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The Search for Lost Confederate Gold
By Hans Kuenzi
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

In late May 1861, Jefferson Davis, the former Mississippi Senator and the reluctant president of the seceding Confederate States of America, moved the capital of the CSA from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia to boost the morale of the Confederate troops and weld Virginia to the Confederacy. Had he known that in April of 1865 he, his cabinet and about $700,000 in gold and specie would have to evacuate Richmond to avoid capture during the waning days of the Civil War, he might have elected to remain in Montgomery.  (Note: 'specie' describes money in the form of coins, usually gold or silver, as opposed to paper money. Also called hard currency. Since the gold standard was abolished in the 1930s, gold coins, aside from their higher intrinsic value and demand as collectibles, no longer have any special worth as a standard of value in world trade. Dictionary of Banking Terms.)

Davis was attending church services on Sunday, April 2, 1865 when he learned that Lee’s defensive line at Petersburg had been broken and the evacuation of Richmond was imminent. President Davis pleaded with Lee to form defense lines for just one more day and informed his cabinet that Richmond was to be evacuated and that they would take the Confederate treasury with them. General Lee advised Davis that he had until 8 p.m. to load the gold, valuables and cabinet members onto two trains which would travel southward on the only line still open between Richmond and Danville, Virginia. All the Confederate officials would board the first train, while the second train would hold “special cargo”. Navy Captain William H. Parker was placed in charge of the second train and, knowing that the special cargo was comprised of gold ingots, gold double eagle coins, silver coins, silver bricks and Mexican silver dollars, he gathered the only available personnel to provide a military guard. This guard consisted of mostly young navy midshipmen from a training ship on the James River and some of them were only twelve years old.

The two trains left Richmond at midnight and when the tracks ended at Danville, Davis and his staff began to travel south on horseback. Captain Parker and the treasure, now moved to wagons, were directed to the old U.S. Mint at Charlotte, North Carolina, which was considered the safest storage place. Unfortunately, Parker found the U.S. cavalry already in the immediate area and made alternate arrangements. The treasure was placed into all kinds of containers that had once been used for sugar, coffee, flour and ammunition. Moving to the southwest, Parker and the wagons zigzagged across the South Carolina-Georgia state line several times to evade capture.  Eventually the responsibility for the treasure was passed on to the Secretary of War, John C. Breckenridge, who then placed Brig. General Basil Duke in charge. With slightly less than a thousand men in his command, Duke transferred all the treasure into six wagons and began his journey south with eight of his veterans on each wagon as guards and the rest of his command, along with the midshipmen, as escorts. In Washington, Georgia, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet met for the final time, where Davis signed his last official order, making Micajah Clark the acting Treasurer of the Confederacy.

The Chennault Plantation in Washington, GA where the Confederate gold reportedly disappeared

It was in Washington that the bulk of the treasure was captured along with Jefferson Davis and his staff. Some of the treasure had been retained by Brig. General Duke and his men as each man under his command received as payment the sum of $26.25, which amounted to a total of about $26,250. The balance of the captured treasure was assembled and loaded into wagons for transport to Washington, D.C. However, somewhere in Wilkes County, Georgia, the wagon train was bushwhacked. The bushwhackers were stragglers from both the Federal and Confederate armies who had heard of the treasure and the “handouts” being given to soldiers. Residents of Wilkes County who witnessed the event said that the bushwhackers waded knee-deep in gold and silver coinage before loading it in all kinds of bags and sacks and riding away. It was said that many riders were so overloaded that they later discarded or hid large quantities of the coins all over Wilkes County.

The belief that Confederate gold is buried in Wilkes County has persisted since the end of the war. However, despite searches conducted throughout the years, nothing of value has ever been found there. This rumor of buried treasure in Wilkes County nevertheless spawned a legend involving a family of local repute, the Mumfords, and the location of the lost Confederate gold.

This legend was first advanced by Martha Mizell Puckett, a former school teacher and Brantley County native, who spun her tale of Confederate gold in her book, Snow White Sands. Her book alleged that New York native and Confederate sympathizer Sylvester Mumford was present at the Confederacy's final cabinet meeting in Washington, Georgia, and claimed that Jefferson Davis divided the gold among those present and instructed them to use the money as they felt best. Another account maintains Jefferson Davis entrusted the entire Confederate treasury into the care of Sylvester Mumford. A very prosperous merchant before the war, Mumford had established a cotton plantation near Waynesville. However, his business fortunes suffered great losses throughout the course of the war.

It was said that, after taking possession of the gold, Mumford transported some of the Confederate treasury southeast to North Florida and the Atlantic coast, where he boarded a British steamer bound for England. Puckett was rather vague about what Mumford did with the gold he allegedly transported to England, except to claim that he ordered enough seed corn from South America, by way of Great Britain, to replant the whole State of Georgia. The rest of the gold found its way into the hands of his daughter, Goertner “Gertrude” Mumford Parkhurst, in New York, where she lived and invested it well. Puckett claimed that when “Miss Gertrude” decided that the remainder of the Confederate gold should be returned to the people to whom it belonged, her personal lawyer, Judge J.P. Highsmith, suggested that an educational trust be established for the descendants of the Confederate soldiers.

As heir to the Mumford estate, “Miss Gertrude” allegedly made provisions to return the balance of the Confederate treasure to Southern hands after her death. In fact, when she died in 1946 at age 99 in Washington, D.C., she bequeathed almost $600,000 to the children of Brantley County through an endowment and two scholarship funds.

The Thornwell Home and School for Children as it stands today in Clinton, SC

Initially, with one-third of her estate, the will established the Sylvester Mumford Memorial Endowment at the Thornwell Orphanage in Clinton, South Carolina, which was founded in 1875 and is now known as the Thornwell Home and School for Children. The remainder of her estate was divided between two scholarship funds. The first was given to the Presbyterian Church, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, in trust “for the maintenance and education of white orphan girls of Brantley County”. By 1960, this scholarship fund was creating more income from its principal investment than there were recipients for the scholarships. The church petitioned the court to expand the scope of the scholarships by including residents of counties which immediately surrounded Brantley and by defining an orphan as a child who had lost at least one parent. Due to the moral and legal concerns about restricting the fund to white orphan girls, the church then petitioned the court to open the scholarship to all ethnic groups. In 2002, the church awarded $32,000 to qualified women from Southeast Georgia, and in October 2003 there were fifteen women attending colleges or technical schools who were funded by the scholarship program.

A second scholarship, known as the Sylvester Mumford Memorial Fund, was to be awarded to students from Brantley County who attend Georgia College, then known as Georgia State College for Women. In recent years, the number of students receiving tuition assistance has fluctuated between ten and twelve.

Given this claim that the source of these scholarships was in fact a portion of the lost Confederate treasury, researchers throughout the years sought to confirm the veracity of the Mumford legend. However, their work created great doubt that any lost Confederate gold ever existed in the first place. Of particular note, Wayne J. Lewis researched the connection between the Confederate gold and the Mumford estate due to his personal interest in the legend. In April 1953, he and his three brothers were the first children from Brantley County to derive benefit from the Mumford funds at the Thornwell Orphanage in Clinton, South Carolina, after their father died from a heart attack in 1951 at age 47. Lewis graduated from Thornwell High School in 1958 and then from Clemson University in 1962 before serving on active duty in Germany and Vietnam with the U.S. Army. He resigned his commission as a captain after almost six years and he retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 2000 and still has family and friends in Brantley County.

Appreciative of the home the Mumfords provided and his opportunity for a college education, he set out to discover the facts behind the Confederate gold. He researched the archives of the Thornwell Orphanage and found no reference to the Confederacy or gold in any of the handwritten letters from Mrs. Parkhurst. He also interviewed local historians and librarians in Washington, Georgia, none of whom had heard of the gold's connection to Brantley County. Moreover, he was unable to find any mention of the name Mumford in any record of the period.

After exhaustive research, Lewis concluded that gold from the Richmond banks and the Confederate treasury had in fact been evacuated from Richmond and shipped south to prevent it from falling into the hands of Union forces. However, although the banks and the Confederacy had shipped their gold on the same train, each had its own security forces and the gold was never commingled. Although Jefferson Davis's family was on the train with the gold shipments, Lewis wrote that Jefferson Davis was not. The treasurer of the Confederacy was on board and made numerous and well-documented disbursements along the way to meet military payrolls.

Arriving in Washington, Georgia, Lewis reported that the Confederate treasury had dwindled down to about $43,000 in cash. The funds were then stored there in a vault at a local bank, and within days after the war ended, the Richmond banks had their funds returned to Richmond on five wagons. However, this wagon train was robbed on the first night that it stopped to make camp, and the robbers improvised ways to carry the loot: stuffed in their shirts, pants, boots and whatever else would hold their plunder. Unfortunately for them, their booty leaked and made it easy for a posse to follow. All but about $70,000 was recovered and transferred to Augusta, Georgia, where ownership of the funds was tied up in court until 1893. The courts eventually agreed with the federal government, who claimed the funds because the Richmond banks had aided a rebellion by making loans to the Confederacy.

Lewis concluded that the Brantley County Confederate gold legend was probably fabricated from a combination of the legend told in Snow White Sands and the actual gold shipments after the war. Indeed, no one who was an eyewitness to the events ever documented that the gold was actually lost. Martha Mizell Puckett, the author of Snow White Sands, had failed to include footnotes, references or even a simple bibliography to support the presence of gold in Brantley County.

In conclusion, historical research has determined only $70,000 of the gold belonging to the banks in Richmond is missing, but not lost, as it was accounted for in the robbery during its shipment back to Richmond. What remained of the Confederate treasury, in the form of gold and other valuable coins, was disbursed as payroll to Confederate troops during its transport south. By the end of the war, nothing remained in the coffers of the Confederate treasury except for its incalculable amount of debt.


Jefferson Davis

 

Robert E. Lee

 

John C. Breckenridge

 

Basil Duke
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable