23 February 2015 by Published in: Union Cavalry No comments yet

17079761-largeRand Bitter forwarded a link today to update the nonsensical theory that Col. Robert H. G. Minty, probably the best Union cavalry brigade commander of the Civil War, stole the Confederate treasury’s gold from Jefferson Davis and that said gold is now at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

This time, the reporter was responsible and asked Rand for his opinion. Rand has published an exhaustively researched book on Minty’s life, and there is nobody alive who knows more about Minty than does Rand. If Rand says it’s nonsense, it’s nonsense. And Rand says it’s nonsense:

Confederate treasure in Lake Michigan? Despite skeptics, divers pursue fantastic story

By Garret Ellison | gellison@mlive.com
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on February 23, 2015 at 8:35 AM, updated February 23, 2015 at 11:02 A.M.

FRANKFORT, MI — Sometime in the mid-1890s, a boxcar laden with gold bullion stolen from the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War was allegedly pushed off a ferry into the roiling waters of Lake Michigan during a storm.

Today, it awaits discovery on the lake bottom.

As far as treasure stories go, it’s a doozy. But is it believable?

Unfortunately, there’s only one way to know for sure whether the story advanced by Muskegon area shipwreck divers Frederick J. Monroe and Kevin Dykstra is anything more than a new entry in the encyclopedia of theories about what became of the fabled Confederate treasury after the war.

Based largely on a deathbed confession relayed to Monroe in 1973, Monroe and Dykstra have spent several years searching the waters off Northern Michigan’s Benzie County for the treasure, which they fully expect will be found this summer.

On board with the tale is Frankfort Superintendent Joshua Mills, who is excited by the economic prospects of treasure seekers descending on his coastal town en masse with a modern day version of gold fever.

“We’re pretty certain that gold will be found”

Less convinced are Civil War historians, who consider the story preposterous.

“It’s all a bunch of hogwash,” said Rand Bitter, author of a biography about the Union Army officer at the center of Dykstra and Monroe’s treasure theory.

One might expect nothing less when it comes to a gold story.

A tale of the tallest order?

The thought of Confederate gold sunk in local waters is an intriguing notion that’s sure to fire the kiln of interest among Michiganders. If true, then the answer to one of the country’s greatest mysteries has been in our backyard for more than a century.

The story bubbled into the public eye last fall, when Monroe and Dykstra announced the discovery of an unidentified Lake Michigan shipwreck bearing resemblance to Le Griffon, the yet-undiscovered “holy grail” of Great Lakes wrecks.

Amid the ongoing clamor around Le Griffon, the duo’s real purpose was almost rendered a footnote. Finding the shipwreck — which they did in 2011 but held back announcing for several years — was an accident, they said. The two were actually searching for sunken Civil War gold.

Wait… what?

Their story about how rebel gold found its way into Lake Michigan seems plausible — as plausible, anyway, as any of the other folklore based on the 150-year-old legend of the Confederate treasury, which vanished under fairly well-known circumstances in 1865.

There’s even an established Michigan connection. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was captured on May 10, 1865 by members of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry near Irwinville, Ga., about a month after the fall of Richmond.

Davis had fled Richmond with the rebels’ hard currency reserves. Accounts differ on the exact size and makeup of the treasure, but it’s generally thought to have been about $1 million worth of gold, silver and jewelry.

According to historical account, the treasure was gone by the time the cavalry caught up with Davis and his men, who had little money on them.

What happened to the treasure? Monroe and Dykstra have a theory. Here it goes:

A colonel with the Fourth Michigan named Robert Horatio George Minty went back down to Georgia more than a decade after Davis was captured and dug up the hidden gold.

Minty, who retired as a Brigadier General, was wrongfully court-martialed during the war. This, Dykstra and Monroe think, gave him motive to commit treason.

Minty, who worked as a railroad superintendent after the war, somehow managed to get the treasure onto a boxcar headed north for Michigan. His destination: Upper Peninsula copper country, a region with known gold deposits.

To get there, the gold needed to cross Lake Michigan. In 1892, the Ann Arbor Railroad began using coal-powered lake ferries to bypass congested Chicago train yards. From Frankfort, the ferries served ports in Wisconsin and the U.P.

In dire straits, rail cars were sometimes pushed overboard in rough seas.

During one side-scan sonar search of the lake off Frankfort in 2012, Monroe and Dykstra found a coal car on the lake bottom. The two divers consider it a signpost indicating the deathbed confession is accurate and gold is real.

“I believe the boxcar is out there and this spring we’ll find it,” Dykstra said.

Do the dots connect?

Many dots must connect for Monroe and Dykstra’s theory to hold water.

Rand Bitter, a former Ford Motor Co. design cost specialist who self-published an exhaustively researched 2006 book called “Minty and his Cavalry: A History of the Sabre Brigade,” thinks the theory is built on a shaky foundation.

Colonel Minty, Bitter said, was not present when Davis was captured by men led by a subordinate officer, Lt. Col. Benjamin D. Pritchard of Allegan.

“If three tons of gold had been hidden away in a hurry by Prichard and his men, how would Minty have coordinated that from 150 miles away?” Bitter asked. “He wouldn’t have even known about it. They had to send a courier with word that Davis had been captured.”

Other elements of the Minty connection are suspect, Bitter said, who contends that Minty’s postwar railroad employment never put him in the right position to manage a secret boxcar all the way from Georgia to Michigan.

After the war, Minty’s first wife, Grace Ann Abbott, was apparently seen in Traverse City with a necklace made from a Confederate gold coin sovereign — a detail Dykstra and Monroe feel supports their theory.

Here, Bitter and the divers are almost on the same page. The coin necklace was real. Bitter thinks it was most likely given to Minty following Davis’ capture. The cavalryman also got Davis’ revolver and holsters, which are now on display in a Richmond museum. He never got any reward money for the capture.

But the hardest part for Bitter to reconcile is the family connection. Minty scandalously moved to Indiana in the 1870s and started a second family with his wife Grace’s sister, Laura Abbott. Minty essentially became persona non grata with the much of the Abbott family after that.

It’s an important detail because Minty’s brother-in-law, George Alexander Abbott, was the person who allegedly made the deathbed confession about a boxcar full of gold in Lake Michigan to a friend of Monroe’s grandfather.

From depositions taken after Minty’s death, Bitter said it’s quite clear George Abbott did not care much for Minty after the cavalryman’s affair.

“That’s supposedly someone who would know all about Minty’s gold?” he said. “Interesting he’d have all the details.”

Frankfort ready for gold seekers

Bitter and Dykstra have talked, but the divers and their chief theory critic didn’t connect before the gold-in-the-lake story hit the news.

If the deathbed confession turns out to be true and gold is found, Dykstra acknowledged the possibility that it may not be from the Confederate treasury. The Minty theory grew out of his early research. Dykstra was drawn to the Civil War angle when that was the only reference to missing gold from the time period he could find on the Internet.

He realizes it’s a “long stretch.”

Civil War experts aren’t the only skeptics. Shipwreck divers around the state are curious, but some question, privately, whether Monroe and Dykstra aren’t also angling for something like a reality TV show.

The duo isn’t tightly networked with the wider Great Lakes shipwreck diving community by choice, they said.

The two men met about 20 years ago at a wedding. Both have backgrounds as professional photographers. Monroe, 61, of Muskegon, is a scuba instructor who says he graduated from dive school in California in 1972. He taught Dykstra, 51, of Fruitport, to dive a few years ago.

“I’ve been treasure hunting pretty much my whole life,” said Monroe.

The divers have met with Michigan officials, but state archeologist Dean Anderson declined to take a strong position on the veracity of their theory. If gold is found, the state will likely claim it as abandoned material on Michigan bottomland.

“It’s not a story I’m familiar with,” said Anderson, who called the divers “forthcoming and cooperative,” particularly in recent discussions about a planned dive to the possible Le Griffon site this spring or summer.

“I’m not in any position to evaluate what they’ve had to say” about the gold, he said. “We only learned much detail about it very recently.”

More discussions between the divers and the state are possible, but not planned.

In Frankfort, city superintendent Joshua Mills is eager for something to happen.

Monroe and Dykstra have kept Mills in the loop since their initial dives began in 2011. The pair had a hand in helping outfit the Frankfort Fire Department with dive equipment paid for with some local private grants.

They’ve also done some training sessions with the dive team, said Mills.

If Frankfort gets an influx of treasure-seekers drawn to the gold story, it’s best the city be prepared for whatever could happen, said Monroe.

“We’re pretty certain that gold will be found,” said Monroe. “With all the people who come out, we think there’s a good chance it’ll be found this summer.”

If that happens, Mills wants folks to know there’s no monetary incentive in the treasure hunt. The state of Michigan would probably claim the gold, but, assuming there is gold down there, there could be other legal ownership claims advanced depending on the treasure’s origin.

“I think preserving the history and putting closure to the legend is something that could be a benefit to all,” said Mills. “We’ll see.”

Garret Ellison covers business, government, environment and breaking news for MLive/The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at gellison@mlive.com or follow on Twitter & Instagram

This theory is nothing but a flight of fancy. It’s a shame that such nonsense is even taken seriously.

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