Saturday, August 29, 2009

Review: The Rebel and the Rose

and the Lost Confederate Gold
By Wesley Millett & Gerald White

Did you know that John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States, was a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America, and was later elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but died before he could take office? Did you know his widow, Julia Gardiner Tyler, former First Lady of the United States and New York socialite, was a Confederate sympathizer? Or also a number of John Tyler’s sons held prominent positions in the Confederate government and fought in the Confederate Army? I must confess my historical ignorance on these topics, and ask myself why didn’t I learn these things in my high school American History class or even in my American History survey classes in college? The answer is of course obvious, they weren’t taught, or for that matter even mentioned. Little nuggets of knowledge like these are often what make history so much fun. Which leads me to my next question: “Why isn’t this stuff taught in high school and college American History survey courses? Can you imagine how much more excited students of history would be if they knew a former President and his family took up arms against the United States?

So, how then, you may be asking yourself, did I come to learn about these gems of historical minutia? I’m glad you asked! I read “The Rebel and the Rose: James A. Semple and Julia Gardiner Tyler and the Lost Confederate Gold,” written by Wesley Millett and Gerald White. “Lost Confederate gold???” you ask. Ah, yes I see I’ve gotten your attention. And yet the story of what happened to the Confederate Treasury after the fall of Richmond is another subject not touched on in history classes, but also barely mentioned in many books written about the Civil War. But an Indiana Jones movie it is not. Tracking down a lost treasure isn’t as glamorous or dangerous as Hollywood would have you believe.

Wesley Millett and Gerald White, the authors of “The Rebel and the Rose,” spent twelve years researching their book in attics, archives, and libraries, and searching the internet to piece together the story of the end of the Confederacy, and the collapse of its government, all the while keeping meticulous track of what happened to the Confederate treasury. Their book reads much more like an adventure novel than a history text, and it is filled with tales of treasure and defeat, an illicit and forbidden love affair, and the desperation of the Confederate Government on the run, which as it travels south and west slowly begins to disintegrate until finally Jefferson Davis himself is captured by the Union Army.

“Okay you’ve got my interest,” you say, “But who is James A. Semple, what does he have to do with the lost Confederate gold and what is his relationship with Julia Gardiner Tyler?” I’m glad you asked. James A. Semple was a very efficient & competent Bureau Chief in the Confederate Navy. Semple’s estranged wife, Letitia, was the daughter of John Tyler and his first wife, Letitia Christian. James & Letitia Semple spent most of their married lives apart, and permanently separated during the Civil War, though they never divorced. Letitia hated her step-mother, Julia Gardiner Tyler, and while the two of them shared an antagonistic relationship, Julia never held it against James. James Semple and Julia Tyler grew very close and the evidence indicates they may have had a brief love affair.

As I read the book, I began taking notes on who was related to whom. Eventually I ended up creating a genealogical chart to keep track as the Tyler, Gardiner & Semple families are all inter-related to each other in a number of ways, and the more I delved into the genealogy the more fascinating and complex this story gets.

During the Confederate government’s flight from Richmond, Semple was eventually put in charge of the Confederate treasury. He successfully avoided capture by the Union Army, and for the next two years would travel between various points in the South to New York and Canada.

Millett & White have done an exemplary job tracking the movements of the Confederate government after it left Richmond and of the treasury and the various disbursements from it, accounting for nearly all of it. “So what happened to the Confederate Treasury and where exactly is it now?” you may ask. Is there a little bit of Indiana Jones lurking inside you? Take off that fedora, put down that whip, brush the sand off your clothes, then read the book and find out for yourself.

ISBN 978-1581825831, Cumberland House Publishing, © 2007, Hardcover, 336 pages, Photographs, Map, Endnotes, Appendix, Bibliography & Index. $24.95

Reading Aid: The Tyler, Gardiner & Semple Families

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