RSS Feed

Beyond Face Value: Slavery Iconography in Confederate Currency

Beyond Face Value: Slavery Iconography in Confederate Currency

by Jules d’Hemecourt

In the midst of the American Civil War, and in defiance of the Union blockade choking off its port cities, the Confederate War Department boldly ordered Navy Captain John Wilkinson to England, where he was to purchase a blockade runner, “load her with arms, munitions of war, and other supplies” and “bring her into a Confederate port with all dispatch”(Wilkinson, 1877). Knowing well the government’s urgent priorities, Wilkinson brought on board “a large quantity of lithographic material” that “had been brought . . . for the Treasury Department; and twenty-six lithographers engaged for the Confederate government.” To achieve independence, after all, the Confederate States of America needed not only to defend itself but also to issue viable stamps and currency defining its cause and demonstrating its stability and efficiency. As Captain Wilkinson proudly remembered years after he safely maneuvered his steamer across the ocean, through the blockade, and into the Confederacy, “The Scotch lithographers found abundant employment in Richmond, as the government ‘paper mills’ were running busily during the whole war”(Wilkinson, 1877).

But Wilkinson’s–and the government’s–early optimism about maintaining an official publishing program, comparable to that which Southern citizens were accustomed under federal supervision, did not last long. Chronic shortages in both artistic manpower (imported talent notwithstanding) and essential supplies eventually strangled Confederate publishing. Although “official” engraving and lithography–for stamps and paper currency–remained a high priority, all but extinguishing a budding commercial printing industry, the Treasury and Post Office departments eventually suffered too, as did their products. Artists and printmakers were relentlessly conscripted into military service, draining the talent pool. Ink and rag paper became increasingly scarce, dooming an industry that had initially celebrated Confederate independence with a rush of popular prints and handsome paper money.

Desperate for supplies, one paper mill in Georgia took to recycling “old ledgers, old cash books, old journals, old bank books, of any kind either all written over, partly written over, or not written over at all.” Little of even the previously-used variety could be secured reliably, exacerbating the desperation of all issuers, including government presses that were “urgent for paper”(Neely, Holzer and Boritt, 1987),(Parrish and Willingham).

The vaunted “Scotch lithographers” who penetrated the blockade failed to ease the crisis, for they proved deficient when compared with the skillful engravers who designed paper currency for the Union. As Captain Wilkinson later ruefully conceded: “The style of their work was not altogether faultless, for it was said that the counterfeit notes, made in the North, and extensively circulated through the South, could be easily detected by the superior execution of the engraving upon them!” The government somehow managed to produce some $50 million in currency a month (Dodge, 1886), but as one disappointed Confederate patriot complained of the results, “neither in material nor execution would they have reflected credit on a village printing-office”(Wilkinson, 1877).

But such critics were far too harsh. That the Confederate government and some individual Confederate states and merchants were able, amidst such daunting circumstances, to produce any currency of reasonably acceptable quality and quantity may rank as one of the true publishing miracles of mid-nineteenth-century America. What is more, the imposition upon such work of iconic pictorial reminders of the economic foundations of the Confederacy–specifically the cotton industry and the slave labor system that supported it–tells much about the white South’s unapologetic reliance on slavery to sustain itself.

Scholars have long undervalued the image-making influence of Confederate currency, principally because so few examples have been publicly available. The few monographs on the subject are incomplete, and their authors tend to concentrate more on the distinction between authentic and counterfeit notes than on analyses their design and message. Those currency notes that have been widely reproduced in textbooks and history magazines usually feature stock portraits of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The collection featured in this exhibit reveals that much of Confederate currency was designed not only to celebrate its white heroes, but to validate system that held its black laborers in perpetual slavery. Bond after bond, bill after bill, suggests a preoccupation with reminding note-holders, investors, debtors, and ordinary citizens alike, that slavery, one of the most important elements of the Southern economy, would continue to exist in perpetuity, protected by law and sanctioned by tradition, and all but divinely ordained in iconography.

Perhaps no individual piece of currency more accurately reflected this stubborn focus than the $5 note published by the American Bank Note Company of New York during the early days of secession, before the Confederacy was cut off from experienced printers in the North (during the war illegal business, including the printing of money and the sales of arms and equipment, was conducted between Northern entrepreneurs and the Confederacy, though the federal government promised harsh punishment for such acts of treason). The note portrays a black slave cheerfully picking cotton, opposite whom, under the supervision of a white manager, other slaves mill raw cotton. Surmounting these vignettes, the classical figures of Industry and Agriculture sit together on a cotton bale, as if blessing the scenes of forced labor shown below. The clever juxtaposition of classical icons and idyllic scenes of modern involuntary servitude serves notice that the government bases its economy on slavery, and that history and heritage validate the system. The message is driven home subtly with the image of Industry’s foot resting on several large books, no doubt symbolizing Law, thus making the further argument that the system portrayed on the $5 bill is not only moral but legal.

A similar composition of implied moral, legal, and historical authority can be seen in the Confederate States of America $100 note[singlepic id=344 w=auto h=16 float=inline], engraved by Keatinge & Ball, the Confederacy’s leading printer of paper money (Keatinge, an employee of the American Bank Note Company, was lured South to start his own firm by a generous offer from the Confederate government). Typical of many Confederate bills, the $100 note honors a white hero of the South, in this case the late Senator and secession advocate John C. Calhoun. But the largest vignette, at top, is devoted to a field scene in which slaves serenely hoe cotton. The symbolic national figure of Columbia (a classically illustrated female originally used to portray the United States), gazing upward from the right foreground, seems to offer tacit blessing to the concept of forced labor, suggesting that it is integral to national purpose (Slabaugh, 1961).

Even B. Duncan’s $10 bill[singlepic id=341 w=auto h=16 float=inline], ostensibly designed to honor Secretary of State Robert M. T. Hunter and to re-create the legendary scene of General Francis Marion providing sweet potatoes for Sir Banistree Tarleton during the Revolutionary War (top), openly acknowledges that notwithstanding Marion’s generosity, slaves picked and served the potatoes. A helmeted Athena, daughter of Zeus, the Greek goddess of war who fights for just causes, rests on a pillar of state at right, suggesting that the social and economic order was well worth defending (Hall, 1984).

Such conjoined motifs reappear throughout Confederate currency: goddesses of agriculture hovering admiringly over scenes of cotton-picking and field-working; goddesses of war and peace, law and fortitude, commerce and industry, faith and hope, providing a sense of traditional, almost heavenly, acceptance of the Southern system. The imposition of such classical figures suggested that the slave system was not only economically crucial but also in perfect compliance with revered tradition. Mixing symbols of the past with idealized scenes of the present allowed producers of Confederate currency to offer proud and uninhibited affirmation that national economic vitality depended on slave labor; that slavery guaranteed confidence in the legitimacy of Southern independence; that prosperity without slavery was unimaginable; and that independence without prosperity was impossible.

Even secular gods could be employed in the iconographical campaign to link independence and prosperity to perpetuating the slave system. When Baldwin, Ball & Cousland–another group of Northern printmakers hired by Confederates–produced a $10 note for the Central Bank of Alabama[singlepic id=246 w=auto h=16 float=inline], it unabashedly presented detailed scenes of slaves picking and baling cotton beneath the reassuring bulk of the original Confederate capital of Montgomery, suggesting official protection of the slave system. Most telling of all is the inclusion of the iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, whose presence serves as a reminder that the greatest of all American presidents to date had been a Southern slaveholder, and, by implication, a supporter of the Confederacy and the perpetuation of the slave labor system. No symbol was more potent to Americans than that of George Washington, and throughout the war, Confederate and Union printmakers alike would claim his image as their own.

A Canal Bank $100 note[singlepic id=290 w=auto h=16 float=inline] printed by Rawlon, Wright, Hatch and Edson of New Orleans presented the same message: a likeness of Washington dominates the bill; above the portrait is an image of slaves loading huge shipments of cotton onto a steamboat beneath a deceptively protective bower of palmettos. At right, the figure of Columbia looks on as well, grasping a somewhat incongruous stars-and-stripes shield, and moreover clutching a capped liberty pole–ironically enough, a symbol of the manumission of slaves! The power of Washington imagery in this case was more profound than the traditional draped classical figures of antiquity.

Although the quality of Confederate printmaking declined as ink, paper, and artist shortages worsened, portrayals of slavery on official currency persisted, however haplessly. A typical $10 note issued in Richmond[singlepic id=340 w=auto h=16 float=inline] late in the war depicts in near caricature a grotesquely oversized slave picking cotton. A $5 bill from Alabama[singlepic id=243 w=auto h=16 float=inline] crudely depicts an overseer, whip in hand, watching slaves in the fields; Liberty, her symbolic capped pole again in full view, endorses the scene. Slaves pick, hoe, plant, load, and carry the crop in a large number of portrayals in wartime currency. They harvest the national future; shown standing together, almost interchangeably, with oxen, they are the brawn responsible for bringing Southern product to a global market, thus establishing the Confederacy within the family of nations.

The message is clear, if dehumanizing. As a $2 note from the Bank of Greensborough[singlepic id=267 w=auto h=16 float=inline] (engraved in New York) seems to suggest, the “contented” slave, happily hauling the crucial economic product of the South, was essential to the entire Confederate economy that the currency is intended to represent. Southern womanhood, and Southern children, also pictured occasionally on currency, were almost always shown alongside scenes of black laborers in the fields, perhaps to encourage nervous investors to believe that plantations could run efficiently even with white landowners serving in the Confederate armed forces, and only females, the elderly, and the very young left behind with their slaves.

Previous studies of Confederate iconography have failed to acknowledge fully the significant number and symbolism of slavery images in Confederate currency. Scholarly focus on display prints for the family parlor has somewhat distorted our understanding of Confederate imagery and the messages and meanings that such pictorial creations were designed to evoke. Engravings and lithographs made during the war for display in the homes of a wide popular audience focused principally on Confederate heroes, especially Jefferson Davis and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as on early battlefield triumphs and rallies celebrating the adoption of secession ordinances. Such prints reflect the patriotic and political impulse animating the Confederacy. Many times larger than bank notes or bonds, these images have understandably attracted most of the attention of historians, and of the authors, editors, and publishers who immortalize such images by reproducing them in modern books, magazines, and journals.

While these domestic prints defined patriotism, Confederate currency–whether commissioned in the South and made in the North, or produced entirely in Southern cities–exemplified the economic side of Confederate iconography. In the small portraits and scenes that decorated these notes, slavery was actively and aggressively promoted as the principal bulwark of Confederate prosperity, even more so than the very crops that the slaves harvested.

Using scenes mingling romanticized celebrations of slavery with portrayals of cotton bales and steamboats, sanctified by mythical figures, issuers of paper money in the Confederacy openly sought validation for slavery and reinforcement of the crucial message that slavery was the essential element for the future existence of the country. The imagery of this collection of Confederate currency amply demonstrates how long, and how defiantly, the Confederacy clung to that conviction, and how inventively and passionately it encouraged its illustration in these miniature examples of the printmakers’ art that have too long been overlooked.

Much more than remnants of a shattered economy, these artifacts open a rare window onto the Confederacy’s view of itself, and they deserve our attention as artistic and political, not just financial, currency.