The American Civil war is one of the most important—written about and extensively studied—periods of United States history.
This war was one of the first to fully incorporate industrial warfare (involving the use of steamships, the telegraph, railroads, and mass-produced weapons,) a fact fitting when you consider that the Civil war was, at its core, an economic war.
The American Civil War was one of the first to industrialize warfare, creating far-reaching systems and networks and complex weapon production lines that combined to create damage on a scale never seen in modern times.
This highly destructive war which left around 750,000 soldiers dead and created an undetermined amount of civilian casualties, foreshadowed the havoc of the World Wars that came about half a decade later.
The animosity between the Confederacy (“the South”) formed by the eleven states that seceded from the Union and its parent Union stemmed from the fact that these states wanted the expansion of slavery to the new western territories.
The Confederacy saw the opposition by the rest of the country to the expansion of slavery into the west as a threat to its existing slavery system, which was a tremendous economic asset.
Hence, it is no surprise that economics, especially in the form of currency, played an instrumental role during the war.
After declaring their secession from the Union, the Confederacy quickly moved to seize United States military and economic assets that were within their borders and then proceeded to print their own currency.
However, since the Confederate states lost the war, they had to relinquish possessions of these assets and their currency was no longer considered legal tender.
Losing the war effectively rendered confederate money worthless at the time, but did it maintain that status? Is confederate money worth anything?
Back during the civil war era, the regular United States currency (and most currencies in the world) were backed by gold or silver.
Since at the end of the American Civil War, the confederacy ceased to exist, there was nobody that could pay back the gold/silver their currency represented, and this effectively made the currency worthless.
However, while these currency notes are no longer legal tender, some of them still possess considerable value as collectible items.
The American Civil War era is one of the most important periods for currency collectors, and the officially worthless confederate dollars benefit from this effect.
Today, some Confederate money can be worth as much as half, equal, or even multiples of their face value on the collectors market.
However, not all confederate money is worth a fortune. Some are worth only a fraction of their face value; others are so abundant that they are worthless, while a sizable percentage of the specimens you will find today are valueless fakes.
The key to understanding these discrepancies and inconsistencies in the current value of confederate money is to study the history of currency issuance in the confederate states.
The History of Confederate Money
Paper money in the United States has a long history of being connected to war and tumultuous times.
During large-scale conflicts, the government often enters a state of panic as they seek to find funds to support its often extremely expensive efforts.
Since bills are considerably easier to produce than coins—which were the commonly used currency type in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries—the government often gets to printing, often creating high-denomination notes to fund its war effort.
This phenomenon appeared first in the United States during the Revolutionary war. In a bid to finance the war for independence from the British colonists, the Continental Congress okayed the issuance of Continental currency, which was created in the form of notes initially redeemable for Spanish Milled Dollars.
By the war’s end, even though the Continental Congress did achieve its aim of breaking free, its makeshift currency could not survive. Over the course of the war, the currency was printed to oblivion, eventually depreciating to be worth a tiny fraction of its original value. This steep fall in value created the phrase “not worth a Continental.”
At the end of this episode, with the creation of the United States Constitution, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. monetary system, the newly formed country switched to a coinage system that saw the U.S. dollar in the form of silver and gold coins, become the official currency and principal unit of account.
After the first United States coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1793, the country stayed almost exclusively on a coinage system for more than half a century, until the American Civil War.
While the government did not directly issue paper money until the civil war, it did permit most private banks to print and circulate bank-branded paper currency (backed by the silver in their storage.)
The only exceptions occurred during tumultuous periods like the War of 1812, the Mexican War of 1846, and the Panic of 1857, during which the government intermittently issued treasury notes which were short-term debt notes that were not legal tender.
Unsurprisingly, this same strategy was implemented during the civil war era.
With the onset of the Civil War, both governments—the United States government led by President Abraham Lincoln and the newly formed Confederate government led by Confederate President Jefferson Davis—were desperate to secure funds to finance the war, which was more expensive than any other before it. The obvious route for both governments to take was to print money.
The Confederate government struck first.
Just before the onset of the civil war, and only two months into its creation, the confederate government began printing its own currency. This new currency, issued primarily to source funds for the war, was to become the official legal tender in the Confederate States of America (CSA.)
Not to be outdone, the United States Government’s Treasury Department began printing and circulating paper money shortly after to finance the effort from the end.
The newly created confederate bills were often referred to as “graybacks,” in contrast to United States currencies which were called “greenbacks” and referencing the gray color of the confederate army’s uniform.
However, there was a twist with the new confederate money.
The United States government issued demand notes in small denominations of 5, 10, and 20 U.S. dollars. All of these bills were promissory notes that could be redeemed on demand, at any time, for silver. This backing by silver limited the Federal government’s ability to print notes and curtailed an excess inflation of money.
In contrast, the grayback issued by the Confederate governments was not redeemable on demand. The first promissory notes issued by the CSA in April 1861 (and others released shortly after,) bore the following inscriptions:
- “SIX MONTHS AFTER THE RATIFICATION OF A TREATY OF PEACE BETWEEN THE CONFEDERATE STATES AND THE UNITED STATES”
- the “CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA WILL PAY [amount of bill] TO BEARER” (or “…WILL PAY TO BEARER [amount of bill]” or “…WILL PAY TO BEARER ON DEMAND [amount of bill]”).
These tags meant that, unlike the U.S. promissory note, the Confederate dollars could not be redeemed for silver until six months after the war had ended (by implication, the note also assumes that the war ended favorably for the South, as they would be unable to fulfill the promise otherwise.)
Over the course of the war, the “six months” quoted on the currency became “one year” and then “two years.”This loophole meant that the confederacy could print as much as it needed to finance the war and only needed to worry about the consequences years after.
Unsurprisingly, the CSA government printed quite a lot. With the first release in 1861, they printed around a million dollars worth of currency.
The Confederacy continued printing currency until 1864, with higher denominations like $100, $200, $500, and $1000 becoming more rampant as the currency gradually lost its value from the inflation that stemmed from the incessant printing of notes.
Towards the end of the war, with the South losing territory to the Union forces, the Confederate money went into free fall, inflating until it became almost worthless.
At the end of the war, with the Confederate forces surrendering, Confederate bills became effectively worthless as they no longer held any purchasing power, and they could not be converted into the United States notes, which were now the legal tender of the entire territory.
During the early stages of the war, the Confederacy (which consisted of 11 of the then 34 states of the Federation,) led by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, seized several strategic United States assets and large swathes of land, eventually coming to control more than half of United States territory at the time.
The civil war, which was fought mainly in the South (then Confederate territory), saw the confederacy lose territory gradually until they surrendered at the culmination of the war.
With the non-stop printing of currency that occurred during the war, it is no surprise that an abundance of bill types was released during that 4-year period. The Confederate government released 72 different types of Confederate notes.
Unlike the notes released by the Union government, which often featured standard portraits of notable figures, the confederate notes employed a wide range of image styles and motifs.
Confederate notes portrayed everything from notable figures like Andrew Jackson and George Washington to scenes from everyday work (including slave labor,) mythological and allegorical motifs, pictures of trains and the railway network, cotton production, and even a portrait of the then-serving president Jefferson Davis.
Unsurprisingly, in this currency printing rush, many pieces produced were of subpar quality, and there were widespread inconsistencies across the monetary supply.
Confederate Money Value
While confederate money was worthless at the end of the war and for several decades afterward, thanks to the magic of the world of collecting, some of these bills are now worth a substantial sum.
However, not all confederate money is created equal.
The most valuable pieces are typically those created within the first two years, 1861-62, as the confederacy notes issued during this period maintain a relatively significantly higher quality than the ones that came after.
These first confederate bills were issued from the original confederate capital at the start of the war, which was situated in Montgomery, Alabama.
Since the confederate government did not have access to the same high-end cutting machinery as the Union government, their notes had to be cut by hand and hand-signed, creating a situation where many of the notes produced, especially in the latter stages of the war, had irregular margins.
Furthermore, as the war progressed and the confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia, highly skilled printers and engravers became increasingly harder to find, and this further decreased the quality of notes produced by the government.
For these first few bills, the government maintained stringent quality standards, and the notes were produced with high levels of mastery employed in their printing and engraving.
These high standards are especially apparent in the first four notes issued at the Confederate capital of Montgomery, Alabama, T1 – T4 (the first confederate $1000, $500, $100, and $50 bills.)
These notes are the most sought-after by collectors today, and they consequently attract considerable prices on the open market.
For example, this T3 (type 3, $100) note sold at auction for $21,000 in June 2017.
Collectors consider notes from any of these four series to be the holy grail of confederate money. Any specimen from this batch preserved in good condition should easily sell for north of $10,000.
However, later notes produced by the confederacy fall far from this quality standard and fast. With this drop in production quality, there is a proportional drop in the prices they can pull on the collector’s market today.
For example, this T5 note produced shortly after the first four notes only brought in $2500 at auction in 2019, despite appearing in an almost uncirculated condition.
Hence, you can expect a rapid drop-off in value with notes produced as you move through the war’s latter stages.
On average, you should expect most other confederate bills to retail for between $20 and $500, depending on their place in the order of production. Other factors that can affect the final price of these bills include their rarity, condition, neatness of the cut, and denomination.
However, confederate money is only worth something on the collector’s market if it is a genuine specimen. Due to the inconsistencies in quality across the confederate money supply, it is no surprise that there was an abundance of fake notes during the Civil war era as there are today, with swindlers looking to cheat collectors.
With Confederate notes being so easy to fake, the Union also issued fake confederate currency during the war to further destabilize the monetary system of the confederacy.
There is also the case of one infamous counterfeiter during the civil war who took a similar role upon himself and claimed that he printed 1,564,000 bogus notes between 1862 and 1863.
Samuel Upham, a Philadelphia businessman, was opposed to the secession of the confederacy and began marketing novelty items that showed patriotism, supported the Union, or mocked the confederacy. Some of his most popular items at the time included cards that depicted the head of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the body of a jackass.
Shortly after his newfound success, Upham began producing counterfeits which he signed with his name and address and sold as souvenirs in mockery of the confederacy. However, some cotton smugglers began using his novelty notes in actual cotton purchases after trimming the bottom of the note that indicated it was a souvenir.
If the confederate notes were that easy to successfully fake, there was probably an abundance of counterfeiters besides Upham, especially those purely financially motivated.
How To Tell If Confederate Money Is Real?
A considerable percentage of the confederate money on offer today are fake notes. Hence, you should be quite wary if you are in the market for confederate notes.
Due to the considerable drop in quality that occurred in the bills printed between 1862 and 1864, confederate notes became considerably easy to counterfeit, leading to a rise in the number of counterfeiters making fake notes.
Some of these counterfeits made during the civil war era still possess some value today as collectors still buy them for their historical significance. In rare cases, these fake notes can be worth as much as their original counterparts.
Consequently, it is the modern fakes that you should be most worried about.
Many of these reproductions feature chemically-aged paper that mimics the old, parchment-style look of notes from the civil war era quite convincingly.
In rare cases, a fake confederate note may be so good that you would be unable to discern its lack of authenticity on your own. For these rare pieces, you would need the help of a qualified currency appraiser to ascertain the note’s status.
However, in most cases, you should be able to fish out fake confederate money by taking a closer look at the cut, the paper, and the ink.
Before the end of the first year of the war, the confederacy was heavily cash-strapped. One of the problems that stems from the south’s shortage of capital was its inability to procure the machinery required to produce clean-cut notes.
Consequently, all confederate notes were cut up by hand using scissors and other similar tools.
Hence, if what you have is a legitimate confederate note, it should not have perfectly machined edges as it standard with regular United States currency.
If the note has a perfect edge, it is most likely a fake.
Another effect of the confederate government’s lack of funds was that they had to settle for lesser quality paper than was used for standard United States notes.
Unlike the high-end cotton-linen blend used in United States Treasury notes, confederate bills featured a thin rice paper that was considerably less bulky than the modern currency we are used to today.
Rice paper is quite thinner than regular currency and should feel quite flimsy.
Almost all authentic confederate currency comes with handwritten portions. For most CSA bills, the numbering and signatures are all written by hand in iron gall ink.
The only exceptions are a handful of denomination types that use a numbering stamp for the serial and the half dollar Confederate notes of 1863 and 1864 that use machine-printed signatures instead of handwritten ones.
This unique ink used on most confederate note signatures can be a common tell for identifying counterfeit notes.
Iron gall ink, which originally had a blue-black color, corrodes over time due to the oxidation of its iron content, changing the color of the ink to a brownish hue. The ink also has the effect of “burning” through the paper, showing an outline on the reverse side of the note.
If the confederate note you have in hand has a signature that is as black as the machine-printed parts of the note, you most likely have a fake.
What happened to Confederate money after the Civil War?
At the war’s end, confederate money became worthless and useless since the body which promised its redemption for silver no longer existed. Consequently, most owners of these notes promptly discarded them or left them to rot.
However, those who had the foresight to preserve some in immaculate condition as a possible future collectible did the right thing, even though they weren’t alive to see this currency regain and even often surpass its original value.
Today, the few remnants of original confederate money that survived are now valuable possessions that are sought after by seasoned currency collectors around the country.