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Brief History of N.C. Civil War Currency


With the outbreak of the Civil War, North Carolina and the other southern states that left the Union were no longer bound by the United States Constitution's restrictions on the production of state-issued currencies. Though fiercely loyal to the "southern cause," the Tar Heel State and each of the other rebelling states closely guarded its own independence, especially in economic affairs. This independence was recognized and underscored by the Confederate Constitution, which guaranteed the allied states the right to print their own money. Along with the various state governments, the national government of the Confederacy (in Montgomery, Alabama, and later in Richmond, Virginia) issued massive amounts of paper currency to finance the war. The wide variety of notes only added to the chaos caused by the South's inability to absorb this huge money supply. The Confederate treasury alone issued at least 72 types of notes during the war, amounting to an estimated two billion dollars.


Civil War Currency

A $5 note printed by the Confederate Goverment; State Capitol at Richmond, Va., C.G. Memminger at right, Richmond, 1864; NCC specimen CK.56.927


Civil War Currency

The back side of this same note

Overissue, the ever-tightening Union blockade of southern ports, and Rebel losses on the battlefield combined to make the solvency of southern currencies impossible. Counterfeiting also weakened the South's financial structure. At the beginning of the war, northern printers produced bogus Confederate notes to be sold as cheap souveniers, as keepsakes for what had been expected initially to be a brief conflict. In one case a Philadelphia printer advertised $2,000 in Confederate notes for 50 United States cents. Aside from profit, conterfeiting southern currencies was also a deliberate act of war. By desseminating phony money throughout the South, the Federal government hoped to accelerate the collapse of the Confederacy's fragile economy.

Between 1861 and 1865, North Carolina's General Assembly authorized the printing and distribution of over $20,000,000 in state treasury notes, ranging in denominations from five cents to $100. This amount seems rather modest for financing years of war, especially when compared to the monstrous sums issued by the Confederate government; but for North Carolina these millions proved too much to handle financially. The strains of war soon made it impossible for the state's currency to hold its value. On the homefront North Carolinians struggled against an appalling rate of inflation. For example, over the course of the war the price of wheat rose over 1,600 per cent; and flour almost 2,800 per cent. The confusing mix of money types and styles in circulation added to the ruinous inflation rates and the resulting economic mayhem. North Carolina's treasury alone issued over 25 different types of notes in more than 150 varieties. These notes were in addition to the seemingly endless variety of notes produced in neighboring states and by the Confederacy's national government. The issue of governmental or public currencies during the war did not end private issues by businesses and other institutions. In North Carolina, as elsewhere in the South, private merchants, insurance companies, banks, railroads, and many factories continued to print and issue their own currencies or scrip.

The Civil War led to the nationalization of United States currency. In financing its war effort, the Federal government also resorted to paper moneys, including national bank notes. These notes were printed by or for the government and were issued by private banks throughout the North and eventually, the reunited country. Between 1863 and 1935, thousands of private banks were granted charters that allowed them to issue national bank notes. In North Carolina, 147 banks received these national banking charters. In 1865 the First National Bank of Charlotte was the first Tar Heel bank to receive such a charter.

In 1913, in an effort to further the United States monetary system, the Federal government established the Federal Reserve System. This is the system under which our present currency is introduced into the economy. The obligation for federal reserve banknotes is borne totally by the government, not by individual banks. The system is composed of 12 federal reserve district banks that are responsible for issuing the government's money supply to commercial banks. North Carolina is within the Fifth Reserve District, which is administered by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Virginia.

 

The North Carolina Collection -- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- CB 3930, Wilson Library
Chapel Hill, NC 27515-8890 -- 919.962.1172 -- wilsonlibrary@unc.edu