Coins and currency of the American Civil War
Collecting coins is a celebrated pastime for a variety of reasons. It can be a profitable hobby, of course, but coins and currency also represent a piece of history. From the images that appear in the designs to the countries that issued the money, each example tells a story. The American Civil War was most certainly a prominent event in U.S. history, and money issued during this period has become highly valuable to numismatic collectors. From a shortage of metals to the introduction of income taxes, the accounts of coins and currency produced during the American Civil War only add to the value and mystique.
From the onset of the Civil War, coins were in short supply. Metal resources were reserved for weapons manufacturing in both the North and the South. This meant that no metal was left to create new coins, but also some existing coinage was melted down and turned into guns and tools needed to fight the war. The South, or the Confederate States of America as they were called at the time, also had no interest in using money with the name of the United States. So in 1861, both sides of the conflict began producing paper currency. This was the first time the United States, and of course the Confederate States, printed bills for money.
In the North, these bills were called Demand Notes, produced in increments of 5, 10 and 20 U.S. dollars. In 1862, the U.S. began issuing Legal Tender, which looks strikingly similar to the paper money still issued by the government today. Because coins were scarce, merchants had trouble making change for the bills they received. To overcome this challenge, many business owners used postage stamps as change. Eventually, the United States government began releasing small paper notes in 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent denominations, known to numismatists as Fractional Currency. Income taxes, known then as Internal Revenue taxes, were introduced to offset the inflation caused by so much new money being distributed at once.
The nickname “greenback” dates to this era. The ink used by the Northern states to print money was green, while Confederate money was blue on the back. Many people around the world today still use “greenbacks” to refer to U.S. dollars, and collectors continue to refer to old Confederate notes as “bluebacks.”
Confederate money was printed quickly since most southern banks had loaned all of their money and bullion supplies to the new government to support the war. During the transition period, bartering for tobacco, cotton and coffee was popular. Private businesses and individual states tried issuing their own money, as well. Notes issued by the Confederate States of America featured symbols of the cause, such as ships, cotton and depictions of slave labor. The currency was largely handmade, numbered and signed by female clerks. Today, finding a bill that was hand signed by an ancestor who was known to be a Confederate clerk is very appealing to dedicated collectors.
Government mints in the South were located in Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina. Due to the metal shortage and pre-war dies, only four half dollars were ever struck with Confederate artwork. Paper during the mid-1800s was made from linen and cotton rags. Even though the South was the leading supplier of cotton in the world, a paper shortage affected the printing of currency. Rags became scarce because of the demand from hospitals treating soldiers, so paper was smuggled in from England and even from the Northern states.
Coin values for pieces from this period are typically high since the examples that remain are rare. The Confederate States of America had dies created so they could issue their metal currency but lost the war before any coins were issued for circulation. Several years after the Civil War, these dies were discovered and used to mint minimal quantities for historical purposes, with fewer than 100 pieces ever struck. These are almost never seen available for purchase. Commemorative coins have been issued over the years, most recently in 1995 to honor the end of the Civil War. The design featured a Union eagle and bugler on a horse.
At the end of the Civil War, Confederate money had no value. It could not be used for trade anywhere in the United States and banks would not exchange the notes for Legal Tender. Large stacks of currency from the South were gathered by private companies, who reused the paper by printing advertisements over the top. Even though large quantities of these bills were destroyed, thousands still exist and are highly collectible.
Some of the most heavily printed notes from the South are worth hundreds of dollars today. High-quality currency from this period has seen a steady increase in collectible value for many years, sought after by numismatists and collectors of Civil War memorabilia. Museums and private collectors have already acquired most of the limited issue currency from the Confederacy, so finding a note for sale is uncommon. From time to time, new stashes of bills are discovered, creating new enthusiasm when, and if, they go on the market.