Saturday, July 28, 2012

‘Lonely And Bereft' Soldier Burnishes Confederate Gold Legend

Robert Welborn Pickens’ 15 minutes of fame came at age 98, in November 1945. Pickens, who confided to relatives he was "lonely and bereft" after the death of his wife of 65 years, told a local newspaper that as an 18-year-old Confederate soldier in 1865, he had guarded a train car carrying wooden kegs filled with the now-legendary "Confederate Gold."

Col. Robert Welborn Pickens
at age 98. He claimed that as a
young soldier, he guarded the
legendary Confederate Gold.  
The legend goes that as Richmond fell to Union forces at the end of the Civil War, fleeing rebel soldiers smuggled the last of the Confederate treasury South. Tales of a huge sum of money — from $100,000 to millions of dollars — clandestinely traveled by rail to a secret place, where Confederate supporters buried it "until the South shall rise again." 

My ancestor’s story might have been over the rainbow, but tales of  Confederate gold smuggled out of Richmond as it fell have survived 150 years. One version of the story claims the treasury — much of it from France, which supported the Confederate cause — traveled to  western North Carolina, where it was buried in a remote area or was hidden in a mansion or a church. 

S.C. Map pinpoints location of
Anderson, where my ancestor
said the remains of the Confederate
treasury were hidden in a train car.
Confederate President Jeff Davis passed
through the state en route to Georgia.
Other stories allege the gold was transported to various places in Georgia and South Carolina. Another version of “The Legend Of Confederate Gold” purports political scoundrels or highway robbers made off with the booty.  Folklore also suggests rebel soldiers buried it near Charlotte, N.C., where Confederate States of America President Jeff Davis briefly stayed as he fled Richmond after Lee’s surrender. Some claim the treasury ended up in South Georgia, where Union forces captured Davis on May 10, 1865.

What happened to the treasury, if it in fact existed by spring 1865, still stokes tall tales and wild pursuit of the gold’s hiding place today. But according to Col. Robert Welborn Pickens of Upstate South Carolina, the Confederate gold indeed was real. He said he saw the kegs of gold himself in Anderson, S.C., near his rural home in Pickens County.

“Insofar as known, Col. Pickens is the only man alive who actually saw kegs of gold belonging to the Confederate Treasury,” the Anderson Daily Mail declared in an article dated Nov. 22, 1945. 

From research, I've learned that as a teen, Pickens enlisted in Co. G of the 2nd Battalion of the State Reserve of South Carolina in 1865. By then, the state relied on old men and boys to fight the enemy on its home soil as its most able soldiers fought in Virginia — or had already died in battle.

The article about the old Civil War
soldier from a 1945 edition of
The Anderson (S.C.) Daily Mail
Pickens also told of the Confederate gold in a 1947 letter to my Great Aunt Kate.  I uncovered this letter and several others from Pickens, as well as the newspaper article, while researching my book-in-progress about the Civil War and its legacy, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You.  

Col. Pickens  said Confederate guards had moved the gold-laden train car to a rail siding in Anderson, S.C. The town served as a major stop on the old Greenville and Columbia Railroad, part of an interstate rail network, on the night he watched over it. Of course, Pickens, father of five and widowed for 12 years, also claimed in his letter that his ancestry went back to “Noah Pickens,” the biblical figure whom God “picked” to build an ark and save the “Pickings” of the ancient world from flooding.

Pickens' headstone rests in a historic
cemetery near Easley, S.C. The stone
reads: R Welborn Pickens; Enlisted
Co. G. 2 Battllion, State Reserve
of S.C.; Last Confederate State
Veteran from Upper So. Carolina.
“According to sacred history,” the old soldier wrote, “all the great men of Bible time were ‘Pickings,’ picked out for great things. Little by little, people changed the name spelling to ‘Pickens.’" Col. Pickens told my Great Aunt Kate that friends put the “Colonel” before his name as a matter of tradition and respect. 

Pickens died on Feb. 19, 1948, at age 100, not long after his interview with the Daily Mail. In his newspaper interview, Pickens said he began plowing the fields of his Upstate farm at age 9 and plowed until age 91. In his letter that survives in my family papers he said old age and widowhood had left him “lonely and bereft.”  He enclosed in the letter a poem he wrote in memory of his late wife Kate. Titled “Lonely and Bereft,” Col. Pickens dedicated his paean “In Memory of my beloved wife with whome (sic) I lived sixty five years.”

Here’s the cover of the old Confederate soldier’s poem, in his own handwriting. For the complete poem, go to the LETTERS page. For more, go to PHOTOS page.
The cover of my ancestral cousin Robert Welborn Pickens' poem "Lonely and Bereft."
The old Confederate soldier penned the poem on notebook paper not long before he died in 1948.
You'll find Pickens' complete poem on the LETTERS page.

Reading the lonely and bereft soldier's poem, I wonder if Col. Pickens, his head in a cloud of nostalgia as he awaited death, hoped to become a legend himself. Maybe we all spin legends when life — and history — prove too hard to bear. 
SOURCES: Various internet sites, including; Cadia Barbee Welborn Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC at Chapel Hill; Edgar, Walter. “South Carolina: A History. University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Page 283. Find A Grave, thanks to Herb Parham III.