Back in 2018, the History [Channel] debuted a series titled “The Curse of Civil War Gold,” billed as a reality show following investigators on the trail of lost Confederate gold. (Why it is not titled “Curse of Confederate Gold” would be a good study in how our contemporary discussions have altered the framing of the past… but that’s grist for some other writer to grind.) The premise of this chase is one oft repeated in fiction… and unfortunately far too often by treasure hunters.
Basically, the show contends at the end of the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled Richmond with the “vast” holdings of the Confederate treasury. After managing to hustle this pile of gold and silver down through the Carolinas, Davis and his treasure were captured near Irwinville, Georgia. But, the show contends, instead of turning this valuable cargo over to Federal authorities, the officers and men who captured Davis proceeded to secret all away to Michigan in a caper matching the fictional Kelly’s Heroes. Then somehow our heroes managed to lose this all when a boxcar full of the loot slipped off into Lake Michigan on one of those proverbial “dark and stormy nights.”
The History web page summarizes this story in more detail. Suffice to say, like so much that appears on History now days, it is more entertainment than actual history. I’ll forgo a line by line debunking of the premise. Years ago, when the “players” involved with this version of the story came to the fore, my friend Eric Whittenburg laid out many of the faults of the premise (here and here). In particular, Eric discussed the role of Colonel Robert H. G. Minty in the Confederate gold story, at length. The “smoking gun” that puts away Minty’s alleged involvement is the fact, as Eric and historian Rand Bitter point out, that the former cavalry commander experienced a great deal of financial difficulty after the war. One might think if Minty had pocketed some of Jeff Davis’ gold, fortunes would have been different.
Back in 2008, Hans Kuenzi wrote an excellent article for the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable on the story of lost Confederate gold. The article is a good starting point, with a summary of the facts pertaining to the Confederate treasury and the end of the war. Kuenzi casts full light on a lot of alleged shadowy circumstances regarding the gold and other riches claimed to be “out there” for the finding. His summary is there is nothing “lost” per say, but just an interesting story about the accounting for the treasury as the Confederacy met its end.
However, if you have watched any of the show, you know there are many open ended speculations that allow the proponents to keep the dream alive. The problem is speculations distract from the facts. And here is one key fact, which I think the TV show conveniently overlooks, that kills the myth:
HDQRS. CAVALRY CORPS, MIL. DIV. OF THE MISSISSIPPI,Official Records, Series I, Volume XLIX, Part 2, Serial 104, page 955
Macon, Ga., June 4, 1865.
Hon. E. M. STANTON,
Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:
Your dispatch of June 3 is received. I have already had this country from Florida to Charlotte, N. C., searched for the thirteen millions of treasure previously reported by General Halleck and other fabulous amounts reported by various parties. I am convinced from all the information I can gather that the entire amount of gold and silver with which Davis left Richmond did not exceed one million and a half; that the most of this was paid to his officers and men between Charlotte and Washington, Ga., and the balance scattered amongst people who were regarded trustworthy. Of this, $6,000 was delivered to one of my officers by Robert Toombs. I suspect the remainder was stolen from the people’s homes by disbanded rebel cavalry, assisted by our own men. Every house where rebels have been in Georgia has been searched. It is also reported that the small sums in the possession of Davis’ party were pillaged by the captors. I will send to Irwin County to ascertain if they overlooked any, and will set a watch for the colored man Jones.
J. H. WILSON,
Consider the correspondent and the recipient of this dispatch. Major-General James Wilson commanded the Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi, which at the end of the war conducted a massive raid through Alabama and Georgia to finish off what Sherman had started. As result of being the senior military officer in the sector, Wilson was the “man on the spot” to deal with Jefferson Davis. So we must treat this as a bona fide report from the field. Stanton, of course, was the Secretary of War at the time. In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton exercised more influence on the military situation than any other civilian.
Those endpoints defined, this sort of correspondence (from a senior officer in the field directly to the Secretary of War) was commonplace during the Civil War. In this particular case, Wilson is responding directly to inquiries and requests from the Secretary’s office. If handled as similar correspondence during the war, and we have no evidence it was not, the messages past through normal military channels – meaning everyone in the chain of command at least knew the correspondence was taking place, if not completely informed of the content.
The preface of the dispatch, citing Stanton’s message of June 3 indicates not only was the inquiry sent by telegraph, but the response was also sent that way. Very likely, as standard practice by late war, the message was encrypted by cypher when sent. Furthermore the telegraph operators were trusted men employed by the War Department, and “cleared” as we would call it today. Thus we might consider this equal of a classified dispatch in the 20th century sense… or classified email in the 21st century parlance.
What that means is this dispatch is not some under-cover or covert communication. Nor was it some prop in a cover-up to distract from a caper pulled off in the waning days of the Civil War. It is an official report, through official channels, within view of all those who needed to know about the situation. Nor was there any secret or covert message system which would be used in lieu of this official system.
Furthermore, consider the provenance of this dispatch, historically speaking. It was, after the war was deemed at an end, filed just like thousands (hundreds of thousands if not millions) of dispatches and reports from the war. Then near the end of the 19th century, a team of appointed men went through those papers with instructions to compile them into what we know as “The Official Records.” In short, this dispatch was seen, by men who’s business was to know, as military correspondence worth preserving as part of the record of events. Basically, an artifact. Er… A FACT!
The next layer of this context is the time at which the dispatch was written. June 4, 1865. Just over two months from Davis’ flight, with gold in tow, from Richmond. Less than two months since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In the weeks since those climatic events in Virginia, Lincoln fell to an assassin’s bullet, Johnston surrendered in North Carolina, and Davis himself captured in Georgia. By the first of June, all major Confederate military forces were non-existent. What remained was the job of cleaning up the aftermath, ensuring a transition from war to peace. And with that existed a strong desire to tie up any and all loose ends. After all, Congress was now reluctant to keep military funding at wartime levels… time to close the books. So we can read into Stanton’s inquiry and Wilson’s response the need to “settle up” all activities associated with suppressing the Confederacy.
That framing set, what did Wilson tell Stanton… and us today?
First, there were wild claims of fantastic amounts of money up for grabs as the Confederacy collapsed. Wilson, at the point of contact of these claims, debunks them with authority. “I am convinced from all the information I can gather that the entire amount of gold and silver with which Davis left Richmond did not exceed one million and a half …”
Second, Wilson gave us two numbers to work with here. Citing Major-General Henry Halleck, an officer known to be excitable in the moment, there’s a claim of $13 million. Then there’s Wilson’s assessment of $1.5 million. A lot of variance. But maybe BOTH are accurate. Hear me out here. Neither number is identified as US dollars or Confederate dollars. During the winter months of 1865, inflation crippled the Confederate economy. Reports out of Richmond had one US dollar of gold selling for between $66 and $107 Confederate dollars. So if Halleck were citing reports documenting the value in Confederate dollars, depending on the moment in time and exchange rate, $13 million in Confederate might translate to $1.5 million in US.
And that exchange rate must be factored into not only the military reports, but also in the claims, myths, and legends that followed the war. Most authoritative accounts of the Confederate treasury’s demise indicate just over $1 million (in US dollars) left Richmond with Davis. And of that, around half was “secured” (being kind… “seized” might be more accurate) from the Richmond banks. Thus the actual Confederate treasury holdings were likely valued around $500,000 to $600,000, again in US dollars, as it departed Richmond. Subtract from that sums paid out to Confederate troops at Danville and other points as the Confederate government fled, and the sum drops to around $150,000 or so. Do the math on the exchange rate, and suddenly the same paltry pile is $10 million or more Confederate dollars!
Third, we have Wilson’s assertion that most of the Confederate treasury had been dispersed to pay off the men providing that last fleeting bit of security for the Confederate government. What remained, Davis (and the cabinet) had assigned to trusted officials for safe keeping. He even named a name – Robert Toombs – with $6,000. (Not to belabor a point, but that sum would be over half a million Confederate dollars!) Thus instead of a neat ledger and precise accounting, Wilson could only point generally to how the Confederate treasury faded away.
But there is no doubt that in the process of paying its way from Virginia to Georgia the Confederate treasury diminished to a very small quantity in short order. The sad part, as Wilson pointed out in the dispatch, is that much of that money, paid out to cover costs as the Confederate officials fled, was later stolen by ex-Confederates in the aftermath of war, or by his own (Federal) soldiers sent out to search homes for traces of this Confederate money. Still, none of it reaches up to the totals that would fill a railroad box car (as is claimed by proponents of this myth).
Fourth, Wilson gave what is perhaps the “kernel of truth” that is used by the speculations, saying, “It is also reported that the small sums in the possession of Davis’ party were pillaged by the captors.” In that sentence, some harbor the notion that indeed Minty’s men got their hands on millions of dollars of gold. But Wilson clearly states “small sums” only. I submit that if he put a dollar figure to that obtained from Toombs, the value from Davis’ party must have been even less. Otherwise, the ever vigilant Wilson would have called it out. Just the change in Jeff Davis’ pocket.
Lastly, Wilson acknowledged instructions to look out for a “colored man James.” Sounds mysterious and possibly leading to a cache of gold, right? Not really. Again, context is important. Wilson is replying here indirectly to an earlier report referenced by Stanton, making rounds separately (see OR, Series I, Volume XLVII, Part 3, Serial 100, page 617). Halleck had, warned to be looking for “a colored servant of Jeff. Davis, named James Jones….” Specifically, this person was purported to be sent back to obtain “two bags of money concealed near the place where Davis was captured.” And that’s why Wilson sent troops back to the Irwinville area. Two bags? Again, a far cry short of a railroad car load. And not something necessitating a grand conspiracy to conceal after the war.
So we have, as of June 3, an official report that indicates the Confederate treasury had ceased to exist. It was scattered about, in small quantities, having been spent or dispersed. Jeff Davis himself didn’t have enough on hand to be called a treasure. If I may, it was “Gone with the Wind.”
We must again go back to the context of the closing months of the Civil War. The most accurate figures we have on the Confederate finances indicate from February 1861 through October 1864 (after which records become spotty), the Confederacy spent around $2.1 billion. Balanced against that was a revenue intake, in the same period, of $2.3 billion. But, as these things are apt to require, the real story is in the numbers behind the numbers. Revenues peaked in 1863, then fell off into 1864. Yet expenditures increased for every monthly period through the war. By the last year of the war, the Confederacy was spending more on debt servicing than it was on its army. From April 1, 1864 to October 1, 1864, $246 million went to the Confederate War Department, compared to $342.5 million on debt servicing. Basically, that sucking sound you’d have heard around Richmond was all the money leaving the Confederacy. What was left in the Confederate treasury in April 1865 wasn’t much… and what was there was being mortgaged to pay for a mountain of debt!
So you see, if we go to the “court of history” and put the “lost Confederate gold” on trial, Wilson’s dispatch becomes an important piece of evidence. The five points I’ve drawn from that dispatch must be assailed by anyone making this particular case for lost gold. Otherwise, claims have no basis in fact.
The problem I have with shows like “The Curse of Lost Civil War Gold” is that it takes on the patina of historical discussion while not actually promoting or presenting historical methods. At best, the show has opened up a discussion featuring relatively overlooked Civil War figures like Minty. Such is a small step in broadening the understanding of the war. But even then, I suspect just as “Killer Angels” launched forth hundreds in search of Buster Kilrain’s grave at Gettysburg, likewise we’ll see those on the trail of Minty’s mint!
The more likely, and more dangerous, reality is that “The Curse of Lost Civil War Gold” represents a corruption of history. Instead of good sound historical method, we have a premise that suggest we dismiss “what historians have long held” to be replaced with suppositions. We are being told to assume broad, vast conspiracies have shaped the past and gone unknown to our understanding of history. It purports that dark, sinister and maniacal forces have hidden history from us. If history is presented as human experience to be learned from, then the experience offered by this quest for lost gold is that we should, without just reason, reject everything solid and factual for fanciful versions of reality. Such is damaging not only to our understanding of history, but also to our comprehension of current events. And that, I submit, is the true nature of any “curse” from this alleged lost Civil War gold.
If you ask me, the most important treasure left at the fall of the Confederacy was secured in 1865. It wasn’t gold or silver. It wasn’t even paper money. It was a collection of records, remanded to the charge of General Samuel Cooper in Charlotte, North Carolina in April 1865. Ten tons of documents and records of the Confederacy. Without which so much more of the history of the Confederacy, and thus the Civil War as a whole, would be speculative. It’s that treasure from which we learn enough to know there is no lost Confederate gold.