The Capture of Jefferson Davis, conclusion

Confederate gold

Part three in a series

On a personal note, I am interested in Davis’s capture primarily because of the units involved. Not only do we have the 1st Wisconsin and 4th Michigan cavalries, but also longtime western theater personalities like John Croxton and Robert H. G. Minty – all Army of the Cumberland men.

Of course, Davis’s collaring generated its own share of claims, counter-claims, and controversies. I know of (at least) three other cavalry regiments that would, in the postwar era, try to claim at least a share of reflected glory. Captain Frank Mason of the 12th Ohio Cavalry, who was with Stoneman, framed an argument that Stoneman’s raid drove the Davis party south, into the arms of Colonel Pritchard and his Wolverines. Among the more interesting recollections of the Davis capture was Lieutenant Colonel (then Major) Charles L. Greenbo of the 7th Pennsylvania, also of Minty’s Brigade. Greenbo gave a talk in 1911 describing his own experiences with Davis. Like the 4th Michigan, the 7th was assigned to watch crossings over the Ocmulgee; once Davis was in hand the 7th helped escort him back to Macon. Greenbo related a number of details about the capture he gleaned either from the Michiganders or their prisoners, as well as the details of a private conversation he managed with Davis, in which he reassured the Mississippian that he was not being taken back to Macon merely to be “strung up.”

The 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry also pursued Davis, mainly through the Carolinas and as far as Athens Georgia. They missed Davis, but ended up with a consolation prize: Braxton Bragg. On May 10th a patrol of the 15th captured Bragg and his wife near the hamlet of Monticello. Bragg was making his way to Macon, intending to offer his parole to James H. Wilson. Bragg surrendered gracefully, but no so his wife, who, according to Pennsylvania Captain Harry K. Weand, “was not altogether amiable.”

None of the claims above proved all that controversial. The real arguments arose – as might be expected – over cold, hard cash.

Just Rewards:

There was a 100,000 dollar reward for Davis’s capture. A number of people felt they were owed a share of it. Pritchard’s Wolverines, having actually laid hands on the quarry, had the strongest claim. Harnden’s Wisconsin men, however, thought they deserved a cut as well. After all, if not for the halt Harnden called on the night of the 9th, they certainly would have had their quarry in hand that evening.

Captain Greenbo later recalled that Pritchard and his men knew nothing of the reward until after Davis was taken and on his way back to Macon, when Greenbo personally informed Pritchard about the reward. This is highly unlikely, for the bounty was issued by President Andrew Johnson a full five days before Pritchard rode out on May 7th, and widely publicized. Wilson certainly knew of it before he dispatched his patrols. Furthermore, the lure of the reward likely spurred a number of men to informally¬† join Pritchard’s flying column on May 9th, men that even Pritchard didn’t know accompanied him.

The division of spoils could not be agreed upon amicably. Harnden and the Wisconsinites were denied their claims. In response, they went to court, armed with affidavits. Similar disputes, not surprisingly, erupted over distribution of the rewards for Lincoln’s assassins. The whole matter would not be resolved until nearly a year later, in 1866, and then only by Act of Congress. Their decision left Harnden and all of the 1st Wisconsin men out in the cold; the cash went to Colonel Pritchard (who received a whopping 10% cut) and (in much more modest amounts) to the rest of the 4th Michigan. Not just the Michiganders in on the capture, mind you, but all of the 300 or so men who left Macon on May 7th. Including them while omitting Harnden and his 75 troopers seems curious, but when Congress acted, that settled the matter.

The legend of the lost gold:

The wildest claims arising from the capture all have to do with the Confederate Treasury. In fact, by the time Davis was captured, there was no longer any Confederate Treasury to seize. As the column shed men, it also shed cash, mainly to pay off the departing troops. Inveterate treasure hunters, however, have never been satisfied with such a mundane version of what happened to the Confederate gold.

One side note: not all the gold accompanying the Confederate Cabinet belonged to the CSA: about half – $450,000 – were the gold reserves of the Richmond banks. This money was left in Washington Georgia, where it fell into Union hands. On May 24th, that gold started back north. The five wagons hauling it, however, were attacked overnight at Danburg Georgia, by former Confederates, local men, bandits, and even, as rumor has it, some freed slaves. $250,000 of that gold was taken, of which about $100,000 was eventually recovered.

As for the Treasury funds, there are many legends about what happened to that gold, and cultural references to mysterious “lost Confederate gold” abound. My favorite such reference is from the movie “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly;” if you have seen it, you might recall that all the fuss between Clint Eastwood and his co-stars is about some missing Confederate gold.

My favorite legend, however, claims that $2 million in gold bullion, supposedly from the fabled Confederate Treasury (about four times the actual amount of treasury money that left Richmond) is in a boxcar at the bottom of Lake Michigan, dumped there during a storm in 1892, while traveling from Traverse City Michigan across the lake to Chicago. Why it was traveling across the lake in a storm remains unexplained.

The supposed criminal mastermind of this theft was Robert H. G. Minty. He was the original commander of the 4th Michigan, and, in May 1865, Colonel Pritchard’s brigade commander. Minty was born in Ireland, though his parents were English, his father a serving officer in the Queen’s forces stationed in Mayo. (This accident of birth does not make Minty an Irishman, as is often reported; just ask any native-born Irish on the subject if you need corroboration.) Minty served in a West Indian regiment before emigrating to Canada, where he took up railroad work and ultimately migrated to Michigan.

Minty amassed an impressive combat record in the Civil War, most notably for his defense of Reed’s Bridge at Chickamauga. He ran afoul of his superior, George Crook, in October 1863, and was wrongfully relieved of duty. Minty demanded a court-martial, which cleared him of wrongdoing the next February, but the incident rankled, and supposedly was the root of his grudge against the United States.

The problem, of course, is that Minty was not in Irwinville, he was in Macon at the time of Davis’s capture, and did not have first access to the fabled treasure. He did meet the Confederate President a few days later, when the whole cavalcade rode into Macon, but when would he have time to spirit away several wagonloads of bullion (what gold there was in with Davis was in coin form, by the way, not bars) in the middle of 13,000 Federal cavalry?

Eric Wittenberg, a member of this site who also maintains his own long-running Civil War Blog, addressed this very story not long ago, and rather than repeat everything here, I suggest you avail yourself of his take on the matter.

Suffice to say, the story is nonsense.

It is worth noting that during the four weeks of Davis’s flight, $40,000 was paid out at Greensboro, $108,000 paid out near Abbeville, to the disbanded cavalry, another $40,000 went for provisions at Washington, leaving only about $120,000 with Davis. Of that, $86,000 was sent off, possibly with Judah Benjamin, to be smuggled out of the country. Davis had only what was left of the $35,000 allocated to him for the Cabinet’s travel expenses, minus of course what had already been spent. By the time he reached Irwinville, Davis probably had a tidy sum, but no where near even the $400,000 of the original treasury, let alone $2 million.

But the thought of Minty keeping $2 million in Confederate gold locked in a boxcar running around the Midwest for 27 years, until it finally gets dumped into Lake Michigan amuses me greatly. Spun out of pure moonshine, as it were.

As for the rest of the legends about the Confederate gold, the web is full of such. But I will let you prospect them on your own, for the hunt is at least half the fun. After all, the very least a would-be treasure hunter can do is use a search engine.

Oh, and if you do find gold at the bottom of Lake Michigan, I expect to get my cut. Or I will take it up in Congress.

5 Responses to The Capture of Jefferson Davis, conclusion

  1. Anyone born in the British Isles ( which include all of Ireland ), in the 19th century was regarded as “British,” on passports and other official documents. The individual may have regarded himself as ethnically English Irish, Welsh, Scots, Manx, Cornish etc., but was nevertheless, “officially,” British.

  2. Dave,
    Understood. I just wanted to distinguish him from the hordes of Irishmen that overrun Civil War re-enactments. Minty would not have been all about “Colonel Darlin,'” shamrocks, and leprechauns.:)

  3. My great grandfather was a trooper of Davis’ Escort, Co E., 4th Tenn. Cav. Regt. He hade been captured in 1863, paroled/exchanged, and then returned to his unit in 1864. He was captured by the 4th Mich. Cav. and in 1865 recognized his former captors who had infiltrated Davis’ train dressed in Confederate uniforms. That’s what alerted Davis to break up the force, discharge the troopers, and move south in a smaller group – but to no avail. We still have some of the gold my great grandfather and his fellow troopers brought home. Col. Minty led the charge that captured my great grandfather and he wrote of it in his war journal.

  4. Harnden’s gear from that day is on display at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison.

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