By Timothy O’Fallon – Gibraltar Coins & Precious Metals ……
Founding of the City and the Battle of New Orleans
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by a fellow named Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. As you might imagine, he was French. He named the city Nouvelle Orléans for the Duke of Orleans, Philip II (not to be confused with a variety of other monarchs named Philip II throughout history).
The city changed hands from the French to the Spanish, then back to the French before becoming a part of the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
The British never really considered the Louisiana purchase valid, since the U.S. bought the territory from the United Kingdom’s all time arch enemy and despoiler of everything noble and good, Napoleon Bonaparte. To the United States, Napoleon was just another quirky tyrant, and they didn’t really care what the British considered valid or invalid.
While the British were at war with Napoleon they needed lots of sailors to operate their mighty fleet of warships to fight the French to the death. For some unknown reason, some British sailors preferred to work on merchant ships, unload salted herring at the docks, or to try their hand at potato farming. Some of them went to America and became U.S. citizens, working on U.S. ships, which were not at war with the French to the death.
The British considered the naturalization of the ex-British sailors invalid too, and so they stopped U.S. ships at sea and forcibly brought their boys back home. This was called “Impressment”. The Americans weren’t impressed, and partly because of this declared war on the British.
The Americans figured it would be an easy win, considering the British were preoccupied with Napoleon. To the dismay of the Americans, the British kept them on their heels for two and a half years, (although there were some inspiring American victories, especially near the end of the war).
The two sides met and decided to call it a draw on December 27, 1814 when the warring parties signed the Treaty of Ghent.
News of the treaty and ratification took a couple of months back in those days, and the British figured they would make the best use of the lag time by capturing New Orleans. Although they figured the American garrison there was weak, and the impetuous commander by the name of Andrew Jackson largely inept, they left nothing to chance.
The attacking British army was composed mostly of veteran soldiers who had just beaten Napoleon at Waterloo. These guys were not pansies by any stretch of the imagination. They ate leather for fun, slept on sharpened bayonets, and didn’t flinch when a palmetto bug ran up their pant legs. You get the idea.
There were lots of them, and they were coming for New Orleans. It turns out the defending Americans, though small in number, weren’t so weak as the British imagined, and Andrew Jackson not so impetuous and inept as they thought either.
Jackson had a bone to pick, since as a boy he’d been mistreated by the British army during the American Revolution. He made sure the invaders had hardly a moment’s rest by harassing them from the moment they landed, and prepared a brilliant defense. Still, Jackson and the Americans needed everything to go exactly their way and then some to win against the British army (did I mention they were tough?).
Everything went the Americans’ way. The British helped the Americans along by forgetting to bring their ladders when they had to scale the American earthworks. The British also had to face volunteer riflemen from Kentucky and Tennessee. The Kentucky riflemen grew up shooting squirrels between the eyes at 300 yards, so you can imagine what they did to soldiers in red marching across an open field, or to generals on horseback shouting and waving their arms.
The sound when the Americans under Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans was the sound of the world’s collective jaw dropping. Unfortunately for the Americans, the war was already over, so beating the redcoats at New Orleans didn’t affect the terms of the treaty. But New Orleans stayed American, and Andrew Jackson went on to accomplish a thing or two as well, I hear, like getting himself on the $20 bill. But I digress.
Andrew Jackson remembered New Orleans fondly, and when the time came to build new U.S. Mints, New Orleans was at the top of his list.
Gold and Silver…upstream!
Between 1815 and 1840, the population in New Orleans increased more than tenfold. New Orleans was (and is) situated at the mouth of the Mississippi River on the Gulf of Mexico, making the city the go to port for imports from Central and South America coming into the U.S. Among the goods that flowed into the United States via the port of New Orleans were the large quantities of gold and silver mined in Mexico and countries in South America. Cotton and finished goods made the return journey.
With all this transactin’ going on, banks were needed to facilitate the trades, and until 1843 only New York could compete with the trade and banking enterprise of New Orleans on the North American continent. In fact, imports to the Port of New Orleans were greater by a sizable margin to those of the Port of New York during this period.
With the discovery of gold in North Carolina and Georgia, Andrew Jackson, now President of the United States, decided it was time to relieve the pressure on the overworked mint employees in Philadelphia and open other Mints in the South to turn all the new gold into coins.
Mints in North Carolina and Georgia made sense because of their proximity to the gold discoveries, but the new legislation also gave the President the perfect excuse to reward the site of his military victory. Although no gold or silver to speak of was ever discovered in Louisiana, the imported South American gold justified the construction of the New Orleans Mint. Here are the three new Mints authorized by the Coinage Act of 1834: 1. The Charlotte, North Carolina Mint (site of the first U.S. gold rush in 1799) Mint Mark “C” 2. The Dahlonega, Georgia Mint (rich gold deposits were discovered here in 1828) Mint Mark “D” 3. The New Orleans, Louisiana Mint (the longest running of the Southern Branch Mints) Mint Mark “O”
A Classical Edifice on a Swamp
Now that the law was passed for a New Orleans Mint, all that was left to choose was the site for the construction, the designer, the plans, the Superintendent, the Assayer, the Coiner, the… ok there was a lot to be done. The site chosen was where an old fort once stood, but had been turned into a park called “Jackson Square”, in honor of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.
Unfortunately, “Jackson Square” rested on what was essentially a swamp. According to Wikipedia, “ Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix (he was also French) described it in 1721 as a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators.”
Architect William Strickland was chosen to Design the Mint facility. Since he had already designed the Second Bank of the United States, the Merchant’s Exchange in Philadelphia, and was commissioned to design the Charlotte Branch Mint in North Carolina, the talent search did not take very long.
Knowing that New Orleans was famous for its French Quarter with Parisian inspired wrought iron decor and Creole culture, Strickland opted to design the Mint in the Greco-Roman style. Naturally. He also designed it with the solid ground of Philadelphia in mind, not the swamp of Jackson Square. As a result, the building needed serious reinforcement more than once.
In 1854, the Treasury hired an engineer named Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard to make a number of repairs, including rebuilding some arches to support the basement so the building would not sink into the muddy earth. He finished this and other major improvements in 1859. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was also the Confederate General who ordered the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, the first engagement of the Civil War.
The Great Divide
The State of Louisiana seceded from the Union in January of 1861 and adopted the Confederate constitution in March of 1861. Coining operations continued at the New Orleans Mint at this time, although nearly all the coins retained the old design.
A number of studies have now made it possible to know with near certainty which half dollars from New Orleans in 1861 were produced under CSA authority. These Confederate issue 1861 half dollars feature certain die characteristics, one of the more famous of which features an obverse die crack from Liberty’s nose to the rim near 12:00.
In October of 1865, some six months after the end of the war, the steamship SS Republic (formerly the SS Tennessee) sank in a hurricane off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. In its hold were a large number of silver and gold coins, including “uncirculated” and “about uncirculated” 1861O half dollars, some of which had one or more of the Confederate States of America die characteristics. These coins were recovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc in 2003, and with patience may still be located by collectors today.
In 1879, news surfaced that four half dollars were minted in 1861 which bore a special design unique to the Confederate States of America. These were the only CSA designed coins to be officially struck. The obverse of the coin features the Seated Liberty of the U.S. half dollar, but the reverse, rather than showing the Eagle, depicts a shield with seven stars, highlighted by sugarcane and cotton, a Phrygian cap above. One of the four coins was personally owned by Jefferson Davis.
The most recent auction appearance of a CSA designed Half Dollar brought $881,250.00 in January 2015.
A Confederate issue One Cent was also pursued while the New Orleans Mint remained under confederate authority. Robert Lovett of Philadelphia, a jeweler for the Firm Bailey & Co. (later Bailey, Banks, and Biddle) was asked to design them. He did, and struck exactly 12 coins from his Philadelphia workshop. At this point, Mr. Lovett began having second thoughts, and hid the dies and the coins to avoid the charge of treason.
Some 12 years later, the coins resurfaced after Mr. Lovett accidentally spent one at a bar in Philadelphia. The barkeeper noticed the coin as unusual, and contacted a numismatist friend of his to look at it. The collector tracked down Mr. Lovett and bought both the dies and the coins so he could make copies and sell them as souvenirs.
The 12 original specimens are worth far more today than the later strikes. Today, it is difficult to conceive the horror of a war that tore a new nation asunder; a war in which families opposed one another on bloody battlefields, a war in which over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives more than every other U.S. war combined.
In at least one incident, the Mint at New Orleans played a central role: the New Orleans Mint, and the city as a whole was recaptured by the Union in 1862 by Admiral David Farragut. Marines under his command raised the U.S. flag over the Mint building, which generated anger and hatred in the city.
One of the residents, a steamboat gambler by the name of William Bruce Mumford, climbed to the top of the New Orleans Mint and removed the U.S. flag, tearing it to shreds and stuffing the scraps in his shirt. When the military governor of the city, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, heard of the outrage he ordered Mumford hanged for desecration of the stars and stripes.
Mumford was hung from the horizontal flagpole of the New Orleans Mint on June 7, 1862. General Butler may have suffered some remorse or at least regret for the act, as years later, when he was a politician in Washington, he helped Mumford’s widow find employment there.
Into the 20th Century
Although a lot of the equipment at the New Orleans mint had been damaged during the Civil War, the facility was seen as too valuable to remain idle or a mere assay office, and in 1879 coin production began again. The New Orleans Mint Revival saw production of Morgan Dollars, Barber coinage, Liberty Head gold coins with the new Motto “In God We Trust”. The Mint even boasted one year’s production of the Indian Head $5 gold half eagle in 1909.
1909 was the last year any coins were minted in New Orleans, after which the building was used as an assay office, a prison, a Coast Guard storage facility, a fallout shelter, and finally a museum. It was damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Today the U.S. Mint building in New Orleans houses a Jazz Museum, pottery, historical artifacts from the French and Colonial period, and a tribute to the days when it represented the economy and wealth of a Nation still striving to determine who she was. The New Orleans Mint 400 Esplanade St. New Orleans, LA 70116 (504) 568-6968, (800) 568-6968 Click here to see coins available for sale now from the New Orleans Mint Do you have questions about coins from the New Orleans Mint? Would you like me to help you build a set or find a coin? Feel free to contact us HERE or email [email protected]