Union ‘Greenbacks’ Replace CSA Notes during the Waning Stages of the Civil War

Confederate currency lost what little value it had when Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops entered Atlanta in the spring of 1864. This Confederate States of America $10 note from 1864 grades Very Fine and sold for $22 at a 2013 auction. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

By Gerald Tebben

In the spring of 1864, Atlanta stood before Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and quaked. Conquest of the city was a Northern imperative, as Atlanta was a vital rail hub, important supply depot and the center of the South’s war industry.

Sherman laid siege in May. Through July, skirmishes seesawed back and forth, causing alternately joy and despondency on the streets of the city. But by late summer, chaos reigned in Atlanta. Artillery shells killed civilians by the score and the railroad station was filled with fleeing citizens as the Yankees advanced.

During the four-month siege, money in the marketplace shifted from Confederate currency to Union greenbacks, but always—always—gold was welcome.

The reverse of the 1864 CSA $10 note (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s forces left Atlanta during the night of Aug. 31, 1864. Sherman’s forces occupied the city the next day. After providing safe passage both north and south to the city’s remaining citizens, Sherman torched Atlanta and began his march to the sea.

In Decatur, Ga., six miles to the east, Elizabeth Wiggins wrote in a letter to her mother on July 10, “Everything is so high that people can’t buy much: Corn is $13 a bushel, meat $4.50 a pound, flour 80 cents per pound.” Her husband, she said, “makes a heap of money, but it takes a heap to buy a little.”

Mrs. Wiggins’ letter is included in “Last Train from Atlanta,” a still-in-print 1958 book by A.A. Hoehling that recounts the story of the siege through survivors’ letters and newspaper accounts.

Five days later, Lucy Hall, a child, recalled, “I remember saying … that if I had a hundred dollars I would do—I forget what—and my father’s pulling a $100 bill out of his pocket and handing it to me, saying, ‘There, take it down the street and see if you can buy a stick of candy!’ I stood rooted to the spot and my mother took it away from me, saying, ‘George, how can you!’ He answered bitterly that he had a wheelbarrow full, just like it.”

Wallace Reed wrote on July 23: “People crowded the stores and the roar of battle gave way to the hum of traffic. The prudent housekeepers who had been laying in supplies of provisions in anticipation of a siege, continued their shopping … coffee at $20 a pound, sugar at $15, flour at $300 a barrel.” Confederate currency lost what little value it had when Sherman’s troops entered Atlanta. Early in the occupation, bookseller S.P. Richards lamented, “our negro property has vanished into air” and recounted the change in currency.

“Henry’s baby died last night, little Kattie, age 15 mos., Mr. Bohnefield, the undertaker, was clever enough to give him a plain coffin worth six dollars in greenbacks and Joe and I dug a grave under a small oak in Henry’s garden.” A few days later the families would abandon the city as Sherman’s troops placed mines in stone warehouses and prepared to torch wooden structures. 

Richards wrote, “Mr. Seymour agreed yesterday to let me have $75 in gold out of $250 that he was prudent enough to secure in time, so that I shall have enough to get to New York with, at any rate, I hope.”

Most of the remaining citizens traveled south, but a trickle journeyed North via daily trains to Chattanooga, Tenn. Survivors, who carried all they had with them, were a tempting target for bandits. Robbers attacked a train outside Bowling Green, Ky.

O.L. Braumuller wrote, “They did not leave us totally stranded. Mother had $800 hidden in her clothes. When the war started she showed a peculiar attachment for gold. Her faith in the Confederacy had never dwindled, but she said she preferred gold, and every time she got hold of a gold piece she put it away. Father was a little angry, and often chided her about it. He said it showed poor faith to prefer gold to Confederate money. However, their playful quarrel was settled by the robbery. Mother had won, but she never mentioned it again.”

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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