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Beyond Face Value: Depictions of Slavery in Confederate Currency

About the Exhibit

Money, as an instrument of trade, represents the economic, social, and political environment in which it is produced and circulated. Currency is a document of culture, an artifact; it speaks to the identity of a people, a place, and a time. Denominations are distinguished not only by numerical symbols of perceived worth, but with imagery that conveys a message to and from the society that embraces it.

Extending to the far reaches of the political boundaries of the Confederacy, financial documents of varying origin and denomination were handled by untold thousands; their message, whether explicit (value) or implicit (images of slavery), was communicated to the masses in ways unavailable to most other documents, artifacts, or ideas of the era.

Civil War art, including the battlefield sketches of Northern journalist-artists Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, has long interested researchers. The Confederate Image; Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Civil War in Art; and Conrad Wise Chapman: Artist and Soldier of the Confederacy are among only the most recent books on the topic. Few writers have applied this research to the study of the iconography of documents, such as currency, that received official government sanction.

This electronic exhibit focuses on the depictions of slaves in Confederate currency. It is important to remember that these images were created by those who institutionalized and worked to preserve slavery, and they do not necessarily portray the slaves as they viewed themselves and their condition.

Images of slavery, however, were not the only illustrations on such documents: Vignettes featuring modes of transportation[singlepic id=260 w=auto h=16 float=inline], mythical characters[singlepic id=289 w=auto h=16 float=inline], historical figures of the American Revolution[singlepic id=244 w=auto h=16 float=inline], and romantic portrayals of white women and children[singlepic id=245 w=auto h=16 float=inline] also decorated paper money issued in the Confederacy. These scenes offer a new perspective on the Civil War era South.

As you explore the virtual exhibit, consider these questions:

  • Why did paper money include illustrations of slavery?
  • What does this say about the vendors, municipalities, states, and national government that produced and distributed the bills?
  • What do you think the imagery on modern U.S. currency conveys (consider the recent Gold Dollar coin issued by the U.S. Mint featuring Sacagawea and her child?)