Tracking the Lost Silver of the Benjamin F. Hoxie

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Neil P. Chatelain

Throughout the Civil War, the Confederate navy’s commerce raiders captured hundreds of Union merchants. A major task of these raiders included efforts to intercept vessels shipping bullion, both gold and silver, from California. Numerous attempts occurred throughout the conflict, including the capture of the Panama Mail steamer Ariel by the CSS Alabama in December 1862 – on its way to pick up a shipment of gold – as well as the attempted seizure of the Pacific Mail steamer Salvador in November 1864 by a team of Confederate naval operatives. As part of this campaign, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory issued broad directives to his commanders at sea that the capture “of the enemy’s treasure and passenger ships would be a heavy blow to his credit at home and abroad, far greater than the value of an equal value of property in any other form.”[1] It would equally help boost the Confederacy’s international credit, allowing for better procurement of supplies and increased legitimacy abroad. The most successful of such intercepts was the capture of the Connecticut clipper ship Benjamin F. Hoxie, but tracking down what happened to the vessel’s cargo of bullion has proven a difficult dive into vague and conflicting accounts.

The Hoxie sailed from California in January 1863, making a brief stop at Mazatlán, Mexico before continuing south, around Cape Horn, destined for Falmouth, England. Shipped on the clipper was a large amount of bullion. Estimates vary, but the Hoxie carried anywhere between $100,000 in silver on the low end to as much as $8,000 in gold bars, $500,000 in silver bars, and another $500,000 in silver ore. There is no clear evidence as to where the silver originated, but one newspaper account suggests it was from Mexican mines. The bullion was shipped under the firm F. Huth and Company in England, bringing the question of neutral rights into question as well.[2]

On June 16, 1863, the commerce raider Florida captured the Hoxie between the coasts of Brazil and Africa. Her commander, John N. Maffitt, interrogated the clipper’s master, who flustered through the interview but claimed his cargo as neutral; Maffitt assumed the flustering was concealing the truth and condemned the merchant and all of its cargo, taking the silver bars onto the Florida before burning the Hoxie, which went down with the silver ore.[3]

The Florida then cruised to Bermuda, arriving in July. From there, the story of the silver becomes filled with cloudy contradictions. The blockade runner Robert E. Lee was also at Bermuda and numerous items were transshipped between the two, including nautical equipment from the Florida’s captures. Several sources claim that part of that transfer included silver. The best account of this was made by the Lee’s captain, John Wilkinson, who claimed fourteen years after the fact that he took on “a lot of silver ingots.” The U.S. vice-consul in Bermuda likewise believed this to be the case.[4]

Numerous other sources contradict this. The Florida documented what items it sent to the Robert E. Lee, but the inventory lists no silver. Likewise, the manifest of the blockade runner when it departed Bermuda on July 22, 1863, also fails to mention any silver. Thus, either the transfer occurred so secretly that it was left off official documents, or it did not occur at all.[5]

All other evidence is that the silver made its way to Europe, but again reports conflict over the particulars. Newspapers painted this in a diplomatic way, noting that once Maffitt confirmed the truth of the silver’s status as neutral cargo, he “resolved to restore it to the rightful owners.” This however, is also not likely the case, as F. Huth and Company, the firm the silver was originally consigned to, received a full payment for the cost of the lost silver from its insurance agency. Another rumor was that the when the Florida steamed near the coast of England later in 1863, it secretly landed several officers and the captured bullion, but this newspaper reporting is likewise uncorroborated.[6]

The best evidence is that the Hoxie’s silver was sent to England, and later to France via a case of money laundering on behalf of the Confederate government. Maffitt consigned the silver to John T. Bourne, Confederate agent in Bermuda, with the task of delivering it to Fraser Trenholm and Company in Liverpool, the Confederacy’s chief European financier. Numerous sources report that silver captured by the Florida left Bermuda on the English brig Eagle, bound for Liverpool. Union diplomats tracked its arrival and commenced cooperative discussions with agents from F. Huth and Company, who tried unsuccessfully to get their lost silver back.[7]

Indeed, evidence suggests that the silver never made it to Fraser Trenholm and Company either. It was not delivered and suggestions indicate that instead the silver bars were taken to Paris and smelted down, becoming untraceable. Agents from Fraser Trenholm and Company spent the remainder of 1863 filing suit against Bourne for the lost funds, even asking Confederate ambassador to France John Slidell for assistance. Ultimately, they dropped the attempt after enough evidence emerged that the original bar silver was rightfully neutral cargo. [8]

So, what exactly happened to the silver shipped on the Benjamin F. Hoxie? All reports confirm that an amount of silver ore went down with the burned clipper ship; they also confirm that the silver bars were removed from the clipper and taken to Bermuda. From there it gets dicey, with some reports of it going to North Carolina and others to England. It is known that the brig Eagle took at least some of the silver to Liverpool; whether another portion of it was divided by Maffitt in Bermuda to then go to the Confederacy remains speculation. It is also known that though the Confederates tried to launder the silver through their own business interests, this failed and it appears that instead it was taken to Paris and smelted, becoming untraceably lost. The result was the closest realization of a Southern interception of the Union shipping lanes of Pacific coast gold and silver. Nonetheless, it was a Confederate failure, successfully capturing hundreds of thousands of dollars of bullion, but failing to successfully deliver it to where it could be put to use. 

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Neil P. Chatelain is an Adjunct Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris and a Social Studies Teacher at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Texas. A former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, he is a graduate of the University of New Orleans, the University of Houston, and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Neil researches US Naval History, with a particular emphasis on naval operations of the Confederacy.

Sources:

[1] Mallory to Maffitt, Oct. 25 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate navies in the War of the Rebellion [ORN] (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894), Ser. 1, Vol. 1, 762.

[2] “Sailed”, Daily Alta California, Jan. 15, 1863.; “The Florida”, “Scrapbook of Civil War Clippings, chiefly related to the Florida”, in the John Newland Maffitt Papers #1761, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.; Maffitt to Mallory, Jul. 27, 1863, Ibid., Ser. 1, Vol. 2, 653.

[3] Diary Entries, June 16 and 17, 1863, Charles W. Quinn of Charleston, S.C., journal, 1863-1864, MSS 5:1 Q448:1 (CMLS), Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

[4] John Wilkinson, Narrative of a Blockade Runner (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1877), 161.; Hyland to Seward, Jul. 21, 1863, Dispatches from Bermuda: The Civil War Letters of Charles Maxwell Allen, United States Consul at Bermuda, 1861-1868, Ed. by Glen N. Wiche (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2008), 97.

[5] Bryan to Maffitt, Jul. 22, 1863, in the John Newland Maffitt Papers #1761.; Frank E. Vandiver Ed., “Shipping Manifest of Steamer R.E. Lee”, Confederate Blockade Running Through Bermuda 1861-1865: Letters and Cargo Manifests (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1947), 115.

[6] “Miss Ida Wright”, Alexandria Virginia Gazette, Sept. 3, 1863.; Fletcher & Hull to Fraser Trenholm & Co., Dec. 2 1863, ORN, Ser. 2, Vol. 3, 979-980.; The Florida in the Channel”, Supplement to the Monmouthshire Merlin, and South Wales Advertiser, Aug. 22, 1863.

[7] Hyland to Seward, Jul. 21, 1863, Dispatches from Bermuda, 98.; “Liverpool, Aug. 30”, Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Sept. 1, 1863.; Adams to Seward, Aug. 27 1863, Message of the president of the United States, and accompanying documents, to the two houses of Congress, at the commencement of the first session of the thirty-eighth congress (1863) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), Part 1: Correspondence Section, 385.; Sarah Agnes Wallace and Frances Elma Gillepsie, ed., Journal of Benjamin Moran, 1857-1865 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), Vol 2, 1199.

[8] John Slidell to Fraser Trenholm & Co., Dec. 4 1863, ORN, Ser. 2, Vol. 3, 980.; “New York, Sept. 16”, Wheeling Daily Register, Sept. 17 1863.

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1 Response to Tracking the Lost Silver of the Benjamin F. Hoxie

  1. BillF says:

    Sounds like the basis for another Lost Treasure show on cable TV.

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