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Treasury Raid

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When the bell atop the First Baptist Church started clanging about 9 o’clock that Sunday night, it was not a call to worship.

It was June 11, 1865. A full moon hung over Austin, a city of some 4,000 residents.

None of the men who rushed to gather in front of the Dieterich Building at Congress and 6th Street found it particularly surprising that an emergency of some sort had arisen, but the nature of it stunned them: A body of men had broken into the Treasury Building adjacent to the Capitol.

Even though Confederates under ex-Texas Ranger John Salmon “Rip” Ford had won the final battle of the Civil War at Palmetto Ranch in Cameron County on May 13, the South had lost. Most state officials, not knowing whether they would be hanged as traitors or merely told to go and sin no more, preferred not to wait around to find out. They vacated their offices as well as Texas. Not only did Texas have no state government, little or no local law enforcement existed.

“Confederate soldiers, without officers or orders, are coming in every hour, and there is nothing but plunder and sack going on—and the citizens are as bad as the soldiers,” 35-year-old Austinite Amelia Barr wrote in her diary on May 25.

On June 2, Confederate Gen. E. Kirby Smith surrendered aboard a U.S. warship in Galveston Bay. The same day, Mrs. Barr wrote: “Everything in confusion. Everyone suspicious and watchful, and there is no law.”

George R. Freeman, a Confederate cavalry captain who had recently returned to Austin, a few weeks before had taken it upon himself to organize a company of volunteers to help preserve the peace.

Somehow, Nathan G. Shelley, who had served as state attorney general before going into Confederate military service, got wind of the burglary of the unguarded treasury. Shelley found Freeman and the two men walked toward the Capitol. Soon both could hear the banging of metal on metal coming from the Treasury, where a faint flicker of candlelight could be seen through the upstairs windows. Freeman ran to the nearby First Baptist Church, roused the pastor and asked him to start ringing the church bell to sound the alarm.

“Of a large assembly on the streets nineteen men volunteered and moved with me upon the robbers…,” Freeman later reported.

The men collected rifles from the armory, loaded the weapons, fixed bayonets and fell into rank on the street in front of the building. The small command “double-quicked up the east side of the avenue to 10th Street,” as participant Fred Sterzing later recalled. From there they headed west to the Baptist church, just across from the Capitol.

“The bandits were taking pains to keep their visit secret,” Sterzing recalled. “Pickets had been stationed at each of the gates in the fence which surrounded the… Capitol grounds and they were firing random shots down Congress Avenue.”

On Freeman’s command, the volunteers charged down hill from the church. The guard the raiders had posted fired one volley at Freeman and his men and then fled into the state house. The volunteers entered the west door and ran down the corridor to the east door without encountering further resistance. From there, they sprinted to the adjacent Treasury building.

Those who had been inside the treasury rushed out the building’s north door clutching hats and tied-off trousers filled with coins. Some fired at the volunteers as they ran, but no one got hit.

Only one man had remained behind. As the volunteers ran up the stairs, the man started shooting at them. One round hit Freeman in the shoulder, causing a minor wound. Another shot blew off Sterzing’s hat.

Volunteer Al Musgrove described what happened next:

“The man came partly out into the hallway…. In one hand was his hat …full of silver. In the other was his six-shooter, which he threw down upon us. Sterzing and I instantly fired. One of the bullets struck him in the stomach…another…in the left elbow.”

Instinctively, the man ran back into the room.

“Men, don’t shoot anymore,” he yelled. “I am mortally wounded.”

The volunteers ordered him to surrender.

“He came out bent almost double and fell to the floor,” Musgrove recalled. “The whisky oozing through the hole in his body could be plainly smelled.”

Seeing that the man no longer posed a threat, Musgrove ran down the hall, looked to the north and “distinctly saw the bandits galloping away helter skelter in the direction of Mount Bonnell.”

His men both dismounted and outnumbered, Freeman decided not to give chase. Inside the vault room, scattered coins, bonds, worthless cash and other financial instruments came to the shoe tops of the volunteers. Several free-standing safes had been pushed over to expose the thinner metal of their backs, where the burglars had used hardened pickaxes to make holes large enough for them to stick their hands through. The vault remained locked.

The wounded man, identified as Alex Campbell, was carried to a room at the Swisher Hotel on Congress Avenue and later died. Refusing to name his colleagues, “with his last breath upbraided his fellow bandits as a set of damned cowards who ran at the first shot,” Musgrove said.

The next morning, Freeman led a posse in pursuit of the bandits. The volunteers found a few scattered coins dropped by the fleeing men the night before, but not the raiders.

“Who the robbers were is not yet positively known,” Austin’s Southern Intelligencer reported, “though circumstances point with almost certainty to some…desperate men who had long kept this section of country in fear by their acts of violence.”

Neither the loot, today worth more than $250,000, nor the raiders were ever found. The Great Treasury Raid of 1865 stands as Austin’s coldest cold case.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
January 29, 2009 column
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