- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

Warren Getler, formerly a Wall Street Journal reporter and now editor-at-large for Bloomberg News, and Arkansas treasure hunter Bob Brewer have written an intriguing — yet infuriating — book about buried Rebel gold.

Mr. Getler is a skilled hand at storytelling. He spins a tale here of deep mystery and occult practices and Southern mysticism, slowly pulling back the curtain on a strange world.

The thesis is a legend. At the end of the Civil War, a certain faction among Southern leaders, both military and political, refused to accept surrender. Some fled to Mexico, others dispersed, either going underground deep in the rural South or pretending acquiescence to the Confederate surrender.

But, the legend goes, these die-hards were convinced that the South would rise again and, with the connivance of top leaders, hid millions of dollars in gold, jewels and precious metals in a number of “mother lodes” (as Mr. Brewer puts it), throughout the South and Southwest.

These men knew that they probably would never live to see the rebirth of the pro-slave South… but how to hide and safely pass on the knowledge and location of the treasure?

That, the authors argue, was one of the tasks of a secret organization known as the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The Knights always has been an obscure, almost mythical organization dwelling in the shadows of those who worship at the shrine of the “noble Confederate.” Mr. Getler and Mr. Brewer manage to bring it to life to form the background of their adventure. In short, the two claim the Knights devised hiding places for the Confederate treasure, and knowing that it would be vigorously sought, designed a system of obscure symbols, maps and marks on stones and certain trees to translate the exact location of the treasure troves to generations to come.

The original Knights appointed a ring of “watch-keepers” who had the duty of protecting the lore and the location of the treasure and of handing the duty on to new generations.

Mr. Brewer, a retired Navy helicopter crewman, returned to his hometown in Hatfield, Ark., in 1977, a stranger to all but the outlines of this Southern lore. He had served two tours in Vietnam and was glad to settle back into the community where two previous generations of Brewers had lived out quiet lives. He thought the store-porch stories he heard while catching up with old-timers were simply fables. Except for one thing: As a boy he had heard the same tales of buried gold hinted at by his uncle, Odis Ashcraft — who had heard them from his father.

The tales and the talismans soon fascinated Mr. Brewer — marks on ancient beech trees, crude pictures carved on boulders. A skilled navigator, he was soon working with detailed topographical maps, a pair of dividers and a metal detector — drawing lines between local landmarks, then walking the lines and probing the earth.

The hobby became a passion when in the early ‘90s he found a pint jar stuffed with old coins, including gold pieces, all dating from 1802 to 1889, and valued at about $28,000. Mr. Brewer found another such trove a few months later. The hobbyist would become obsessed with deciphering the Confederate codes.

It’s here that the authors begin to pull punches, however. After a long buildup of mysterious connections — the Knights apparently are related to the Masonic movement, and famed outlaw Jesse James is strongly believed to have been one of the Knights’ watch-keepers — Mr. Brewer leads the reader on treasure hunt after treasure hunt but never reveals (aside from a few caches of coins that might have been buried for a myriad of reasons) whether the mystic maps have led him to a “mother lode.”

In one adventure, he’s outmaneuvered by a duplicitous partner, who steals the Oklahoma “Wolf Map” treasure Mr. Brewer discovers. In another important treasure hunt, the so-called Dutchman treasure in Arizona, he finds what the maps and markers tell him is the spot, only to conclude that it would be too difficult to retrieve because it’s on government land.

Then when he returns again to Arkansas, and after long study, deciphers the location of the “Solomon’s Temple” treasure, said to consist of “several tons” of gold and more than a million dollars in gold coins, he decides not to unearth it. He’s suddenly overcome with the desire to take over the revered position as one of the Knights’ watch-keepers. He decides to leave the site after marking it and embark on a search for other Confederate treasure sites only with heavy equipment, government backing and an agreement that proceeds should go to a good cause.

That consummation is left hanging in the indefinite future.

Mr. Brewer relates how, after a lunch of tinned sausages and cheese crackers, he and a fellow treasure hunter at the Solomon’s Temple site deep in the Arkansas wilderness come to a momentous decision. Although they are sitting on top of a fabulous trove of hidden gold, the two men decide to do nothing about digging it up or even proving it is there.

“The two shook hands on a pledge,” Mr. Getler writes in the climactic pages, “they might reveal the subject of their discovery, but never its precise location.” There is no hard proof, no photographs, no sample coins at this, Mr. Brewer’s greatest find.

This letdown is what makes the book infuriating, despite its exploration of exotic lore and the thrill of discovery. Promising gold, it comes up with only promises.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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