The Rebel and the Rose. James A. Semple, Julia Gardiner Tyler and the Lost Confederate Gold by Wesley Millett and Gerald White Nashville, Tenn., Cumberland House Publishing, Inc., 2007. Pp. 297. $18.95. ISBN 978-1-58182-669-2 Reviewed by Doug Tice This book presents three interrelated chronicles of events that began with the fall of Richmond in April 1865. The curious title makes no mention of the first and overriding story, the flight from Richmond of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government. The Confederate officials abandoned their capital city by train on April 2. President Davis's original goal was to reestablish the seat of government further south or west so that the war might be continued. However, after brief stops in Danville, Greensboro, and Charlotte, the flight became one of desperation with Davis and the others seeking only to avoid capture by Union cavalry troops scouring the southern countryside. As is well known, Davis did not make his escape but was captured near Irwinville, Georgia, along with his family in the early morning hours of May 10, 1865. Davis was taken aboard a steamer to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where he would be held as a state prisoner for two years. In the meantime, of course, General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, and on the same day of Davis's capture President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation declaring the armed resistance of the "insurrectionary states" virtually at an end. Those of us knowledgeable about the fall of Richmond and its aftermath will find much familiar material here. (Overly familiar in some instances, such as circumstances of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, including a recitation of General Order No. 9.) Nevertheless, there is a wealth of lesser known and interesting detail, particularly with respect to the fate of various cabinet members. Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge were the only cabinet members to evade capture. They made their separate ways to England, where Benjamin remained and became a prominent lawyer. Breckenridge returned to his native Kentucky in 1869 after President Andrew Johnson had signed the general amnesty. Secondly, and the most valuable of the book's three chronicles, is the tale of the Confederacy's attempts to preserve its treasury's "remaining assets," the "Lost Confederate Gold" of the book's title. Soon after President Davis's train left Richmond, a second train followed along the same route. In one boxcar were wooden boxes of coins, nuggets, bullion and foreign bills of exchange. The specie included fifty heavy kegs of Spanish silver coins (pieces of eight) having an estimated value of $200,000. Another car carried worthless Confederate currency and bonds along with a chest filled with jewelry and precious stones, the latter having been donated to the government by women of the Confederacy. A third car held gold coins that belonged to several Richmond banks. The specie value of the government's treasury leaving Richmond can only be estimated. The authors' analysis, provided in a helpful Appendix, places the value at between approximately $492,000 and $562,000. Fifty Confederate midshipmen under command of Captain William Parker, superintendent of the Confederate naval academy, were assigned the task of guarding the treasure train. This train also made its first stop in Danville, where it stayed just briefly before departing for Charlotte, which officials believed to be more secure. Left behind in Danville were some 39 kegs of the burdensome Spanish silver coins. What happened to these coins remains a mystery today. The authors state that "the evidence is strong . . . that the coins were buried-and remain buried-in Danville." The treasure train made its way further and further south, generally tracking the route of President Davis. At various stops along the way, gold coins were removed and used for back pay of Confederate soldiers and for other official purposes. Eventually, the treasure was transferred from rail cars to wagons. On May 2, 1865, the treasure reached Abbeville, South Carolina, where Jefferson Davis had also just arrived. At this location, Captain Parker's unit of midshipmen guards was disbanded. Captain Micajah Clark, just appointed acting Confederate treasurer by President Davis's last official act, assigned responsibility for most of the remaining specie to James A. Semple, the "Rebel" of the title, and a leading character of the third chronicle of the book. Semple's mission was to secrete the main portion of remaining coins and bullion, some $86,000, out of the country. The mission could not be accomplished, and Semple and others who assisted him, including Varina Davis's brother, would end up keeping substantial sums for themselves. The authors' research on the flight of the Confederate treasury is impressive, and they provide in convincing detail an accounting for the likely disposition of these assets from the time the train left Richmond. The third story related by the book describes the wartime activities and relationship of James A. Semple and the "Rose" of the title, Julia Gardner Tyler. In April 1865, Semple at age 46 held the rank of paymaster and was a bureau chief in the Confederate navy. Julia Tyler was the second wife and widow of former U.S. President John Tyler, who died in 1862 while a member of the Confederate Congress. Semple was connected to the Tylers by his marriage to Letitia Tyler, a daughter of President Tyler by his first wife. Although they never divorced, Semple and Letitia were estranged and were not together during the war or thereafter. Apparently following President Tyler's death, Semple and Julia became quite close. Semple assisted her in legal and financial transactions and also provided guidance to her two sons in General Lee's army. On occasions after the war, Julia visited Semple in his hotel, and the implication from the available sources is that they had an intimate relationship. This possibility is reinforced by a letter to Semple from his estranged wife, written in July 1867, in which Letitia angrily suggested he was having an affair with Julia. At about this time, Semple and Julia began to drift apart, and although they remained friends their close relationship came to an end. This is not all of Semple's story. In the two years following the war, he traveled extensively, north and south. As part of his mission to preserve the Confederate gold for furthering Southern interests, he contacted members of the Fenian Brotherhood, a secret society of Irish immigrants dedicated to raising an army in America to drive the British out of Ireland. Some Confederates (including Jefferson Davis) had the hope that if the Fenians could provoke a war between the United States and Great Britain, the American government "would need" the Southern states to help fight the British. This is a bizarre notion today, and, of course, nothing ever came of it. While the story of the Semple-Tyler relationship is less important historically than the other events related in the book and occasionally seems out of place, it nevertheless has been skillfully interwoven into the overall narrative and adds a great deal of interest. The authors' ability to uncover this obscure relationship is worthy of our admiration. Wesley Millet and Gerald White, first time book authors who spent twelve years preparing this volume, are described in a Foreward as dedicated researchers. Their dedication certainly shows as they have produced a fine and important work of history, which I recommend to all who have an interest in the immediate aftermath of the war. The writing is clear, concise, and well edited. (I found only a couple of typographical errors and can't resist pointing out my favorite (on p. 81), "Matthew Fontaine Murray"!) The voluminous footnotes and lengthy bibliography are another welcome plus for this valuable work.
Other Recommended Reading: A.J. Hanna, Flight Into Oblivion (Johnson Publishing Co., 1938) Burke Davis, The Long Surrender (Random House, 1985) William C. Davis, An Honorable Defeat The Last Days of the Confederate Government (Harcourt, Inc., 2001) Clint Johnson, Pursuit The Chase, Capture, Persecution & Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (Citadel Press Books, 2008)
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