Tender treasures

The history and art of Confederate currency


Reading much like the U.S. Constitution ratified nearly three-quarters of a century earlier, the Confederate States of America (CSA) adopted the Confederate Constitution on March 11, 1861. A notable difference were the words, "each State acting in its sovereign and independent character;" a reflection of the emphasis placed on states’ rights by the Congress of the Confederate States of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Section 8, paragraph 5, gave states the right "to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures." After the adoption of the CSA Constitution, southern states that succeeded were no longer bound by the monetary restrictions of the Union, and within two months, they began to finance their war effort with newly-minted currency.

Standing on the platform of independence, states were vigilant about their rights, and more so in economic areas than anywhere else. The national government of the Confederacy, first established in Montgomery, Ala., and later located in Richmond, issued more than 72 types of bank notes during the Civil War, creating a supply totaling an estimated $2 billion. Initially, Confederate currency was accepted as legitimate purchasing exchange and carried a stable value. However, along with the issuance of paper money by the national government, each individual state was free to issue its own currency. Private businesses and industries, such as insurance companies, banks, railroads and factories, also issued their own scrip. The result was chaos in the financial system of the South, furthered by the ease of forgery and counterfeiting. Originally intended to be backed by the abundance of cotton that underpinned the economy of the South, that support failed when the Union blockaded foreign cotton trade.

As confidence in the success of the Confederate cause waned and the production of currency increased, inflation was inevitable. By the end of the war, a bar of soap sold for as much as $50. In comparison, soldiers’ wages were frozen at $8 per month. After the Confederacy ceased to exist, the money lost all value as a means of currency exchange.

Precious metals that might have been used to make coins were not available, having been used to purchase war materials from abroad. The CSA did mint a small number of coins, including a one-cent piece made of coppernickel. It was struck by Robert Lovett Jr. of Philadelphia. Production ceased, and he hid the coins and dies when he became fearful of persecution for aiding the enemy. Four sample half dollars were struck on a hand-press in New Orleans and are in the hands of collectors today.

Years after the war, the die used to form the CSA half dollar was bought by J.W. Scott of New York City, who purchased 500 1861 U.S. half dollars, had one side planed down and reshaped into the elaborate design of the CSA half dollar. Those coins are worth from $2,500 to $5,000 today, but the die went missing during the 1920s. The dies used for the cent pieces, of which 14 are believed to exist today, were donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1962.

Although Confederate currency became worthless after the Civil War, the beauty of the individual tenders is remarkable, especially in contrast to the ugliness of the war. The North had more resources in engravers, printers and printing facilities.

Most bank plates or dies were in the North, and Southern printers had to use lithography, which uses oil and gum arabic to divide the smooth surface into hydrophobic regions to accept ink and hydrophilic regions that reject it, thus becoming the background. This process was used to print text or artwork onto the currency paper. The southern currencies varied in printing, papers and inks as resources became more undependable. Notes depicted mythological gods and goddesses, slaves, naval ships and notable figures such as George Washington. Later in the war, southern politicians, military leaders and citizens were pictured on the currency. CSA notes were hand-signed, originally by the register and treasurer themselves. Considered to be a way to deter counterfeiters, the hand-signing became problematic with the sheer volume of notes being produced, and clerks were hired to sign "for Treasurer" and "for Register."

Ranging in worth from $100 to tens of thousands of dollars, there is still an active market for Confederate currency. This unique and artistic tender is the subject of an exhibit at the Chesterfield County Museum, running through May. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Admission is free.

On The Web:  www.chesterfieldobserver.com/news/2009/0430/Family/