By Harry Covert
I always chuckle hearing the old line, “Save yore Confederate money boys, the South’s gonna rise again.” Andy Griffith made that famous.
For years as a gag, I had fun using $100 confederate bills as a notepad, long before we had the joy of electronic mail. It felt good using first-class U.S. stamps especially to those Yankee carpetbaggers who invaded the Commonwealth for fame, fortune and good living.
So, now we are in the sesquicentennial commemoration of what many still refer to as the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States. A history buff can really get involved with all of the “celebrations” scheduled through 2015.
I wasn’t giving much thought to the Civil War period until recently visiting Reigate, Surrey, the beautiful and historic market town in England. My friends Margaret Edwards and Wendy Allen took me to a neighborhood weekend barbecue. The food was terrific and the people made me feel at home, even the three red foxes – mother, daddy and young foxes – who watched us eat, waiting for scraps, which they received.
These foxes had adopted the back yard of the hosts and were unbelievably tame, only afraid of a large white cat that kept them at bay. The fox family would frequently walk slowly around the beautiful flowers and shrubs, checking every now and then the availability of tasty morsels.
Across the table from me sat a delightful white-haired gentleman who introduced himself as Stephen Straker. “I heard you are a Yank?” he said and laughed. “No sir, I’m a Virginian.” I corrected with a smile.
Mr. Straker informed me his family had had a long association with Virginia and the Confederate States of America, noting the 150th anniversary commemorations were underway. I was impressed.
He was right on the money. He mentioned his longtime friend, Phillip Melville, of Alexandria. It’s a small world I said. And it is.
The CSA’s Printing Plates
Mr. Straker explained that among his prized family possessions were the actual printing plates of Confederate States of America currency in denominations of $1, $10, $20, $50 and $100. His forebears’ company had contracted to print CSA currency back in 1861. The family business was forced to use great care in providing the paper money and ship to the southern ports, through British Caribbean possessions.
Just how the Straker family firms were paid I didn’t find out but I figured they traded for cotton and tobacco. They were enterprising businessmen in those days as well as today.
I could hardly wait to return to Alexandria and report my discovery to E. Hunt Burke, chairman of Burke & Herbert Bank. Burke and Herbert, established in 1852, held deposits of the CSA and the U.S. and for years maintained the Lee family’s personal papers.
I’ve also discovered that the first CSA dollar was issued into circulation in April 1861 when the CSA was only two months old. According to experts, the currency was “not actually money, but bills of credit.” The paper was not secured by hard assets.
My stock of $100 CSA notepaper has been long depleted. Before running out, I did try to use one of the bills to secure membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I was refused unless I paid with some U.S. Federal Reserve Notes containing pictures of Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln and none with Jefferson Davis.
Similar to my notepads, the CSA currency is worthless. Any CSA currency existing today would be highly valuable. The most valuable though are those items that say, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” ©Harry Covert 2011.
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Originally published in The Alexandria Gazette Dec. 1, 2011, used with permission.