The US Civil War is the most written, studied, debated and argued topic in American History, it’s no wonder why it generates great collector interest.
Under whose authority were Civil War gold and silver coins minted?
It might come as a surprise to the coin collecting considering specializing in the coins of the Civil War, that the conflict did not result in the emergence of two separate currencies. The US mint offices were divided geographically between North and South, with the important mint in Philadelphia staying in Northern hands, while the mint in New Orleans became the chief mint of the Confederacy. However, with the exception of some really rare coins, both the North and South continued to use the pre-war coin designs.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 meant that for that year the New Orleans mint produced coins for both the North and the South. For example, of the 2,500,000 silver half dollars minted in 1861 with the “O” mint mark, the first 330,000 were minted before the breakup of the Union. Therefore, if you find 1861-O silver coins for sale there is no way of knowing under whose authority they were minted. A similar situation exists for US gold coins with over 17,000 1861 gold double-eagles minted in New Orleans in 1861 without any way of recognizing who was in control of the mint when they were issued.
Rare Coins of the Confederacy
As might be expected, the idea of gold and silver coins with a distinct Confederate design was soon raised. In April 1861 Christopher Memminger, the Confederate Treasury Secretary, requested that designers and engravers submit their ideas for a new coinage. Benjamin F. Taylor, the chief engraver of the New Orleans mint, struck four new silver half dollars in May 1861. The obverse design used the seated Liberty figure from the Federal half dollars but the reverse showed a Confederate coat of arms surrounded by cotton and sugar cane. The striking of these new numismatic coins was kept secret until 1879 when Taylor revealed he had one of the half dollars in his possession along with the original dies. He sold them to a New York coin dealer named J. Walter Scott for $310. Scott sold the half dollar for $870—a huge profit by the standards of the time. He kept the dies and used them to strike 500 white metal tokens. Not completely satisfied with the tokens, he used his coin collector skills to assemble a collection of 500 regular 1861 silver half dollars. Scott proceeded to remove the reverse design of these half dollars and re-struck them with the Confederate half dollar die.
Today one of Taylor’s original silver half dollars is owned by the American Numismatic Society in New York City. The other surviving Confederate half dollars are in private hands. The last time one came on the market in 2003, this item of rare coins was sold for $550,000. Although the coin collector is unlikely to come across one of these original 1861 half dollars for sale, both Scott’s white metal tokens and the silver half dollar re-strikes are sometimes put up for sale. The Scott silver coins for sale in top condition could easily command a price of over $10,000, and even the white metal tokens in top condition may be sold for a price close to half this amount.
The Confederate Treasury also approached Philadelphia engraver Robert Lovett, Jr, with a request for a new cent design. It is strange they chose an engraver based in the North but nevertheless he did the work and produced a new cent design with a new Liberty head on the obverse with a wreath of farm produce on the reverse. After making the dies and striking a few coins he presumably got second thoughts about the wisdom of aiding the South and hit the cents away. In 1873 he accidentally spent a cent in a local tavern and this discovery made the coin news. He sold the cents that he had minted to a coin dealer, and the dies to a Captain Haseltine. The captain struck seven gold cents, twelve silver cents and 55 copper cents before the dies were damaged. Almost a century afterwards these dies again made coin news when New York entrepreneur Robert Bashlow made copies of them. He used the new dies to make thousands of Confederate cents in various metals to mark the centenary of the Civil War in 1961. The Civil War coin collector today can expect to pay over $100,000 for one of the twenty cents struck by Lovett in 1861. The 1870s re-strikes sell for about ten percent of this sum, and even the 1961 copies might be sold for a few hundred dollars.
Civil War Gold and Silver Coins in Short Supply
A serious shortage of silver and gold bullion began to be felt in mid-1861 and led to the abandonment of the Confederacy coins plans. The scarcity of gold and silver coins also affected the Northern states as concerned citizens realized that the war was not going to end quickly and they began to hoard silver and gold bullion coins. For example, in 1862 only 11,540 silver dollars were minted in the North compared to 217,300 silver dollars minted in the USA in 1860. Some of the lack of gold and silver coins was made up by the issue of banknotes, and many merchants started to issue token coins which could be redeemed against goods in their stores. These banknotes and token coins represent another area of Civil War rare coins that a collector might want to include in their collection.
An interest in collector coins of the Civil War years could also be legitimately extended to include coins such as the 1864 two cents coin. This was the first American coin to show the famous “In God We Trust” motto and the introduction of the motto is linked to the upsurge in religious feelings generated in the course of the war. It is also reasonable to extend a Civil War coin collection to include Lincoln cents. Although this cent design was not introduced until 1809, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the Lincoln cent fits in well with other collector coins having a Civil War theme.