As the Civil War of the United States began in 1861, citizens on both sides feared inflation and quickly began to hoard the coins that were in circulation as a possible hedge against inflation. Coins made with silver and gold were the first to disappear as they held intrinsic value on their own, but soon afterwards the copper and nickel coins became scarce as well. This caused a problem when people needed to buy low cost items or receive change for purchases. As a result, there were two solutions for the Northern side. One solution the U.S. Government decided on was to print banknotes in small change denominations known as fractional currency which were issued in 1862 and were in production until as late as 1875.
While this was a great way for people to take their change and spend it, it wasn’t the only way. There were also several merchants who were able to mint their own tokens and who would both give and accept them as change from their customers. These tokens were issued as early as 1862 until 1864 when they were outlawed by an act of U.S. Congress.
The Tokens that were issued were mainly for the value of one cent, though other values were in existence, and fell into three distinct categories:
Store Cards – These tokens had one or both sides that listed the name and sometimes the location of the store that had issued it.
Sutler Tokens – Sutler was a term used to describe a civilian merchant who would sell provisions to the military. Some of them would be set up in tents or wagons, if not in a building. A Sutler Token was a token that was similar in nature to the Store Cards, but that would have on one side the name of the Sutler, and on the other side, would have the name of the regiment. Some of them simply say Our Army or Our Navy, but many of them display the particular regiments that they served.
Patriotic Tokens – These tokens are aptly named, as the token was minted with a pro Union slogan or image that was on one or both sides.
The Patriotic Civil War Token commonly referred to as the “Dix” tokens were one of the most popular with the public both then and now. On one side of the token the Union flag is displayed in front of a circle of thirteen stars. Around the token are the words “The Flag of Our Union” and the date of 1863 listed on the bottom. The flagpole is topped with a Phrygian Cap, also known as a Liberty Cap. The other side of this token has two concentric rings and a center field. Around the outer ring are the words “If Anybody Attempts to Tear It Down”, and the next ring has the words “Shoot Him on the Spot”. In the center field of the token is the word “DIX”.
These Dix Tokens are named after John Adams Dix, a prominent politician and a former U.S. Senator, who was appointed the Secretary of the Treasury in 1861. As the Secretary of the Treasury, John Dix was also placed in charge of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, which in 1915 was combined with the U. S. Lifesaving Service and renamed the U.S. Coast Guard.
As a commander of a wartime flotilla of cutters, Secretary Dix issued an order to have two cutters then in New Orleans and Mobile to return to New York. The Cutter McClelland was then under command of Captain Breshwood, who refused to comply with the order and remained in New Orleans. Upon hearing this, Secretary Dix sent an order to Cutter Revenue Service Lieutenant Caldwell to proceed to New Orleans and relieve Captain Breshwood of his command and return the cutter to New York. He was further instructed that should Captain Breshwood interfere with the order, Lieutenant Caldwell should consider him a mutineer, and treat him accordingly. He was also told “If anyone attempts to haul down the American Flag, shoot him on the spot.” The telegraph was intercepted however, and the treasury agents never received the order. Captain Breshwood meanwhile surrendered the cutter to rebels in Louisiana. Though the telegraph never made it to its intended recipients, the press got hold of it and printed the order, making Dix one of the first Civil War heroes.
The copper token is reproduced with this Dix’s order in mind, but replaces the words “Haul Down” with “Tear it Down”.
Dix was later appointed a Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War. Too old to command troops in the field, he was placed in command of the Departments of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Potomac and Virginia. Later on, he would serve as the Ambassador to France and then as the Governor of New York, before he died in 1879. The U.S. Army named Fort Dix, New Jersey after him, as was WSC 136, a 125 foot Coast Guard Cutter.
Upon the enactment of the Coinage Act of 1864, the words “In God We Trust” were placed onto US Coins (paper money would have many years pass before the motto was printed on them). The act also outlawed the use of tokens and other privately minted coins. The larger sized one cent coin that then circulated was replaced with a smaller copper one cent coin which was almost identical to the size and weight of the popular tokens now outlawed.