It’s easy to look back at the American Civil War with the cool, calm detachment that 150-plus years of distance affords. We “know how the story ends,” so to speak (although lingering plot threads remain unfinished, even today).
During the war, there was no such sense of certainty—no resting in an armchair and studying names, dates, and places from the distant past. True, there were high hopes in the beginning. At the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), just a few weeks into the skirmishing, Washingtonians expected a quick and easy Confederate defeat. Politicians and socialites (as well as “huckster women” and “hotel waiters,” according to witnesses) watched the military action from the nearby countryside, with sandwiches and picnic baskets. That frivolity didn’t last long. With every new battle and rising death tolls, the public’s confidence trembled nervously.
One way the anxiety manifested itself was in the nation’s money. As the military conflict dragged on, Americans hoarded first gold, then silver, and eventually even copper U.S. coins they received in change, keeping them as hedges against wartime economic uncertainty. Better to spend a $5 piece of paper, which could rapidly lose value from inflation, and hide your hard-money $5 gold coin under the mattress until things settled down.
Private enterprise stepped in to fill the gap. During the small-change shortage that lasted from 1862 to 1865, hundreds of merchants, firms, and organizations issued their own cent-sized tokens, mostly of copper or brass, as emergency “money” for day-to-day transactions. These privately made substitutes for federal coins were minted in the millions. They weren’t legal tender, but they got the job done.
Today these Civil War tokens (as they’re called) are highly collectible. Values generally range from $15 for common, circulated pieces to more than $15,000 for rarities.
Kentucky, a border state, officially declared itself neutral at the start of the war, though the Union Army was a strong presence following early Confederate hostilities. The Bluegrass State experienced the same coin hoarding as other areas of the country. Kentucky merchants who issued Civil War tokens included saloonkeepers, ferrymen, grocers, manufacturers, and others. H. Miller Co. of Louisville was a maker of dies for tokens. Several Kentucky customers used Miller’s stock dies for the reverse, with a customized obverse design doubling as an advertisement. For example, a bar or a liquor retailer might use a common H. Miller Co. design of a hand holding a beer mug, along with the name of their establishment on the other side.
Such tokens typically could be purchased for about $9 for 1,000 pieces. The buyer would then pass them out as small change through their grocery store, restaurant, or other business. Everybody benefited: The token manufacturer made a profit over costs and labor; the business owner received $10 worth of small change (plus free advertising) for $9; and the Kentuckian on the street had “coins” to smooth the flow of everyday commerce.
If you’d like to learn more about Kentucky’s Civil War tokens, and if you’ll be at the August 2021 American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Chicago, stop by the general meeting of the Civil War Token Society. It’s scheduled for Thursday, August 12, 2021, from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. in room 4 of the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. You can visit the CWTS online.
Dennis Tucker is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of books, storage and display supplies, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Commonwealth’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Bluegrass State’s rich connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts.