America’s war that never seems to end is making news again. No, another unexploded cannonball wasn’t dug up in downtown Charleston – and nobody has their panties in a wad over the Confederate flag.
This time it’s a Pennsylvania relic hunter who’s suing the FBI. He claims he found the site where a gold shipment bound for the Philadelphia Mint disappeared in 1863, told the Feds about it, and G-Men secretly dug it up in the middle of the night in 2018.
Fact, fiction, or a little of both? Perhaps we’ll eventually find out in court. But it does call to mind a search that has been going on for 158 years with some of the hunting happening right here in South Carolina.
All because of a single question: Where did the Confederate gold go?
Our story commences in the closing days of the Civil War. On April 2, 1865, General Robert E. Lee sent word to Confederate president Jefferson Davis that the jig was up. He couldn’t defend Richmond, Virginia any longer. Davis was attending Sunday church services when the news came. He turned ashen, then quietly got up and left. That breach of Victorian etiquette sent shockwaves racing through the Confederate capital.
It always amazed me that the Confederacy had no contingency plan for that crisis. Maybe surviving so many close calls and clinging so desperately to forlorn hope for so long had convinced them this moment would never come. But it had finally arrived.
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The evacuation order was given, setting in motion a hurly-burly game of beat the clock before the Yankees marched in. A string of elegant black coaches crossed the James River one last time that evening as Richmond burned behind them. Two trains were waiting on the other side. Davis, his cabinet, senior military advisors, and official government papers were loaded onto the first one.
It was the second train—and its high-value contents—that concerns us. For it carried the Confederacy’s cash on hand. Not the worthless paper money it had printed with reckless abandon (much of it in downtown Columbia, incidentally) but the real thing: Gold and silver bullion and coins. There was also a massive stash of precious jewels Southern women had donated to the Cause. (Think of Scarlett and Melanie in “Gone With the Wind’s” bazaar scene.)
Riding herd on this rolling Fort Knox was an unlikely group of guardians consisting of a Confederate naval captain and a squad of midshipmen. Years later, the captain told a newspaper reporter he estimated the content’s value at $500,000, almost $10 million today. Others claim it was much greater. The confusion arose from the fact that the train also carried the gold reserves held by Richmond’s banks, which were private property and didn’t belong to the government.
Davis and the Confederate high command launched into one of the greatest “Hail Mary” odysseys of all time. They hoped to reach Texas where Southern troops were still fighting. With a king’s ransom tossed into rickety boxcars, boys barely old enough to shave looking after it, and the Union army nipping at their heels they took off.
The little party ran for its life as the Confederacy collapsed around it. Ultimately, the Confederate cabinet met for the last time. There were three “last meetings,” in fact, depending on whose definition you use.
Some say it happened in Fort Mill, S.C. on April 27 when the officers of state met on a stately manor’s front lawn. Others claim it happened at an Abbeville, S.C. home on May 2, when Davis seemed to have conceded it was time to finally hang the “Closed” sign in the C.S.A.’s window. Still others argue the end came on May 2 inside the State Bank of Georgia, in Washington, Ga. when Davis proclaimed the Confederacy dissolved. Take your pick.
We know the money was there when Davis’ party crossed the Savannah River. And we know very little was with him when he was captured some 200 miles away on the misty dawn of May 10 in south-central Georgia.
At that moment, the Lost Confederate Gold myth was born.
Rumors began circulating alleging the loot was secretly tucked away, awaiting a chance to finance a second Civil War. Others claimed it had been stolen, but because it was so conspicuously large the treasure was hidden until it was safe to spend. A cable channel even aired a preposterous documentary claiming the cache wound up in Kansas and was safeguarded by Frank and Jesse James!
So, just what happened to the valuables? Nobody knows. Davis’ harried retreat didn’t lend itself to bookkeeping. It’s known that some $108,000 was paid to the group’s military escort. Another $40,000 went for supplies in Washington and Augusta, Ga. It’s likely Treasury funds were also used to pay soldiers as government leaders passed through the Carolinas.
Where did the rest go? It was probably spent in drips and dribbles, doled out here and there on this and that until it was all gone. In my opinion, the Lost Confederate Gold myth is just that. A myth.
Still, I’ve met people from Kentucky to both Carolinas over the years who’ve spent decades diligently trying to find it. And so folks keep searching for something that isn’t there, inspired by the lure of riches seemingly just out of reach. I say let them look. It never hurts to dream, does it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at email@example.com.
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That was a fun read! Well done.
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