The Gold and Silver Mine: Collecting Confederate currency

I’m writing this column while touring through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia during a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which in Italian translates to “little mountain.” While traveling on the tour bus we passed names I recognized as Civil War battle sites. Although this tour was not about the Civil War, it did bring to mind that conflict and the effect it had on currency in the Confederacy.

Once states voted to secede from the union, it became necessary that they establish a new monetary and postal system, as the federal government system was no longer available and the stamps and money were no longer usable in the Confederacy. Planning had been underway for a while, since many felt secession was inevitable, so it was just a matter of getting the printing presses running. Thus was created an interesting collecting category rich with our country’s history.

To fund the war against the Union, the Confederacy issued bonds in various amounts containing coupons at the bottom that could be clipped and redeemed every six months, Jan. 1 and July 1, after the issue date of the bond. These coupons represented interest on the principal amount (face value) of the bond, and extended into the future 20 to 30 years with interest amounts of 3 percent to 6 percent.

The bonds could not be redeemed before their due date, so the feeling in the Confederacy was that when they were successful, it would give them time to rebuild the treasury and pay back debt to the bondholders. One of the larger purchasers of Confederate bonds was England, which sympathized with the Confederacy, probably more from a financial position because it needed the cotton from the south for its industry.

Because the Confederacy did not prevail, the bonds are fairly plentiful and make great collectibles as a financial document and a living piece of history. It is unusual to find a bond without the coupons clipped, as usually they were faithfully clipped, with the last one clipped being Jan. 1, 1865. About 30 years ago a large hoard of Confederate bonds surfaced in England and were sold in bulk through auction. I guess they gave up waiting for the redemption.

Confederate currency was issued several ways, one being notes issued by state banks in states that were part of the Confederacy, another being notes issued by smaller banks in those states. All of these notes were supposedly backed by the specie (gold and silver) in those bank vaults. And then there were the notes issued by the Confederate States of America, backed by its treasury.

Collecting examples of this series of notes can range from easy – by just obtaining a few common examples – to challenging – by searching for some of the rarities that exist. To do the latter one needs to buy one of the research books available in the subject. Getting just of each denomination printed from the 50 cent to the $1,000 bill, with one example, won’t be too expensive. That example being the $500 note, which is the most expensive of just type notes.

But there are many different series and designs issued 1861 to 1864, some quite scarce. All notes were hand-signed by various individuals, and the same type note can be found with many different signature combinations. I can see someone in the office saying “Hey, my hand is tired, get over here and sign some notes for me.”

And since the quality of paper used by the Confederacy was inferior, finding notes in good, undamaged condition is a challenge. I’ve even seen examples where the ink used for the signatures ate through the paper.

Examples of Confederate currency can be bought for between $30 and $100 for nice condition common notes. I remember back in the 1960s there was an antique shop I visited in New York City that had a trunk full of these notes at $1 each, your pick. However, while visiting various tourist shops in Virginia I saw examples offered for more than $100. Guess they are still trying to win the war, financially.

Douglas Keefe is the president of Beachcomber Coins Inc. He and his wife, Linda, operate Beachcomber Coins and Collectibles, formerly in the Shore Mall and now at 6692 Black Horse Pike in the old Wawa building just beyond the former Cardiff Circle. They have satellite offices in Brigantine and Absecon. Between them they have more than 70 years of experience in the coin and precious metals business. They are members of the American Numismatic Association, the Industry Council of Tangible Assets, the Numismatic Guarantee Corporation, the Certified Coin Exchange and the Professional Coin Grading Service.

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