“About twelve o’clock the tramp of cavalry was heard coming down upon our train at full speed, and in ten seconds after the alarm was given, they were upon us … with pistols and carbines in almost immediate contact with our persons, demanded the instantaneous surrender of our party and train upon pain of death.”
-Banker recounts moment of ambush
The Confederacy was falling.
The loss of its capitol, Richmond, Virginia was inevitable. The gold and silver of the Confederate Treasury and the bank vaults of Richmond’s three major banks had to be protected from becoming northern war booty. In April of 1865 it was evacuated by first locomotive and then wagon train to Washington, Georgia. During this transit, the Confederate Treasury and the banks’ gold and silver were not commingled. In Washington, much of the Treasury coinage was used to pay Confederate back wages and some of it was sent to sympathetic countries to be able to continue the fight.
After Richmond fell, it wasn’t looted. Under USA control, the bankers were assured that it would be safe to return the gold and silver safeguarded in Georgia back to Richmond. The coinage would not be confiscated by Union soldiers. A representative of each of the three Richmond banks traveled down through North Carolina, South Carolina, crossed over a pontoon bridge spanning the Savannah River and into Georgia. They then traveled the last 20 miles past the Moss Plantation, past the Chenault Plantation and onto the small city of Washington.
In the aftermath of the war, this area of Georgia was a lawless place. Unscrupulous members of the local populace were more of a concern than any occupying military force. The bankers worried the small city’s bank would not be sufficient to withstand an assault. So they hurriedly organized 7 horse wagons with teamsters and a provost marshal escort of two USA (Union) officers and five privates to transport the treasure safely back to Richmond. These plans were no secret, especially in a small town.
On May 24th the “gold wagon train” got off to a late start that fateful day.
The kegs of gold and silver coins were heavy. The day was Georgia hot. The wagon train covered about 18 miles and pulled into the Moss Plantation’s “feed lot” to overnight. The horses had been watered. The night was cool. The war was now over. Southern soldiers had been paroled. Life wasn’t good, but the war was over. Guards were posted and but soon fell to sleep. The members of the Moss family and others kept diaries and agreed the gold/silver wagon train spent the night on their property. A little stream ran through the property. It was a good for night for sleeping.
At some point in the night the guards, bankers and teamsters woke to the rude awakening of amateur raiders in sufficient number to overpower the guards without a single shot.
Recalled one of the bankers, “The surprise was so complete, and our power of resistance so feeble when compared with the thoroughly equipped force brought against us, that we deemed it madness to resist them by force of arms.”
The not so organized criminals started breaking open kegs of coins and just spilling silver coins onto the ground as they hunted for gold coins. The feed lot’s turf was covered in silver. The kegs of gold coins were found.
As one of the teamsters put it, “They cut and slashed, and seemed to revel in the glorious sight. Gold and silver were indiscriminately mingled and heaped in glittering profusion. It was a most intoxicating scene…They waddled out into the road leading their horses which were so heavily loaded they could not have borne the additional weight of the riders. They struggled along in groups of two or three, carrying buckskin bags containing $5,000 in gold. Some tied the bags together and slung them across their horses.”
The amateur thieves had become the proverbial dog who caught the car.
All this gold was ridiculously heavier than what they had imagined and what their horses could bear. They shed their pants and tied the bottoms to make saddle bags for the gold. The bandits involved probably had never experienced this much gold and silver and it was too heavy for them to spirit it all away. Accounts tell us they stashed what gold they couldn’t carry out with in tree crotches, the stream and perhaps hand-dug rabbit holes. These amateur bandits caught the car and it was too heavy take all of it with them.