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Confederate Coinage: A Short-lived Dream


The South had always seen itself as a unique region of the United States because it possessed the "peculiar institution" of slavery, around which its society and economy had developed. In an attempt to preserve this way of life, Southerners had always supported states' rights and advocated nullification along with a strong plea to be left alone. During the antebellum period, the slightest infringement on states' rights was seen as the first step in a conspiracy to end slavery and destroy the Southern way of life.

When Lincoln won the 1860 election with only the support of the free states, the South was convinced that a Northern conspiracy existed against them. For Southerners it seemed likely that the Lincoln administration would not only halt the spread of slavery, but also endeavor to abolish it, and with that, end the Southern way of life. The cry for localism now became one for secession. South Carolina, a long-time supporter of Southern rights and slavery, was the first state to secede on December 20, 1860. By February 1, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had joined South Carolina.

The Southern states supported slavery and justified their secession with the constitutional theory that the Union was a compact among sovereign states from which a state could withdraw. Delegates from these Deep South states met in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4 to establish the Confederate States of America. Eleven days later, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was elected to the post of President of this new nation.

Having always seen themselves as a unique region of the United States, the Southern states that had seceded now had the opportunity to assert their sovereignty and independence from the United States of America. Issuing a new Confederate currency would allow this new nation to establish its identity. The saga of the Confederate coinage reflects the shifting fortunes of the Civil War - the rise and fall of the Confederacy, the new nation's initial hopes and later its sudden realization that the four-year old nation would be coming to an end.

The monetary system of the Confederate States of America developed largely from the existing banking and credit systems of the South. Even though state and property banks were the centerpieces of the Southern banking system, most Southerners had little contact with them. Planters dealt with a third party who sold their goods, balanced their books, and made purchases for them. Such services were provided by a factor, usually a Northern or European merchant, at a percentage of the planter's sales. Small farmers established a similar factor system, with a local merchant serving as the factor. This system made the South economically a colony of the North, with even the local merchant relying on a stock of Northern commodities. Having been economically and commercially dependent on the North before the War, the South now planned to symbolically declare their independence from Northern capital by issuing their own coinage and taking fiscal matters into their own hands.

Yet oddly enough, the Confederate Government contacted the renowned Philadelphia jewelers, Bailey & Co. about a contract coinage. The firm, well connected with medalists and diesinkers, commissioned Robert Lovett Jr. for the job. Lovett planned for something uniform with the United States one-cent piece, weighing 4.67 grams and of the same size as the copper-nickel Indian cent. He prepared a die which had his signature design, a Liberty Head, on the obverse, surrounded by the words "Confederate States of America 1861." The reverse bore the inscription "1 cent" surrounded by a wreath of corn, cotton, maple, wheat and tobacco, and two barrels. At the beginning of the wreath lay a cotton bale signed "L." Although Lovett prepared dies for the one-cent pieces and struck twelve coins in copper-nickel, he never handed over the samples to Confederate officials for inspection. Fearing that the United States government might arrest him for assisting the enemy, he dropped the project and buried the dies and coins in his cellar. Even when the war was over, Lovett was reluctant to show them.

Although one-cent Confederate pieces exist, much of the history behind these coins is dubious. Interestingly enough, no documentary evidence exists that links these cents with the Confederacy. Numismatist Fred L. Reed 111, having read the entire Journal of the Confederate Congress, found a mention for an all-copper emergency coinage. However, there were no references to the names of either Bailey & Co. or of Lovett. Reed conjectures that the Confederate cent, rather than being a commissioned pattern, was a story invented after the war by Captain John Haseltine, who claimed to have purchased the dies from Lovett and produced restrikes. Perhaps Haseltine created the story to ensure the sales of his three gold, five silver, and fifty-five copper restrikes of the Confederate cent. Despite the doubts about the authenticity of Lovett and his coin, the one-cent piece definitely captured what the Confederacy had in mind for itself: an independent nation where "Cotton is king" and liberty took the form of sovereignty of the states. But the one-cent piece never gave the Confederacy its chance to establish an identity or to declare its economic self-sufficiency.

Before the war, there had been three United States mints in the South located in New Orleans, Louisiana, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia. Although the branches in Charlotte and Dahlonega minted gold coins from 1838 to 1861, the one in New Orleans was the main Southern facility, busy with the production of large quantities of silver coins. In just the two months of 1861 that the mint was under United States' control, the New Orleans branch had produced 330,000 Seated Liberty half dollar pieces.

After Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861, rebel forces plotted the seizure of the New Orleans Mint. The Secretary of the United States Treasury warned that "if anyone attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." Disregarding this command, the New Orleans Mint Superintendent, William A. Elmore resigned from federal employment, and the mint was taken over in the name of the State of Louisiana. Elmore and other mint employees, such as Treasurer A. J. Guirot, Assayer Howard Millspaugh, and Melter/Refiner Dr. M.F. Bozano, retained their former jobs after swearing allegiance to the Confederacy. Georgia, following Louisiana's example, transferred its mint over to the central government before the first shots of the civil war were heard. However, North Carolina, which did not secede until May 20, 1861, turned over its mint almost a month later on June 27.

From the onset of the war, the South was fiscally handicapped because it lacked a treasury and financial policy based on experience. Although everything had to be improvised, it compensated for its lack of experience with spirit and patriotic zeal. After Southern forces took over the New Orleans Mint, they confiscated the bullion kept by the mint at a state bank depository and minting continued as before using union dies. 1,240,000 half dollars and 9,750 double eagles were minted in February 1861 in the name of the State of Louisiana.

On March 6, 1861, before the New Orleans Mint was officially transferred to the Confederate government, Elmore had asked Christopher G. Memminger, the Confederate Treasury Secretary, if he should begin preparing for a Confederate coinage before the transfer of bullion. The same day, the Provisional Congress ordered that all mints remain open and that dies be prepared for a new coin. The immediate response of the Confederate government reflects the young nation's initial excitement and its desire to create a unique, distinguishable identity for itself without delay. With its own monetary system, the Confederacy could immediately start trading with powerful European nations such as Britain and France, letting them know that the Confederate States of America was not a measly insurgent faction but a solid, strong, independent nation.

On March 7, 1861, the Louisiana government had its Treasurer, Anthony J. Guirot, transfer the New Orleans Mint along with its bullion over to the Confederate government. The bullion of the New Orleans Mint-now renamed the Confederate State Mint-formed the nucleus of the Confederate treasury funds, which were augmented by Southern banks. In March and April of this year, 962,633 half dollars and 2,991 double eagles were struck in the name of the Confederate States of America. Although most researchers claim that the appearance of these 1861-0 half dollars does not reveal the government under which they were struck, one die variety does exist. The "cracked Confederate obverse," containing a crack running from the coin's rim to Liberty's nose and passing near the seventh star, can be attributed to the Confederacy's control of the mint because this cracked die would later be used to produce four Confederate half dollar proofs.

Early in April 1861, Memminger approved of a design for the Confederate half dollar. No government engravers worked at the New Orleans Mint because prior to secession, the branch received dies produced by the Philadelphia Mint. Although lacking qualified engravers, the young, spirited Confederate government, eager to establish its identity and assert its autonomy and self-sufficiency, immediately employed August H.M. Patterson, a local, private engraver and diesinker to make the Confederate half dollar reverse die. Conrad Schmidt, foreman of the coining room, burnished the Confederate reverse die along with an 1861 United States obverse die, in a hurry to produce proof specimens for inspection by Confederate officials.

The hybrid design proposed that the usual United States' Seated Liberty adorn the obverse while the new Confederate coat of arms made its debut on the reverse. The obverse contained a seated representation of the Goddess of Liberty, surrounded by thirteen stars, representing the thirteen original colonies of America, or as chief coiner of the Confederacy Dr. B.F.Taylor stated, "from whence the Confederacy sprung."

On the bottom of the reverse, the denomination "HALF DOL." was written. Above this inscription lay the Confederate coat of arms, consisting of a central shield with seven stars and bars, representing the seven states that had seceded at that time. The shield was flanked by stalks of cotton and sugar cane in bloom. The interesting choice of flora represented the South's commitment to its cash crops and with it, the commitment to the labor system responsible for these crops' cultivation - slavery.

Over the shield loomed a liberty cap on a pole, reminiscent of U.S. copper cents of 1793-1796. By using a motif, which harkened back to the early days of the nation, the Confederacy expressed its belief that its form of government and the principles on which it was based were the same principles that the founding fathers had in mind for the nation. The concept of a small central government and the sovereignty of the states were ideas from which the Union had deviated, but the Confederacy had reinstated in their government. Although the Confederacy sought to distinguish itself from the United States, the proposed design did not vary much from that of United States' coinage. The similarity of design suggests that the Confederacy did not see itself as a radical, new faction but as the embodiment of the "more perfect union" which the constitution set out to achieve.

A distinctively designed Confederate obverse would have been created after the reverse had been approved. However, Memminger stated that coins were "a waste of means and money," because he feared that there would not be enough bullion to produce circulating coinage, and that most of the coins produced would be exported and melted outside the nation. With these thoughts in mind, Memminger ordered that the New Orleans Mint suspend its operations.

But just before minting was halted, workers at New Orleans struck four proof pieces bearing the Confederate reverse and the cracked United States 1861 obverse. Weighing 12.44 grams and having a 90% silver and 10% copper alloy, the four coins met U.S. Mint standards for a silver half dollar. The crack, which was on the obverse of some 1861-0 half dollars minted under the Confederacy, had now expanded, stretching between Liberty's foot, the coin's rim, and adjacent stars. Even the reverse bore a small crack through the base of the inscription "HALF DOL." The four proof samples were presented as gifts to Dr. B. F. Taylor, chief coiner of the Confederate States of America, Dr. John Leonard Riddle of Louisiana, often misreported as Professor Biddle, Dr. E. Ames of New Orleans, and Memminger himself, who later passed it along to President Jefferson Davis for his approval.

After minting only four pieces, the Confederate State mint ceased production on April 30, 1861. There were slim chances that production would be resumed in the near future, and even if it did, Memminger wanted to mint the minimal amount of coins required for the Confederacy's internal commerce. No further plans were made for the Confederate half dollar's obverse. Rather early on in its history, the Confederacy was forced to set aside its grand plans for a Confederate coinage and its hope of receiving immediate recognition and support from Britain and France, then dominant powers. Britain, having toyed with the notion of recognizing the Confederacy, quickly gave up the idea, fearing that indirect support of slavery would raise a public outcry. Had Confederate coinage prevailed and displayed any inherent strength; the prospect of trade might have swayed Britain and France to consider intervention in American politics.

Lacking any significant quantity of bullion, the Confederacy's attempt at coinage seemed impractical. From the onset of the war, the economic drawbacks of the South began to eat away at its future plans, giving an early death to the Confederacy's dream of economic and political independence through a coinage. In April 1861, Memminger committed the Confederate government to a policy of paper currency in order to save bullion from local use and to allow it to be employed elsewhere. On May 3, Memminger allowed Governor Thomas O. Moore of Louisiana to use the New Orleans Mint's copper for percussion caps for his soldiers' guns.

Although the main Southern facility had ceased production, the desire to establish some sort of Southern metallic currency never died out. An alternative to coinage that was discussed was a copper token coinage. Elmore told Memminger that dies could be ordered at an average cost of one hundred dollars to strike copper tokens in denominations of one, five, and twenty-five cents. But both houses of the Confederate Congress did not approve the bill, and after October 13, 1862, they never again attempted to establish a system of token coinage.

The two other Confederate mints never had the opportunity to serve their purpose under the Confederate government because of the short supply of bullion. John H. Gibbon, the Assayer of the Charlotte Mint, suggested to the North Carolina Governor John W. Ellis, that their gold be used to make 1,000 five-dollar gold pieces bearing a unique state design. Nothing ever came from this suggestion since the Governor never took it seriously.

All mints were eventually converted into assay offices. On August 24, 1861, the Confederate Congress voted to keep the mints at Charlotte and Dahlonega open as assay offices. On January 27, 1862, the New Orleans Mint received the same fate as its sister mints. Only the Dahlonega Mint remained open during most of the war, actually serving as an assay office. The quantities of precious metals that passed through Dahlonega were never very large, with the largest coming from New Orleans in the 3rd quarter of 1862 to avoid Union capture. Melter/Refiner Dr. Bozano, even after having sworn allegiance to the Confederacy, worked as a Union spy and graciously offered to stand guard at the closed New Orleans Mint. He did so until Union troops under Farragut captured the city in 1862, but he was unable to prevent the bullion from leaving the mint. Safely aboard the rebel ship, Star of the West, the bullion made its way to Dahlonega. Once New Orleans had been captured and the main Southern facility passed out of Confederate hands, the realization occurred to the Southerners that a stable and effective Confederate coinage was unlikely to materialize.

While the first two years of the war were predominantly in the Confederacy's favor, fortunes began changing in 1863. 1n that year, the South lost its brilliant general, Stonewall Jackson, shot by one of his own men at Chancellorsville, suffered a bloody Confederate loss at Gettysburg, and saw Vicksburg along the Mississippi fall into the hands of the Union troops under Grant. With the sudden turn of events against the South's favor, the eventual outcome of the war became clearly outlined.

Seeing that its military successes were low in number while inflation was running high, the Confederacy realized that it could use some help and turned once again to what it believed was its ally nation across the Atlantic. Knowing that industrialized Britain relied on Southern cotton for its textile mills, the South hoped that a threat to their cotton supply would force the British into an alliance with the South. With the intent of securing an overseas ally, the deferred dream of a Confederate coinage was resuscitated. On January 22, 1863, Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State proposed issuing a five-dollar gold coin, called a "cavalier," of the exact value of the English gold sovereign. This coin, part of a series that included ten and twenty gold dollar pieces, called double and quadruple cavaliers respectively, would facilitate direct commerce with Europe rather than the United States.

Although the South saw the tide was turning against them, they did not forfeit the dream of existing as an independent and self-sufficient nation. Even the proposed name for the coin, cavalier, captured what they believed was the spirit of the Southerner - gracious, courteous, and chivalrous. Southerners believed that such qualities were bred by their agrarian, virtuous way of life, which relied on slavery. The proposed coin revealed the South's commitment to preserving this way of life along with its institution of slavery even as the war was nearing its close.

The South's hand at "King Cotton" diplomacy failed since Britain was able to purchase large quantities of cotton from Egypt and India. To add to the new nation's problems, inflation was continually on the rise, while morale was ebbing. The fixed prices established by the Confederate government required frequent revision. From May 1863 to March 1865, the fixed price of bacon went from $1 to $4 a pound, and a bushel of beans went from $4 to $30 a pound. In 1863, a food riot occurred in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate nation. The Confederacy was being attacked from two sides, externally and internally, with discontent arising from the seat of power of the new nation.

Suffering and food shortage were now problems plaguing the South. With such concerns at hand, the idea of establishing a Confederate coinage completely faded from the people's minds. Whether the Confederacy itself would last was the question at hand. Famine and hunger signaled that the South was fighting for a lost cause. In 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, fabled to have disguised himself in woman's clothing, was captured by Union soldiers at Irwinville, Georgia, and the Confederate half dollar that he carried as a souvenir "pocket piece" was stolen. The capture of the fleeing President marked the official end to the Civil War and the Confederacy. Like the other three Confederate half dollar coins, the coin which Davis had carried was now indeed a memento - a mere legacy to the Confederacy's short-lived dream of establishing a coinage to assert their independence, self-sufficiency, and Southern identity.

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Vanashree Samant was first place winner the 2001 PCGS Young Numismatists Contest. At the time of her entry, she was a senior at Trinity School in New York City. She won a $5,000 college scholarship from PCGS.

Confederate Coinage