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.

Jefferson Davis , the first and only President of the Confederate States of America, circa 1865. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Jefferson Davis , the first and only President of the Confederate States of America, circa 1865. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

Jefferson Davis with members of his cabinet, 1865. (Credit: Interim Archives/Getty Images)
Jefferson Davis with members of his cabinet, 1865. (Credit: Interim Archives/Getty Images)

By early May, both Davis’ party and the remaining fortune had reached Washington, Georgia. Whatever they had started off with, travel expenses had steadily depleted their coffers by that time. In his 1938 book Flight Into Oblivion, the historian A.J. Hanna recorded some of the known expenses incurred by Davis’ group, including $108,000 paid to escorting troops near the Savannah River and $40,000 paid for supplies in Washington and Augusta, Georgia. (The fleeing Confederates also carried about $450,000 in Richmond bank gold, but wouldn’t touch those funds, as they didn’t belong to the Confederate government.)

On May 4, after Davis and the few advisers that remained with him made the decision to disband his government, they entrusted some $86,000 of the remaining treasury funds to two Confederate navy officials tasked with smuggling it out of the country to Britain. It never got there. “That was the one chunk of money that was basically just stolen by someone,” Rawlings says. In their book The Rebel and the Rose (2007), Wesley Millett and Gerald White tracked the path of that chunk of the Confederate treasure, part of which they believe one of the navy officials, James A. Semple, spent on his love affair with Julia Tyler, the widow of President John Tyler, as well as a failed plot to provoke war between Britain and the United States.

After depositing the Richmond bank funds in a local vault in Washington for safekeeping, Davis continued heading south with his wife, Varina, their children and a few others. According to Rawlings’ research, they split what remained of the treasury’s funds with a second group they planned to meet in Florida. But on May 10, when members of the 4th Michigan Cavalry captured Davis’ group near Irwinville, Georgia, they had only a few dollars with them.

Confederate States of America currency circa 1865. (Credit: MPI/Getty Images)
Confederate States of America currency circa 1865. (Credit: MPI/Getty Images)

It’s unclear what happened to the money. One theory suggests it was stolen by the Michigan Cavalrymen. Another theory, says Rawlings: Davis and his group hid it. Rawlings himself has seen evidence of what appeared to be part of that buried Confederate loot. One of his readers showed him a Mexican silver coin dating to the 1850s, which he said was uncovered by a logging crew in the 1940s near a Georgia spot where Davis’ party is known to have camped.

As for the Richmond bank gold, it quickly fell into the hands of Federal troops, which occupied Washington within days after Davis left. Valued at nearly half a million dollars, the gold was loaded onto wagons heading north, in the custody of U.S. government officials. But on the night of May 24, as the group made camp for the night in Lincoln County, Georgia, near Danburg Crossroads, some 20 armed men on horseback invaded the camp and carried off as much gold as they could carry.

Federal soldiers were eventually able to round up some $140,000 of what was taken. The rest of the missing money has been said to be the basis for several local fortunes in the Danburg area. “In popular imagination, the Richmond bank gold…has become part of the ‘lost Confederate treasure,’ and there is some truth to that story,” Rawlings says.

Even today, rumors persist about the fate of different parts of the missing Confederate treasure, fueling tales of discovery ranging from rural Georgia to Muskegon, Michigan. And like all good stories of lost treasure, this one has staying power. “People like to believe there’s something out there,” Rawlings says. “They left Richmond with a bunch of money, and when [Davis’ group] was captured six weeks later, they didn’t have it. The question is, what happened? And people’s imaginations take over from there.”

For more, tune in to HISTORY Tues March 6 at 10/9c for the Series Premiere of The Curse of Civil War Gold.