I’ve not been condemned to a life sentence as curator of a museum to my childhood. An imminent move has me paring down what few chattels I retain after moves in 2016 and 2020. Amongst this revenant chattelry I rediscovered the Confederate Ten-dollar bill whose obverse is shown below in figure 1.
My father’s people never threw anything away—ever—and that’s how I got this. They came over to the United States for extended visits (in New York City) in the late 1850s and early 1860s, before finally taking the plunge and immigrating from Old Blighty in 1870 (settling in Omaha, Nebraska).
They might have picked this valueless item up at any point as a souvenir of the “greatest generation” of Americans who had laid down life and limb in the battle against slavery (a battle in which my family took no part I am aware of). The only thing I know for sure is that the bill was in the possession of our family by 1970, when I first saw it when the last of my father’s people died and my parents were cleaning out their house.
I’ve edited the photos of the faded bill to bring out detail, saturating red on the obverse and blue on the reverse and increasing contrast and sharpness. An image of a fine copy in a museum collection may be found here. Our bill is quite worn and flimsy, which turns out to be important.
I had always assumed that this bill was a fake, a facsimile made as a souvenir for folks celebrating one or another anniversary of the war. It turns out that the fakes, even counterfeits made during the war itself, have been pretty thoroughly studied. This bill appears to be genuine, and I’ll take you through the indicators.
1) The bill has irregular scissor-cut borders. The United States issued imperforate postage stamps requiring scissors to separate stamps from a sheet, at first (1847-57) exclusively, but after 1857 at intervals, these latter mostly as philatelic oddities. It represents a rough-and-tumble time when the technology of postage stamps was evolving. The federal government had worked up a secure process to produce uniform bills by cutting the sheets mechanically, but the South lacked such equipment and the labor of separating Confederate bills from larger sheets was olde schoole by scissors and hand.
2) The bill is made of flimsy paper. I wouldn’t know it to touch it, but Confederate bills were printed on rice paper rather than the firmer paper used by the federal government. Although the bill is obviously worn, the paper is remarkably thin and flexible, which are the marks of rice paper.
3) The bill is lithographed rather than engraved. The federal government engraved its postage stamps and bills, but the Confederates did not. Apart from the softness of the paper, the surface is quite smooth compared to U.S. currency.
4) The bill is signed by hand and given a serial number in iron gall ink. You can tell how olde schoole the Confederate production process was by considering the fact that the bills were all signed and numbered by hand with pen and ink. Iron gall ink is a very old technology that permanently marks a writing surface. It starts out a dark, steely blue but chemicaly alters over time (in simple words, it rusts) into a ruddy color.
One can see the signature of the luckless Bartlebys “D. Gill” who signed the bill in the name of the Confederate state treasurer (the sharp-eyed will spot D. Gill on the bottom 10-dollar note in this image and another here), and someone (on the left) whose name looks a little like “Blelenks” who signed for the registrar (you may be better able to make out the name in an image of a better preserved bill, here). These signatures and the serial number, 31829, are duly weathering into the expected rusty color. Remember, I’ve saturated the reds, so while the rusty color is there, it’s not as saturated as in my photos.
5) The serial number is not one used in any known facsimile of Confederate bills produced as souvenirs of the war. These are all known and listed in the study linked above.
6) The designers’ mark, “Keatinge & Ball, Columbia, S.C.” is a known engraver of Confederate bills, and the printer, “Ptd. by Evans & Cogswell” a known printer, both (at this time) operating out of Columbia, South Carolina.
7) The iconography all hangs together. This is a well attested bill type, the 10-dollar bill of the series of 1864. The vignette of the horse-drawn cannon, the portrait of Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, the red background of the obverse, and blue of the reverse all check.
The Confederates did not have much wealth to back their currency. So they issued their bills as promissory notes, pledges that, once they had won the war, they would redeem the notes for (in this case) 10 dollars in specie.
While the Confederacy was a going proposition, this bill’s value was limited to its redeemable (face) value of 10 dollars. As Confederate fortunes waned, people became less and less confident that this or any Confederate bill would ever be redeemable. Sure, until Appomattox there was always a non-zero possibility the South might win, but as that possibility shrank toward zero, the value people were willing to grant these promissory notes shrank pari passu.
It’s not quite inflation, where the government prints too much money for the wealth backing it (but that wealth exists; it just gets spread thinly and the bills become worth less). It’s more a fascinating exercise in watching value of something predicated upon Confederate victory diminish as a function of the probability of that victory. One expedient the Confederates used to shore up their currency was to make the notes interest bearing, but that does not concern the bill in question.
Tens of thousands of Confederate ten-dollar bills in the series of 1864 were printed, and a quick look on ebay shows that they are not particularly valuable, though fresh uncirculated copies with good margins can sell for like $100 2022 US dollars. A scrappy one like mine would fetch a small, small fraction of that.