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
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.
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.”
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
“Of a large assembly on the streets nineteen men volunteered
and moved with me upon the robbers…,” Freeman later reported.
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 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
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.
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.
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
Instinctively, the man ran back into the room.
shoot anymore,” he yelled. “I am mortally wounded.”
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.”
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.”
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
“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
29, 2009 column
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