so) I can easily imagine some dinner table of former Confederate movers and shakers convincing themselves that they’re part of a larger and still active conspiracy. They might have even hidden some gold. But that’s not what Shadow is about.