Confederate half dollar and cent surface after war: Shady stories for U.S. coins

Half dollar struck by Confederate government, but cent's status is uncertain
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 08/24/15
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The following is the second of three parts from the cover feature in the September issue of Coin World Monthly:

The Confederate half dollar would be in a category similar to the 1804 dollar. The four pieces struck by the Confederacy were never issued or intended as money. Rather, they were struck as souvenirs, including reportedly for CSA President Jefferson Davis. Davis carried his specimen with him throughout the Civil War and claimed that it was stolen from his wife’s luggage while he was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe at the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula in Hampton Roads.

Despite the fact that the Confederate half dollar is not an actual coin, it has historical significance as a product of the New Orleans Mint under the Confederacy. However, that would not seem to be enough to make it worthy of the 11 pages that were devoted to a single specimen in the recent Stack’s Bowers Galleries catalog of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation Collection or the price realized of $646,250, which makes it a very expensive souvenir indeed! 

However, there are actual half dollars struck by authority of the Confederacy at the New Orleans Mint. After Louisiana joined the Confederacy, the Mint continued to strike U.S. silver and gold coins under state and then Confederate control. One variety of 1861-O Seated Liberty half dollar shares the same obverse die as the Confederate half dollar, and it is generally believed to have been struck while the Mint was under control of the Confederacy. This variety is of undeniable historical significance, and it is available at much lower prices than the Confederate coin. The About Uncirculated example illustrated sold at auction in 2015 for $8,518.75.

Read more 'Shady stories of U.S. coins':

One could argue that the 1804 dollar and Confederate half dollar fit a very broad definition of coins, but other famous rarities in U.S. numismatics have no provable connection to any government whatsoever. Let us next consider the 1861 Confederate cents. They were certainly not issued as money. Most numismatists have been willing to consider them patterns, but what does the evidence say?

As the story goes, in 1861 unknown agents of the Confederacy contacted Robert Lovett Jr., engraver and minter of merchant tokens, and proposed a contract coinage of cents. Lovett engraved the dies (his initial can be clearly seen at the lower reverse on the cotton bale, and a tiny “L” also appears in relief on the obverse on the lowest hair lock). He struck at least a dozen examples to the same specifications as the then current Indian Head cents, evidently before realizing that getting caught at this might be considered treason. He then hid the dies and the coins, except for one that he kept as a pocket piece. Lovett managed to keep this quiet until 1873, but late that year he spent his pocket piece accidentally in a Philadelphia bar. The bartender realized he had something unusual, and eventually word got to Philadelphia numismatist Capt. John W. Haseltine, who bought the coin and eventually persuaded Lovett to turn all of the others and the dies over to him. Haseltine made restrikes in gold, silver and copper. 

At least this is the way the story was related by Haseltine. It may be an invention of his (or Lovett’s). Either or both men would have much to gain financially if the coins were believed to be a legitimate product of the Confederacy. However, no records of such contact or of any plans for a contract coinage of cents have ever come to light in the Confederate archives. For that matter, why would Lovett have carried one as a pocket piece if he was afraid of getting arrested for having made them?

The device punch used for the obverse had been used for tokens that Lovett produced in earlier years. In 1860, he used it for his own advertising card, and even earlier, in 1859, he used it for a token for the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, Va. Ironically, in May of 1861 the Marshall House was the scene of the killing of one Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. The killing of Col. Ellsworth and that of James W. Jackson, the innkeeper who shot Ellsworth, was huge news at the time. The June 15, 1861, issue of Harper’s Weekly featured the story, complete with engraved illustrations, as its entire front page. Envelopes and many other souvenirs were produced that commemorated Ellsworth’s death. 

Lovett also used the device in the 1860s for a store card for William Idler, Haseltine’s father-in-law. Idler and Haseltine are both known to have been involved in a number of questionable dealings with the U.S. Mint, including the sale of “restrike” (i.e., unauthorized) Proof 1801 to 1804 dollars and the unauthorized 1884 and 1885 Trade dollars. It is hard to believe that the Confederacy would have considered a memorial of the Ellsworth killing or a copy of Lovett’s own store card to be appropriate on its coins. It’s much easier to believe that Haseltine was selling fake Confederate cents at the same time he was selling illegally made 1804 dollars. For these reasons, it seems almost certain that these were fantasy pieces produced by Lovett and Haseltine (and Idler?) for profit after the war. 

The good news for those who still think the Confederate cent is important is that plenty of “restrikes” are available to collectors. Haseltine had some produced in gold, silver and copper, after which the dies became damaged and were defaced by hammer and chisel marks. In 1961, with the centennial of the Civil War, Robert Bashlow had transfer dies made and struck thousands of “second restrikes” in various materials. These are frequently available and are quite inexpensive. The original Marshall House tokens are also available and inexpensive, so almost any collector can own this token of great importance to American history, with a direct connection to the Confederate cent.

Read the other two parts of the cover feature about shady stories of U.S. coins:

 

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