The Magazine

Treasure Hunt

One family, and one institution, humble before history.

Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By CHARLOTTE HAYS
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When a messenger entered St. Paul’s and quietly handed Jefferson Davis a note, Robert, realizing something was up, walked over to the offices of the Treasury, where he was a clerk and messenger. Other clerks were already engaged in packing the contents to be removed from soon-to-burn Richmond. At midnight, Robert left Richmond for Danville, Virginia, accompanying the Confederacy’s money, a journey that took the young man, by foot, steamer, and train, through Virginia and the Carolinas and into Georgia. One thing I noticed: These are the reminiscences of a man who knew hunger. He did go crabbing in Hilton Head and buy the first canned goods he had ever seen from an Army sutler.

“These were luxuries to us who had passed through years of semi-starvation,” he remembered.

I believe Robert, who wrote his account many years later, probably did so as part of an effort to clear up certain nagging questions about the end of the Confederate Treasury and, indeed, of the Confederacy itself. He asserted that the last Confederate cabinet meeting was in Abbeville, South Carolina (claims are made for other locations), and recalls that the money was turned over to General Basil W. Duke, commander of Davis’s final escort. In Washington, Georgia, Robert and his traveling companions first heard of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox from a Confederate congressman, probably Henry Stuart Foote of Tennessee.

“Someone suggested a coat of tar and feathers for Foote for circulating what we believed to be a false report,” wrote Robert. After the Civil War, he went on to become a successful lawyer in Petersburg, Virginia, and the bulk of the Confederate Treasury was lost, though treasure hunters continue to search for it.

I love having Robert Gilliam’s reminiscences: My grandfather grew up in his house, and I grew up in my grandfather’s house. If you come from a family that really did try to save Confederate money, you probably won’t be too judgmental. I am hoping that in this year of remembering, more people will try, as the Museum of the Confederacy does, to be humble in the face of history.

Charlotte Hays is the coauthor, most recently, of Some Day You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Being the ‘Perfect’ Mother.

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