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A Brief Description of Civil War Tokens

James Obler

Tokens constitute an important and popular field within numismatics and are pursued by avid collectors worldwide.  In the United States many token afficionados concentrate on Civil War tokens issued from 1862 to 1864.  There are thousands of different Civil War tokens (CWTs) known.  Some are quite common while others are extremely rare.  These tokens offer a fascinating perspective on life during the Civil War and on economics in general.

During December 1860 and January and February 1861 seven southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded from the United States, creating the Confederate States of America.  Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the US President on March 4, 1861.  In his inaugural address, Lincoln stated that he had no intention of invading the Confederate states but would use force to maintain possession of Federal property in the South, including forts, arsenals, mints, and customhouses.  He concluded the address with his famous plea to restore the Union, calling on “the mystic chords of memory” which should still bind the two regions of the divided nation.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate forces opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumpter in Charleston, South Carolina.  As always seems to be the case during wartime, civilians began to hoard their cash.  Gold, silver, and even copper-nickel cents began to vanish from circulation.  Despite huge mintages of 1-cent coins by the Philadelphia mint (over 100 million coins struck from 1857-1861) it became difficult to obtain cents for commerce.  Merchants found themselves unable to make change and some turned to private minters to fill the void caused by massive hoarding.  Various entrepreneurs stepped up and began producing cent-sized tokens to serve as substitute coinage.  These tokens were usually copper or bronze and similar in diameter to the standard Federal small cents but weighed less than those copper-nickel coins being issued by the Philadelphia mint.

Civil War tokens fall into three distinct categories.  These are patriotic tokens, store cards, and sutler tokens.  Patriotic tokens display patriotic slogans or images on one or both sides.  Since most of these pieces were minted in Union states, the slogans are almost always pro-union.  Typical examples are “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved”, “Union For Ever”, and “Old Glory”.  Images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and phrases like “Peace Forever” were common motifs.  Some tokens copied the current Indian Head cent for the obverse design.  Other patriotic images used include the American flag, cannons, and the warship U.S.S Monitor.

Possibly the best-known tokens of this type are the “Dix” tokens, named for John Adams Dix who was the Treasury secretary in 1861.  Secretary Dix had sent a letter to the captain of a revenue cutter ship, ordering the captain to relieve the commander of another ship because that officer had refused an order to move hisship from New Orleans to New York.  Apparently he intended to join the Confederacy.  The letter from Secretary Dix ends with the sentence “If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.”  That quote and similar variations were included on many patriotic token designs.

Civil War store card tokens served as advertisements for privately-owned businesses.  They typically displayed the business name and address plus a description of services and products offered.  They were accepted as 1-cent coins and were given out as change.  Most were dated and many used an Indian Head or Liberty portrait as the obverse.  One of the most common store card tokens was produced by New York barkeeper Gustavus Lindenmueller in 1863.  These were about the size of a quarter (unusual for a CWT) and over a million were produced.  They depicted a bearded portrait and the date on the obverse and a beer stein on the reverse.  Presumably these could be exchanged for a beer at Lindenmueller’s bar.  For a time they were accepted for streetcar fare and New York’s Third Avenue Railroad company accumulated a large quantity.  The company attempted to have Lindenmueller exchange them for cash but he refused.  They basically lost their money because there was no legal recourse for recovering the funds.

Sutler tokens are the rarest category.  They are similar in concept to store card tokens but rather than naming a business they reference a particular army unit, usually a regiment.  They also bear the name of the specific sutler (or vendor) who was in charge of procuring supplies for that unit.  Servicemen would exchange some of their military pay for small-denomination tokens that could be used to make small purchases from the sutler.  In effect, each regiment had their own private currency which soldiers could easily spend as they wished.

The end for Civil War token use began with the passage of the Coinage Act of 1864, enacted by Congress on April 22, 1864.  That Act is best known for the establishment of the 2-cent piece and for mandating the use of the phrase In God We Trust on US coinage.  It also established the new alloy (bronze) and weight (3.11 grams) for 1-cent coins.  The new cents were closer in weight to typical CWTs and found greater acceptance among the public.The issue of the legality of CWTs was settled by the enactment by Congress of 18 U.S.C. § 486, on June 8, 1864.  This new law made the minting and usage of non-government issue coins illegal, with potential penalties of a fine up to $2,000, a prison term of up to 5 years, or both.  It was not illegal to possess the tokens but the new law did stop token production since no tokens are known to have been manufactured after that date.

The standard references for CWTs are the two books written by Dr. George J. Fuld and his father, Melvin Fuld.  These are Patriotic Civil War Tokens and U.S. Civil War Store Cards, plus A Guide to Civil War Store Card Tokens.  Whitman Publishing also issues the “official red book” called A Guide Book of Civil War Tokens, written by Q. David Bowers.  Anyone with serious interest in these tokens will need one or more of these books.  You can also join the Civil War Token Society, a coin club dedicated to these interesting pieces.

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