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Treasure Ship @ National Geographic Magazine
By Priit J. Vesilind
Photographs by Jonathan Blair,
Odyssey Marine Exploration

In 1865 a paddle wheeler packing gold, silver, and post–Civil War hope went down off the coast of Georgia. Now the treasure is coming home.

Read or print the full article.

It was a time to move on, to douse the fires and lick the wounds. The Civil War had ended in May, and the holy quiet that followed had evolved into a vibrant summer hum of opportunity. The defeated South lay poor and bitter, but the rest of the nation had turned, gratefully, back to making money.

In October William T. Nichols, a former colonel of a Vermont regiment, and his younger brother, Henry, put down 60 dollars each and stepped off a Manhattan pier onto the S.S. Republic, a steamship bound for New Orleans. They found stateroom number 13, stowed their baggage, and awaited the 3:30 cast off. The weather was heavy outside the harbor, so the steamship lay over until the next morning at Staten Island and embarked again at 9 a.m. on October 19.

Newly refitted from a warship back into a civilian steamer, her twin side paddle wheels turned by coal-fired boilers, the Republic carried 59 passengers, 500 barrels of freight, and a reported 400,000 dollars in coins. Hard money was scarce in the former Confederate states, and New Orleans was broke, so bankers and businessmen were shipping keg-loads of coins to take advantage of their inflated purchasing power. In New Orleans the same 20-dollar gold coin would buy twice as much as it would in New York. Aboard the Republic were families with children, Army officers headed for new assignments, and businessmen like Nichols. Dressed in top hats and silk, the passengers breathed the warm salt air, played cards, and drank wine, happy to have survived the war.

Fate had not been kind to William Nichols, a 35-year-old veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg. He had just lost his daughter, May, to typhoid fever. He had also lost a small fortune in stock and wool investments. Now he was looking to the South to regain his footing, planning to continue from New Orleans to Texas, where he hoped to purchase real estate on the cheap. He took heart from the voyage. "The weather is beautiful, and the ship bounds on her way like a thing of life," he wrote to his wife, Thyrza, back in Rutland.

The Republic passed Cape Hatteras on Sunday, October 22, and by the next evening the wind had stiffened into a northeast gale. The ship was off the Georgia coast when the gale turned into what the captain, Edward Young, described as the "perfect hurricane." Steaming south at a furious rate, Young could not outrun it.

The end began with a table-clearing roll on Monday afternoon that sent dinner—pies, meats, vegetables, and condiments—tumbling to the floor. The ship labored as towering waves rushed across her decks. The soaked passengers huddled in their berths, sleepless, and in the nightmare clarity of Tuesday morning they saw the great paddle wheels stop, leaving the piston locked dead center and the ship adrift, at the mercy of the wind. Waves washed away the pilothouse and paddle-wheel boxes. Passengers and crew alike tossed cargo overboard to lighten the ship. Out went bolts of silk, ingots of tin, liquors, tobacco, varnish, and other heavy goods.
"I supposed I had seen something like confusion in battle," Nichols later wrote, "but the scene at this time was sublime. The ship had 300 tons of coal, and as she lurched from side to side, the roar of the coal and water sounded like Niagara, and the water on the outside dashing against the ship was another distinct sound and horrid enough of itself. The wind was howling through the rigging like the demons of the sea, and to make it a perfect hell, the men, excited and yelling to each other, begrimed with black smut and engine grease. It was desperation intensified."

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Take a virtual tour of the ship's sunken wreckage and explore artifacts on the seafloor.

As long as no one alive today can prove ownership, artifacts and treasures found at sea in international waters can be claimed by whoever can afford the technology to explore. Should more restrictive laws governing archaeological discoveries on land extend to the sea in international waters? Who should own the rights to the pieces of history scattered across the ocean floor?

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
One of the last men to leave the steamship Republic was Louis Caziarc, a 21-year-old Army lieutenant from Boston who had to swim through floating debris in the storm-tossed sea, not only to save himself but also to help others to safety. Caziarc had spent the previous three years as a volunteer in the Union Army, serving most of that time as aide-de-camp to Gen. George Andrews and Gen. Edward R. S. Canby in the campaigns of Port Hudson, Baton Rouge, and Mobile. Caziarc was brevetted a captain because of his "faithful and meritorious service during the campaign against the city of Mobile."  He didn't hold that rank long as a volunteer officer, but it did help him to remain a lieutenant when he chose to enlist in the regular Army at the close of the war.
When the steamship Republic went down, Lieutenant Caziarc was returning from a much deserved leave in Boston and New York. The New York Times reported: "The Lieutenant was indefatigable in his exertions to rescue his fellow passengers." Eventually rescued by one of the lifeboats, Caziarc resumed his post as aide-de-camp to General Canby.  Working for Canby during the immediate years of Reconstruction in the South, Caziarc helped oversee the restoration of Louisiana, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Caziarc's career in the Army was mainly administrative, but he had some colorful assignments. He served on the West Coast with Canby until 1873, when the Modoc Indians in northern California killed the general. Later, as a major, Caziarc was in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in 1901 served as supervisor of the police, provost marshal, and head of the secret service police of Havana. He retired in 1906 with the rank of brigadier general. Spending part of his retirement in Europe, Caziarc occasionally wrote to the headquarters of the Army to check in and let them know his location, just in case his service was needed. Brig. Gen. Louis V. Caziarc, 91, passed away in 1935, perhaps the last survivor of the steamship Republic.
—David W. Wooddell
Did You Know?

Related Links
Odyssey Marine Exploration
Visit the website of the company that discovered the steamship Republic, and view updated information about their ongoing search, recovery, and conservation operations.
Numismatic Guaranty Corporation
Find out more about specific coins found on Republic.
U.S. Naval History Center
Learn the military history of steamship Tennessee, later U.S.S. Mobile, and then S.S. Republic.

Vermont in the Civil War: Second Brigade
Explore the history of Colonel Nichols and the 14th Vermont Infantry.
Louisiana State Museum Medley of Culture
Find a history of Louisiana written by former state museum historian Kimberly Hanger.

Freedmen's Bureau Online
This site offers an impressive look at the bureau set up by the federal government to help the freed slaves and other refugees after the Civil War.


Broad, William J. "Far beneath the waves, salvagers find history laden with gold." New York Times, August 17, 2003.
Broad, William J. "Salvagers say a shipwreck trove is worth millions." New York Times, November 30, 2003.
Heyman, Mal L. Prudent Soldier: A Biography of Major General E. R. S. Canby, 1817–1873. Arthur H. Clark Company, 1959.
Ridgely-Nevitt, Cedric. American Steamships on the Atlantic. University of Delaware Press, 1981.
Winters, John D. The Civil War in Louisiana. Louisiana State University Press, 1963.


NGS Resources
Bass, George F. "Golden Age Treasures." National Geographic (March 2002), 102-17.
Allen, Thomas B. "Cuba's Golden Past." National Geographic (July 2001), 74-91.
"Sunken Treasures." Map supplement. National Geographic (July 2001).
McIntosh, Jane. Treasure Seekers. National Geographic Books, 2001.
Burgan, Michael. "Lost and Found: Treasures." National Geographic World (April 2000), 19-23.
Pickford, Nigel. Lost Treasure Ships of the Twentieth Century. National Geographic Books, 1999.


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