Jefferson Davis, the first and last President of the Confederacy, was attending church on a Sunday morning in April 1865 when he learned that the Union army was breaking through the lines at Petersburg, Virginia.
Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had held back the much larger force of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for more than 9 months, but he now warned Davis that they could hold no more. Petersburg was the key to the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lee’s only hope was to maneuver South and try to link up with the army that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was marching north through the Carolinas.
Johnston had desperately fought the army of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina on March 19-21, 1865. He came close but failed to destroy one wing of Sherman’s army and now was marching north. If Lee and Johnson could combine their forces, there was still a chance. They could turn on either Sherman or Grant and destroy one of the Union armies before the Federals could merge to form a single overwhelming force.
With this strategy in mind, President Davis ordered the Confederate archives and treasury loaded aboard a train for Danville, Virginia. It left Richmond on the night of April 2, 1865.
The popular song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” seems particularly appropriate today as museums close, artifacts are destroyed and Confederate monuments are torn down across the South. The song was written about that last night in Richmond.
The Union army marched into Richmond shortly after 8 o’clock the next morning. The city was in flames. President Davis, meanwhile, arrived at the Sutherlin Mansion in Danville, Virginia. The home became the temporary capitol building of the Confederacy, a role that it would serve for the next seven days.
Danville was once proud of its role as the “Last Capital of the Confederacy” but no more. The city has taken down the Confederate flag that once flew at the Southernlin Mansion. Ironically, a plaque on the building still bears the verse, “If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem.”
The Confederate treasury was last seen all in one place at Danville and it was there that Davis and his Cabinet met in full session for the last time. Much of the silver was never seen again after its arrival in the Virginia city and numerous theories abound as to its whereabouts. One of the most popular holds that it is buried in a large cemetery.
The President left Danville by train one week after arriving and made his way down through the Carolinas. Some of the money was used to pay the soldiers of Gen. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, but a considerable amount in gold was still with Davis when he reached Washington, Georgia, on May 4, 1865.
How much of the gold remained by the time Davis reached Washington is not known. He was still accompanied at that point was a small cavalry escort and a few members of his Cabinet, Secretary of War (and former U.S. Vice President) John C. Breckinridge and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin among them.
A meeting was held by the remnants of the Confederate government in Washington and it was decided that the remaining officials should separate with each following a different route to Florida. They would reunite in either Tallahassee or Madison. Maj. Gen. Sam Jones still commanded thousands of Confederate soldiers from his headquarters at Tallahassee and the Confederate flag still waved over Fort Ward (San Marcos de Apalache) and the Confederate gunboat CSS Spray at St. Marks.
Davis hoped to make his way either by water or overland to join Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith’s army west of the Mississippi. He was determined to continue the fight.
The great mystery of the lost Confederate gold grew from the brief stop of Jefferson Davis in Washington, Georgia. Many have offered theories about its fate, but no solid proof of its whereabouts has ever been produced.
An old legend in the Washington area holds that part of the gold was captured by outlaw raiders at Chennault Crossroads in Lincoln County, Georgia. Lincoln County, by the way, was not named for Abraham Lincoln but for Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, a hero of the American Revolution.
The story contends that two of the wagons carrying the gold were at Chennault Crossroads on the night of May 24, 1865. President Davis had ordered this part of the treasure, said to be worth around $100,000 in 1865 terms, to Augusta and Savannah. The military escort could not find a way past the numerous Union troops scouring the country for Davis and his entourage so they retreated back to Lincoln County near Washington in hopes of obtaining new instructions from the President.
Jefferson Davis had already left Washington, however, and the leaders of the escort were unable to make contact with him. They were parked about 100 yards in front of the Chennault Plantation mansion on the night of May 24th when a group of raiders associated with neither army seized the wagons. The gold disappeared.
Various stories offer possible explanations. One holds that the treasury was buried near the confluence of the Apalachee and Oconee Rivers, while another claims that the raiders were local citizens who divided the money. It is also said that gold coins spilled from the wagons were found after rains along the dirt roads of the area for many years after the war.
The rest of the treasury – about $35,000 in gold coins – was carried south from Washington in a wagon. It would eventually reach Florida after a harrowing trip through Georgia.
Part Two of this series is now online. To continue to it, please click: Confederate Gold on the Suwannee.