The Civil War brought lots of hardship to citizens on both sides of the conflict. One of those hardships was the lack of small change to transact the daily business of life.
As a solution many merchants in the North began issuing their own privately struck tokens. The federal government did not consider these tokens to be legal tender issues and officials were becoming increasingly concerned about the proliferation of the tokens.
An Act of April 22, 1864, authorized a change in the composition of the 1-cent coin as well as the striking of the 2-cent coins.
COIN VALUES: See how much U.S. 2-cent coins are worth today
Mint Engraver James B. Longacre suggested an obverse design featuring a national shield with stripes in front of two crossed arrows. The shield is flanked by laurel branches. Above the shield is a ribbon designed to bear a legend, several of which were suggested.
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase approved Longacre's design and chose "In God We Trust" for the motto on the ribbon. The 2-cent coin was the first U.S. coin to bear this motto.
Some say the adopted motto for the coin, the first U.S. coin to carry it, was influenced by "In Deo Speramus" or "In God We Hope," the motto of Brown University, from which Chase was graduated.
But credit for the motto idea is most commonly given to Baptist minister Mark R. Watkinson, who wrote to Chase on Nov. 13, 1861, suggesting that U.S. coins bear some recognition of God. In his letter to Chase, he said such an addition would "relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism."
Chase took the matter under consideration and in a Nov. 20, 1861, letter to the Mint director, Chase stated: "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition."
Two varieties exist for the 1864 issues - Small Letters motto and Large Letters motto. Both some early Proofs as well as business strikes were struck with the Small Letters die. A new master hub was used for the remainder of the issues of 1864 through 1870. They can be identified by the Large Letters motto, making two major varieties of the first year of issue to be collected.
About 20 million 2-cent coins were issued in 1864. Production declined to less than 14 million the following year and continued until long after the Civil War. The issue of 1872 was the last of the business strikes. About 600 Proof 1873 pieces were struck as part of sets distributed to collectors. The Act of March 3, 1871, authorizing the Mint to redeem and melt 2-cent coins, is another reason for the scarcity of this date.
According to Q. David Bowers' United States Copper Coins, "the rarest date in the 2-cent series is the Proof-only 1873. Rare varieties within the series include the 1864 with small motto, the 1867 with in god we trust doubled, and the very rare 1869/8 overdate. Of the later piece, probably no more than two or three dozen, if indeed that many, exist."
Two-cent coins are collected by dates by some but for others finding a single example from the series is enough to provide a representative type set of U.S. coins.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: