1861 was one of the most turbulent years in American history. The Civil War began in April of that year. All facets of American life were affected, including coinage, Mint history and numismatics.
Louisiana seceded from the Union in late January. The New Orleans Mint, in operation since 1838, was seized by the state’s government. The state minted over 1.2 million 1861-O half dollars, this after 330,000 had been struck before the takeover.
Once Louisiana joined the Confederacy, more half dollars were struck, over 962,000 of them. The 1861-O half dollar was minted by the United States, the State of Louisiana and the Confederate States.
The tale of the 1861-O double eagle is similar. 5,000 were minted before the takeover, 9,750 by the state, and 2,991 by the Confederacy.
The Confederate half dollar with a distinctive reverse was struck at New Orleans. The obverse bore the familiar Liberty Seated motif, and the reverse, a shield with seven stars. Only four are known. This coin was unknown to collectors until 1879. One was owned by CSA President Jefferson Davis.
Each of these historical coins bears a die break on the obverse. Besides the four Confederate half dollars, a number of 1861-O regular design half dollars show this break. These coins sell for much higher premiums than those without the die break.
Robert Lovett, a Philadelphia engraver, prepared dies for a Confederate cent but hid the coins and dies in his basement. A dozen or so Confederate cents are known in copper-nickel, with a number of restrikes made in 1874 and 1961. The obverse shows a capped Liberty head and the words “Confederate States of America.” A wreath appears on the reverse.
North Carolina seceded in May 1861 and took over the Charlotte Mint, which had been minting gold coins since 1838. The last coins struck at Charlotte were 1861-C half eagles; only 6,879 were made, a truly scarce coin with an unknown survival rate.
The third Southern Mint, the Mint at Dahlonega, Ga., was seized by the Confederacy in April. A small number of gold dollars were struck, perhaps 1,000 or as many as 1,500. The coins were not struck until after the takeover. This coin is the key to the gold dollar set, along with the 1849-C open wreath. Less than 100 still exist, and its historical value is immense. One is in the Dahlonega Mint Museum collection.
Dahlonega also minted half eagles, only 1,597 before the Mint was seized, with a small number minted by the Confederacy after that.
Twenty dollar gold coins with a distinctive reverse lettering style were made in this year. Designed by Anthony Paquet, the reverse bears lettering that is taller and shaped much differently than the other issues. These coins are not considered to be patterns. About a hundred are known of the San Francisco coin and only two of the Philadelphia coin.
Other coins were struck during this year. Though it was a crisis year, the economy was running normally until the Battle of Bull Run in July. The Philadelphia Mint struck copper-nickel Indian cents, three-cent silver coins, half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars and silver dollars. None of the “P” Mint coins are especially scarce, so many collectors can own a coin with the year 1861 date on it.
San Francisco minted dimes, quarters and half dollars. The 1861-S quarter is a genuinely scarce coin that is generally not recognized and is probably overshadowed by the other historical coins made in this year. Only 96,000 were minted. Many are well worn. The 1861-S quarter is unknown in full Mint State.
Five Mints struck gold coins in 1861. Philadelphia minted gold coins in all denominations in use at the time: gold dollars, quarter and half eagles, eagles and double eagles, in addition to $3 pieces.
San Francisco minted quarter and half eagles, eagles and double eagles.
Even in this troubled time, a few proofs were struck. Mintage figures range from 1,000 for the minor coins to much smaller totals for gold coins, 113 of the $3 and only 66 of the double eagle.
1861 was a remarkable year in United States history, with repercussions in every part of life. Civil War tokens and encased postage appeared in later years. But 1861 was the year great changes began that affected coinage and Mint history. Some genuine pieces of history were struck, along with more common coins, proofs and gold. Many collectors can own a coin bearing this historic date, and advanced collectors can own an historical piece worthy of a museum.
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More Collecting Resources
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2019 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.