I’m working on a new idea for a great short story about lost Civil War gold. I know it’s got potential – I love the basis in historical fact – but I don’t know quite where to take it just yet. I’m sharing my ideas and what I know so far… perhaps you can help give me an idea for a good story arc and protagonist!
LOST CACHE OF GOLD FROM THE CIVIL WAR
The city of Augusta, GA was one of few cities of strategic importance never captured in battle by Union forces during the Civil War. Located on the banks of the Savannah River, the city had ample water-power available for manufacturing, thanks to the building of the Augusta Canal in 1845. Home to the Confederate Powder Works, Augusta produced over 2.75 million pounds of gunpowder over the course of the war. Combined with nearby foundries for casting steel and lead, and textile mills producing denim and canvas, Augusta was a key armaments supplier for the South. Federal forces occupied Augusta in April of 1865, following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. The Powder Works tower, the only part of the munitions facility not destroyed at the end of the war, is still part of the Augusta skyline today.
In addition to munitions, Augusta was also the site of a Confederate depository for gold coin and bullion. The gold was likely kept in a vault at the Augusta Arsenal, a military fortification dating back to 1827, and whose buildings are now part of Augusta University (formerly Augusta College). At the end of the war, a surprising discovery was made – over $2.5 million dollars’ worth of gold was missing. Assuming these were $20 gold coins, each coin weighing 1 troy ounce, that’s over 4 tons of gold that somehow up and vanished. What happened to this gold, worth over $225 million today, remains a mystery.
WHAT WE KNOW, FROM HISTORICAL RECORDS…
As it turns out, General P.G.T Beauregard (famous for firing on Fort Sumter and starting the war) went to his grave wondering what happened to this gold. Just three years earlier, in April of 1862, Federal forces were closing in to capture the port city of New Orleans and Louisiana banks began to move their gold reserves away from the front lines. The gold was shipped via railroad car, through Mobile, Alabama, and on to Columbus, Georgia where it was housed in what is still called “The Iron Bank.” It was given that name, interestingly enough, because the entire building was made of cast iron, originally fabricated in Pittsburgh and shipped to Columbus in pieces and bolted together. The building now houses an upscale coffee company.
For reasons unknown, in October of 1862, General Beauregard (then the Confederate Administrator of South Carolina and Georgia), received urgent orders from G.W. Randolph, the Confederate Secretary of War, to “Take possession of the coin of the Bank of Louisiana, in the hands of W.H. Young, President of the Bank of Columbus, Ga… A written order will be sent immediately, but don’t wait for it.” General Beauregard immediately dispatched his Aide-de-Camp, a Colonel A.G. Rice, to Columbus to collect the gold. Mr. A.H. Young, the President of the Bank of Columbus, was most unhappy about being relieved of this deposit, as evidenced by the following archived telegram:
HDQRS. DEPT. OF SOUTH CAROLINA AND GEORGIA,
Charleston, S. C., October 30, 1862.
SIR: In pursuance of Special Orders, No. 194, headquarters Department of South Carolina and Georgia, under date Charleston, October 16, 1862, I proceeded to Columbus, Ga. […] with a view to the discharge of the duties therein devolved. […] I have the honor to submit the following report:
After a formal and official demand upon the president of [the Bank of] Columbus for the surrender of the coin of the Bank of Louisiana, he declined upon the ground that it was a personal trust and that he had no right to yield it. This left me no alternative, and I at once took possession of the bank, placing my guard at each entrance. After consultation with his friends the president of the Bank of Columbus consented to surrender the coin without compelling me to use military force. I then made a requisition for transportation and brought it under guard to Augusta, Ga., turned it over to T. S. Metcalf, Government depositary at Augusta, took his receipt in duplicate, and repaired to these headquarters.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
A. G. RICE,
It appears Colonel Rice did exactly as ordered, and transferred the gold to Augusta. An archived telegram receipt seems to confirm this…
CONFEDERATE STATES DEPOSITORY,
Augusta, Ga., October 18, 1862.
Received of Colonel A. G. Rice, for account of the Secretary of the Treasury, 201 boxes and 60 kegs, said to contain $2,539,798.79
THOS. S. METCALF,
Confederate States Depositary.
From there, the gold is lost to history. It was found missing at the end of the war, and according to General Beauregard, the Bank of Louisiana was financialy ruined by the loss. As a native of Louisiana, the responsibility for this misadventure seems to have weighed on him heavily, enough for him to record the intricate details of it in post-war writings.
WHERE HISTORY AND FICTION MEET…
Unless someone out there knows just where to go with a metal detector and a shovel (many have probably tried), this seems like a fascinating idea to develop into a good story. Why was the gold ordered removed from the bank in Columbus? If you read closely, the receipt from Augusta says “said to contain” but does not explicitly state that it contained, the gold in question. Was there some skullduggery going on here with Colonel Rice, or was Mr. Metcalf merely covering all bases? Was there simple a clerical error, somewhere later, and the gold was spent on other costs for the war? Is the gold still out there, resting in some crypt or tunnel, deep below the Augusta Arsenal or the old Powder Works? Note: for the record, I am not advocating that anyone go looking.
One would like to hope that some good may have come from this money, perhaps a new beginning for those impacted by these dark times of our past. Paine College of Augusta, a Historically Black College and/or University (HBCU), was established in 1883 with monetary gifts by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South (MEC,S), members of the then-named Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), and from private donations. The origins of the idea to build a college there began in 1869, just a few years after the end of the war. It would be nice, for us readers in the modern era, to ponder if such a situation might of have been possible – that some of the gold ultimately found its way to fund the education and betterment of those just freed from the evils of slavery. Paine College was built a mere two miles from where the gold once may have rested in the Arsenal.
To my knowledge, there is no evidence that any of the Confederate gold mentioned by General Beauregard still remains to be found, or was ever used for good purposes like the building of a College. The principle of Occam’s Razor suggests the simplest explanation is likely the correct one – the missing amounts of gold in 1865 were just a clerical oversight, the gold being spent in error on other costs for the war effort. But that’s the great thing about fiction… all scenarios are possible, and any could have happened, and that makes for an entertaining read.
It is just a story, after all…