The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 23, Number 1, January 5, 2020, Article 23


Tom Kays calls for E-Sylum reader help in solving a money mystery of historic proportions. He recently met a representative of the Burke & Herbert Bank, a Burke family descendant who told a fascinating tale involving the bank and the Washington Family fortune. Can anyone help identify particular notes, checks, drafts, or financial instruments backing up the story? -Editor

Oliver Goddin is a descendant of the Burke family and a representative for the Burke & Herbert Bank. Oliver says his family has long told the tale of how John Burke, the bank's co-founder, and his wife helped save the Washington Family fortune at the outset of the American Civil War. One of President George Washington's descendants sold Washington's tomb, the Mount Vernon mansion house and two hundred acres in Virginia, just months before the start of the American Civil War, depositing the family fortune in Burke & Herbert Bank & Exchange in Alexandria, Virginia, before joining up with General Lee. How the Washington family fortune was raised, stashed, searched for, smuggled, and ultimately rose again is a true and fascinating tale with a dash of a mystery to this day of exactly how it was pulled off.

Burke & Herbert Bank
Burke & Herbert Bank has today become the oldest continuously operating bank in Virginia. John Woolfolk Burke and Arthur Herbert opened the Burke & Herbert Banking & Exchange Office in August 1852, at Prince and Water Street (now called Lee Street) in Alexandria, a port city with busy Potomac River docks, warehouses, manufacturing, and shipping.  Alexandria had undergone retrocession from the District of Columbia (Washington City) back into the arms of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1846-1847, allowing Alexandria residents to seek financing for infrastructure projects, such as the new gas works and the Alexandria Canal, without interference from Congress.

Three banks were already doing business in Alexandria.  John Burke was 27 years old in 1852.  His second wife, Martha Jefferson Trist was Thomas Jefferson's great-granddaughter.  Arthur Herbert was just 23, and yet they handled the purchase and sale of bank notes and coin, collection of sight and time bills, negotiation of loans, bonds, stock sales, public securities, real estate deals, and land warrants on commission. 

  In May 1861, six weeks after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, troops seized and occupied Arlington and Alexandria, holding them throughout the Civil War. Eleven regiments of Union troops occupied Alexandria, quickly transforming the city into military outposts, hospitals, signal corps sites, and setting a terminus for the U.S. Military Railroad. 

Virginians living in Alexandria had to make hasty decisions to decamp south or stay put. If they stayed put, they would have to live under constant suspicion of southern sympathies by the occupying forces.  Arthur Herbert left to join the Old Dominion Rifles (Company H) of the 17th Virginia Infantry, CSA.   John Burke remained in Alexandria, under house arrest, and later in jail, throughout the war, treated as a Confederate sympathizer.

The occupying troops orders were to search for, and seize war materiel including building materials, food, supplies, and valuable assets needed to conduct the war.  Houses that went vacant became fair game for being torn down and their bricks used to house Union troops in new barracks and fortifications under construction in the outer defenses of Washington City.  Yankee foragers meant business.

Union harassment of the Burke and Herbert families would continue throughout the war.  John Burke would assert he did not know where his bank's money was when repeatedly interrogated by Union officers, yet the Alexandria Gazette would later report that depositors in the Burke & Herbert Banking & Exchange Office lost no money during the ‘War of Northern Aggression' and occupation of Alexandria.  How did John Burke hide, preserve, and protect his bank depositor's money throughout the war from jail?  

George Washington's Heirs
One depositor in Burke & Herbert's Bank & Exchange was John Augustine Washington III, great-grand-nephew of George Washington, and the last Washington family member to own Mount Vernon.  He was continually beset with sightseers wanting to see and tour the mansion, ask the typical tourist questions, and make a nuisance of themselves, expecting extravagant southern hospitality, and slowing John's farm work.  John posted NO TRESPASSING signs and notices. He required letters of introduction from dignitaries seeking to enter the mansion and denied steamboat access to the Mount Vernon dock on the Potomac River. 

Losing money at farming, John eventually embraced historical tourism as a potential money-making venture. He sold flowers, fruit, milk, hand-carved canes and wooden ‘Washington' trinkets to tourists.  John still lost money with the tourists. He tried to sell the mansion and a few hundred acres to the Federal Government in 1853, seeking to make Mount Vernon and Washington's Tomb into the property of the nation. No sale. He offered the property to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Still no sale. 

In April 1858, John finally accepted an offer from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA) of $200,000 for the mansion, tomb, and 200 acres, in installment payments over five years. The sales contract put $18,000 down with the remainder to be paid in full by February 22, 1862.  The MVLA authorized the first installment payment for $57,000 with interest and then another $10,000 in December 1858, leaving the remainder ($115,000) payable under three future installments, each due on Washington's birthday in 1860, 1861, and 1862. 

In the summer of 1860, John Augustine Washington III moved to Waveland Plantation near Winchester, Virginia leaving money paid by the MVLA on deposit with Burke and Herbert.  He joined the Confederate Army as a lieutenant colonel, serving as aide-de-camp to General Robert E. Lee and was killed on reconnaissance at Cheat Mountain in 1861. John is buried in what is now West Virginia.  The Union command wanted to confiscate the Washington Family money and suspected it was hidden in the city of Alexandria. 

Mount Vernon Ladies Association
The Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA) is a non-profit organization that today preserves and maintains George Washington's Mount Vernon estate. The MVLA was founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina, who heard a scandalous description of the decrepit mansion from her mother, who steamed past on a riverboat, and thought both Mount Vernon and George Washington's memory would soon be gone from a lack of upkeep, to her utter dismay.  “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can't the women of America band together to save it?”  

The MVLA sought voluntary contributions from a grateful nation to do their duty as guardians of our common Father's Tomb. The MVLA hosted birth night balls, fairs, talks, lectures, and fundraisers to buy George Washington's decaying mansion from the Washington family heirs to preserve George Washington's legacy.  Appeals to history-minded citizens to contribute a dollar per adult and fifty cents per child per annum to the cause of historic preservation would add your name to that patriotic roll call of citizen supporters who love American history. 

The MVLA formed “Regents” and “Vice Regents” across the country who formed “Clubs” for women within each State.  Clubs would receive a copy of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, famed in gold as a masthead to aid in lectures on historic preservation, with reform, temperance, and abolition subthemes for good measure. Their goal was to raise $500,000 to buy, restore, and maintain the mansion and grave site. The names, sum, and residence of any contributor were registered by the Association in the Mount Vernon Registry.  

For instance, a lecture on “The Lights and Shades of the Irish Character” was delivered by Dr. Shelton Mackenzie, Literary Editor of “The Press,” at the Odd Fellows Hall in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to aid in MVLA fundraising. In Washington City, contributions were received in person at the Office of the Mayor of Washington, also by George W. Riggs, Esq., Treasurer of the MVLA. It was George W. Riggs who telegraphed Ann Cunningham when the first $57,000 installment payment to John Washington was complete.

From 1854 to 1861, and thanks to the ladies, mailing envelopes and medals depicting George Washington and Mount Vernon became popular with the American public.  In 1860, the United States Mint opened an exhibition featuring one hundred thirty-eight separate medals bearing George Washington's likeness and issued a one hundred thirty-ninth, itself.  Mint Director James Ross Snowden contributed his own ‘Washingtonia' collection to form the United States cabinet of Washington medals, amid the uproar in which rare coins, patterns, and medals were re-struck at the Mint under Snowden's after-hours urging.

The death of Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, an antiquarian, in 1857, led to publication in 1860, of a series of essays, Recollections and Private Memoirs of George Washington, he had written about his step-father, which were edited by his daughter with the help of Benson J. Lossing. Lossing pioneered historical tourism to rediscover and report on Revolutionary War sites in the 1850s including Mount Vernon. He arrived with his letter of introduction for John but was disappointed to find no one home and little hospitality. He gathered sketches for steel engravings to illustrate his popular history books throughout the 1850s and 1860s. 

1860 Lossing view of Mount Vernon

Idealized View of Mount Vernon, about 1860 by Benson J. Lossing, from the front Lawn looking south down the Potomac - This respectful steel engraving omits the sagging porch propped up by poles and disrepair evident on casual inspection from passers-by on the Potomac River.

The MVLA amazingly raised the full amount by February 22, 1860. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association took over conservancy of the ‘vacant' estate in 1860 after final payment, and before Southern Vice Regents began to have trouble sending restoration money as “cotton drafts” that local banks refused to cash. Ann Pamela Cunningham's directorship and fund-raising activities up north ceased in 1861, since she was trapped in South Carolina for the duration. The Mount Vernon mansion lay in “no-mans-land,' barely a few miles between Union and Confederate defensive positions, yet was spared from burning, dismantling, or disturbance by troops from North and South alike during the Civil War. In the MVLA Annual Report of 1866, George W. Riggs reported $1200 on account for maintaining Mount Vernon, short of the MVLA $300,000 goal for restoration and maintenance, but not entirely wiped out.

Hide and Seek with Bayonets
The Burke family received especially harsh treatment in a campaign to flush out hidden bank assets including the Washington family fortune.  Conducting vigorous searches of the Burke household, Union soldiers rampaged through the family's belongings until reaching a bedroom where Mrs. Burke stood by a closed door.  “It is my closet,” she said, “and you may search it if you must.”  The Union commander, a gentleman, declined to search through the lady's intimate items and left.  The bank's money was said to be concealed under Mrs. Burke's neatly folded unmentionables. Would the next Yankee officer to search the house also be a gentleman? 

John Burke had to get money out of Alexandria, but he was under house arrest, was no doubt being watched, and couldn't be found with it on his person.  John called on Miss Sarah Cornelia Tracy, Secretary to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association's founder, Ann Cunningham, preservationist, and close friend of the Washington family.  Miss Tracy was from New York, a Yankee, and a woman.  She could travel across the lines.  Sarah secreted money including the Washington family fortune in the bottom of a basket of eggs.  Alone, she drove a one-horse cart past 75,000 Union troops, crossing the Potomac River to seek out Mr. Burke's trusted colleague, and Treasurer of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Mr. Charles W. Riggs, in Washington City living safely above the Potomac.  Sarah is said to have stashed the fortune in a safe deposit box in the Northern Capitol to sit out the war, then calmly sold her eggs to Mr. Riggs, who we hear gladly paid for them.  Burke family descendants have long told this story as family lore. 

Miss Sarah occupied Mount Vernon during the war and later married Upton H. Herbert, the resident superintendent of Mount Vernon in 1872. General Winfield Scott gave the order to Union troops to approach with due reverence and leave uninjured the Tomb, Home, Groves, and Walks of Mount Vernon after a visit from Miss Sarah, who secured similar assurances from the Virginia Governor. Miss Sarah continued to receive visitors, let them tour the mansion house (provided they stacked their guns outside) and sold potatoes, peaches, pears, tomatoes, cabbages, hay, bricks, and photographs of Mount Vernon to get by.

Riggs & Company Bank
In 1836 William Wilson Corcoran opened a note brokerage house in Washington City. He joined with George Washington Riggs Jr., in 1840 to form Corcoran & Riggs, a private bank which became the only Federal depository in Washington City by 1844, and who helped finance the War with Mexico by buying $16 million dollars or 80% of the bonds issued by the U.S. Government to fight the war. Corcoran retired in 1854 leaving Riggs to change the institution's name to Riggs & Company, located across the street from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Riggs handled accounts for both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis (then, Senator from Mississippi), offering checking and depository services. Banking back then was a bit more informal than today. For example, Abraham Lincoln wrote a check on Riggs & Company in April 11, 1863 for $5 payable to a “colored man with one leg.” It would be Riggs & Company that lent $7.2 million dollars in gold bullion to Secretary of State William Seward, who needed gold to purchase Alaska from Tsar Alexander II just after the war.

Questions for E-Sylum Readers
While I haven't yet made the connection that Charles W. Riggs worked directly for Riggs & Company, perhaps Riggs & Company is where John Burke arranged with Yankee ‘confederates' to preserve the Burke & Herbert depositor's money, including the Washington family fortune, finding safe keeping until after the war? Details of Burke & Herbert Bank reconstruction and reopening remain sketchy. But in what form could the Washington Family fortune (more than $115,000 in the last installment of February 1860) fit in an egg-basket? 

U.S. Federal banknotes would not be printed until 1862 and new Confederate notes of 1861 would lose all value by war's end. Gold coin would be too heavy. Perhaps several hundred, $500 denomination, saddle-blanket-sized notes would fit unobtrusively under the straw lining Miss Sarah's egg basket? Does anyone know of, or have a specific example of notes used in MVLA fund raising, payments to the Washington Family for Mount Vernon, or Burke & Herbert issued bank notes of that age? In what form could pre-war, Virginia financial instruments cross the Potomac in an egg basket, fit in a safe deposit box, yet hold their value for the Washington family heirs throughout the Civil War?  What wildcat banknotes would be redeemable on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line from the start to the end of the Civil War?  

Oliver Goddin, who is John Burke's descendant, wants to know what to look for in the Burke & Herbert books, and perhaps down in the vault, from these thrilling events, to assign probable provenance to specific financial instruments from the Washington family fortune, arising from the MVLA's cause, and which helped enshrine George Washington's legacy for us today.

Perhaps what Miss Tracy took to Mr. Riggs was a financial instrument he, himself sent to John Washington, on the behalf on the MVLA. Charles W. Riggs was MVLA treasurer since the 1850s and telegraphed Ann Pamela Cunningham in South Carolina when the incremental money transfer completed in 1858. What better form of money than notes drawn on Riggs' own bank, sent to John Washington from the MVLA account, placed on deposit with John Burke in Alexandria, but returned a few months later with eggs to Mr. Riggs for safekeeping?

Riggs Bank was bought by PNC Bank. Perhaps the Washington Family fortune makes its appearance in the defunct Riggs & Company archives?


A Brief Glimpse of Alexandria History: Burke & Herbert Bank by Kris Gilbertson as published online by Zebra, November 15, 2015

A Riggs Bank History: Ghosts, Good Business by Chapin Wright; The Washington Post, April 28, 1980.

Burke & Herbert Celebrates 150 Years, by Julia M. Williams, Richmond, The Dietz Press, 2002

John Augustine Washington III by Matthew Costello, Marquette University, The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington online at

Early History of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association by Mary V. Thompson, The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington online at

The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, or Illustrations, by Pen and Pencil, of the History, Biography, Scenery, Relics, and Traditions of the War for Independence, by Benson J. Lossing, Volume II, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1860.

The Illustrated Mount Vernon - The Mount Vernon Record – Dedicated to the Purchase of the Home and Grave of Washington, by the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, Philadelphia, December 1858, at

How Private Philanthropy Saved the Founder's Homes Mount Vernon and Monticello by Myron Magnet, Autumn 2011 – MVLA Magazine

Sarah Tracy: Keeping Mount Vernon Safe by Jesse Biele, Patch, May 22, 2012 at

• Personal Discussion with Oliver Goddin, a Burke family descendant

Thanks, Tom. Can anyone help resolve this fascinating mystery? See the 2006 E-Sylum article (linked below) for more information on the Riggs Bank archives. Later that year PNC donated the archives to The George Washington University. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:

For more information on the Riggs Bank Archives, see:
PNC-Riggs Bank Records (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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