Avoiding a Razing: Maryland Town Pays Ransom to Rebel Troops

Circulated examples of $100 notes bearing the same designs as this unissued, $100 obsolete note from the Hagerstown Bank in Maryland were possibly part of the ransom paid to Confederate troops to keep the town from being burned. (Photo: oldmoney4u on eBay)

By Gerald Tebben

The citizens of Hagerstown, Md., knew no good would come from the column of 1,500 Confederate cavalry that rode into town early in the afternoon of July 6, 1864.

Throughout the Civil War, the town of 4,100 had been occupied repeatedly by Northern and Southern armies marching to and from the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam or using it as a base for Shenandoah Valley campaigns.

This time was different. Confederate forces wanted money and clothes—as recompense, they said, for damage to Southern farms by Federal troops. Brig. Gen. John McCausland demanded $20,000 and 1,500 suits of clothing or he would raze the town.

The Hagerstown Herald and Torch Light reported: “A town meeting was called to assemble in the Court House. Our citizens on collecting together discussed the demand of the rebel General and decided that our Council should raise the money, and as much of the clothing as was possible for them to do.” Hagerstown had no trouble raising money, but clothing proved to be a problem.

The newspaper reported: “Every effort was put fourth, and clothing of every hue and material was taken to the Court House, where it was placed in the hands of committee whose duty was to hold it and transfer it to the Cavalry. The supply in town however, was found to be sadly deficient, and the fact was soon announced to the free-booter-in-chief.”

After McCausland told the citizens he’d give them just a half hour warning before torching the town, the townsfolk came up with the necessary clothing.

The Hagerstown paper noted, “Our citizens wisely withheld the $20,000 until they had assurance from McCausland that the amount of clothing which was raised with satisfactory.” McCausland demanded greenbacks or gold.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau says three banks, all still in operation, raised the money: Hagerstown Bank (later Hagerstown Trust Co.), the Hagerstown branch of the Williamsport Bank (later the Washington County National Bank), and Hagerstown Savings Bank (later First National Bank).

Contemporary accounts don’t say how the ransom was paid, but it was likely U.S. gold coins (which Confederate forces accepted at five times the face value of paper money) and U.S. federal currency. Hagerstown banks issued their own paper money before the war, but none became note-issuing national banks until 1865.

While no coins or bills can be traced to the Hagerstown ransom, obsolete bills issued by the Hagerstown Bank come close. Bills from the 1850s and early 1860s were signed by bank president James Dixon Roman.

Roman took the lead in collecting the ransom.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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