Almost immediately after its founding, the Confederate States of America began issuing money. The first Confederate dollars, nicknamed “Greybacks,” were first released into circulation in April 1861. Initially the CSA currency had decent purchasing power and was readily accepted—but this would soon change. As confidence waned in the South’s ability to win the Civil War, the currency lost value and acceptability. Eventually the Confederacy would experience tremendous inflation as its currency became essentially worthless.
All Confederate paper money was issued as bills of credit, meaning that it was not secured by any specific assets. Nonetheless, when the war began, many Southerners believed the CSA owned hard goods like cotton or tobacco. Therefore, even though the currency wasn’t backed by gold or silver, many believed there was some kind of tangible value behind the paper money.
Not only was Confederate money lacking in hard value, it was also lacking in physical quality. Thanks to the embargo of southern ports, the CSA had a shortage of high-quality paper, lithographic presses and printing plates. Furthermore, the Confederacy did not employ as many skilled engravers and printers compared to the Union. As a result, Confederate money tends to look crude compared to U.S. paper money printed during the same era. Being of lower quality, it was easier for counterfeiters to imitate CSA currency.
With regard to its paper money, the Confederacy’s goal was more quantity than quality. An impressive $1.7 billion in face value was issued from 1861-1864. Some speculate the CSA tried to “print its way to victory” and attempted to buy war goods with its own money. However, a more likely scenario is that foreign governments would only accept hard money from the fledgling CSA. If the Confederacy wanted to buy weapons and ammo from another country, the foreign nation would expect gold or silver as payment.
With a limited amount of precious metals available, the Confederacy issued a miniscule amount of coinage. Just twelve original CSA one cent coins are known, plus a paltry four silver half dollars. The dies were later salvaged and used to produce restrikes, but original specimens struck by the Confederacy are exceedingly rare. Original CSA cents usually sell for $150,000 to $250,000 while the Half Dollars are worth nearly $1 million each.
Luckily for collectors, CSA paper money remains extremely affordable. Notes can be had in excellent condition for well under $500 per piece. Some rare designs can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction, but more common versions are quite reasonable. This is one of the most reasonable ways of owning a piece of Civil War history.