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Confederate coinage notable by its lack

It was a chaotic time, an exciting time and a tragic time. You would not normally think to look at the coins of the period as evidence of the situation tearing a nation apart, but in fact in the first days of the Civil War the coins did reflect the situation and those coins are all the more interesting today as a result.

As Abraham Lincoln took office on march 4, 1861, and states began to vote to leave the Union, the mints of the United States were in many cases among the most vulnerable of all the institutions when it came to potentially being seized by the seceding states.

The main facility in Philadelphia was secure and San Francisco was so far away that there was not a real threat tough there was secessionist elements in California.

But the New Orleans, La., Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., facilities were all well behind what would become enemy lines from the perspective of the Union government in Washington, D.C.
It did not take long for the states involved to act as owners of their newly acquired property. As they did so, they discovered metal and dies. It was only natural that they would take the opportunity to make coins. The coins that were produced remain today, but the records and details are lost in most cases if they ever existed at all.

Over the years, we have tried to reach conclusions when it comes to the coins created under state or Confederate authority, but in many cases our information amounts to little more than educated assumptions. With grading services, however, we now have help not in obtaining the records from 1861 but at least in determining what coins exist in what numbers, perhaps helping us to at least make some sense of what went on almost 150 years ago in the fog of war and the confusion of a most confusing time.

There would never be many different denominations of coins produced by state or Confederate forces. There was simply not much in terms of gold or silver available from which to make coins and the dies themselves had always been prepared in Philadelphia.

That meant the branch mints had a very limited capability in terms of coins they could produce. Once the dies they had on hand were worn out, or the bullion supplies exhausted, they were really out of the coin production business. They had little hope of procuring new bullion supplies and less of setting up their own die making shop.

As the war began, there was only one facility in the South that was prepared to make silver coins and that was New Orleans. The mints at Dahlonega and Charlotte had only ever made gold coins,  so if there were going to be any silver issues made, they would have to come from New Orleans.

In the early months of 1861, New Orleans had actually produced some 330,000 1861-O half dollars. That was not surprising as in the previous couple of years New Orleans had been very busy producing large numbers of Seated Liberty silver dollars and half dollars, so there was apparently some significant demand for the larger silver coins in the area for use in commerce or possibly for export.

When the new Orleans facility was taken over by the State of Louisiana, the production continued to the tune of 1,240,000 more half dollars and then when the state joined the Confederate States of America, that made the facility officially a Confederate one and the half dollar production continued with an additional 962,633 being made for a total 1861-O mintage under three different authorities of 2,532,633.

The story of the 1861-O half dollar would have a lot of interesting twists and turns. With its mintage of 2,532,633, it is an available Seated Liberty dollar with prices of $30 in G-4, $450 in MS-60 and $5,150 in MS-65. If, however, the coin has a die crack running from the nose to the border on the obverse, it can command prices a couple of times higher in every grade for that is a characteristic of the die used during the period when the facility was officially under Confederate control.

We know of the die crack because there also was an effort made by the Confederates to prepare their own dies and make their own half dollars. Actually, four coins to the best of our knowledge were ever struck using the regular obverse die and a Confederate States of America reverse. The four coins were presented to President Jefferson Davis, Professor J.L. Riddell of the University of Louisiana, Dr. E. Ames of New Orleans with the fourth being kept by chief coiner Dr. B.F. Taylor. Apparently a lack of bullion kept the coin from having any real production with any of the four made being a significant rarity as is seen in the 2003 Stack’s sale of an example for $632,000.

The Confederate States of America also tried to make a cent, or at least contract for a cent. It was prepared by Robert Lovett of Philadelphia. There are roughly 12 examples known as Lovett feared arrest for aiding the enemy, so there was no production. He hid the coins and dies in his cellar but later the dies were purchased by John Haseltine who made restrikes with examples being known in gold, silver and copper.

Later the dies would be copied but coins made from those dies are easily distinguished while the original cents and restrikes are extremely rare and valuable.

The dies for the half dollar would also surface when a coin and the die were found in the possession of the chief coiner. They were purchased by a Mr. E. Mason of Philadelphia who ultimately sold them to J.W. Scott and Co. of New York. The company managed to acquire 500 examples of the original 1861-O half dollars and then had their reverses smoothed and stamped with the original Confederate die. The restrikes are easily spotted as they have flattened obverses, but they are still very popular today as are another 500 Scott tokens that were made using the original Confederate reverse die and a special Scott obverse.

Those were the only attempts at Confederate or state-produced issues other than gold. In the case of gold issues there are a variety of possibilities all of which are interesting and tough and in almost every case there are also a number of questions remaining today regarding the issues.

In the case of gold dollars, there was really only one facility where they were made and that was in Dahlonega. The New Orleans facility had stopped making gold dollars after 1855. We do not know the reason why New Orleans stopped producing the denomination, but the facility a few years later in 1859 started producing large numbers of silver dollars. It may be a case where there was just no demand for the small gold dollar in New Orleans, or it may be a case where New Orleans was one of the few places in America where there was a greater demand for the larger silver dollar. It could have been a combination of both factors, or perhaps there was another reason, but whatever the case, New Orleans was out of the gold dollar business by 1861.

The situation at Charlotte was less clear, but the last gold dollar production had taken place in there in 1859. Of course for many years the totals in both Charlotte and Dahlonega had been low. That said, Dahlonega continued with an 1860 gold dollar production put at just 1,566 pieces. The 1860-D gold dollar is important for a variety of reason as it is frequently compared to the 1861-D both in terms of the die used and also in mintages.

There needs to be some mintage comparison as there is no official mintage for the 1861-D for a very simple but very good reason that the 1861-D gold dollar was produced at some point after control of the facility was taken over by the State of Georgia. We know there are 1861-D gold dollars but have no idea what their mintage was with many estimates over the years putting it about 1,000 pieces.

Remembering that the 1860-D gold dollar mintage was officially 1,566, we find today the 1860-D is $2,150 in F-12 and $13,500 in MS-60 while the 1861-D is priced at $4,950 in F-12 and $41,500 in MS-60. The prices, however, could be slightly deceptive as the 1861-D may well command some extra premium as a coin that was definitely made after the facility was taken over by Georgia and then the Confederate States of America.

The grading service totals are likely to be a better indication of how the 1860-D and 1861-D compare in terms of actual numbers and that may give us some clue as to a likely mintage for the 1861-D.

At NGC they have seen 48 examples of the 1860-D and 23 of the 1861-D, while PCGS shows 67 examples of the 1860-D and 53 of the 1861-D. Based on those totals, the estimate of a 1,000-piece mintage for the 1861-D does not seem that far off the mark. It is possible the total would have been just a little lower but realistically the survival rate for a coin produced as the Civil War was beginning could possibly have been slightly lower than usual.

There is, however, an interesting situation in the coins seen. That is in Mint State where NGC reports six examples of the 1860-D in Mint State but eight of the 1861-D. PCGS comes up with a similar conclusion reporting 10 examples of the 1860-D in Mint State but 17 of the 1861-D.

With a much higher price for the 1861-D, the grading service totals raise some real questions about the price and about precisely why the 1861-D would seemingly be more available in Mint State. Perhaps there was souvenir saving or something that would explain the situation, but for the present it has to rank as one of the more interesting questions regarding coins produced during the period.

State and Confederate authorities finding gold and silver as well as dies in the mints as they took control not limit themselves to gold dollars. At Charlotte and Dahlonega the highest denomination they produced was the $5 gold piece and it was natural that if there were dies, they would use seized gold to make half eagles.

The situation in Charlotte was fairly well documented. When the year started,  a total of 3,948 1861-C half eagles were produced under U.S. control. Then the State of North Carolina authorities are believed to have produced another 2,931 and another 887 were produced after May 20, 1861, when North Carolina officially joined the Confederate States of America. That made for a combined total of 7,776 half eagles produced under three different authorities.

With a mintage estimated at 7,776, the 1861-C half eagle is available at prices of $1,500 in F-12 and $25,000 in MS-60. The burning question, however, in many minds has been how you determine a coin made by the State of North Carolina or the Confederate States of America. The correct answer is we cannot be sure although we do have a pretty good idea. The was die deterioration over time and evidence of rust and a die crack through the top of “AMERI” is sometimes suggested as proof of a coin produced under Confederate control. Actually it is only proof of rust and a die crack as the die could have cracked at any time not opting to wait until the facility was officially under Confederate control. That is basically the stance taken by experts such as Douglas Winter and Q. David Bowers and it seems to be the most reasonable conclusion today as while the rust and die crack probably mean a coin produced later it is no proof of who might have been in charge of the facility at that time.

There was a very similar situation in Dahlonega. We believe there was just under $13,500 in gold in the facility when Georgia took control. We know that 1861-D gold dollars were made, but that number was small, still leaving most of the gold. At least part of that gold is thought to have been used to make 1861-D half eagles. The situation is not as clear as the 1861-D gold dollar for the simple reason that the facility prior to falling into Georgia hands produced a reported 1,597 1861-D half eagles. That would mean a small supply today as is seen by prices of $3,000 in F-12 and $50,000 in MS-60.

The prices are probably fair, but the mintage total is suspect as it is simply the total produced by the United States. We suspect there were others and the historic estimates suggest that there might have been as many as 1,000 more 1861-D half eagles produced by someone else. In fact, there might have been enough gold to produce roughly 2,000 coins.

Looking to the grading services for some indication of what might be what, we seen NGC has graded 73 examples of the 1861-C and just 26 of the 1861-D half eagles. At PCGS, the total for the 1860-D is 95 while the 1861-D total is 65. Assuming the 1861-C mintage is accurate or at least close to accurate, it would appear that based on the totals from both services that the 1861-D had a higher mintage than the official 1,597. How much higher is uncertain, but certainly another 1,000 pieces is not out of the question based on the surviving pieces graded by the third-party grading services.

There is another interesting situation in Mint State. NGC reports four Mint State examples of the 1861-C and three of the 1861-D. At PCGS, they report three Mint State examples of the 1861-C but 13 of the 1861-D. It is unusual for the lower mintage date to have more examples in Mint State, but worth remembering is that the 1861-D gold dollar was also more numerous in Mint State than we would expect. To have both 1861 gold coins produced at least in part under state or Confederate control be more numerous in Mint State than would be expected has to be seen as highly unusual and perhaps even more indication that someone in the State of Georgia period of control was setting aside examples of the coins they made as souvenirs, or there may have even been a couple of high ranking coin collectors. We will never be certain, but we certainly have a pattern of some 1861-D coins being more available in Mint State than might normally be expected.

The half eagle was the largest denomination produced at Charlotte and Dahlonega, so it was natural to be made when state authorities assumed control of those facilities. In New Orleans, however, they had made double eagles. Before Louisiana officials took control of the facility, a total of 5,000 1861-O $20 gold pieces had been produced. The best estimates are that the State of Louisiana produced another 9,750 pieces and when Louisiana joined the Confederate States of America, the Confederate authorities produced another 2,991 coins for a total of 17,741 double eagles. It was not a large total. It puts the 1861-O at a VF-20 price of $5,650 while an MS-60 is $88,000.

As with the other denominations at the other mints, a nagging question has been how do you tell a coin produced under Confederate authority? Once again, there is no absolute proof, although Q. David Bowers in his book A Guide Book Of Double Eagle Gold Coins in telling the story of the 1861-O does point to the fact that on some coins the base of the “8” in the date was crudely strengthened.

Bowers, and others suspect that this is an indication of a later and probably Confederate coin as had there been punches available, a normal and not hand strengthened “8” could have been punched into the die. It may not be certain proof, but it is awfully good evidence that someone later in the process tried to improve the date by hand because there were no regular punches available. But then, Louisiana would not have had access to die punches, either.

Those are the coins produced by state and Confederate authorities. For anyone with a special interest in the Civil War or the Confederate States of America, they make up a fascinating collection. The collection, however, involves very elusive coins with the exception of an 1861-O half dollar.

The shortage of bullion on hand and the difficulties at the mints certainly makes it clear to 21st century collectors why the Confederacy turned quickly from coins to paper money.

             

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