New look at old money: Rose Hill Ramble reflects on historic millionaire

lfabian@macon.comOctober 27, 2013 

Grass grows through a cracked slab off Central Avenue in Rose Hill Cemetery.

The name Leroy M. Wiley is the only adornment.

Nothing else is said about Wiley, who in 1857 was billed as the richest man in the world by a Washington, D.C., newspaper.

“He’s a largely forgotten historical figure now,” said historian Phil Comer, who is researching the life of the world-renowned bachelor, who was one of the first three millionaires in the fledgeling United States of America.

Wiley’s life, family and business connections highlighted the fall Rose Hill Ramble, a biannual walking tour of the cemetery founded in 1840.

Sunday, more than 120 people took a stroll back in time to learn how a boy, born in Hancock County when George Washington was president, came to be one of the founders of the international banking system.

His beginnings, as a teen with a Milledgeville merchant, led to successful business ventures in Macon and the eventual founding of the Bank of Charleston to deal with foreign cotton trading.

The bank was folded into the Federal Reserve, Comer said.

“He grew up with America. He invested in all the right things -- banks, stocks, bonds, railroads, insurance companies, and he was a director on a lot of companies in America, New York and Chicago,” Comer said. “He had a rigorous schedule.”

Wiley would spend two to three months at a time in New York City handling business, go to Chicago for a month and divide time among Macon, where he had business interests at Fort Hawkins, and at his plantations in Macon County and Eufala, Ala., near Fort Mitchell.

Abraham Lincoln would not have made it to the White House if it weren’t for the L.M. Wiley, the steam locomotive named for the Middle Georgia businessman.

Wiley served on the board of directors of the Great Western Railroad, which commandeered its finest, brass-polished steam locomotive for the president-elect on his inaugural voyage that began Feb. 11, 1861.

Two months later when the Civil War began, Wiley’s slave ownership would be an embarrassment to the new president, Comer told the ramblers from his megaphone while standing under a shrouded, marble pillar rising 20 feet from a monument down the hill from Wiley’s family plot.

The marker reads: “In memory of Leroy M. Wiley born in Hancock County Georgia. Born Oct. 30, 1794, died April 16, 1868.”

With no children to share his fortune, Wiley wrote his will leaving his massive wealth to his siblings, except for a brother living in Philadelphia and a nephew. They wouldn’t get a penny if they were deemed to be “alien enemies” for their the role in Union forces.

In the years during and following the War Between the States, Wiley was accused of being a spy due to the way money was flowing like a sieve from his northern investments into the South.

President Andrew Johnson would later pardon him and the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Wiley should be permitted to keep his fortune.

“The more I learn, the more research I want to do,” Comer said.

His interest in the man called the “merchant prince” was rekindled last year.

Wiley’s crippled great nephew, Leroy Wiley Gresham, came into prominence when the teen’s Civil War diaries went on display in the Library of Congress.

The young writer of humble prose, penned in what is now the 1842 Inn on College Street, threatened to over-shadow the memory of his internationally famous great-uncle and namesake who often stayed in the Gresham home.

The boy’s father was former Macon Mayor John Gresham, who executed Wiley’s huge estate.

Comer believes the Gresham family erected the monument to Wiley. The octagonal brick wall surrounding it matches the one around the Gresham’s plot near by.

“Nice memorial, sad grave,” said Comer, who pledges to scour more documents for information about Wiley. “Just trying to bring back his memory.”

To contact Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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