I would like to go back in time and pick Confederate States of
America President Jefferson Davis’ pocket — twice; once midway through
the Civil War and once at the end.
On April 2, 1863, about 1,000 whites, mostly women, rioted in
Richmond, Va., over the shortage and price of food. Davis took command
of the situation, but it cost him the contents of his wallet.
Bread riots broke out throughout the South that spring. Families,
especially poor ones, were crushed by the twin hammers of poor
harvests and outrageous inflation.
Food was scarce on the home front and prices, aggravated by the
ruinous depreciation of Confederate currency, were up seven to 10
times over pre-war prices.
In Richmond a poor peddler, Mary Jackson, led a march through the
city’s streets demanding food, and eventually marchers began looting
bakeries and grocers.
“This is little enough for the government to give us after it has
taken our men,” Jackson reportedly replied when challenged.
The crowd ignored the governor and mayor, but built a barricade
when Davis and an infantry company arrived.
Davis felt nothing but contempt for the rampaging crowd. He later
wrote they were “bent on nothing but plunder and wholesale robbery.”
During the 1863 bread riot he stood on a wagon and yelled, “You
say you are hungry and have no money.” He then emptied his pockets and
threw the contents into the mob. “Here is all I have. It is not much,
but take it.” He then gave the women and children five minutes to
clear out or troops would open fire.
History does not record what was in Davis’ pockets that day but we
know he did not throw his pocket piece — one of four 1861 Confederate
half dollars — into the crowd. He still had it when he was captured
two years later.
Patriotism and the law demanded that he use nothing but
Confederate currency. His own portrait was on the newest $50 CSA note,
a piece of paper money worth just $10 in gold and falling at that
point in the war. (By the war’s end, it took 1,200 Confederate dollars
to buy $1 in gold.)
In 1861, the New Orleans Mint struck four half dollar patterns
with a CSA reverse. Confederate Treasurer C.G. Memminger gave one to
Davis, who reportedly kept the half dollar as a pocket piece.
On May 10, 1865, Union forces captured a fleeing Davis, by some
accounts disguised as a woman, at Irwinsville, Ga. Davis later told
19th century coin dealer J.W. Scott that the coin was taken from him then.
That fabled piece eventually became part of the John J. Ford Jr.
Collection sold by Stack’s in 2003.
Gerald Tebben is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel.