J. Wayne Hilton’s fascination with the Civil War focuses on one of its lesser-known legacies: money.
“The war itself was short-lived, but during that time, the Confederate government issued $1.5 billion in currency,” the Aiken author and collector said. “Of course, it was all paper, basically just promissory notes, that all became worthless at the end of the war in 1865.”
All that “worthless Rebel money,” as it was once known, is highly collectible today – and is the subject of Hilton’s new reference book, Collecting Confederate Currency: Hobby and Investment.
At one time, he said, Confederate currency was so abundant that huge amounts of it were used as insulation in homes built after the war.
“Using currency was cheaper than buying paper at that time,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll hear about tearing into an old house and finding Confederate money. It’s not all that surprising.”
Hilton has collected and studied the widely varied bills since the early 1970s and gradually assembled his self-published book over the past 14 years.
Among the rarest – and most valuable – examples are the beautifully decorated “Montgomery notes,” printed in 1861 and delivered to the Confederate capital of Montgomery, Ala., just days before the shelling of Fort Sumter officially opened the war.
The bills were printed in sheets of four bills – in denominations of $1,000, $500, $100 and $50 – and had to be cut apart and signed by treasury officials.
Today, a $1,000 Montgomery is valued between $16,000 and $35,000, depending on condition, with exceptional examples going even higher.
On the other end of the scale is the 1864 $10 bill, produced in large quantities until the end of the war.
“About 9 million pieces were printed that we know of, and I’m sure there were more,” he said. “Today, you can find one for under $100.”
Confederate currency also had strong roots in the Augusta area, he said.
“A small amount of the paper used to print the currency was actually made in Bath, S.C. before the mill burned down in November 1862,” he said. “An Augusta dentist named James T. Paterson was awarded contracts to print Confederate currency in early 1862. Most of the printing took place in Columbia, S.C., but Paterson also set up shop in Augusta to handle a portion of the work.”
Hilton’s book was written to showcase the currency’s beauty and its investment potential.
Using historical data from sales and auctions, he compared the price appreciation of Montgomery notes over nearly 150 years to other investments such as the stock market, crude oil and precious metals.
“The surprising result showed that Confederate currency, at least the Montgomery notes, outperformed all the other investment alternatives,” he said.