This is Part Two of a series on the disappearance of the Confederate treasury in 1865. To read Part One first, please visit: Driving Old Dixie Down: Florida and the Confederate Treasury.
The last wagon of Confederate gold left Washington, Georgia, on May 4, 1865. President Jefferson Davis was still with the wagon at that time, as were his wife, several Confederate soldiers, a handful of volunteers and several African American slaves. Two horse-drawn ambulances accompanied the treasure wagon, providing more comfortable transport for the President, his wife and other civilians.
The little baggage train wound its way south to Sandersville, Georgia, the “Kaolin Capital of the World.” Kaolin is a fine white clay used in porcelain and china as well as in medicines such as kaopectate, of which it was once a key ingredient. The distance from Washington was about 60-miles and the trip was accomplished without major incident despite worries that Union cavalry could be patrolling the area.
Sandersville, between Macon and Augusta, was the site of a sharp skirmish during Sherman’s March to the Sea. The courthouse and jail had been reduced to blackened ruins.
The President and First Lady separated from the treasure wagon near Sandersville to make their way to Florida separately. Postmaster General and Acting Secretary of the Treasury John Reagan joined them. Captains Watson Van Benthuysen and Micajah Clark were instructed to take the gold-filled wagon south to Florida by a different route and reunite with Davis and Reagan at either Tallahassee or Madison.
Jefferson Davis by this point had decided to try to make his way west from Tallahassee through the Florida Panhandle in an effort to reach the Mississippi River and the Confederate army of Gen. Kirby Smith in the Trans-Mississippi Department.
The wagon left the Sandersville area still carrying more than $30,000 in gold. The average price of gold per ounce in 1865 was $18.93. The price of gold per ounce today is $1,265.70 per ounce. In modern terms, the wagon was carrying around $2,000,000 in gold as it slowly rolled through Georgia. This accounts only for the value per ounce of the precious metal, not the value that any piece of the Confederate treasury would draw on the collector’s market. That amount would be astronomical.
The little detachment of soldiers and volunteers drove the wagon south through the pine barrens, passing near present-day Valdosta, Georgia. It was a laborious journey that required them to push, pull and drag the wagon and its heavy cargo through mud and sand. They were fed by people who lived along the route and reported that they feasted on fried fish after crossing the Florida line on the afternoon of May 15, 1865.
The party entered Florida in northeastern Madison County west of the Suwannee River. They continued south, crossing the Withlacoochee River on the 16th and then the railroad tracks leading from Tallahassee to Jacksonville on the 17th. After pushing several miles below the tracks to a “bad place,” they camped for the night.
Things were getting more tricky for them now. They unexpectedly encountered a Confederate deserter on the 17th and quickly learned that he had crossed the lines to join the Union army:
…Have been made very uneasy to day by the appearance of a deserter who had joined the Yanks and is now home. He left suddenly to night & we fear an attack from him and his band. – Diary of Tench Francis Tilghman, May 17, 1865, FHQ, XVII (1939), p. 168.
It is unfortunate that they did not name the deserter but he likely was one of a number of men from the area who joined the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry during the war. This was the area where several leaders organized bands of guerrillas. W.W. Strickland was probably the best known of these. He carried his entire company from the “United States of Taylor” into the Union army but lost his life when he was captured during the Natural Bridge expedition and hanged as a deserter at Tallahassee.
The gold wagon and its escort continued to roll the next day, finally crossing the Suwanee River by way of Mosley’s Ferry at around 5 p.m.
Lewis Mosley ran a trading post and ferry on the Suwannee near the Allen Mill Pond Spring. Confederate Secretary of War Gen. John C. Breckinridge had rested briefly at Mosley’s home a short time before while making his way through Florida. The house no longer stands but the site is now part of Lafayette Blue Springs State Park, which can be found on the west side of the Suwannee River just north of Mayo, Florida.
The men did not stop at Mosley’s place but continued on to the east after crossing the river. They spent the night at the home of a Mr. Irvin who provided them a pig, chickens and some “fine blackberry wine” for themselves, along with forage for their horses. He charged them well for it but they did not complain. He likely would have charged more had he known what was in their wagon!
The destination of the gold wagon as it moved through Florida was Cotton Wood, the plantation of former U.S. Senator David Levy Yulee. Cotton Wood was just east of Archer on the railroad connecting Fernandina with Cedar Key. Yulee was the president of that railroad and one of the most influential men in the state.
It seems clear that the men with the wagon had received instructions that they should continue on to Yulee’s place instead of trying to connect with President Davis at either Madison or Tallahassee. The president had been captured at Irwinville, Georgia, on May 9th but Tallahassee did not surrender until after they had crossed the Suwannee River.
Several days of hard travel were still ahead when the men left Irvin’s place on the morning of Friday, May 19, 1865. The gold was still with them that morning, more than $2,000,000 worth in today’s terms. It would disappear over the next four days.
The third and final part of this series is now online. You may continue to it by clicking Disappearing Gold: Florida and the Confederate Treasury.