Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948
Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948

From Our Past XXV

The Legend of the Lost Gold of Keel Mountain

The Legend of the Lost Gold of Keel Mountain Madison County
Listen to the song Lost Keel Mountain Gold song written by William Walker
Guitar and Vocal: Dan Sachs
Accompanying Banjo: John Talbot
Music and Lyrics written by William Walker
Copyright 2005

The great thing about legends is they usually start with a grain of truth. They are passed on from generation to generation and along the way, they are embellished, disputed, defended, believed, disbelieved, and usually told a little bit different each time. They stay alive because there is always that shred of hope and a small possibility they could be true or at least, true enough to be partially believable. Many men and women have spent untold days and even years chasing legends like the lost mines of El Dorado and the buried treasures of Blackbeard the pirate. True or not, it really makes no difference because legends will continue to live on because they always make good stories and provide great adventures to armchair voyagers.

Such is the legend of the Lost Gold of Keel Mountain told first by an old Madison County man named Jeremiah McCain, who had joined up with a renegade band of rebel guerillas in early 1862. He was in his early fifties and quite an old man to be a soldier. McCain had never married and lived like a hermit who had no family. He had worked on farms doing odd jobs and barely made enough to live on. He only joined the rebel band so he could kill Yankees and get a free meal.

In April of 1862, Union Army Brigadier General Orsmby M. Mitchel left Nashville, Tennessee and moved his small army southward through Shelbyville toward Huntsville, Alabama. After some minor resistance from roving Confederate bands, on April 11, 1862, his Union troops marched into Huntsville and occupied the city. Regiment after regiment of mud splattered Union soldiers marched through the streets of downtown Huntsville and gathered at the courthouse square. Huntsville was now in Union occupied hands.

General Mitchell was a vain, petulant man who had trouble getting along with people, especially the inhabitants of the town who considered the occupying Federals as foreign invaders. The Union soldiers stripped shops and stores of various merchandise items and either stole them or discarded them on the streets. The population of Huntsville was infuriated. Another big problem was that of money, both for the soldiers and the local inhabitants. The Confederate script was now worthless and out of fear of being branded a traitor, the Southerners would not accept United States currency or script. General Mitchell knew that in order to restore order in the town and make conditions for all the occupying soldiers and local inhabitants palatable, he needed to stimulate the local economy by supplying a form of currency all would accept. He needed a good supply of gold coins. A request went out to Union headquarters to send fifty thousand dollars in gold coins, of different denominations, to Huntsville by a special guarded courier detachment.

a courier unit at Union headquarters in Nashville and transport the gold shipment back to Huntsville The predominate United States gold coins of that time were the Coronet Head Eagles that came in four basic denominations. He requested an assorted quantity of Quarter Eagles ($2.50), Half Eagles ($5.00), Eagles ($10), and Double Eagles ($20.00). He knew the feel and shine of pure gold coins would mellow the moods of an angry populace and bring more harmony to the town. After several delays caused by normal bureaucratic red tape, the unusual request was granted and a heavily armed and very secret detachment from the Fourth Ohio Cavalry was dispatched to meet a courier unit at Union headquarters in Nashville and transport the gold shipment back to Huntsville. Sometime in mid November, the detachment quietly sneaked out of Huntsville and headed along the Meridianville Road toward Nashville. The Union detachment consisted of eleven men, headed by a First Lieutenant, a Sergeant, and nine cavalry troopers.

The detachment slipped by several bands of Confederate Cavalry and pickets and made their way across the Tennessee state line and quietly through the rolling countryside into Nashville. The gold shipment had arrived in Nashville the day before and was stored in a safe at Army Headquarters. The shipment consisted of two small metal strongboxes with the gold coins neatly stacked in rows within two leather pouches in each box. The Double Eagles were in one box and the other assortment of coins in the other. This idea of packing was done as an afterthought, in case the detachment ran into trouble. If that misfortune should occur, the pouches could be quickly removed from the boxes and fastened to the saddles for a hasty retreat.

On a cold and damp November morning, the strongboxes were loaded on a large pack mule and secured with a special leather harness. At nightfall, the detachment quietly moved out of town in single file. They made their way back along the same direct route that would take them near the towns of Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, and Fayetteville. While these towns were in the hands of Union occupation troops, they were still hot beds of rebel guerilla activity and roaming Confederate cavalry units.

They made their way back along the same direct route that would take them near the towns of Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, and Fayetteville.

Upon their approach to the small hamlet of Belleview, the lead scout trooper came riding back to report a large group of Confederate cavalry camped nearby, slightly to the west of Belleview. The Lieutenant decided to avoid the enemy by detouring eastward toward Booneville. Circling a few farms near Booneville the detachment then turned south to pick up a new route back to Huntsville. As they circled around a large cornfield, they were spotted by a small detachment of Confederate cavalry moving out of the trees and along the far edge of the field. The Confederates fired a few scattered shots and charged after the Federals. The Union officer shouted a command and the detachment took off at a gallop. They rode hard for about two miles and slowed down to rest their horses. The Lieutenant picked out four men and gave them an order to take up a defensive position and hold off the Confederates as long as possible to give the unit a chance to escape with the gold shipment. The four took positions behind some fallen trees and waited for their adversaries to ride up while the remaining seven men turned toward the southwest and toward Fayetteville. They did not have long to wait for within a few minutes, Confederate troopers from Roddy's Fourth Alabama Cavalry rode up and received fire from the four hidden troopers. One Confederate grabbed his chest and was lifted from his saddle and fell heavily to the ground. Another grabbed his shoulder and let out a soft cry as his mount cut sharply to the right. The remaining troopers moved back quickly out of range and took cover in some nearby trees. They dismounted and put a hasty plan together to encircle the Federals from both flanks. The Confederates had about sixteen effective men left but were not sure exactly how many Federals were positioned behind the fallen tree trunks. They left six men in front to deliver and draw fire while the remaining troopers split up and began circling in both directions. The lead elements came around the flanks to discover the four Federals dug in behind the trees. Enfilade fire was delivered striking two of the Federals immediately and dropping them to the ground. The other two quickly made it back to their horses and mounted quickly in an effort to escape. One slug found one trooper in the side as he dropped from the saddle and the other took off through the woods. Somehow, he managed to escape capture since the Confederates were dismounted and could not follow him quickly enough through the dense woods and underbrush.

A few miles to the southwest, the remaining Union detachment was skirting to the east of Fayetteville when they spotted a large group of mounted men milling about near a deserted farmhouse and sporting a rag tag assortment of uniforms and carrying no flag or banner for identification. The Lieutenant quickly identified this group as an unauthorized band of rebel guerillas out on a raid. There must have been at least thirty -five men in this group. The Federals had not been spotted and quietly made their way around the farmhouse and on to the narrow dirt road beyond. After riding about two miles, the group stumbled upon two mounted guerilla scouts, surprising both parties out of their wits. Pistols were drawn and in very close quarters, the rebels rode past the Federals at a fast gallop. One guerilla fell from the saddle mortally wounded but the other was through the pack and gone in an instant. Ironically, the guerilla that got away was none other than Jeremiah McCain. He rode hard to warn the main guerilla party and take up chase of the seven remaining Federals. Meanwhile the Federals turned their horses south and headed for the state line at the old Elora place. They moved quickly and crossed the state line without any incidents.

The thought of bounty or payroll was all the incentive the rebels needed to move fast and take up a vigorous pursuit. McCain had found his companions who wheeled their horses and took up a quick pursuit of the small Federal band. McCain had seen the “out of place” pack mule and surmised there may be something important in those boxes. The thought of bounty or payroll was all the incentive the rebels needed to move fast and take up a vigorous pursuit. They spurred their horses onward in hot pursuit of the Federals knowing they had a head start of a few precious miles.

The countryside into North Alabama is predominately rolling hills with both woods and scattered fields. The Federals drove their horses as hard as they could aware of the superior enemy force coming "hell bent for leather" behind them. They made their way past the community of New Market and skirted around a small mountain called Lewis Mountain. They then veered eastward about a mile then came to the Flint River where they planned to follow it south to the John Gurley farm where they would pick up Union outposts and friendly troops that could escort them on to Huntsville. The river should be easy to follow and at least offer them some protection to their flank. The route along the river was easy and they even stopped to water and rest their horses for a short while. Although they had not seen any rebel guerillas or Confederate Cavalry, they knew the band of guerillas they saw up in Tennessee would be close behind. The group mounted and continued at a brisk pace along the eastern bank of the Flint. Soon they approached a long fingerlike mountain off to the right with steep bluffs rising about four hundred feet. This was known as Sublett Bluff and it runs parallel to the river. Beyond the mountain was a hidden valley called Potts Hollow and little did the Federals know but it was a stronghold and hiding place to a band of rebel guerillas who camped both in the hollow and on top of the mountain called Chestnut Knob. Two mounted guerillas were riding on the top of the bluff when they spotted the small band of Union troopers riding along the river below. The two rebels split up and one continued to follow the band while the other rode off to warn the others.

As the Union detachment rounded the end of the mountain at Sublett Point, they saw mounted horsemen riding fast to intercept them at a point where the river split in two then rejoined a short distance down stream. The Federals turned straight south and headed for the large mountain about a mile in front of them. If they could just get around this mountain, they knew they would link up with some Federal troops and make their way on safely to Huntsville. They knew this was Keel Mountain. They quickly crossed Hurricane Creek and headed for the large point that loomed up before them.

Meanwhile, the detachment of rebels from Tennessee had rounded Sublett Point and was riding parallel with the other band from Potts Hollow. In all, the combined rebels would number about fifty men, far outnumbering the small detachment of seven. The rebels from Potts Hollow had reached another split in the river called Esslinger Island and was closing in on the Federals from the west, cutting off their escape route around the base of Keel Mountain. The larger group of rebels was only several hundred yards behind and gaining fast. The Lieutenant shouted for his men to ride straight up the mountain as far as they could then dismount and form a defensive position at the top. Maybe some Federal troops could hear gunshots from the other side and come to their rescue. As the Federals rode into the trees and started up the steep slope of the mountain, the guerillas opened fire and bullets whistled through the limbs of the winter bare trees.

One lucky bullet found the back of a trooper and he and his horse plunged heavily to the ground. Another found the back of the pack mule's hind leg and he dropped to the ground head first against a tree trunk. There was a loud pop and the mule lay still with a broken neck. The young trooper who was leading the mule dismounted and quickly cut the bands that held the strongboxes and opened the boxes retrieving the two bags of gold coins. They were very heavy but he grabbed them with all of his strength and started dragging them as he struggled toward the top. Most of the other horses had stopped and the remaining Union troopers were making their way to the top when the rebel guerillas came through the edge of the woods and started up the incline on foot. Bullets were flying everywhere from both sides. Two rebels dropped in their tracks but the Federals were so outnumbered they turned and ran for their lives through the woods with the rebels close on their heels. The young Union trooper with the bags of coins took a bullet through the neck and fell mortally back into a deep depression. Both he and the leather bags buried deep into the pile of fallen leaves at the bottom of the ditch, partially hiding them.

Most of the guerillas had now reached the top in pursuit of the fleeing Federals, all but Jeremiah McCain who had seen the young soldier fall. He cautiously approached the deep ditch and peered over the edge. He spotted a boot sticking out of the leaves and crawled down to find the dead soldier and the leather bags. When he opened the bags, he gasp with amazement as the reflection of the sun hit the soft yellow color of the gold and reflected the bright yellow brilliance into his face. Before him, lay a fortune in gold coins. As in most cases of treasure, greed immediately took over and McCain decided to hide the bags and come back later to bury them. He carried the bags out of the depression and moved further up the slope where he found another depression with some rocks covering a small deep hole. He thought he might be near the top. He moved the rocks and stuffed the bags in the hole then covered them back up with rocks and leaves. In front of him, further up the slope, was a large oak tree so he paced off the distance between his buried gold and the base of the tree. The distance was exactly seventy-six paces and he knew he could easily remember this. With a big grin on his face, he walked up the slope to rejoin his comrades chasing the Federals. Most of the guerillas had now reached the top in pursuit of the fleeing Federals, all but Jeremiah McCain who had seen the young soldier fall.

Only two Federal troopers escaped that day and got back to their lines and then on to Huntsville to tell their story. General Mitchell was furious with the loss of the gold and sent several reinforced scouting parties back to the mountain to search for the gold and any rebels he could find. The guerillas had long disappeared back into the mountains and although the Union searchers found the dead mule and trooper in the ditch, they could not find the gold shipment. They scoured the fields, the river, and the entire mountain but the gold had simply disappeared. Finally, they assumed the gold had been captured by Confederates and things finally settled down. Soon after, General Mitchell was relieved of command and assigned to another command in Hilton Head, South Carolina where he contracted yellow fever and died a few months later.

About the same time, Jeremiah McCain and his band were surprised up near New Market by a large force of Union cavalry supporting an infantry regiment. In the ensuing battle, McCain caught a Union slug in the stomach and like most belly wounds of the Civil War, it was a horrible, untreatable wound and a painful and slow way to die. From this bad wound, McCain got an infection and a severe fever and became delirious toward the end. One of his captured comrades was bending over the dying McCain when he tried to relate the story of the hidden gold but in his delirious state, he did not make too much sense and the young guerilla had trouble understanding the part where it was buried. Apparently McCain had related part of the story to someone else prior to his wound because it is from this unknown person the rest of this legend was eventually revealed. This legend is relatively unknown because those who have heard the story have probably remained quiet because of their own self-interest in searching for the gold.

Is this story true? Who knows? Maybe somewhere up on Keel Mountain, there is a hole filled with the long forgotten rotted remains of leather bags and a hole filled with loose gold Eagles. Perhaps it was just an illusion of an old dying man with fever. In any event, like most legends, it makes a good story.