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Mystery of Lost Confederate Gold

In April 1865, the Civil War ended for most Americans. The war, and its various aspects, continues to capture the interest and imagination of many Americans who are fascinated by the battles, leaders, and strategy displayed during that conflict. Mysteries endure, too, including the ultimate disposition of the Confederate treasury.

Much of the mystery was engendered by Union officials, who greatly inflated the value of the Confederacy’s treasury to several million dollars. This was probably done to increase the incentive to Union soldiers combing the villages and roads of the Carolinas and Georgia for the treasury, and for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had fled Richmond. The actual value of the treasury was probably not much more than $500,000.

The trek south of the Confederate government has been well documented in a number of first hand accounts written several years after the war. The authors were primarily participants in the evacuation of Richmond and they included Confederate cabinet officials, army officers, and treasury employees. Many of the accounts were published in the papers of the Southern Historical Society, in an effort to dispel rumors that Davis took the money for himself and his family. One treasury clerk ― in particular, Micajah Clark ― provided a detailed accounting of the disposition of the funds.

An aspect of the treasure that Clark omitted concerned the fate of 39 kegs of Mexican silver dollars. These were coins that the Confederacy received through the sale of cotton to Mexico. The Mexican coins had been transported to Danville, Virginia, and when the Davis party was forced to move further south, primarily by wagon, the more than 9,000 pounds of silver would have considerably slowed down the procession. For this reason, the coins were almost certainly buried in Danville, and evidence suggests, they remain there today.

The various narratives of the disbursement of the treasury end in Washington, Georgia on May 4, 1865, when two Confederate Navy officials, James A. Semple and Edward Tidball, were entrusted with $86,000 in gold. Jefferson Davis stated in his 1881 book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, that the “transfer of the treasure was made to Mr. Semple, a bonded officer of the Navy, and his assistant, Mr. Tidball.” Davis added only that the instructions to Semple were for him to attempt to deliver the gold abroad to the financial agent of the government. He was referring to the commercial house of Fraser, Trenholm & Company in Liverpool, England. Postmaster General John Reagan, who was with Davis in Danville, added more detail, recalling that the gold was to be hidden in the false bottom of a carriage. The mystery thus began when Semple and Tidball disappeared.

Tidball, for his part, decided that the war was over for him, as he was seen a few days later heading north from Georgia, accompanied by a Confederate judge and a paroled army officer. The former assistant to Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory returned to Winchester, Virginia, where he built an elaborate house, Linden Farm, and became a prominent citizen. He received a pardon in August 1865, and in 1872, was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Given these events, and his extensive property, Tidball very likely profited from a disbursement of the treasury in Georgia. In fact, during a recent renovation of Linden Farm by its owner, a document found hidden in a wall confirms Tidball’s possession of a portion of the gold.

For Semple, as with Tidball, history is mute on the activities of both men. In the 1938 book, Flight Into Oblivion, by A.J. Hanna, The Long Surrender by Burke Davis in 1985, and in 2001, An Honorable Defeat: the Last Days of the Confederate Government by Williams C. Davis, the mystery of the disappearing gold was unresolved. The lack of discussion in these books is not surprising. Semple did seem to disappear into the night, for he had to avoid the attention of both the enemy and paroled Confederate soldiers looking to confiscate horses and wagons in returning to their homes. Semple was also given vague instructions, which left a great deal of latitude in where he went and how he got there.

One of the clues to the former Navy paymaster and his survival after the events of May 4 were documented by Robert Seeger in his 1962 book, And Tyler, Too, which provided an in-depth look at the presidency of John Tyler and his family. The travels of James Semple and his infatuation with the widow of the president, Julia Gardiner Tyler, were mentioned in the book and provided evidence of Semple’s activities on behalf of Davis and the South, even after the surrender of Confederate forces.

Corroborating evidence found in Semple’s letters to Julia Gardiner Tyler, depicted a man on the run, carrying on underground activities for Davis. Instead of Liverpool, Semple eventually got as far as Nassau, after hiding out in the Okefenokee Swamp along the Georgia-Florida border for months. Ultimately, he took refuge in the North at the home of Julia Gardiner Tyler. Once called the “Rose of Long Island” for an advertisement that used her image, Julia was strikingly attractive, even at 45. She had long black hair, gray eyes, and a figure that drew dozens of suitors before she had agreed to marry the president, then 30 years her senior.

An ardent Confederate, Julia had made a difficult decision late in the war to leave Virginia for her mother’s home on Staten Island, New York. Union soldiers were invading the countryside around Sherwood Forest, the Tyler plantation, and the safety of her young children was paramount. With both her husband and her mother deceased, Julia was alone on Staten Island with the children, surrounded by “Yankees” unhappy with a Southern sympathizer in their midst, even though she had been a First Lady.

Semple was drawn to Julia, and she to him, by circumstances of war and the aftermath. Unable to accept the end of the Confederacy and Northern domination over the South, he collaborated with other disenfranchised leaders exiled in Canada. Over the course of the next two years, he traveled between the U. S. and Canada in clandestine activities, often using the alias Allen S. James, his travels financed with the Confederate gold.

In Semple’s mind, if the U.S. could be drawn into a war with Great Britain, the North would need the South and would ease up on letting the former Confederate States back into the Union. The Fenian Brotherhood, which was preparing to attack Canada with a growing army, seemed to be an opportunity; and with the apparent blessing of Jefferson Davis, with whom he was somehow able to exchange messages, though Davis was securely locked up in prison at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, Semple became a courier for the Fenian movement. Between the financial help he provided to Julia, payments to support his estranged wife, Leticia, and the expenses of his clandestine activities, the gold in his possession became depleted during his two years on the run.

Around that time (and probably because he could no longer finance his travels), he finally began to realize there was nothing to be gained for the South, that the Fenian army was more rhetoric than substance and was ill prepared to precipitate war between the U.S. and Great Britain.

Like most Southerners, who strongly believed their cause was right, Semple was ultimately forced to admit that the Confederacy no longer existed and could not be resurrected, that nothing more could be done. He returned to relative obscurity in his native Virginia, near where he was born in New Kent County, and turned his attention to earning a living.

Semple apparently never attempted to recover the Mexican silver dollars in Danville, for various reasons. During the months he was trying to stay ahead of his would-be captors, Danville became an encampment for the Union army. With enemy soldiers occupying the town, any effort to dig up the some 160,000 8-reale coins would have certainly been seen. Besides, Semple was done with any sort of an adventure. He was worn out, saddened by the devastation that existed in his part of the state, and the difficulty he and his neighbors were having in restoring their lives and properties. Simply putting food on the table became an essential concern.

The evidence is strong that no one else managed to dig up the silver either, quite possibly because of where it was buried… in a cemetery area. Then too, given the volume and weight of the silver, the digging would have certainly been noticed by soldiers and townspeople, whether during the day or at night under the glow of kerosene lamps. Possibly, the fact that almost 1,400 Union soldiers, former prisoners warehoused in the town, had died of smallpox, dysentery, and other diseases and were buried nearby, could also have discouraged random digging.

In any case, caches of the silver coins have reportedly been detected at several locations in the Danville search area. A Colorado company, hired by a private individual, performed a geophysical survey and employed pulse induction instruments to identify the locations of the silver (and a small amount of gold). With the technology of today, why does the specie remain buried? For one reason only. The coins are buried on city-owned land, and Danville officials, concerned about disturbing graves, continue to refuse all requests to dig, even test holes.

Perhaps the city will ultimately change its mind and enrich its coffers with the largest portion of the estimated $16 million in value.