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Fake Money, Greenbacks & Counterfeit Soldiers on the Eve of the American Civil War

We reflect upon the deeper significance of currency ( greenbacks ) in our society while looking at some of the challenges faced by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War

During the social and physical upheavals of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was faced with the unprecedented challenge of waging a successful military campaign against the recently seceded South while simultaneously attempting to broker the ultimate return of the Confederate States into the Union.

United States 1861 $10 Demand Note. Image courtesy PMG

In response to the former, Lincoln was forced to enact what were – at the time – radical and divisive policies.

The dual strategy of authorizing the Department of the Treasury to print and release legal tender paper money and enlisting African-Americans to serve in the Union army was intended to aid in the North’s execution of the increasingly unpopular war. Essentially, greenbacks allowed Lincoln to finance the war that many northern African-Americans would now fight. However, the printing of greenbacks – much like the minting of African-American soldiers – was met with significant resistance, even unmasked hostility. If we understand money markets not only as systems of economic exchange but also as systems of symbolic exchange, we can begin to unravel the shared language of currency and race throughout U.S. history[1].

In the antebellum economy, the difference between representation and reality was often exceedingly difficult to sort out. According to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the money in circulation in the United States was counterfeit[2]. Equally useful to a nation struggling under the financial pressure of an expensive civil war and the budding entrepreneur seeking to advance along the socioeconomic ladder, the value of paper money – in many ways – was derived from the willingness of the public to accept it as genuine or reject it as ambiguous: counterfeit.

The same could be said of African-American soldiers during the Civil War. While some in the U.S. welcomed the addition of new recruits to the ranks of an army ravaged by defeat and disorganization in the early days of the conflict, still others expressed disdain – even hysteria – at the thought of arming African-Americans and allowing them to stand and fight alongside white soldiers. The possibility of improving their status within U.S. society through military service compelled many African-Americans to bear enormous oppression and hardship on the battlefield and at home throughout the Civil War. To many white Americans in the North as well as the South, however, African-American soldiers were considered false representations of the “genuine” thing: white soldiers. Much like their greenback brethren, African-American soldiers were often equated as counterfeit. In the United States during the mid-nineteenth century, “the greenback represented the aspiring citizen’s desire to get ahead, the greenback also suggested the possibility of a world in which people might simply declare themselves whatever they liked… the aspiring Negro [sic] might declare himself equal, or at least erase the ‘value’ of the difference between white and black.” Although neither money nor race is real: both are representations of social, economic, and – at times – racial difference and what it means, “representations of what we are and what we might become (O’Malley, 115-116).”

As we in the United States observe the upcoming 157th Anniversary of the American Civil War, we can also take this time to reflect on the signifying power invested in the currency of the United States as well as other nations across the globe. In many ways paper money has always held greater significance than a mere medium of exchange. From allegories of freedom, justice, and commerce to portraits of venerated political leaders, paper money has served as a widely circulated avenue of cultural and social exchange throughout history. Amidst the violence and tumult of the Civil War, greenbacks came to symbolize both strength and national unity on the one hand, as well as regional and racial division on the other. So the next time you scan your collection: take a closer look. History is printed on every note.

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[1] For an excellent discussion on the relationship between U.S. paper money and race upon which much of this article is based, see Michael O’Malley’s Rags, Blacking, and Paper Soldiers: Money and Race in the Civil War (2008), as well as in The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, Future, ed. James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glickman, & Michael O’Malley, 95-120. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[2] See Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States (Cambridge, MA, 2007); David R. Johnson, Illegal Tender: Counterfeiting and the Secret Service in Nineteenth-Century America (Washington, DC, 1995); Lyn Glaser, Counterfeiting in America (New York, 1968), 104-5; Murry T. Bloom, Money of Their Own (Port Clinton, OH, 1982), 101-3.

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  1. Fred Reed, in his long series of columns in the Bank Note Reporter, thoroughly rebutted the many citations of sky-high counterfeits in 19th century commerce, The reported numbers have been much exaggerated. It is a shame that Fred’s columns will apparently never be gathered within one binding.


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