Why would anyone in their right mind buy the idea that there’s a boat full of Confederate gold stashed away somewhere in Africa? Never mind why an unnaturally obsessive explorer would buy that idea, why would millions of moviegoers? And why should you?
The Reel Story: Equal parts Indiana Jones and James Bond, Matthew McConaughey’s Dirk Pitt swashbuckles across the globe searching for a missing Confederate ship filled with riches beyond our wildest imagining in last weekend’s biggest movie, “Sahara.” Based on the Clive Cussler novel of the same name, the film opens during the Civil War as a Confederate gunboat (an ironclad) crashes through a Union blockade and steams off into history, taking with it a full load of Confederate gold. McConaughey’s Pitt is convinced the ship sailed all the way to Africa and up the Niger River, and he and sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) are on a mission to find it.
Along the way, somewhere in Nigeria, they meet Eva (Penélope Cruz), a doctor with the World Health Organization, who is investigating a possible plague that could emanate from the same river the ship of gold may have traveled (always nice to find people with similar interests). After a series of adventures — including racing to stop the plague, battling dictators, getting stranded in a well and being chased numerous times — our heroes find their way to the infamous ship in a very unlikely location. Is such a treasure out there?
The Real Story: Probably not.
“There is not a lost Confederate ironclad full of gold, or even one full of silver or old pennies or valuable baseball cards!” University of Virginia history Professor Gary Gallagher said. “The whole idea is silly … though it made for a premise in the film.”
While no Confederate ironclad ever ran the blockade and floated off into the sunset, there are a lot of rumored treasures and antiquities out there.
The most famous lost Confederate ship, the H.L. Hunley, was one of the first working submarines that operated with a crew. The first submarine to engage and sink a warship, the Hunley didn’t operate all that well, as she sank several times, killing a total of 22 men. In 1864, the hand-powered sub rammed the USS Housatonic in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor with a torpedo that detonated as the Hunley tried to slowly paddle away. The resulting explosion not only sunk the Housatonic, but also the Hunley and her crew of eight.
The Hunley wasn’t seen again until 131 years later, when “Sahara” author and amateur marine archeologist Cussler and a team from the National Underwater and Marine Agency (a non-profit group dedicated to preserving maritime heritage that Cussler founded) discovered the Hunley after a 14-year search. The ship was raised from the deep in 2000, and is in the midst of a restoration and conservation process.
There was never any gold aboard the Hunley — probably not the best cargo for a submarine, especially one prone to sinking — but rumors of Confederate treasure have floated around for years. In the waning days of the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the remains of the government fled advancing Federal troops. Supposedly they carried the remains of the treasury, roughly a million dollars in gold and silver, but it wasn’t with them when they were eventually captured. This treasure is rumored to have been buried at many locations in the South, but has never been found.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Sahara.”
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