Legendary Confederate treasury

Albert Atwell points out specific signs and symbols on a huge, ancient tree in the Danville National Cemetery that he and his treasure-hunting partner, Ed “Bubba” Powers, say hold clues to the location of the legendary Confederate treasury.

From the moment Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ train headed to Danville as Richmond fell during the Civil War, tales have been spun about a vast treasure also leaving Richmond — and treasure hunters all over the country have been looking for it ever since.

Reports from those frantic days in April 1865 — and even books written by more recent historians — leave readers wondering where the treasure went, but also about how it travelled, what it was (gold? silver? bonds? a bit of everything?) and even whether the treasure traveled on the same train as Davis.

A recent book by John Stewart — “Jefferson Davis’s Flight from Richmond” — says two separate treasures left Richmond: the Confederate Treasury and Confederate War Department treasury.

Exact amounts in the treasuries are hard to pin down, but Stewart found references to $300,000 in the War Department Treasury and $500,000 in gold and silver the Confederate Treasury.

There are conflicting stories on whether the “treasure train” left Richmond before or after Davis’ train, but they do agree that both trains made it to Danville — and other than removing some funds for Davis’ party’s expenses, the treasure train continued on its way to Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 6, 1865.

Treasure hunters don’t believe the almost-untouched treasure left Danville.

Local historian and treasure hunter Albert Atwell believes at least part of the treasure is buried in what is now Danville National Cemetery and that maps leading to sites where parts of the treasure is buried in locations all across the south are buried in his great-great-grandfather’s grave in that cemetery.

To date, Atwell has not received permission to do any digging in the cemetery, despite trying to convince U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt, R-5th District, to help him get permission in 2012.

Even the History Channel sent a crew from its “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” show to Danville in 2010 looking for the treasure. After checking out various Civil War sites, the crew focused its attention on Green Hill Cemetery — one of several across the South that they explored for the episode.

They — like Atwell at Danville National Cemetery — were denied permission by the city to do any digging and had to limit their exploration to using non-invasive tools, such as metal detectors. If Meltzer’s crew found anything definitive, it appears to be that the long-time stories of hidden treasure still captivate.

Danville isn’t the only place ripe with people convinced there is treasure. A quick search of the Internet turns up people who believe the treasure (or at least part of it):

» is buried near Savannah, Georgia;

» was grabbed by bushwhackers as it was being transported by wagon to Charlotte, North Carolina;

» was buried near Athens, Alabama, when the wagon that was carrying $100,000 of it got stuck in a bog; and

» is sitting in a train boxcar at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

The stories are fascinating, and all of the related treasure hunters are convinced they have the right place.

But why would Davis have split it up? And why would he have left any part of it in Danville, knowing the Yankees were hot on his heels and he would have to leave Danville soon?

Which is what he did just a few days after the treasury left — Davis left the Sutherlin Mansion, where he stayed for his brief visit in Danville, got back on his train and headed for Greensboro and places further South until Northern troops caught up with him.

The legends continue — though surely all the construction that has taken place over the 150 years since would have uncovered at least some of it … if it didn’t all get spent trying to shore up the remaining Confederate troops in the month between Davis’ exit from Danville and capture on May 10, 1865.

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Thibodeau reports for the Danville Register & Bee.

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