Going for Gold: How the Confederacy Hatched an Audacious Plan to Finance Their War


The California gold rush turned out to be a welcome reward to the Union trigger within the 1860s. Gold was found at Sutter’s Mill within the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in 1848 and silver and gold within the Comstock Lode on the opposite aspect of the Sierra Nevadas in 1859. And whereas Abraham Lincoln’s administration had its share of monetary issues, valuable metals from the West helped hold Northern banks solvent throughout a protracted, bloody—and costly—Civil Warfare and reassured an anxious public that america would be capable of pay its money owed. With the Transcontinental Railroad some years sooner or later, the Union confronted the issue of getting the gold and silver to banks within the East. By stagecoach it went so far as San Francisco, the place it was loaded onto Pacific steamers certain for Panama, carried by railroad throughout the isthmus, and loaded onto Atlantic steamers for the ultimate leg of the journey.

The Confederacy—significantly smaller, agrarian, and struggling a Union naval blockade—loved no such windfall. Whereas able to gorgeous victories on the battlefield—a minimum of within the early days of the battle—the state of its treasury remained, to say the least, abysmal. The federal government had no alternative however to attempt to shore up Accomplice funds by printing cash…and trying to commandeer Union treasure each time attainable.

In February 1862, a Accomplice military invaded New Mexico Territory. The advance into New Mexico Territory (right this moment’s New Mexico and Arizona) underneath Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley had a number of formidable objectives, amongst them claiming the New Mexico Territory and California for the Confederacy, annexing elements of Mexico, and establishing a presence on the Pacific coast to mitigate the Union blockade of Southern ports. Of explicit significance was entry to the gold and silver mines within the Western states, particularly these of California, Colorado, and Nevada.

Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley (Library of Congress)

Setting out from Fort Bliss, Texas, and transferring up the Rio Grande, Sibley’s badly provisioned forces confronted a dry and unforgiving surroundings and deliberate to depend on captured Union provisions. They have been capable of win the sector in opposition to Union Colonel Edward Canby on the Battle of Valverde on February 20-21, however sustained appreciable casualties and have been unable to take Fort Craig with its storehouses of provides. Persevering with the advance—with a Union fort at their rear—the Confederates received one other tactical victory on the Battle of Glorieta Go in opposition to Union Colonel John Slough on March 26-28, however their provide prepare was destroyed and, once more, casualties have been unacceptably excessive. Having no alternative, the now demoralized and ravenous troops retreated down the Rio Grande to Texas, pursued by the mixed forces of Canby and Colonel Gabriel Paul (who had changed Slough). Of an preliminary power of about 2,500 troops, solely about 1,500 returned.

Regardless of its tactical successes, the New Mexico Marketing campaign was a dismal failure, successfully thwarting Southern ambitions within the West. With the wealthy gold and silver mines out of attain, the one course left was to attempt to confiscate Union treasure in transit.

On December 7, 1862, the Accomplice raider Alabama captured the Union steamer Ariel east of Cuba. Captain Raphael Semmes had been cruising the Caribbean, on the lookout for the Champion, a ship certain from Panama to New York—and certain carrying a cargo of gold—however the anticipated ship had been delayed, so he settled for Ariel, which was crusing in the other way. Ariel’s passengers included numerous women and an organization of U.S. Marines certain for San Francisco.

In keeping with Semmes:

However Fortune, in spite of everything, had performed us a scurvy trick. The Ariel was certainly a California steamer, however as a substitute of being a homeward-bound steamer, with 1,000,000 of {dollars} in gold, in her protected, I had captured an outward-bound steamer, with 5 hundred ladies and kids on board! This was an elephant I had not bargained for, and I used to be critically embarrassed to know what to do with it.

The troopers have been disarmed and paroled, and Ariel as launched for a promise of $250,000 to be paid to the Accomplice authorities within the type of a ransom-bond signed by Ariel’s Captain Jones on behalf of the proprietor, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Alabama made off with $8,000 in Treasury notes and $1,500 in silver, however the hoped-for thousands and thousands of {dollars} in gold remained elusive.

On March 15, 1863, an try was made to provision and launch a ship in San Francisco Bay as a Accomplice privateer. Asbury Harpending, a younger man from Kentucky and an avid Accomplice sympathizer, having made his fortune within the gold fields of California and Mexico, turned his efforts to supporting the Accomplice trigger. In his phrases:

The concept of interrupting the gold shipments by the Pacific Mail, very important to the Authorities at Washington, once more took kind. This was to be effected by seizure on the excessive seas. Various outstanding males have been and I used to be requested to develop into one.

Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby (Library of Congress)

From California, Harpending traveled to Virginia through Mexico. Boarding a blockade runner in Vera Cruz and evading the Union blockade of Charleston, he made his technique to Richmond, the place he obtained an viewers with President Jefferson Davis and Secretary Judah Benjamin. His plan accepted, he obtained letters of marque—and claims to have been commissioned a captain within the Accomplice Navy regardless of his lack of naval expertise.

Returning to California in July 1862, Harpending—together with Southern partisans Ridgley Greathouse and Alfred Rubery (the latter a rich younger Englishman)—secretly bought the ship J.M. Chapman and outfitted it with cannons and ammunition. They acquired small arms and employed a crew of 15–20 Accomplice sympathizers. William Regulation was signed on as captain and Lorenzo Libby as mate. Harpending had misgivings that Regulation was employed:

He was the possessor of a sinister, villainous mug, seemed able to any crime, and all in all was essentially the most repulsive reptile in look that I ever set eyes on.

Unknown to Harpending, the federal authorities in San Francisco had realized of the plot and Chapman was being watched. On the evening of March 14, 1863, with plans to sail the following morning, all however Regulation boarded the ship. They wakened on the fifteenth to search out themselves within the gunsights of the close by U.S. man-of-war Cyane with a number of boats of officers and Marines approaching, together with a tugboat of San Francisco police.

Rubery, Greathouse, and Harpending have been arrested and tried within the U.S. Circuit Courtroom and convicted of treason, with Regulation and Libby turning state’s proof. Every of the three was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and a tremendous of $10,000, though the sentences have been by no means carried out. Rubery, a British citizen with an influential uncle, was pardoned by Abraham Lincoln. Harpending and Greathouse, benefitting from Lincoln’s amnesty of December 8, 1863, every took an oath of allegiance and have been launched.

And Chapman by no means sailed for the Confederacy.

With Basic Robert E. Lee’s defeat on the Battle of Gettysburg and the autumn of Vicksburg in July 1863, the tide of battle had turned within the Union’s favor. And the Confederacy’s persevering with efforts to acquire Union gold have been no simpler.

On the evening of June 30, 1864, Rufus Henry Ingram led a celebration of six Accomplice guerrillas in a rogue operation to rob two stagecoaches carrying gold and silver from the Comstock Lode. Ingram had fought as a guerrilla underneath William Quantrill in Missouri and had participated within the notorious assault on Lawrence, Kan., on August 21, 1863, the place the boys and boys of the Union city have been massacred. In California, he organized a bunch of Accomplice sympathizers that got here to be often called Captain Ingram’s Partisan Rangers. Included amongst them was Tom Poole, who had been one of many Accomplice crew on Chapman.

The theft came about on the street from Virginia Metropolis, in Nevada Territory, to Placerville, Calif., at a bend within the street 14 miles east of Placerville—a location later dubbed Bullion Bend. The six partisans have been masked and closely armed. Two stagecoaches have been stopped—the primary pushed by Ned Blair, the second by Charley Watson. Every carried 14 passengers and 4 luggage of gold and silver bullion from the Comstock Lode price about $26,000 and weighing about 250 kilos. The second coach carried an extra $700 in coin. As Blair’s coach was despatched on its method, a parting shot from a passenger who turned out to be a Virginia Metropolis police officer did little greater than scare the horses.

The passengers have been handled with the utmost courtesy. Shortly after the primary coach had departed, Ingram addressed these on the second coach as follows: “Gents, I’ll let you know who we’re. We aren’t robbers, however an organization of Accomplice troopers. Don’t act silly. We don’t need something of the passengers. All we would like is Wells, Fargo and Co.’s treasure, to help us to recruit for the Accomplice Military.” Ingram offered the driving force with the next receipt:

June 1864

That is to certify that I’ve obtained from Wells, Fargo, & Co, the sum of $_____ , money, for the aim of outfitting recruits enlisted in California for the Accomplice States Military.

R. HENRY INGRAM, Capt. Com’g Co., C. S. A.

The clean sum was by no means stuffed in. The guerrillas allowed the second coach to proceed and buried the stolen bullion, taking for fast bills some gold mud, two silver bars, and the coin.

When the stagecoaches arrived in Placerville with information of the holdup, El Dorado County Sheriff William Rogers organized a posse. Two of their quantity, Deputy Joseph Staples and Constable George Ranney, encountered the six robbers on the Somerset Home, 5 miles from Nice Valley. An ill-advised try at arrest led to a shootout through which Staples was killed and Ranney injured. Tom Poole was injured as nicely. Leaving Poole, the remainder of the gang escaped. Subsequently, Rogers arrived with the rest of the posse and arrested Poole, who confessed and revealed the place the bullion was buried.

Ingram didn’t cease with the Bullion Bend theft. On July 14, the remaining 5 guerrillas gathered at Edward Hill’s ranch outdoors San Jose, planning to ambush one other stagecoach on its technique to the New Almaden Mines with a large payroll. Telling Hill they have been ready for buddies, they requested to remain the evening. Hill realized of their plans and managed to get phrase to Captain John H. Adams, sheriff of Santa Clara County. Adams organized a posse and surrounded the home the place the guerrillas have been staying. Within the ensuing shootout, Adams and one other posse member have been wounded, two of the outlaws have been mortally wounded, and one, Alban H. Glasby, surrendered. Ingram and George Baker escaped.

Asbury Harpending (Gutenberg.org)

Poole and Glasby have been tried in Placerville, together with a number of associates who had not really participated within the robberies. Glasby, having turned state’s proof, was freed. Poole was convicted for his half within the homicide of Deputy Joseph Staples and, after an unsuccessful attraction to the California Supreme Courtroom, hanged on September 29.

Ingram and George Baker have been by no means apprehended, however the gold and silver have been recovered and by no means used to learn the Accomplice trigger.

On November 10, 1864, an organization of Accomplice adventurers tried to grab the steamer Salvador within the Pacific Ocean off Panama.

Stephen Mallory, Accomplice Secretary of the Navy, had approved Performing Grasp Thomas E. Hogg to guide an expedition to board a Union steamer in Panama as passengers, smuggle arms on board, and commandeer the ship within the identify of the Accomplice States of America with the intent of becoming it with arms and utilizing it to assault Union delivery within the Pacific. Mallory instructed him:

Having secured the steamer, organized your crew, and hoisted the flag of the Accomplice States, you’ll undertake immediate measures to arm your vessel and proceed to cruise in opposition to the enemy of the Pacific.

He went on to make it clear that one of many objectives was the acquisition of Union gold:

You’ll endeavor to strike a blow on the California commerce and whalemen within the Pacific, and do you have to seize bullion, it’s recommended that, if no higher means for delivery it to Europe presents, you place it within the fingers of a British service provider of established character at Valparaiso. A French man-of-war may obtain it on board in freight for France.

Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

Hogg’s total crew numbered 16–20 adventurers. The expedition set out from Wilmington, N.C. A number of the social gathering joined from Havana and a few from St. Thomas, meaning to rendezvous in Aspinwall, Panama (right this moment’s Colón). There seems to have been a leak in Havana, because the plot grew to become recognized to Thomas Savage, U.S. Performing Consul-Basic, who raised the alarm. Union officers allowed the plan to proceed, meaning to catch the conspirators within the act. When Hogg and 6 associates with hidden arms and incriminating paperwork boarded the steamer Salvador as passengers, they have been summarily arrested off Panama by sailors from the close by U.S. flagship Lancaster. Hogg and his crew have been tried by a army fee in San Francisco, discovered responsible of “violation of the legal guidelines and usages of civilized battle,” and sentenced to hold. Main Basic Irvin McDowell decreased the sentences to life imprisonment for Hogg and 10 years every for his six crew members. These sentences have been later commuted by President Andrew Johnson and Hogg and his crew have been all launched.

And, in all probability for the final time, Accomplice efforts to acquire Union treasure have been foiled.

In the long run, makes an attempt to shore up the shaky funds of the Accomplice States by preying on Union treasure have been totally unsuccessful. The New Mexico Marketing campaign was in all probability the one effort that had had a critical likelihood of affecting end result of the Civil Warfare. After its failure, the Confederacy’s solely recourse was to attempt to commandeer the Union gold by what amounted to particular person acts of piracy and theft. All failed. Certainly, even had these efforts been profitable, they might have been little greater than pinpricks to the Union and never prone to make a crucial distinction to the Accomplice Treasury.

After the summer time of 1863, Southern fortunes started to crumble, culminating in Lee’s give up within the spring of 1865. And the sorry state of Accomplice funds with the resultant inflation and waning confidence performed no small half in its final—some would say inevitable—defeat.


Daniel Seligman is a retired engineer from Massachusetts with a lifelong curiosity within the American West. He teaches seminars on Western gunslingers and has authored numerous articles on Western historical past, together with Wild West journal.


This text first appeared in America’s Civil Warfare journal

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