An American Civil War enthusiast who goes looking for tangible Civil War history in the form of coins might be disappointed to find out how few coins exist that relate directly to this conflict, particularly Confederate coins. This is the case for a number of reasons.
The economic character and position of the North was quite different from that of the South. Northern states had far larger and more populated cities, much more industry, and a more modern economy. Comparatively, much of the South was still quite rural, and its exports – cotton being king – were raw goods. The people of the South imported most of their manufactured goods, many of which were made in the factories of the North with immigrant labor.
There were three U.S. mints located in states that eventually became part of the Confederacy. These were the ones in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dahlonega, Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. The Charlotte and Dahlonega mints did not have bullion supplies, however, so the Confederate States of America (CSA) relegated them to assay office status quickly and planned to use only the New Orleans location as a mint.
The New Orleans mint was renamed the Confederate State Mint. It had significant bullion reserves and in 1861 continued to strike half dollars (1861-O) and gold double eagles under the authorities of the U.S. government, the State of Louisiana, and the Confederate government. While Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina did not secede from the Union until after the fall of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, the states in the Deep South, from South Carolina to Texas, did. The economies in most of these states were heavily reliant on slave labor and very nervous about Congress outlawing slavery and passing tariff laws that would benefit the Northern economy and penalize the South.
By early April, Confederate Treasury Secretary Memminger wrote to the New Orleans mint superintendent, William Elmore, asking about engravers and designs suitable for the new government, minus the eagle which represented the United States. A new Confederate reverse die was created for the half dollar, but the die sinker’s inexperience making dies resulted in one that couldn’t be mounted and struck with the mint’s steam press. Four Confederate half dollars were struck by hand and given to officials, and then the project was shelved for practical reasons and also because the bullion supplies could not be replenished. When Union forces invaded New Orleans in 1862, the gold and silver bullion stored there was sent to Dahlonega.
Before long, a worried public in both the North and the South began hoarding what coinage was available, believing that they held value better than other things. Coins became so scarce that it affected commerce because merchants could not make change. Northern mints struck new coins, but they were quickly hoarded as well.
Eventually, two solutions were attempted: tokens and paper money or scrip. Both the U.S. and the Confederate governments printed paper money unbacked by gold or silver reserves. The actual, as opposed to face, value of this currency fluctuated wildly with news from the front. Private die sinkers throughout the North struck over 8500 different types of tokens which helped local economies get moving again. While these short-term solutions aided people in everyday transactions, ultimately they were made worthless when the war ended or laws were passed prohibiting people or businesses from issuing any kind of money. However and you might well know, Civil War era tokens and fractional currency is highly collectible today as historical and numismatic treasures.
There are, of course, famous Civil War coins, including the aforementioned four Confederate half dollars, the very rare Lovett Confederate cent, the bronze 1864 Indian Head cent, the also bronze two cent “In God We Trust” coin, and an 1865 three cent coin. If, as a historian or a coin collector, you’d like to learn about which Civil War coinage, tokens, or currency you could acquire, we at Grand Rapids Coins would be happy to talk to you about your options.