WINNSBORO — Last week historian Val Green and Fairfield County Museum Director Pelham Lyles showed how history and legend intersected at Salem Crossroads in Fairfield County.
According to legend there might be gold at the intersection left there by retreating Confederate troops after the fall of Richmond.
George Washington’s spyglass and Mt. Vernon were at the center of the mystery but it was fun of local history buffs to meet at the Christ Central Community Center and learn of how one detour of history brought some gold into the county, at least for a night.
Green’s ancestor, Pamela Cunningham from nearby Laurens County, was a disabled woman who helped found the Mt. Vernon Ladies Organization, which dedicated itself to the repair and renovation of Mt. Vernon. She moved beyond the chronic pain she felt from a horseback riding accident and instead left a lasting historical legacy, as the museum at Mt. Vernon is now in good financial and physical standing.
On a trip back home from visiting her mother in Philadelphia, she saw Mt. Vernon lying in ruins and was inspired.
“If the men won’t do it, we can do it,” Cunningham said.
Her family, like many of the time, had split into Torries and Patriots during the war and one of her ancestors was Bloody Billy Cunningham, of Torry fame. Green said that Pamela Cunningham lived at Rosemont in Laurens County, an area that likely exchanged plants with Mt. Vernon while Washington lived there.
The Mt. Vernon Ladies Association was helped by William Yancey, a former congressman, and one of the southern fire eaters who persuaded Alabama to leave the convention and split the Democratic Party. That led to the election of the member of the fledgling Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln.
Of the $200,000 raised to restore Mt. Vernon, $75,000 was raised by Yancey and according to Green the character of Rhett Butler was patterned after Yancey in “Gone with the Wind.”
For that hefty contribution, Cunningham gave Yancey a spyglass that had belonged to George Washington. Green found a letter that made reference to the spyglass and found reference to the spyglass being willed to Jefferson Davis. The war between the states began and eventually in 1865 many Confederate leaders retreated from Richmond to Charlotte and then to Chester.
That entourage included the Confederacy’s treasurer and all of the gold in the bank of Richmond as well as about 150 Confederate midshipmen. The gold was loaded into wagons, since the rivers had flooded and the train tracks had been destroyed, and the caravan continued down Ashely Ferry Road to a Baptist Church in Chester.
While en route, the caravan made it to nearby Salem Crossroads in Fairfield County and they spent the night there, having supper at the home of Edward Means.
From there the group crossed the river into Newberry County and made their way to Abbeville by train. By then Jefferson Davis and his wife were fleeing for Mexico but they were captured in Georgia. The spyglass was not found in Davis’ personal effects at that time. At some point, he regained possession of it, because in 1899 his wife, Marina, gave the spyglass back to Mt. Vernon.
Green speculates the spyglass is among the items Davis referred to by letter when he wrote to his wife, saying that he had sent some things to be stored by “the sisters.” It is likely a Catholic organization hid the spyglass.
Green began piecing this mysterious spyglass story together with the help of local historian Jim Kibler of Newberry who did work at the Rosemont Plantation.
“Mt. Vernon knew very little of the spyglass, so we put this story together and sent it to them,” Green said. A picture is now on display at Mt. Vernon that tells of the spyglass and its role in connecting Mt. Vernon to the woman who saved the landmark from ruin.
“It was a southern woman that did all this,” Green said with pride. He noted that there was a covered over trapdoor in the Means house and that beneath the door was a basement staircase. William Parker, a confederate naval officer from Virginia, reportedly saw it during dinner and rumor has it that some of the Richmond gold was deposited there.
Green said that the amount of gold is not believed to be that large since the Confederacy had spent so much blood and treasure on the war effort that was in its final stages. In Parker’s memoirs he mentioned the gold train, and according to legend some of the gold wound up on the property that is now owned by Green.
Green said that there was some gold in the country at the beginning of the war because each state had banks that were backed by gold. The south up until the 1840s and 1850s was a rich area due to the cotton trade but the so called “Tariff of Abominations” that required 50 percent tariffs to be placed on cotton exports, is one thing that cut into the South’s economy, and in Green’s view put the country on the path to war.
Eventually, the spyglass and a woman’s philanthropic work would become a symbol of a country becoming reunited as one nation for all.