Off in a corner of the Danville National Cemetery, resting among the rows of headstones, stands a towering beech tree. For some passing through the graveyard, it would be an appealing place to find shade on a hot day.
But Albert Atwell, in his early 60s, looks at the tree and sees a symbol to a pathway of riches.
On the tree trunk, there appears to be an etching of a figure eight. It’s a few inches long with a winding tail pointing to the ground. Atwell saw it for the first time about 15 years ago and thought nothing of it. It could’ve been drawn by anyone. After all, the cemetery opened in 1866. But after diving into the captivating rabbit hole of an old local legend, Atwell has come to believe it’s a message sent from long ago to serve as a clue to where a secret treasure lies.
And he isn’t the only one.
The legend of Confederate gold hidden and buried somewhere in Danville has intrigued treasure hunters for more than a century. It’s impossible to know how many people have made a trip to the small city in search of the cache. These days, historians say Confederate treasure seekers are few and far between, but there are still some believers who are convinced some gold is buried in the old tobacco town.
As with any legend, much of the mystery is buried in truth. In April 1865, the Confederate States of America was falling apart. The government headquarters in Richmond collapsed, sending President Jefferson Davis and other leaders fleeing by train to Danville, which was then named the new capital of the Confederacy. It would also be the last one.
Over the course of several days, Confederate leaders held their last formal Cabinet meeting, then fled Danville as the South fell.
But what happened to the money from the Confederate treasury department? Was there even any money left?
A long-held belief is that the funds — which would be worth millions today — were put on a train from Richmond to Danville, and Confederate leaders buried it around the city. Others think it’s in hiding places all over the South.
How much was it? Was it just Confederate gold, or was some Mexican silver hidden, as well?
The questions have plagued Civil War history buffs for 150 years. Some historians think there never was any gold. Just asking about the mystery will draw an eye roll from the average Danvillian.
Yet treasure seekers still come, some more notable than others.
The History Channel’s “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” spent time in Danville in 2010 for an episode dedicated to finding the gold. Like Atwell, the team focused on cemeteries, including the city-owned Green Hill Cemetery, which is next to the Danville National Cemetery. The Discovery Channel also visited in 2015, when the crew from the show “Rebel Gold” went searching for treasure at the historic Oak Hill Plantation site in Pittsylvania County. Both crews left empty-handed.
Not all of the searches have been welcome.
State archaeologists fumed after the “Rebel Gold” crew’s visit. The show was investigating a theory that the wealthy Hairston family, which owned the plantation, hid the Confederate treasure after the South fell. The crew discovered no gold, but did excavate several historical artifacts.
Because archaeologists rely on the arrangement of artifacts for information, many were angered over the items’ removal. The crew had permission from the private landowner to be there, but they caused a lot of damage to a historical site, according to Sonja Ingram, the Danville field representative for Preservation Virginia.
She said that is the only negative incident she knows of involving treasure hunters.
The few who still come around seem to be mostly harmless.
“It’s a fun story,” Ingram said, adding that sometimes it gets people interested in Danville history who otherwise wouldn’t care.
Atwell is convinced he knows where the gold lies, but he is careful not to trespass onto historical sites or private property. He believes there are maps buried in graves in some of Danville’s cemeteries that point to the location of 58 depositories all over the South. But it is illegal to dig in a cemetery without permission, which he has not been granted and now seems to no longer expect. Other theories also point to locations on private historical sites, such as plantations, monuments and government buildings.
It is so difficult for people to dig in those locations, the legend goes, that they make for great hiding spots. And Danville is a place rich in history, with Civil War sites covering as much of the land as the aging tobacco warehouses it’s known for.
Atwell, who lives in Henry County, became interested in the mystery of the Confederate treasure as a 5-year-old boy listening to his father tell stories about the Civil War, in which his great-great-grandfather played a role. He has spent years working over details with other treasure seekers and has a pile of documents he believes tells him where some of the gold and silver rests.
“It’s pretty bad,” Atwell said of his frustration. “Especially when you look around and know where the stuff is but you can’t touch it.”
He believes $8.6 million worth of treasure is buried in Danville. He declined to say exactly where he believes the gold and silver is hidden, but he offered up some clues that would pique the curiosity of even the most cynical historian.
Like many locals interested in the legend of the gold, Atwell uses the book “Confederate Treasure in Danville” by the late J. Frank Carroll as a guide, since it explores theories of where the treasure could be. Many of the theories alone could make for a Hollywood adaption, merging historical facts with incredible, if improvable, legends. They tell of “talking trees,” sabotage and a secret society charged with protecting the treasure.
Atwell said a “light went off” after he read Carroll’s book.
He believes there are trees across the South that have symbols and numbers carved into them by Confederate soldiers. The carvings lead to clues where maps to the gold and silver are buried. Decoding the symbols has been the hard part for generations of treasure hunters, he said. But he believes he has cracked them after years of collecting historical documents.
He also thinks the gold remains hidden and is protected by a secret society.
Others are less optimistic about its existence. Local history buff Danny Ricketts, who was friends with Carroll, the author, said he has seen enough historical documentation to believe there is no treasure.
“I don’t think there was much gold left. In Danville, the officials handed out a lot of the gold in exchange for Confederate money to help the soldiers when all hopes of saving the Confederacy were lost,” Ricketts said. “If gold was buried, I think whoever buried it dug it up later. You don’t bury gold and forget about it.”
But he said it’s a great story. This is perhaps why it has generated interest from so many people, especially out-of-towners, even after a hundred years.
Danville historian Gary Grant said Carroll typically would say that “the real treasure resided in the epic story of the Confederate government in Danville,” regardless of whatever they brought with them and might have left behind.