William

Rawlings

Author of Southern Stories

 

 

The Lost Confederate Treaure

(This article originally appeared in 3 parts in Splash Magazine in 2005.  I  have reproduced it here as written.)

Part I

The facts seem simple enough:  On April 2, 1865 the Union Army faced tattered and battle-weary Confederate soldiers defending Richmond, Virginia under the overall command of General Robert E. Lee.  Realizing that his lines could not hold and that the fall of the Confederate capital was imminent, General Lee sent an urgent message to President Jefferson Davis that the government must evacuate or face certain capture.  Late that night a special train carrying the President and Members of the Confederate Cabinet departed Richmond for Danville, Virginia.  Although the news was bleak, it was the hope of all on board that the struggle could be continued. 

Shortly after midnight a second train departed the Richmond station following the fleeing government south.  On board were all the hard currency reserves of the Confederate States of America guarded by a group of young midshipmen from the Confederate Navy who had scuttled their vessel in the James River.  Amongst the official records of the Confederacy were many—some say hundreds—of crates and barrels containing gold and silver coins, bullion, and a substantial amount of fine jewelry donated to the Cause by women across the South.  In addition there was more than $450,000 in gold from Richmond bank reserves, taken to keep it from falling into the hands of the invading Yankees.

By the end of the day on April 3, 1865 Richmond lay in ashes as occupying Federal troops had fanned out across the city looking for stragglers.  Over the ensuing weeks, Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Lincoln was assassinated, and the dwindling band of Confederate fugitives continued to work their way south, hoping to escape west beyond the Mississippi, or perhaps overseas to Cuba or Britain.  When Jefferson Davis and his ragged group were finally captured by members of the Fourth Michigan Calvary near Irwinville in south Georgia on May 10th they had only a few dollars in their possession.  The fabled riches of the vast “Confederate Treasure” were not to be found.

Lincoln’s assassination was widely but erroneously assumed to be the terrible result of a covert Confederate plot.  The Northern press, rightfully outraged as such a horrific event, had screamed for retribution against Davis and other government officials.  Fuel by vitriol in the press, rumors of the amount of gold and silver carried away by the fugitives grew to millions and millions of dollars.  The knowledge of the fact that the treasure did leave Richmond with Jefferson Davis and was not with him when he was captured led to wild speculation as to its fate. 

Over the years stories of “The Lost Confederate Treasure” have become ingrained in American culture and folklore.  From movies to books to the internet, stories and guesses abound as to “what really happened.”  The Clint Eastwood classic, “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” revolves around a search for missing Confederate gold.  Dozens of cities and counties across the South and even further afield each have their own unique story as to where the treasure is “really” buried accompanied by—of course—logical reasons as to why it hasn’t yet been found. 

Rumors and speculation aside, the truth is that the exact amount of the gold and silver carried south by the fleeing government is not known.  The destruction and disorder that accompanied the fall of the Confederacy led to the loss of most of the records that could have been used to establish a more exact figure.  The best estimates hold that the hard currency actually held in the Treasury at the end of the war was only about $327,000, a paltry sum for a government even in 1865.  As many officials testified after the war when accused of somehow having knowledge of the treasure’s disappearance, the Confederacy was nearly broke.  The reverses of the last two years of the war combined with the effective Federal blockage of southern ports had nearly drained the treasury dry.  Assuming that this sum is in the range of accuracy, this amount together with the Richmond bank gold, plus jewelry and other valuables would suggest that the actual worth of the “treasure” was in the range of one million dollars. 

So, what happened to it?  Did the leaders of the Confederacy steal it as some have alleged?  Was it buried in some secret location to be dug up by future generations?  Or did the treasure suffer a more mundane fate?  Why do rumors of “lost Confederate gold” persist even today, spurring on generation after generation of treasure hunters?  Parts II and III of this article in the next issues of Splash! will attempt to answer those questions and others.

Part II

As recounted in Part I of this three-part series, the mystery of the “Lost Confederate Treasure” is one of the most enduring of Southern Legends.  When President Jefferson Davis and the Cabinet fled the besieged Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia on April 2, 1865, they carried with them nearly a million dollars in gold, silver and jewelry.  Part of this hoard was all that remained in Richmond of the hard currency assets of the rapidly collapsing Confederacy.  Part of it was the gold assets of the Richmond banks, taken in order to keep them from falling into the hands of the seemingly unstoppable Northern forces.   When President Davis and his family were captured in south Georgia some six weeks later, he had only a few dollars with him.  What happened to the treasure?

Although the fall of Richmond and the government’s flight south was a crushing blow, many—including President Davis—were unwilling to admit defeat.  The plan was to withdraw to a safer area, reestablish the Government, and continue the struggle.  Barely avoiding Federal marauders, the train carrying the President and members of his Cabinet arrived in Danville, Virginia late in day on April 3rd. 

The “treasure,” meanwhile, was transported on a second train guarded by Midshipmen from the Confederate Navy.  In the chaos of impending defeat, it was an attractive target for would-be hijackers and other outlaws.  It was heavy, consisting dozens of boxes and crates of gold and silver coins, some bullion, plus an unknown amount of jewelry donated to the Cause by southern women.  One commander described it as “a very troublesome elephant.” 

Over the next the next four weeks, Davis and other members of the government pushed steadily south, pursued by troops from the north and avoiding the areas in their path under Federal control.  The treasure train followed a similar route, from Danville south to Charlotte, North Carolina, then on to Chester, South Carolina.  Transferred to wagons then back on rail cars then back on wagons, all the while under heavy guard, the precious cargo passed through Newberry and Abbeville, South Carolina, arriving in Washington, Georgia on April 19th.    When the threat of its capture became too great in Washington, the treasure was once again loaded on wagons, moved first to Augusta and then back across the Savannah River to Abbeville before returning back to Washington by May 3rd.

While Davis and the government fled south, two events that would forever change the course of American history took place.  On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.  Only five days later John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer, shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC.

Many in the north, rightfully enraged at Lincoln’s death and fueled by wild speculation in the Yankee press assumed that the dying Confederacy, and Davis in particular, was behind a plot to topple the United States government.  Lincoln, whose policy was one of reconciliation with the South after the war, was succeeded by Andrew Johnson who called for vengeance.  Calls went out for Davis’s summary execution.  A hundred thousand dollar reward was placed on his head, exceeding in comparison to the wages of the day the twenty-five million dollar reward offered currently for Osama Bin Laden.

During these weeks of flight, expenses for lodging and provisions as well as payment to the accompanying troops steadily drained the resources of the Government’s funds.  A sample of known expenses includes $39,000 paid to soldiers in Greensboro, North Carolina, $108,000 paid to escorting troops near the Savannah River, about $40,000 paid for soldier’s provisions in Augusta and Washington, Georgia.  According to A. J. Hanna, author of Flight Into Oblivion, by early May 1865 only about a hundred thousand dollars remained in treasury funds. 

By the fourth of May, the Confederacy obviously defeated, President Davis and the few remaining members of the Cabinet with him made the decision to disband the government.  Some $86,000 was given to a trusted officer to be smuggled abroad and held in Confederate accounts.  Davis planned to make it to Florida, then perhaps west by boat to Texas where he would continue to lead the fight for Southern independence.  With his wife and children, he headed south toward Macon with a small band of guards.  A second group of core supporters split off and planned to meet up with him near the Florida line.  Between them, they carried what remained of $35,000 in gold that had been allotted for expenses of the President and Cabinet some weeks earlier.  It was all that was left of the government funds.

On May 10th just south of Irwinville, Georgia and not far from the Florida line, the fugitives were surprised and captured in an early morning raid by troops from the Fourth Michigan Calvary.  They had with them only a few dollars.  The fabled “Confederate Treasure” had disappeared.  Or had it simply all been spent?

In the next installment of this series we will look at what happened to the gold from the Richmond banks, and some of the reasons that the legends surrounding this fabled treasure have developed over the years. 

Part III

Today, more than a hundred and forty years later, the mystery of what “really” happened to the gold and silver that remained in the Confederate Treasury at the end of the Civil War continues to intrigue historians and treasure hunters alike.  As detailed in Parts I and II of this series, President Jefferson Davis and other members of the Confederate government fled Richmond, Virginia on April 2, 1865, only hours before the capital fell to Yankee troops.  Accompanying them on their escape south was nearly a million dollars in gold, silver and jewelry.  Part of it belonged to the Confederate Treasury.  The other part was the gold reserves of the Richmond banks.

During the next six weeks Lee surrendered at Appomattox and Lincoln was assassinated.  Davis and other members of the rebel government were touted by the northern press as war criminals.  Huge rewards were offered for their arrest.  When Davis was finally captured in south Georgia on May 10th, his small party of fugitives only had a few dollars with them.  What happened to the treasure?

The answer to that question, like the fabled hoard itself, has two parts.  First, only about half of it actually belonged to the Confederacy.  With so many records lost in the final days of the war, even the exact amount is uncertain.  Estimates range up to more than a million dollars, but a more generally accepted figure is about half that.  Of this amount, there is reasonably good documentation that most of it was spent in support of the failing government and its troops.  The truth, however unexciting it may seem, is that at the end of the war The Confederacy was nearly broke.  The wild speculation in the news of the day was just that, speculation.  There was no “Confederate Treasure” to go missing, only groundless rumors. 

So why are there persistent legends about the “Confederate Gold”?  Even today, why do movies like “Sahara” (based on the book of the same name by Clive Cussler) continue to attract audiences with their story lines about the “true” fate of these fabled riches?  Perhaps the answer lies in the old adage that underlying most legends is a grain of truth.  And the truth—in this case—refers to the fate of the gold reserves of the Richmond banks. 

It should be remembered that the bank gold was technically not part of the “Confederate Treasure.”  In the mid-nineteenth century before today’s highly regulated banking system, most banks were privately owned.  They issued notes and currency backed by physical gold reserves.  In fact, the link between the value of the US dollar and the price of gold was abandoned only in 1971.  Unlike the estimated value of the specie from the Confederate Treasury, the Richmond bank gold’s worth was more accurately recorded as approximately $451 thousand.  It had been left for safekeeping in a Washington, Georgia bank vault after the fugitive government split up in hopes of eluding Federal capture.  Only days later it was in the hands of occupying Northern troops.

 

On May 24, 1865, a group of five wagons loaded with the Richmond bank gold set out on their long journey north.  The gold was now the property of the United States government.  At the end of the day they made camp near Danburg, Georgia on the grounds of the white-columned home of Dionysius Chennault.  That night, troops guarding the gold were attacked by a group of men said to be locals, paroled soldiers, freed slaves and others.  When the sun rose the following morning, more than a quarter million dollars in gold was missing, having been carried off in any way possible by the unknown attackers. 

Occupying Federal troops reacted harshly.  The area was under martial law, and tales of home invasions and torture in the search for the stolen gold were common.  Chennault and his family were arrested and taken to Washington, DC in hopes of finding the whereabouts of the gold, but supposedly they knew nothing of its fate.  In the end, roughly $111 thousand dollars was recovered, leaving some $140 thousand to disappear into the local economy.   Rumors persist to this day of wealthy local families who trace their fortune to that night. 

The stories of lost Confederate treasure seem to be more legend than fact.  Stories based on a bit of truth that change and grow with the passing years as they are passed down from generation to generation.  They may be myths, but in the South so much of the so-called history of that turbulent era has been enshrined in that form.  Sometimes we believe what we want to believe.  As for me, I’ll take my metal detector, a faded map, and the hope that somewhere out there….