The Murky History Of Confederate Coins

Date
Oct, 02, 2020

There are no shortage of myths when it comes to the Confederate States of America. So it should come as no surprise that it’s the same story when it comes to Confederate coinage.

The Confederacy based its monetary system around paper currencies that were, essentially, war bonds whereby the holder would get paid in the event of a South victory in the Civil War. Confederate dollar bills included a wide-range of images on them, including portrayals of Southern life, such as slaves working the field; mythical depictions of gods and goddesses like Liberty or Minerva; or famous politicians from the Southern U.S. including George Washington, Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun. The paper currency was not backed with anything tangible, and as the war dragged on, the government printed more and more of it, causing inflation. According to The Resource Center, the Confederacy experienced over 5,000% inflation during the course of the war — essentially rendering its paper currency worthless. There’s an argument to be made that this hyper-inflation helped bring the South to its knees and cause them to lose the war.

Coinage was never a major priority for the breakaway entity. With the Civil War in full swing, the government wanted to preserve its metal for the war effort. Plus, there wasn’t much need for new coinage since the Confederacy “procured” $500,000 in gold and silver coins when it seized the U.S. Mint in New Orleans after Louisiana seceded from the Union in January 1861. They also “inherited” the existing dies, which the now-Confederate Mint used to continue striking U.S. coins for use throughout the South. According to PCGS, the Mint struck an additional 2.53 million Seated Liberty half dollars in 1861, as well as several thousand U.S. gold double eagles after Louisiana left the United States.

Despite that, some government officials believed the Confederacy should have its own coinage. According to PCGS, in April 1861, Secretary of the Treasury, Christopher Memminger asked B. F. Taylor, Chief Coiner for the Confederacy, to prepare designs for a Confederate States of America half dollar.

The design Taylor and others at the Mint went for kept the existing obverse design of the U.S. Seated Liberty half, which bore an image of Lady Liberty holding a shield and staff while sitting on a rock underneath thirteen stars that symbolized the original colonial United States. For the reverse, they came up with a new design featuring a shield with seven stars (symbolizing the original seceding states) below a Liberty cap and surrounded by stalks of cotton and sugar cane – two of Confederacy’s biggest agricultural products.

The Mint struck four pattern coins and, according to lore, gave them to four individuals: Taylor, Memminger, John Leonard Riddell, a chemistry professor and a refiner at the New Orleans Mint, and someone named Dr. E. Ames of New Orleans. Memminger then passed his coin to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who reportedly kept it as a keepsake for the rest of the war. In fact, the story goes after the fall of the Confederacy, Davis disguised himself (in women’s clothes — although that part of the story has long been dispute) and tried to flee. He was captured and, supposedly, his Confederate half dollar was seized by a Union troop.

Davis, for his part, was never able to confirm whether this coin was, indeed, the Confederate half dollar.

I had a Confederate coin. It was in my wife’s trunk when it was rifled by the Federal officers sent on board the prison ship on which she was detained at Hampton Roads before and after my confinement in Fortress Monroe. The coin, some medals, and other valuables were stolen at the time. Whether the coin be the same which has been offered to you as a duplicate I cannot say. It is however, not true, as published, that it is now in my possession

Jefferson Davis, letter to NY coin dealer J.W. Scott, May 10, 1879

The Confederate half dollar remained a mystery for years following the end of the Civil War. Then, in 1879, Taylor was responding to a request from a general-turned-Confederate archivist about information regarding the New Orleans Mint when he revealed the existence of the four half dollars. According to Taylor, the reason the coin never went into production was due to bullion shortages in the Confederacy, leading to the Mint’s shutdown at the end of April 1861 — scarcely a month after Taylor was first instructed to begin designing the coin.

As Heritage Auctions points out, this reason doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The following year, the Confederacy moved nearly $1 million in bullion out of the Mint as Union soldiers closed in on New Orleans. That would have been enough to at least start minting half dollars. Instead, HA argues there were a combination of other factors that doomed the Confederate half. One culprit was most likely the same issue that hampered later coins like the ultra-high relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, the Walking Liberty Half Dollar and the Standing Liberty Quarter.

Under the auspices of the superintendent, treasurer, and coiner, who probably believed in the possibility of a peaceful secession, designs for a Confederate coin were made, and that of a half dollar by the coiner, accepted and executed by an engraver of this city, who produced a half dollar die of such high relief as rendered it impractical for use in a coining press. From this die four pieces were struck, by successive blows of a screw press.

M.F. Bonzano (melter and refiner at the New Orleans Mint), letter to Mint Director James Kimball, November 4, 1887:

Obviously, the four original halves are highly sought-after and very, very expensive. The Jefferson Davis coin sold for $881,000 in 2015. Two years later, another coin (possibly the one presented to Ames) sold for a record $960,000.

Bashlow Restrike – Confederate Half Dollar (image via me)

Even the restrikes can be quite expensive. They also vary in quality, size, shape and even physical appearance. Scott, the coin dealer who corresponded with Jefferson Davis, purchased the original reverse die, took five hundred 1861 Seated Liberty half dollars, filed off the reverse image and overstruck the Confederate design onto it. He also produced 500 tokens with the Confederate design on the obverse and the inscription: 4 ORIGINALS STRUCK BY ORDER OF C.S.A. IN NEW ORLEANS 1861 — REV. SAME AS U.S. (FROM ORIGINAL DIE, SCOTT) on the reverse. Both the Seated Liberty Confederate coin and the token cost a ton – eBay has a certified token priced at nearly $10,000 right now and a Seated Liberty for over $25,000.

Much more affordable are the Robert Bashlow “restrikes.” Bashlow has long been a controversial figure in numismatics, and in this case, the term “restrike” is actually fallacious since he did not use the original dies. Instead, he created his own die based on the original design and then struck 30,000 tokens similar in design to Scott’s token. Because of the large supply, as well as the fact they weren’t struck with the original die, the Bashlow coin is much more affordable than the Scott restrike – however, even certified tokens can cost over $1,000.

A “Confederate” coin with a much murkier and less straightforward history is the one cent piece. Purportedly, a private engraver and minter from Philadelphia named Robert Lovett Jr. was approached by Confederate agents in a real cloak-and-dagger manner in early 1861 to design a one cent coin on the down low. Lovett came from a family of minters and engravers and frequently made coins and store cards for merchants, while mixing in a healthy dose of political tokens and medals bearing images of figures like George Washington and Henry Clay. He didn’t seem to have a particular ideology. For the 1864 Presidential campaign, for instance, he made tokens for both President Abraham Lincoln and his opponent, General George McClellan.

Anyway, the story goes that Lovett came up a coin design featuring a bust of Minerva wearing a Liberty cap encircled by “Confederate States of America” and “1861” on the obverse and a reverse bearing the words “1 Cent” and an intricate wreath consisting of various agricultural products including bales of cotton, an ear of corn, tobacco leaves, wheat and other things.

According to the story, Lovett minted approximately a dozen samples that matched the specifications of the then-current U.S. Indian Head cent. When it came time to turn his samples over to the Confederacy, however, it suddenly dawned on him that he could be committing light treason, so he hid the coins and dies instead. No one knew anything about it until 1873, when Lovett got drunk at a Philadelphia bar and accidentally used one to settle his tab. Philadelphia numismatist John Haseltine acquired the coin in question and then reached out to Lovett, who told him his story and sold him his sample coins and dies. Haseltine then made restrikes in gold, silver and copper and sold them.

Some historians have called this narrative into question. For one thing, it seems odd that there would be no documentation or statute authorizing Lovett to design a one cent coin. Just like the U.S. Constitution, the Confederate version also gave its federal legislative branch the power to coin money. However, in their book, The Lovett Cent: A Confederate Story, Harold Levi and George Corell point out the Confederacy’s Provisional Congress had authorized mints to obtain dies for any coin. Levi and Corell also note that a lot of Confederate documents were destroyed in the closing days of the war, meaning you can’t rule out official sanction.

Civil War Token – Army & Navy (image via me)

Another argument against Lovett’s story include the fact that the obverse design on the Lovett cent had been recycled from some of his earlier tokens, including the Marshall House Hotel in Virginia, watch company M.B. Allebach & Co. in Philadelphia, and his own advertising token. In fact, the Minerva head was a popular one for exonumia minters at that time. Meanwhile, Coin World pointed out that Marshall House had been where Col. Elmer Ellsworth was killed in 1861, becoming the first Union soldier to die in the Civil War. Marshall House owner James Jackson shot Ellsworth to death after the latter removed a Confederate flag from the roof of the inn. Jackson was then killed by one of Ellsworth’s subordinates.

It is hard to believe that the Confederacy would have considered a memorial of the Ellsworth killing or a copy of Lovett’s own store card to be appropriate on its coins. It’s much easier to believe that Haseltine was selling fake Confederate cents at the same time he was selling illegally made 1804 dollars. For these reasons, it seems almost certain that these were fantasy pieces produced by Lovett and Haseltine (and [Haseltine’s father-in- law William] Idler?) for profit after the war.

Bill Eckberg, Coin World, August 24, 2015

However, Levi and Corell argue that the Lovett cent could very well have appealed to Southerners, who saw Jackson as a martyr. Additionally, they argue that the conventional story about Lovett being approached by Southern agents was entirely possible. “There is plenty of documented evidence that Confederate agents were operating in the North buying all sorts of materials, machines, seals, and having notes and bonds printed,” the write. “It did not become illegal to conduct business with the South until July 13, 1861. There was motivation and opportunity in the early months of 1861.” While acknowledging that the truth is probably unknowable, they posit that Lovett’s cent was most likely a model or trial piece for the Confederacy.

In the January 2016 issue of The Numismatist, P. Scott Rubin agrees: “I believe one of two events prompted Lovett to produce the Confederate cent: either he was contacted by a Southern sympathizer, or he thought he could entice the Confederate government to purchase dies for a cent coinage.”

As with the half dollar, an original Confederate cent is very expensive. One such coin sold for $141,000 in 2015, and another went for $186,000 two years later. The Haseltine restrikes are also quite pricey. One was auctioned off for $70,500 in 2012, while another fetched $18,800 the following year.

Once again, Bashlow swooped in, bought the original Lovett cent dies and offered his own “restrikes.” In this case, the original dies had been damaged and defaced, so Bashlow created a set of copy dies and marketed the ensuing coins as “second restrikes.” Bashlow used a large copper ingot – twice the width of a regular U.S. penny – purportedly “[d]ue to fear that the Secret Service would seize the restrikes under the statutes forbidding ‘likenesses’ of US coins to be passed.” The damages present on the original die – namely the chisel marks on the obverse and the cracks on the reverse – also appear on the Bashlow restrike.

Bashlow Restrike – “Confederate” Cent (image via me)

Unlike the Bashlow half, the one cent “restrikes” are quite affordable and easy to find. Some people might not like the cracks and marks on the coin, but I actually do. It gives the coin character and evokes a tremendous amount of symbolism. However, if you prefer Confederate cents without the damage, then you should check out the Smithsonian Institute’s “restrikes.” Released in 2011 to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the Smithsonian, like Bashlow, created copy dies from the originals and minted Confederate cents on silver, gold and copper planchets. These are also quite readily available on eBay and cost quite a bit more than the Bashlow cents.

While these “restrikes” may evoke strong opinions as to their authenticity, one thing is for certain: Their enduring demand and popularity demonstrates just how much the Confederacy continues to capture people’s imaginations. Considering everything that’s going on in this country today, I guess that’s not a surprise.

theconvictor

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