Late spring of 1865 saw fast-moving, chaotic events for both the Union and the Confederacy. Even though Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, the war was not entirely over. Troops for both sides were still in the field fighting.
Days after Lee’s surrender, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s theater, in Washington DC. plunging a jubilant north into a wary panic. Many were convinced of the Confederate government’s involvement in his shooting.
Meanwhile Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Cabinet had fled the South’s capital, Richmond Virginia, as it fell to Union troops, carrying with them the Confederate government’s treasury. Their original plan was to travel to North Carolina where they would store the treasury in the old U.S. Mint in Charlotte. They soon learned the area was policed by U.S. cavalry so their plan changed. The assembly headed into the heart of the south, some say hoping to continue the Confederate struggle, perhaps setting up a new southern capital and continuing the fight in the western theater. Others say the group planned an escape to Mexico, Cuba or even Britain.
By early May 1865 Jefferson Davis and his staff had made their way from Virginia, through both North and South Carolina to Irwinville, Georgia. Just a couple days earlier Davis had been reunited with his wife Varina and their three children. Their journey was cautious and covert since Davis was sought after by all Union soldiers in the area. Not only was he considered a traitor to the United States and an accomplice to Lincoln’s death, there was also a $75,000 bounty for his capture.
While in camp, early the morning of May 10th, the Confederate President, his family and staff were surrounded by the 4th Michigan cavalry. After their capture, without a Confederate shot fired, the group was transported to a local hotel and then Davis was eventually sent to Fort Monroe Virginia where he was a prisoner for two years.
The 4th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was part of the brigade involved in the capture of Jefferson Davis. For their assignment, the 4th OVC had the unusual privilege of searching for and finding the Confederate treasury that accompanied Davis. What they found buried near an apple orchard close to Davis’ capture certainly brought whoops of joy!
Boxes, wrapped in oilcloth, were buried in the ground and contained stacks of Confederate money. Easily recognizable by it’s blue color, the men of the 4th OVC were now in possession of a fortune!
The soldiers took the found loot back to camp. With thousands and thousands of dollars in hand they shared their gain throughout the company. The men, who’s monthly salary averaged about $12, went on a wild spending spree. Buying cigars for $100 a box, a ham for $140 and the luxury of a shave and haircut for $30. The men even went to the theater in the local town spending $50 a ticket. One soldier bought a horse offering the seller $1200 for it. When the seller didn’t have change for the $1500 in cash presented to him, the buyer told him to keep the change. Price was no object! That is until the locals refused to accept the Confederate paper money. It was worthless and local vendors began asking for gold, silver or U.S. money for their merchandise.
But paper money wasn’t the only thing contained in the Confederate treasury. Along with government records there were supposedly crate upon crate of gold and silver coins, bullion, jewelry donated by southern women toward the war and more than $450,000 in gold from the Richmond banks reserves. It’s thought that there was close to $1 million in the hands of the fleeing Confederate administration, taken to keep it from being confiscated by the invading Union military.
This vast amount of gold and silver and the bank reserves were not found when Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet were captured. The 4th OVC only found paper money. So what happened to the Confederate treasury? Is it buried in some secret location and has yet to be found? Was it hidden by Confederate leaders? Was it stolen by Union soldiers?
First there’s the legend that Confederate Secretary of War, John C. Breckenridge who was put in charge of the treasury before the group made their way into Georgia sent a substantial amount of gold ahead to Florida. Possibly the Ocala area. It’s also been said another sum of money was sent to Britain to be held in an account for the Confederacy.
Yet the answer could be as simple as there wasn’t that much money left in the Confederate treasury. Some feel the total amount of gold reported in the treasury was blown out of proportion. Then add to that the last two years of the war drained the Confederate treasury means it may have been broke by May 1865.
Davis and his Cabinet also dispersed some gold as payroll to Confederate troops along their route south. Perhaps the Confederacy was flat broke by the end of the war. But an interesting note is that the Richmond banks reserves were entirely separate from the Confederate treasury and reportedly around $450,000 which adds a twist to the story.
Once in Georgia, the Richmond banks gold was put in a Washington Georgia bank vault for safekeeping. After the capture of Jefferson Davis further south in Irwinville, that gold was soon confiscated by Union forces. The gold, once in possession of Union troops, was loaded on a wagon train to be sent north. On the very first night of the journey, as the wagon train set up camp near Danburg Georgia, they were attacked by locals. It’s said everyone from freed slaves, to paroled Confederate soldiers and bushwhackers took part in the melee where hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold was carried away. Men stashed gold in any available container, from socks to coffee sacks to saddle bags and hauled it home. In fact the legend goes since there was so much gold stolen and it was so heavy to cart off, that large quantities of gold coins were hidden across Wilkes County, Georgia where some of it sits undisturbed to this day.
The remaining gold was put in an Augusta, Georgia bank and sat there for years. The U.S. government claimed ownership as well as the Richmond banks where the gold came from originally. After extensive court proceedings the U.S. government was awarded the remaining gold because the Richmond banks aided the rebellion.
We know the 4th OVC found the Confederate treasury’s paper money but what about the gold? Could there be a cache of Confederate gold in Ocala, Florida? Or is there an account in Britain waiting for the Confederacy to claim it? How about the Richmond bank reserves? Is some of it buried across the countryside in Wilkes County, Georgia? Probably after 150 years we’ll never know but I think my summer vacation may be spent with a metal detector in sunny Wilkes County, Georgia this year.
One last note, you may be wondering what happened to the jewelry donated by the southern women toward the war effort. Supposedly President Davis and his Cabinet stopped at a farm in the vicinity of Washington Georgia. They entrusted the widow who lived there to care for a heavy wooden box they couldn’t continue to carry with them on their journey. The widow agreed and the men left. Curiosity got the best of the woman and she peeked inside to find it full of valuable jewelry. Panicked at being in possession of such costly items she buried the box on her farm. A few days later an officer appeared requesting the box and the widow hastily returned it to him. Whether he was actually an officer sent by Jefferson Davis to retrieve the jewelry, an unscrupulous soldier or just a plain thief will never be known. The donated Confederate jewelry was never seen or mentioned by anyone again.