With Union troops closing in on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in early April 1865, President Jefferson Davis and the rest of his government fled southward, allegedly carrying with them a considerable amount of gold, silver and other coins. But when Union officers caught up with Davis on May 10, near Irwinville, Georgia, he was reportedly carrying only a few dollars with him.
So what happened to that missing Confederate treasure? Its fate has remained a mystery for more than 150 years, fueling a wealth of local legends in the South and elsewhere, and even inspiring Hollywood movies like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Sahara (2005), based on the book by Clive Cussler.
“Every legend that has any long-term staying power has a modicum of truth in it, and certainly this one does,” says William Rawlings, an author of numerous nonfiction books and novels about Southern history. Rawlings included a chapter about the lost Confederate treasure in his 2017 book The Strange Journey of the Confederate Constitution, And Other Stories from Georgia’s Historical Past, and also mined the legends for his novel The Rutherford Cipher, originally published in 2004.
The story begins in Richmond on Sunday, April 2, 1865, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis received an urgent message from General Robert E. Lee while attending a church service. Lee warned Davis that his government should evacuate Richmond immediately, or risk being captured by Federal troops.
Late that night, two trains departed Richmond heading south. The first carried Davis and other Confederate officials, along with the government’s most important documents and other archived materials. Onto the second were loaded all the cash reserves of the Confederacy (including gold, silver and other coins), as well as the gold reserves owned by Richmond’s banks and a large amount of jewelry donated by Confederate women to the cause.
Among Confederate veterans’ organizations, rumors later swirled that their fleeing leaders were carrying millions of dollars when they evacuated Richmond. And such rumors weren’t confined to the South. Union officials also estimated the value of the Confederate fortune in the millions of dollars, hoping to spur along the Federal troops seeking the fugitive Davis and his government.
The true value of the treasure that left Richmond—held under the guard of Confederate Navy Captain William H. Parker and the young midshipmen in his command—will likely never be known. In an account he made to a Richmond newspaper in 1893, Parker recalled that the government funds placed in his charge totaled only “about $500,000 in gold, silver and bullion.” Still, rumors of the millions persist.