This is the conclusion of a three part series on Florida’s role in the 1865 disappearance of the Confederate Treasury. To read the previous parts first, please see Driving Old Dixie Down and Confederate Gold on the Suwannee.
The last part of the Confederate Treasury, carried in a single wagon, made its way south from Irvin’s home near the Suwannee River on the morning of May 19, 1865. The gold coins, by weight alone, would be worth around $2,000,000 today. Their value on the collector’s market would be shocking.
The wagon was accompanied by Capt. Watson Van Benthuysen, Capt. Micajah Clark, Tench Tilghman, William E. Dickinson, John W. Scott, Fred Emery, Capt. Alfred C. “Alf” Benthuysen, Capt. Jefferson Davis “Jeff” Benthuysen, a man named Staffin or Stafford, a scout named Howard, Capt. W.S. Winder and five African American servants or slaves.
This small band represented the last real vestige of the Confederate government east of the Mississippi. Capt. Clark was the acting Treasurer of the Confederacy. The three Benthuysen brothers were well-known to the now captured Jefferson Davis. The President, in fact, was the brother-in-law of their aunt, Mrs. Joseph Davis.
Tilghman was a major general of the Maryland Militia in 1861 when Massachusetts troops invaded the state to secure it for the Union. Removed from his post, he relocated south to Richmond where he served the Confederacy as an engineer.
Capt. Winder was a relative of Gen. William Winder, CSA, and had served on his staff. Staffin (or Stafford) was a member of the President’s guard. Dickinson had been a student at a Maryland college.
Scott was a law student when the war began but came afoul the Union army in 1863 when he sentenced to be hanged by the military. Abraham Lincoln commuted his sentence to a term in prison for the duration of the war. He was exchanged after Jefferson Davis seized three Union officers and held them for that purpose.
It is also interesting to note that Capt. Alf Benthuysen, C.S. Marine Corps, had been severely wounded and captured during the Battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina. He had served with Garibaldi in Italy before the war and was experienced with international travel.
After leaving Irvin’s place on the morning of May 19, 1865, the little group moved about 20 miles with the gold wagon, passing through a heavy thunderstorm before arriving at the home of Capt. Martin. They identified this man as “one of the officers of the state troops.” Forage for the animals was scarce and they had taken the wrong road and been forced to turn back, losing 1.5 miles of distance.
They continued south on the 20th. They were able to obtain forage and some corn meal at a grist mill before stopping to camp for the night in a wooded area near “good water.” The men received another serious scare that night. “My watch to night was broken by the sudden sound of a bugle,” wrote Tench Tilghman. “I roused the camp expecting an attack from bushwhackers, but nothing came.”*
The party moved south again on Sunday, May 21, covering 18-miles before camping near water that was “only tolerable.” Capt. Watson Benthuysen and William E. Dickinson rode forward to Gainesville hoping to secure solid intelligence but could learn little if anything. They were told there that men from Kentucky and Maryland would not be allowed to return home. This was concerning as many of the members of the gold escort were from Maryland.
Thy arrived at Sen. David Levy Yulee’s Cotton Wood plantation the next day, Monday, May 22, 1865.
The plantation lay along the line of the historic Florida Railroad just west of present-day Archer, Florida. Yulee, the president of the railroad, was not home when the gold wagon arrived on his farm, but the men were able to learn from Union newspapers there that all hope was gone:
…A general gloom pervades our camp. Of course the last hope of the Confederacy is gone & our only course as we are in the Dept surrendered by Gen Johnston is to go some where deliver ourselves up & be paroled. This I had hoped to have been spared but there is no alternative.**
On the next morning, May 23, 1865, the group broke up with its largest remaining part turning east along the road that paralleled the railroad. The men soon reached the Haile Plantation. This beautiful old home still stands at the Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation on the outskirts of modern Gainesville. Tilghman wrote that they were “hospitably treated & refreshed by a very nice drink of brandy.”
And so ended the government of the Confederate States of America, with a sip of brandy and a hospitable reception at the home of Edward Haile near Gainesville, Florida.
It would be a simple story but for one thing: what happened to the gold?
Historian A.J. Hanna of Florida’s Rollins College studied the matter carefully back in the 1930s. He concluded that the wagon likely still contained around $25,000 in gold when it reached Cotton Wood plantation. The rest had been spent to cover expenses as it passed through Florida.
Capt. Clark, in his last official act as acting Treasurer of the Confederacy, informed the other men that he would pay them “fair salvage” from the gold and then make his way to Great Britain where he would put the remainder on deposit for the future use as decided by President Davis and other Confederate officials.
Capt. Watson Van Benthuysen objected, pointing out that as quartermaster he alone had authority to disperse the gold. Most of the other men supported him and a fierce argument took place at the Cotton Wood camp. It was finally resolved in Van Benthuysen’s favor.
Van Benthuysen later wrote that he set aside one-quarter of the gold – roughly $6,790 – for the benefit of Mrs. Davis and her children. As a distant relative, he kept this amount to deliver to her. The rest of the gold, he reported, was dispersed among the members of the party. His two brothers, Clark, Dickinson, Winder, Tilghman, Emery and Scott each received $1,940 in gold. Counting the money reserved for the use of Mrs. Davis, this accounts for $22,310 of the remaining $25,000.
Three additional amounts of $970 in gold were paid as wages to the scout Howard, to Stafford and to the five African-Americans as a group. The latter payment is interesting as it represents what was in essence a goodwill gesture to the men who began the expedition as slaves but ended it as free men.
When the total payments are added together, they come to $25,220.
This likely represents the total sum of the “lost Confederate gold” that reached Florida. There are many legends of buried gold around Archer and in the vicinity of the Cotton Wood site, but no buried caches of treasure have ever been found. Some of the baggage and papers entrusted to the party were dug up from beneath the stables.
One small cache of gold coins that, based on their dates, may represent part of the lost Confederate treasury were found in Florida, but far to the west in Jackson County. They were plowed up by a farm employee in the 1970s at a site near Bellview (or Bellevue) Landing, then on the main mail route that connected Tallahassee with Marianna by way Bainbridge, Georgia. A search for additional evidence will begin at the site of the discovery in the near future.
Alachua County and the City of Gainesville, where the Confederacy’s remaining treasury was paid out to the men who had guarded it, recently decreed the removal of a monument to the enlisted men who served in the Confederate armies from the grounds of their courthouse.
It seems that more than 152 years after the war came to an end and the last coins of the Confederate treasury were paid to former slaves, some still feel the need to drive Old Dixie down.
*Diary of Tench Tilghman, May 20, 1865, FHQ, XVII (1939), p. 168).
**Ibid., May 22, 1865, p. 169.