Albert Pike: Confederate Commissioner, Masonic Demiurge, Apologist for Slavery, Apostate of the Union
In January 1840, 31-year-old Albert Pike published a poem entitled “Dissolution of the Union.” With the arrival of the American Civil War, the poem’s prophecy was proven true; its Boston-born author, however, proved false and treasonous to the Union, despite his assurances to the contrary. The stanza below is number three of thirteen.
Look on the future with prophetic eye!
Lo, on yon plain are armies gathering,
As mist collecting when the storm is nigh—
And such a storm! Along the hill sides cling
The light-horse—and the swift, patrolling spy
Hovers in front, like birds with restless wing—
While here, the rifleman moves sure, but swift;
And there, the musketeers, unbroken, drift.
Albert Pike cast a long shadow over nineteenth-century America. At over six-foot tall, with flowing hair and a prominent beard, he was physically imposing, a vigorous, assertive presence wherever he went. More, he was a charismatic, multi-dimensional man: an explorer, writer, linguist, freemason, jurist and Confederate general who exercised an outsized influence on the development of the United States. Among his numerous abilities and accomplishments are the following:
- Explored the Texas Panhandle area, and wrote one of the first English-language books describing that region
- Developed facility in many languages and dialects including Greek, Latin, French, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Native American languages
- Wrote for, published, edited and owned a number of newspapers including the Arkansas Advocate, the Memphis Appeal, the Memphis Avalanche, and the Daily Patriot (Washington, D.C.)
- Recruited a company of cavalry and led it as captain in the Mexican-American War
- Served as the first court reporter for the Arkansas Supreme Court. Appointed Associate Justice on that court in 1864
- Prosecuted land claims and reparations for the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians before the U.S. Supreme Court; negotiated settlements with the federal government
- Negotiated nine treaties with various Indian tribes as Commissioner to Indian Territory on behalf of the Confederate States of America
- Led two regiments of Indians into battle as Brigadier General with Confederate forces
- Awarded thirty-third degree as a mason; appointed Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite for the Southern Jurisdiction
- Single-handedly restructured the rituals of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, and published the definitive guide to masonic practice that is used to this day
- Authored dozens of books, translations, pamphlets and commentaries
- Awarded an honorary A.M. degree from Harvard College in 1859. Declined that degree
- Was highly regarded as a poet and widely published both in America and in Europe.
But there was also his embrace of slavery, of White supremacy, of Southern secession despite his heritage as a Northerner. A statue of Pike, overthrown during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, was placed near Judiciary Square in Washington, DC, in 1901. In 1871 he wrote an influential work, Morals and Dogma, for the Scottish Rite freemasons; the statue was but one token of their esteem for him. His own morals and dogmas sound harsh to modern ears, however. Albert Pike was a complicated person, both mighty and fallen. To paraphrase his fellow poet and journalist Walt Whitman, Albert Pike contained multitudes in his contradictions.
Born in Boston in 1809, Pike was accepted as a freshman at Harvard College in 1825 but could not pay the tuition, and so worked as a schoolteacher and studied independently. He never really forgave that institution for slighting his earnest erudition due to his slender means. Nonetheless he required the payment of tuition from those attending his own schools.
In the course of a month I wish to open a private School in this town—if a sufficient number of Scholars be obtained before that time to warrant the undertaking—for instruction in the studies commonly taught in High Schools and Academies, the price of tuition will be five dollars per term. During my absence from town application may be made to Mr. EBENEZER STEDMAN.
He headed west in 1831, first to Santa Fe and then to Arkansas Territory. During his travels he once walked 500 miles through the wilderness after he lost his horse. He described his adventures in the Texas Panhandle in Prose Sketches and Poems Written in the Western Country, published in 1834. It’s worth reading as one of the first English-language accounts of that region.
Pike occasionally sent letters and essays to newspapers and magazines as human interest items. In the following excerpt he related an arduous trek he made after traveling seven miles down the flood-swollen Arkansas River from Fort Smith to Van Buren in January 1833. What had been an easy journey downstream in a boat became a harrowing ordeal when the return trip needed to be done on foot. For all his wilderness prowess Pike was a poor swimmer who struggled to traverse the flooded Arkansas lowlands.
Just then we heard an axe across the creek, and commenced hallooing, which soon brought a man down, splashing through the water, to the bank of the creek. I advised my companion to go over and hire the man to fell a tree, on which I could cross, and therefore he took the water, with his breast on one end of the long log. He kicked manfully away, and when the end of the log struck the shore, jumped off and swam for it. Having made his bargain with the stranger, he went home, and the latter went again to his house and brought his axe and a brand of fire. In the mean time I was nearly frozen. There was only one place where I could move, and that was in a circle about six feet in diameter, round a tree. On one side there was a man, with a fire flaring near him, chopping away at an oak tree four feet through; and on the other I was pacing round my circle, which I wore as deep, hard and smooth as a buffalo path. At the expiration of about three hours, the tree came down and barely reached the shore. The upper end was covered with water, and I had to get on it a-straddle, with the water up to my neck. However, I reached the shore in safety; and though I suffered no inconvenience from sickness, in consequence of my adventure, I learned never to go down river again, in an overflow, without knowing how I was to get back.
Pike developed a commitment to slavery and maintained throughout his later life that Blacks were inherently inferior to Whites. In 1840 he published a series of notices requesting the return of one of his own slaves.
FIFTY DOLLARS REWARD. Ran away from the subscriber, in Little Rock, about 7 weeks since, a negro woman named Rebecca. She is tall and good looking, with sharp features, high cheek bones, and a large head of hair, color a dark brown, age about twenty-two. She was brought from Alabama, and purchased by me of Green Lee Rowland, in Saline county. I will give the above reward, if taken in this State and delivered to me; and if taken out of the State, and secured so that I can obtain her, I will give a reward of $30.
Pike recruited and captained a company of cavalry in the Mexican-American War, and took part in the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. That battle pitted General Zachary Taylor against General Antonio López de Santa Anna.
A requisition has been made on Arkansas for a regiment of cavalry and a battalion of infantry. The cavalry are to rendezvous at Washington, on Red River, and the infantry at Fort Smith. Captain Albert Pike, of the Little Rock Guards, has tendered the services of his company to Governor Drew.
Although the Mexican forces won materiel and flags from the Americans and killed several prominent officers, they also unexpectedly relinquished the field of battle resulting in an inconclusive outcome. The battle led to a duel between Captain Pike and Colonel John Selden Roane when Pike publically disparaged Roane’s leadership. Neither man was injured in the duel. This episode gives us a wonderful opportunity to pull back the curtain on this genteel yet barbarous custom. As a side note it’s worth mentioning that Pike, the challenger, was somewhat nearsighted and may have struggled to target his adversary. Yet he called for a third fire. In 1849 Roane would be elected governor of Arkansas.
It is deemed proper that the terms of settlement in the matter of the duel of Capt. Pike and Col. Roane should be submitted to the world.
After the second fire, and when a third fire was demanded on the part of Capt. Pike, the challenging party, and assented to on the part of Col. Roane, the party challenged, and after the pistols were loaded and prepared for a third fire, the seconds having declined to interfere, Drs. Burton and Dibbrel, surgeons, and other friends of the parties, conceiving that sufficient had been done to admit of an honorable adjustment of this matter, submitted and proposed that the seconds should assume its settlement and conclusion.
To this proposition the seconds severally consented, provided terms could be submitted that should be adjudged honorable to their principals respectively, and leave no reflections behind.
The terms then submitted by the mutual friends of the parties were as follows: That, under sanction of the honor of the principals, as well as of the honor of their seconds, respectively, the past should be buried, without going into discussion of the matters of difficulty or the causes which led to them, and not again be revived.
To the propriety of these terms the seconds of the parties respectively, holding them to be honorable and just, and believing them to be the only terms practicable to avoid a fatal termination, which they now regarded as wholly unnecessary, assented, and pledged themselves to each other to insist upon the accession of their principals to them.
They were acceded to by the principals, and the undersigned now give this to the world as the conclusion and honorable adjustment of this controversy.
Following the war Pike worked as a journalist and lawyer. He also continued to write for a popular audience and deepened his identification with Southern opposition to federal authority. One manifestation of his personal secession from the Union appeared in the form of verses set to the tune of minstrel Dan Emmett’s song “Dixie.” Pike’s version was well received in the South.
As from Boston “John Brown’s Body” spread through the North, so from New Orleans “Dixie” spread through the South; and as Northern poets strove to find fitting words for the one, so Southern poets wrote fiery lines to fill the measures of the other. The only version possessing any literary merit is the one given in this collection. It was written by Gen. Albert Pike, a native of Massachusetts. In early life Mr. Pike moved to Little Rock, Ark., editing a paper and studying law in that city. He served in the Mexican war with distinction, and on the breaking out of the Rebellion enlisted on the Confederate side a force of Cherokee Indians, whom he led at the battle of Pea Ridge. It is said that President Lincoln requested a band in Washington to play “Dixie” in 1865, a short time after the surrender of Appomattox, remarking “that, as we had captured the rebel army, we had captured also the rebel tune.”
Southrons, hear your country call you!
Up, lest worse than death befall you!
To arms! To arms! To arms, in Dixie!
Lo! All the beacon-fires are lighted—
Let hearts be now united.
To arms! To arms! To arms, in Dixie!
Advance the flag of Dixie!
The selection above mentions Pike’s recruitment of Native Americans to the Southern cause. Pike was deeply involved with and committed to Indian sovereignty to the extent of learning their languages and representing their interests before the U.S. Supreme Court. A passage from Choctaw delegate P.P. Pitchlynn in 1872 testifies to Pike’s selfless advocacy of the claims of this embattled minority group.
And the said Albert Pike has, during the last two years, rendered most important and valuable services to the Nation, unconnected with said claim, in vindicating their rights and defending their interests, without compensation or expectation of any, for which services no amount of money could be a sufficient compensation, but he deserves the gratitude and love of every Choctaw for his eloquent and powerful vindication of their rights.
Although the Indians’ shift in allegiance was a credit to Pike’s ability as a diplomat and as a person whom the Indians viewed as trustworthy, the process was not simple nor the results an unalloyed good. An 1891 masonic memorial on Pike describes how he came to be first the Commissioner to the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) on behalf of the Confederate States of America, and then to lead them into battle.
It was perfectly clear to him that the whole power of the Government would be brought against the seceding States, and that the end could be nothing but disaster and defeat for them; but as events crowded so rapidly on each other, and the Southern people became more and more excited over the situation, the spirit of his surroundings took possession of him, and in May, 1861, the Secession Convention of Arkansas accepted the offer of his service, and sent him to treat with the five tribes of civilized Indians on their western frontier, and to attach them to the Southern cause if possible. In this he was partially successful. Several regiments of Indians were enlisted and formed into a brigade, and he was appointed a Brigadier-General and placed in command of them.
Pike concluded nine treaties with various tribes, including a treaty with the Osage in which the evocative—and overly optimistic—phrase “…as long as grass shall grow and water run…” appeared, as transcribed in Readex’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994.
Art. III. The Confederate States of America do hereby assure and guarantee to the Great and Little Osage tribes of Indians the exclusive and undisturbed possession, use, and occupancy during all time, as long as grass shall grow and water run, of the country heretofore secured to them by treaty with the United States of America, and which is described in the treaty of the second day of June, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and twenty-five…
Despite Pike’s powers of persuasion not all of the tribes he approached readily pledged themselves to the Confederacy. He experienced real pushback from Cherokee Chief John Ross who was contending with dissenting factions within his own tribe in addition to pressure that Pike introduced.
Ross was committed to neutrality between North and South, but his authority was threatened by Cherokees partial to the counsel of Stand Watie, an influential Cherokee leader who later attained the rank of Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. Watie was actually the last Confederate officer to surrender at the close of the American Civil War.
In Pike’s own words,
The party opposed to Mr. Ross had taken open ground in favor of the seceding States, and it was alleged that on the other side a secret society existed, of which nearly all the full bloods were members, *** held together by stringent oaths, *** that attempts to raise secession flags had been prevented by the interposition of large bodies of armed men, and the ‘Southern Rights’ men in the Nation were greatly apprehensive of danger to themselves. Some of the leaders of this party had called on Gen McCulloch and myself at Fort Smith, and before leaving that place I sent a messenger to six of the most influential men of the party, residing in different parts of the Nation, requesting them to meet me at the Creek Agency after I should have seen Mr. Ross, on a day which I fixed; my intention being to enter, upon his refusal to treat, into a convention with them, guaranteeing protection to themselves, and its rights and privileges to the Nation. The fear of consequences, and other causes, prevented the attendance of any of them.
The Cherokees eventually did come over to the Confederate side en bloc and comprised the larger part of the Confederates’ Indian troops, yet Pike’s “command” of the Indians must be understood in a loose sense as their willingness to submit to military discipline as regular soldiers was provisional at best. A case in point of their mixed record as military assets was their performance at the 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge, in northwest Arkansas. In that conflict Pike led two Cherokee cavalry regiments, about two thousand men in all.
Readex has tremendous resources on this battle which was notable as the first major deployment of Indian troops in the Civil War. Regrettably, it also provided the occasion for an infamous event. In early action Cherokees under then-Colonel Stand Watie charged a Union battery and captured three guns. But in the jubilation of that victory some Cherokee began collecting scalps and summarily executing the wounded. This was vehemently objected to by regular officers on both sides, and given prominent coverage especially in Union newspapers.
The testimony of Union officer John W. Noble during a Congressional inquiry in April 1862 offers a relatively objective account of what likely happened.
I hereby certify upon honor that I was present at the engagement near Leetown, Arkansas, on the 7th of March ultimo, when the main charge of the enemy’s cavalry was made upon our line; that there were Indians among the forces making said charge; and that from personal inspection of the bodies of the men of the 3d Iowa cavalry, who fell upon that part of the field, I discovered that eight of the men of that regiment had been scalped. I also saw bodies of the same men, which had been wounded in parts not vital by bullets, and also pierced through the heart and neck with knives—fully satisfying me that the men had first fallen from the gun-shot wounds received, and afterwards brutally murdered.
Some laid these transgressions at the feet of the Indians, while others claimed that regular troops committed the atrocities knowing the Indians would be blamed. Pike himself was held to account for these war crimes which in fairness he had sought to avoid in several ways. First, he had urged Confederate leaders to use Indian troops in smaller-scale actions only to keep the Union from occupying Indian lands, counsel which his superiors had ignored. Further, Pike had offered bounties for prisoners captured alive rather than murdered or desecrated. The fact that the Union won this battle did not help his case.
But his efforts met with only mixed success; while some Indian troops proved themselves amenable to regular military discipline, many more were accused of being overly impulsive on the battlefield, easily put to flight by artillery fire, and possessing little loyalty to the Confederate cause. The ensuing acrimony between Pike and his superiors related to Indian troops contributed to his resignation of his commission and his return to private life.
That life increasingly revolved around Scottish Rite Masonry for which Pike effected a renaissance in America. Following the war the federal government confiscated Pike’s property in Arkansas, and he moved first to Memphis, Tennessee, and then to Washington, DC, where he amassed a substantial private library and delved into masonic lore. He was eventually pardoned for his part in the Confederacy and swore the following oath in testimony to his acceptance of the social implications of the Union victory.
I, Albert Pike, of Memphis, in the State of Tennessee, swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder; and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the late rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves. So help me God!
Pike had been granted the masonic title of Sovereign Grand Inspector-General, thirty-third degree in New Orleans in April 1857; now he sought to rise above politics and devoted himself fully to recasting the ritual underpinnings of the brotherhood. A memorial published upon his death in 1891 sketches a portrait of him at that time.
For years Gen. Pike has been one of the most picturesque characters about Washington’s streets. He was of gigantic frame, with a large head, from which long white locks fell far below his shoulders. He wore a shirt of unbleached cotton, a pair of Confederate grey pantaloons and Indian mocasins. But eccentric as he was in dress he abhorred eccentricities in Masonry and was rapidly doing away with them. He had abolished many of the bombastic titles of the Order.
Despite claims to universal brotherhood, freemasonry retained at the time a distinct White racial bias that Pike justified and promoted. The primary statement regarding his views on Black masons occurred during a discussion of the official legitimacy of African American Prince Hall lodges that received their original charter from England in 1784. This excerpt comes from an article by Black mason Samuel W. Clark published in 1906 in Colored American Magazine:
In a letter written to Bro. John D. Caldwell, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ohio (white), by Ill. Bro. Albert Pike, Sov. Grand Commander of the Supreme Council, A.A.S.R., Southern Jurisdiction, bearing date of September 13, 1875, he says:
“Our people only stave off the question by saying that Negro Masons here are clandestine. Prince Hall Lodge was as regular a Lodge as any Lodge created by competent authority. ***
“I think there is no middle ground between rigid exclusion of Negroes or recognition and affiliation with the whole mass.
“I am not inclined to meddle in the matter. I took my obligations to white men, not to Negroes. When I have to accept Negroes as brothers or leave Masonry, I shall leave it.
“I am interested to keep the Ancient and Accepted Rite uncontaminated, in our country at least, by the leprosy of Negro association.”
Here we have from Brother (?) Pike, first, that we are as regular as any other class of Masons, and immediately thereafter, that between recognizing them as brothers or leaving Masonry, he will leave Masonry. Is this prejudice or not? And yet this same Mason (?) stands up in the presence of a great multitude in 1868, in St. Louis, and says:
“God pity the man who will not lay on the altar of Masonry every feeling of ambition, every feeling of ill-will in his heart toward a brother Mason. Freemasonry is one faith, one great religion, one great common altar, around which all men, of all tongues and all languages, can assemble. And Masonry will never be true to her mission till we all join hands, heart to heart and hand to hand, around the altar of Masonry, with a determination that Masonry shall become at some time worthy of her pretensions—no longer a pretender to that which is good; but that she shall be an apostle of peace, good will, charity, and toleration.”
So here is the contradiction of Albert Pike: his dogma hewed to “charity, and toleration,” for example when dealing with Native Americans and enemies defeated in battle, while his personal moral code eschewed “the leprosy of Negro association.” We have seen evidence that he owned (and lost) at least one enslaved person. Is there more needed to illustrate Pike’s persistent prejudice and hypocrisy? We could as well cite the following from the Tri-Weekly State Gazette in 1868:
GET RID OF THE NEGRO.—We notice in the last number of the Memphis Appeal, edited by that fearless and able writer, Albert Pike, the expression of views similar to our own in regard to the negro and his labor. The negroes must be gotten out of the way somehow. The South cannot prosper with so many lazy, worthless, free negroes, who must be fed and, as the radicals insist, educated, also, by the whites. Read the following sensible remarks of the Appeal:
There will be no prosperity in the South, unless the negro nuisance is gotten rid of, to such an extent that the labor of those remaining can be controlled as labor is controlled in other countries; that white labor coming into continual and active competition with it shall compel the negro to labor faithfully, in order to live; that he may be at once discharged if he will not do his fair day’s work, and that he shall neither be dangerous to the peace of the country, not have any political power in it.
All the efforts should be directed to doing without negro labor, and to ridding the country of at least two-thirds of them. Give them no work, and they must emigrate. The Bureau cannot and will not feed them much longer. They are unprofitable and troublesome pets. We hardly think that any corpulent wenches of middle age are now going to day schools, and learning to play on the piano. When a hundred thousand people are out of employment in two cities, the people of those cities will not long be patient under the burthen imposed on them by feeding a hundred thousand worthless negroes, whom emancipation has made nuisances.
But the above may simply have represented the views of others as published in Pike’s paper. Here’s a direct quotation in 1868 from a syndicated Memphis paper in regard to Pike’s views on Negro suffrage and political participation:
We announced a few days since that Albert Pike had withdrawn from the Memphis Avalanche because he would not cheat the negro. We now publish a part of his farewell card:
“We shall not speak upon a stand or platform where a negro sits swelling in the bloom of his majestic self-importance, expecting his speech to be reported in the Avalanche, and be declared an orator superior to many of another color. When a negro speaker is sandwiched between two white ones, to teach white men and white women political truths, it will not be the entertainment to which we have been invited.”
Given Pike’s views on White supremacy, the question has long been raised as to whether he played a role in the Ku Klux Klan as anecdotal accounts assert. His fascination with pageantry and fraternal organizations suggests Pike would be a natural fit for the Klan, but no conclusive evidence has yet been found in Readex collections showing Pike’s participation in that body.
There is, however, the item below from 1922 that explicitly relates a man bearing his name to at least one body of Klansmen in Illinois. The article quotes a letter received from “Albert Pike Klan, No. 12, Realm of Illinois, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” when four hooded Klansmen interrupted a church service in Freeport, Illinois to present Pastor A.J. Michael with $100 to further his religious work. It would seem that even if Pike did not overtly embrace the Klan, the Klan certainly embraced him in a very public way. As the most famous person of that time bearing his name, the association would have been natural especially in the South, and given Pike’s well known views on racial issues.
We appreciate the intrinsic value of a practical, fraternal relationship among men of kindred thought, purpose and ideals and the infinite benefits accruable therefrom, and we shall faithfully devote ourselves to the practice of Christian Klanishness, that the life and living of each may be a constant blessing to others.
Non Sibla Sed Anthar (not for self but for others.)
Yours in the sacred cause we have entered,
Albert Pike Klan, No. 12, Realm of Illinois, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The statue of Pike that was toppled in Washington portrayed him in his civilian persona, clutching a masonic book before an effigy of “the goddess of masonry.” The goddess (so far) endures, while Pike has left the stage. The practice of freemasonry has become more inclusive and true to its ideals since Pike’s death in 1891 and the statue’s placement ten years later. Yet like the statue, Pike’s influence on that brotherhood was larger than life. The Scottish Rite masons still hold numerous mementoes of Pike’s life, not least his entire library.
Toward the end of his life a growth in Pike’s esophagus gradually prevented him from eating, and then, drinking. He is said to have met his end with equanimity. His death was much lamented, and due to his standing in masonic society his funeral was replete with drama. The following recounts the conclusion of funeral rites wherein the officiating Master asks rhetorically whether any present accused Pike of wrongdoing, and who might stand in judgment of him. No one stood against him at that time, and his judgment was left to God.
“It is my bounden duty again, brethren,” said Grand Master Holt. “We are free members of the Order of the Holy House of the Temple of Solomon. Speak! If ye have aught whereof to accuse the brother whose body lieth here awaiting burial.”
There was a death-like silence for a few moments and then the grand master said in a loud voice: "If there be no accuser there can be no judgment. Doth no man accuse the dead?”
The twenty-one knights knelt and answered: “God is his judge and ours.”
Three blows on the iron cross and the knights arose and continued the service.
The Grand Master—“Let the grave, then, be ready to receive this body. Brethren, who command in the west, hear and make answer. When will God judge?”
Response—“In his own good time.”
“Who will be man’s accuser?”
“Who his defender?”
“Who will give testimony against him?”
“God, who will judge, knoweth all.”
A few more responses and then three blows on the iron cross were followed by soft and plaintive music. The coffin lid was removed and the body prepared for burial.
In our time Pike’s statue has been pulled down and his memory defaced for what he did while he lived, but even more so for the larger conflicts he came to symbolize that have been carried down from that time to this. Since Pike did so much worth doing and embodied so many contradictions of human experience, one can hope that a merciful God might find in Pike’s totality more than the one thing that led to his downfall.