Civil War Coinage
An Era That Defined Our Nation
Coins of the Civil War
Most people are aware of Civil War paper money, and federal issue coinage, minted between 1861 through 1865. However, it’s a little known fact that the Confederacy minted coins at the three Southern Branch Mints located at Charlotte North Carolina, Dahlonega, Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. After secession in 1861, this valuable Federal property was now located in the new Confederate States of America. The Branch Mints were seized, at first by their State Governments, and then turned over to the Confederacy.
At first, small numbers of gold coins were produced from U.S. dies at all three branches, and a larger quantity of half dollars were also coined at the New Orleans Mint. When existing supplies of bullion ran dry, the three branch mints stopped producing U.S. coinage and closed, and only one mint would return into production years later when the New Orleans Mint re-opened in 1879.
New Orleans Half Dollars
The New Orleans Mint is the only Mint in America to have coined money by three Governments, The United States, Louisiana State, and Confederate States of America (CSA). In the first months of 1861, the New Orleans Mint struck 1861-O Liberty Seated Half Dollars for three different Governments. The 1861-O Half Dollars have one of the most historic pedigrees in numismatics, during one of the most dramatic years in our Nation’s history.
In 1861, New Orleans Mint only coined two denominations, one each in gold and silver, there were about 18,000 Double Eagles, and over 2.5 million silver half dollars were minted before the Branch Mint closed. Of those half dollars, only 330,000 were issued under federal authority before the mint was sized. The State of Louisiana coined 1,240,000 half dollars, and the CSA even struck 962,633 of these coins.
1861-O Half-Dollar Timeline Interaction
CLICK the image on the RIGHT to learn more about the year 1861.
S.S. Republic Shipwreck Treasure
Six months after the end of the Civil War, the sidewheel steamer, SS Republic, was bound from New York to New Orleans on October 18, 1865, with a cargo of a reported $400,000 in gold and silver coins to aid in the rebuilding of the war-ravaged city of New Orleans to its prewar glory. Unfortunately, the ship never made port, caught in a massive hurricane off the coast of Georgia. At 4 pm on October 25, 1865, the SS Republic sank, and came to rest 1,700 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 100 miles of the Georgia coast. The passengers and crew escaped in four lifeboats and a makeshift raft in 40-foot seas.
Nearly 140 years later in November 2003, Odyssey Marine Exploration began the archaeological excavation of the SS Republic. State-of-the-art electronics and recovery equipment, revealed a dazzling carpet of coins hidden on the ocean floor at the stern of the ship, near the ship’s rudder. The Recovery team brought to the surface a stunning treasure trove of over 51,000 U.S. gold and silver coins. What makes the SS Republic shipwreck treasure so special, was the discovery of a large quantity of 1861 Liberty Seated Half Dollars, which proved to be the only U.S. coin ever struck by three different governments at the start of the Civil War.
1861 Confederate Half Dollar
To establish a separate and distinctive identity the Confederate Administration of President Jefferson Davis determined that the Rebel States needed some unique coinage currency of their own. The CSA had plans for minting its own half dollar coins with the CSA shield.
Two attempts at this were made. Initially, the Mint at New Orleans took Federal Half Dollars, cobbled together a new reverse die and started to strike coins at the New Orleans Mint. The CSA Half Dollar had a regular federal obverse, but the reverse displayed the Confederate Arms. While it was hoped that the new CSA half dollars would someday jingle in the pockets of Southerners, it wasn’t to be. Because of Material shortages and other problems this attempt at coining the 1861 Confederate Half Dollar failed after only minting four pieces. The CSA Half Dollar was the last coin made before the Mint was closed on April 30, 1861. The four existing patterns were said to be taken from the CSA President, Jefferson Davis when he was captured by Union forces in 1865. The original die and one of the four original proofs resides in the collection of the American Numismatic Society Museum in New York.
1861 Confederate Cents
The Confederacy turned to contacts in the industrialized North to fashion a completely new coin. It was to be a Copper-Nickel cent, identical in dimensions and composition as the circulating U.S. Cent of the time. The story of this cent will never be completely known and what we do know today comes from noted coin collector and sometime rouge, Capt. John W. Haseltine.
Early in the year of 1861, agents of the Confederate States contacted noted Philadelphia engraver and diesinker Robert Lovett Jr. through mutual friends in the Philadelphia Jewelry firm of Bailey, Banks & Biddle, and commission him to design and produce working dies for their proposed Confederate cent. Lovett proceeded with his task and completed dies for the coin, as well as striking a dozen specimens, that were never delivered to the confederacy.
By this time the first major Battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run, had occurred. The carnage resulting from this engagement produced extreme clarity of thought in Mr. Lovett. He came to the conclusion that his endeavors for this breakaway government thoroughly constituted “giving aid and comfort to the Enemy in time of War.” Mr. Lovett was afraid of being arrested for treason, which was punishable by death, so he hid the coins and dies in his cellar, except for, inexplicably, one, which he kept as a pocket piece. He then proceeded to drown his troubles in drink and the story would have died with him, if not for one particularly tough night at the Bar when he spent the treasured pocket piece.
Fortunately for coin collectors everywhere it fell into the hands of an alert (and likely sober) bartender who recognized the unfamiliar design and who in turn ultimately contacted Capt. John Haseltine, which exposed the confederate cent to the public. Capt. Haseltine bought the coin and began a long process of wearing down Robert Lovett, who at first refused all knowledge and responsibility for the coin. Lovett, despite all evidence to the contrary denied the obvious until, “drunk and goaded beyond endurance, he confessed all.” He did a little midnight gardening” in his cellar unearthed the offending coins and dies and he sold the entire lot to Capt. John Haseltine. Over the years there were several re-strikes reported, and then the dies eventually were donated to the Smithsonian Institution where they are on display today.
Civil War Indian Head Cents
During the Civil War, economic uncertainty led to the wide-spread hording of gold and silver coins, and by mid-1862 both metals had vanished from circulation. With their face values linked to that of the depreciating paper dollar, coins became worth more as metal than as a medium of exchange. Most Indian cents minted during the Civil War went primarily to pay Union soldiers. Because of War-related hoarding, the Mint decided to switch to a cheaper bronze alloy. The Indian Head copper-nickel cents, minted only from 1860 to 1864, were ultimately considered a commodity rather than currency. Weighing only 4.67 grams, with a metal content of 88% copper and 12% nickel, they were viewed as an overabundant nuisance before the Civil War, but as coin hoarding occurred at the start of the Civil War, they were too precious to spend.
The Philadelphia Mint tried to keep coin production up with demand, they struck 10 million of the new copper-nickel Indian Head Cents in 1861, then it nearly tripled in production the next year in 1862 to 28 million cents, and then almost doubled to 50 million the following year in 1863, but the hording of coins caught up to the increased coin production. Finally a law was passed on June 8, 1864 forbidding private individuals to issue any metallic objects “intended for the use and purpose of current money,” like private Civil War tokens. Well the law was primarily aimed at private competition to the lowly cent, but the new law also served to end Pioneer gold coinage.
Civil War Tokens
During the Civil War there was a mass hoarding of coinage and most coins disappeared from circulation. By mid-1862, there was a movement in Cincinnati Ohio to find a solution for the shortage of small change. As a substitute, a wide variety of tokens began to appear with the local merchants who began to make and distribute copper cent-sized tokens. These tokens, known as “Copperheads,” were viewed with disdain at the time, but were widely accepted as a matter of sheer necessity. By 1864 over a thousand merchants circulated over 8,500 distinct types, with over 25 million tokens minted. Because tokens were eventually demonetized, and saved in collections, several million pieces survive today.
These Civil War tokens were privately minted and distributed between 1862 and 1864 and were issued in thousands of varieties that fell into 2 categories; Patriotic, intended to rally the public, and Store Cards, intended to advertise a merchant. Patriotic Tokens stressed national sentiments, themes, and heroes, like the Union, Liberty, Lincoln, Washington, etc. Store Card Tokens may have a Patriotic theme, but also incorporates advertisements for specific merchants and their products.
At least 23 states had Civil War Tokens manufactured, representing every conceivable profession with over 25 million tokens circulating with no redemption value, started causing problems. The Lincoln Government decided to stop the spread of tokens at its earliest opportunity, but it wasn’t until mid-1864 that made this policy feasible, both because they were winning the war, and the mint was producing cents in record numbers.
Two Cent Piece
The motto, “IN GOD WE TRUST,” first appeared on the two-cent coin in 1864. This was the first time the motto, “In God We Trust” was introduced in response to the heightened religious sentiment of the Civil War years. The exact wording of the motto went through several stages before final version, “In God We Trust” was chosen.
In 1866 this motto was extended to silver and gold coins, and today it is mandated by law on all United States coins, as well as all paper currency since 1957.
U.S. Mint Chief Engraver, James B. Longacre designed the Two-Cent piece, on the obverse was a Union Shield with two arrows crossed behind it, flanked by an inverted laurel wreath. The motto, “In God We Trust” is inscribed on a banner above the shield. The reverse displays a wreath of wheat enclosing the value “2 Cents”, with the legend, “United State of America” around the perimeter edge.
The Two-Cent weighed twice as much as a one cent piece. These bronze coins were a legal tender for up to 10 and 20 cents, respectively, and were issued only in exchange for lawful money of the United States. The two-cent coin was produced in the United States from 1864–1873 with decreasing mintages throughout that time. The Two-Cent piece declined in popularity as the supply of cents grew, and it was evident by the end of the 1860s this coinage was no longer necessary, but it remained in production with lower mintages through 1872. The final coinage dated 1873 was minted only in Proof pieces made for collectors and sweeping legislation passed that year abolishing the Two-Cent denomination.
The original three-cent piece struck in silver was introduced in 1851, when postal rates lowered to 3 cents for First Class mail, these three-cent silver coins were struck in quantity until 1853. As the Civil War was ending in 1865 the U.S. Mint introduced another Three-Cent coin that was intended to redeem the three-cent notes, which was the most disliked of all the fractional paper notes.
Legislation enacted March 3, 1865, authorized the coining of three-cent pieces in an alloy of three-parts copper, and one part nickel. The new coins were to be legal tender for amounts up to 60 cents, while the cent and two-cent legal tender value was dropped to just 4 cents, by this new law. The same law provided that Fractional Paper valued below 5 cents would be prohibited, to allow for the new coins to retire the fractional notes.
Mint Chief Engraver, J.B. Longacre revised an existing design for the three-cent nickel, using Liberty for the obverse. Using the same classical profile that appears on the Indian Head cent, the gold dollar, and the $3 piece, is seen fitted with a new hairstyle and a studded coronet inscribed “Liberty.” The legend, “United States of America” is around the coin’s peripheral, with the date below Liberty’s bust. The reverse features a Roman Numeral III, as on the Silver edition, but it’s enclosed by a laurel wreath instead of the other coin’s ornamented letter “C.” The edge is plain, typical of U.S. minor coins after 1795.
Five-Cent Shield Nickel
The five-cent piece came about for the same reasons the three-cent nickel was created in 1865, to help redeem and replace the five-cent notes of fractional currency. The Act of May 16, 1866, ushered in what would become one of the mainstays of our country’s coinage, the future 5 cent nickel. These coins could be purchased in “Lawful Currency” of the U.S. and it prohibited the further issuance of fractional paper valued at less than 10 cents. The Nickel was made a legal tender in amounts up to $1 and then could be redeemed for “National Currency” in sums not less than $100. The new coins were accepted immediately, though a smaller coinage of half-dimes continued until eliminated by law in 1873.
This coin became to be known as “Longacre’s Nickel” which like his previous two-cent piece, features a Union shield on the obverse (also known as a Shield Nickel), draped by a laurel wreath with two crossed arrows behind the shield at the bottom, with the date below. At the top of the coin, around the edge, was the motto, “In God We Trust.” But below that, on top of the wreath, was an ancient style cross of uncertain origin which became quite controversial, and was nicknamed, the “Tombstone Nickel”. The reverse of the five-cent nickel was also somewhat controversial. It featured a large numeral 5 surrounded by a circle of 13 stars, with rays flowing out from among the stars in 1866 to 1867. There were production problems striking the rays, so in 1867 the rays were removed through the end of the series. There was also an issue with the public, because the “Stars and Bars” was reminiscent of the recently defeated Confederacy, which earned this new coin a new nickname… the “Rebel Nickel.”
Larger Civil War Coinage
The Federal Mint enjoyed some success on the base metal end of the coin scale, but had little success in their larger gold and silver coining efforts during the war years. Silver federal coins of the Civil War included the Liberty Seated Dime, whose Christian Gobrecht design was also shared by the quarter, and half dollar of the day. The only larger coins struck during the war in any significant amounts were half dollars, whose production slumped to less than half of what it was before the Civil War.
The largest circulating coin was the Double Eagle $20 gold piece with the Liberty Head design, The San Francisco Branch Mint quickly struck these gold coins, and shipped them east to bolster banking and boost the war effort, but it was too little, too late. During the Civil War the Philadelphia Mint was virtually closed down at the end of 1861, then resuming normal activity several years after the war.