U.S. Federal Coinage During the Civil War

By Patty Zinn
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger as three parts in December 2022, February 2023, and April 2023.

It is interesting to note that both the Federal Government and the Confederate States minted coins during the Civil War. Most know more about Civil War Tokens than actual coinage produced by the Confederate States. In this article, I would like to talk about some of the unique, short-lived United States coin issues as well as Civil War Tokens. To begin, I would like to present an overview of the Federal Government coin issues, with a focus on the smallest of United States silver coins, called the Trime.

U.S. coins being minted during the Civil War were:

Indian Head Penny (Varieties 2 & 3): 1860-1864
Two-Cent Pieces: 1864-1873
Silver Three-Cent Pieces (Trime, Variety 3): 1851-1873
Liberty Seated Half Dimes: 1860-1873
Liberty Seated Dimes (Variety 4): 1860-1873
Liberty Seated Quarters (Variety 1): 1856-1865
Liberty Seated Half Dollars (Variety 1): 1856-1866
Liberty Seated Dollars (no motto): 1840-1865
Different Denominations of Gold Dollars: 1838-1907

I. The Smallest of the United States Silver Coins

The Trime, specifically the Silver Trime, was authorized by Congress March 3, 1851, and throughout its minted years of 1851-1873 saw three Varieties, 1, 2, and 3. Only Variety 3 was minted during Civil War years, 1859-1873. Roughly the size of our current-day Roosevelt Dime, nearly the entire production of non-proof coins from 1863-1872 was melted in 1873. The obverse shows a 6-point star encircled with United States of America, and the year minted appears at the bottom of the star. The reverse has the Roman numeral III, with an olive sprig over the III and a bundle of three arrows beneath. Coin design is credited to James B. Longacre, and the coin was minted at Philadelphia and New Orleans mints.

A Trime: obverse (left) and reverse (right)

It became short-lived as the public hoarded gold and silver, being replaced in 1865 by the nickel Three-Cent Piece. I am privileged to have one purchased from Horse Soldier in Gettysburg, PA – I can’t help wondering what story it could tell!

II. Civil War Tokens

In the first part of this article, I wrote about Trimes – the small, silver or nickel 3c pieces, minted 1851 to 1889. Typical of wartime, metal began to be hoarded, thus the reason the mint moved from the silver Trime (minted 1851 to 1873) to the nickel – people were hoarding gold and silver.

Also, as I shared before, during the Civil War, the Large Cent gave way to the Small Cent (begun in 1856). As in any wartime, prices increased and copper increased to an unsustainable level for minting the Large Cent. By 1857, the U.S. Mint’s costs for manufacturing and distributing its Large Cents had risen so high that the Mint Director declared that copper coins “barely paid expenses.” Thus, the move to the Small Cent.

Large Cent, obverse (left) and Small Cent, obverse (right)
Large Cent, reverse (left) and Small Cent, reverse (right)

We all remember the coin shortage during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. After the outbreak of the Civil War, people began hoarding federal coinage, causing a shortage of coins in commerce. Private mints stepped in, creating Civil War tokens, the nation’s only small-change spending money during much of the war.

Civil War tokens were struck from 1861 to 1865, with the majority being minted in 1863. There were two primary types: Patriotic Civil War tokens and Civil War Store Cards.

Patriotic Civil War tokens typically depict items from the war (events or sentiments), such as Army & Navy or Our Navy, with the reverse stating “Not One Cent” to evade counterfeiting laws.

Civil War Store Cards were a series of tokens issued from approximately 1,500 different merchants, doing business in a variety of states. Typically, the merchants put their name on the token. Some research finds more about each merchant. For instance, below is 1863 Smick’s Neptune House in Atlantic City.

Another is C. Doscher, a grocer and liquor sales company from Washington St., NY.

As these token producers interchanged multiple obverse sides with different reverse sides, a very interesting identifying system arose: obverse number/reverse number. For instance, the Patriotic Crossed Cannons token would be identified as 163/352a., designed by Scovill Mfg. Company.

This is a fascinating part of numismatics – many tokens are very affordable and accessible. Building a varied collection of Patriotic and Store Cards is attainable and replete with history.

III. Some More Civil War Coinage

Having previously written about the Three-Cent piece (or Trime) and Civil War Tokens, in this final part, I would like to delve a bit deeper into each of these and provide an overview of the Two-Cent Piece.

As we dig deeper into the history of the 3c piece, we find that the Trime was originally minted in silver (9 parts silver and 1 part copper) from 1854 to 1858, but the coin’s design did not provide a strong strike. The weak strikes encouraged the mint to change the design. From 1859 to 1873, Trimes were still struck in silver, though only those minted in the years 1859-1862 typically ended up in circulation. In 1865, the Civil War had ended, but silver and gold were still being hoarded by the public. Newly minted silver coins were kept in Treasury vaults, not released to the public, to prevent hoarding and profiteering. The mint developed a new solution to the hoarding and weak strike issues – the use of a nickel-alloy, which was not a hoarding metal and had little to no melt value. Thus, from 1865 to 1889, Trimes were produced in a nickel alloy, which also led to a stronger design strike by the mint. While not the shortest of mintage years (that would be the 20c piece), it was one of the shortest.

A Store Card from a business in Cleveland, Ohio
A Patriotic Token

Our cursory overview of Civil War Tokens left much history still to be unwrapped. During the Civil War, due to the shortages of coins, private companies endeavored to produce a token which could be used as a penny in their establishments. There were two primary types produced: Patriotic Tokens and Store Cards. Patriotic Tokens were much as you would suspect, with the words “Army” or “Our Navy” or depictions of cannons, flags, Indian Heads, or Liberty Heads on the coins. To ensure they would not be confused with actual U.S. pennies, many bore the words “Not One Cent.” Store cards were the same concept, produced, however, for individual stores or businesses. The store or business name was stamped onto the coin, as well as sometimes what they sold. In our collection, we have one from Pittsburgh Dry Goods and another from Wright’s in Cincinnati. It is estimated that there are still 25 million Civil War tokens in existence. These were produced and distributed mostly in the Midwest and Northeast.

A Two-Cent Piece

Another interesting mintage during this time period was the Two-Cent Piece. Two-Cent Pieces were minted from 1864 to 1873, with a shield on the obverse topped by the words “In God We Trust,” and the reverse has the word “2 cents” surrounded by a wreath and the words “United States of America.” It was a copper coin, again, making it unattractive to hoard. The problem was that, post-Civil War, its use in the marketplace was limited. The coin was later replaced in popularity by the nickel.

I hope you enjoyed this short introduction to some lesser-known coins and tokens used during the Civil War years.

Sources (Click on any of the book titles to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

The Official Red Book, A Guide Book of United States Coins

MEGA RED-A Guide Book of United States Coins, 8th Edition, Deluxe Edition, 2022

Q. David Bowers, A Guide Book of Civil War Tokens, 3rd Edition (Whitman Publishing, LLC), 2018