Greenbacks, Negro Soldiers, and the President

In honor of the 150th anniver­sary of the Civil War, an excerpt from my book Face Value. Dur­ing the Civil War, Lincoln’s oppo­nents saw African Amer­i­cans in uni­form and Green­back dol­lars as the same thing: inflated. We can see the same phe­nom­e­non today.

A Frac­tional Note

The Civil War wasn’t all that pop­u­lar in the North. Despite a short wave of enthu­si­as­tic enlist­ment, many north­ern­ers either sym­pa­thized with the South or argued Lin­coln should “let the erring sis­ters go.” That caused Lin­coln a lot of finan­cial problems. Anticipating cri­sis, peo­ple hoarded gold, sil­ver, and cop­per coins. When pri­vate cit­i­zens began issu­ing their own small denom­i­na­tion notes, and even using postage stamps as cur­rency, the Union issued its own “postage cur­rency,” small notes that looked like stamps but lacked glue. Also known as “frac­tional cur­rency,” or as “stick­ing plas­ters,” these notes stayed in cir­cu­la­tion well after the war. But frac­tional notes of less than a dol­lar made an incon­ve­nient foun­da­tion for a large war.

Lin­coln knew tax­ing peo­ple to fund the war would be a polit­i­cal loser, and so he resorted to sim­ply print­ing money, the famous “green­backs.” These bills were legal tender–you could not refuse them. Sol­diers took their pay in green­backs. Busi­nesses sell­ing pork or cloth or guns to the Union took green­backs and liked it. 1

With sim­i­lar reluc­tance, Lin­coln enlisted African Amer­i­cans in the Union Army. Although African Amer­i­cans vol­un­teered for the Union army imme­di­ately after Ft. Sumter, Lin­coln at first refused their ser­vice. 2 Lin­coln saw restor­ing the Union, not end­ing slav­ery, as his first pri­or­ity. Neces­sity and prac­ti­cal facts forced his hand.

As the Union marched into the deep South, African Amer­i­cans aban­doned their plan­ta­tions, declared them­selves free, and sought to make them­selves use­ful to the Union cause. By mid 1862 these de facto sol­diers, along with man­power short­ages, pub­lic pres­sure from abo­li­tion­ists, and the deep­en­ing cri­sis of the war, per­suaded Lin­coln to allow African Amer­i­cans to enlist in the reg­u­lar army.

Crit­ics of Lincoln’s deci­sion claimed that it raised “col­ored” sol­diers to a level of equal­ity with whites; they argued that blacks lacked the basic qual­i­ties of dis­ci­pline, courage, and intel­li­gence nec­es­sary for bat­tle. They saw the sol­diers as inflated, val­ue­less. An 1862 song attack­ing Lin­coln crit­i­cized the “frac­tional currency”—paper notes for amounts of less than one dollar—that the North also issued dur­ing the war. These “Shin-plasters sure were bad enough,” the song argued:

That is when Rebels used them;
And well the Nigger-worshippers,
In con­se­quence abused them,
But now to cap the cli­max, of
Our man­i­fold dis­as­ters,
We’ve had to come to one and two
And three cent stick­ing plasters.


What next I won­der? Nig­ger troops
Or some such abom­i­na­tion;
As Nig­gers being our equals in
The states and in the nation.3

This song sees African Amer­i­can sol­diers, “an abom­i­na­tion,” as the next log­i­cal step after the issue of “cheap” frac­tional paper cur­rency. It super­fi­cially makes no sense—what do “col­ored troops” have to do with paper money? But the author clearly saw a con­nec­tion between purely “fiat” cur­rency, a piece of paper named “three cents,” and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of African Amer­i­cans as equal cit­i­zens through the Union uniform.

From the Library of Con­gress. Excerpt: We’re com­ing, Father Abram, nine hun­dred thou­sand strong / With nine hun­dred thou­sand dark­ies, sure the trai­tors can’t last long / With Cor­po­ral Cuff, and Sergeant Pomp, to lead us in the melee / And at their head, with­out a red, Our Brigadier Gen­eral Greely.

Or con­sider The Col­ored Brigade, a min­strel show song writ­ten and pub­lished shortly after the enlist­ment of African Americans:

O when we meet de enemy I s’pec we make ‘em stare,
I tink he’ll catch a tar­tar when he meets de woolly hair;
We’ll fight while we are able, and in green­backs we’ll be paid,
And soon I’ll be a colonel in de col­ored brigade.

Chor.—A colonel, a colonel, in de darkey brigade,
And soon I’ll be a colonel in de col­ored brigade.

In the 1864 Pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, these links became more explicit. “Jokes, Nig­gers, Greenbacks—all play’d out,” mocked the cho­rus of Who Will Care for Old Abe Now? McClel­lan stood for the return of gold, the song con­tin­ued. “When ‘Lit­tle Mac’ is in the White House, Green­backs will vanish—Gold come down!4

We’re fight­ing for the nig­ger now,” went another song:

I cal­cu­late of nig­gers we soon shall have our fill,
With Abe’s procla­ma­tion and the nig­ger army bill.
Who would not be a sol­dier for the Union to fight?
For, Abe’s made the nig­ger the equal of the white.5

This song also claimed that the sol­dier “must be loyal, and his offi­cers obey, / Though he lives on mouldy bis­cuit, and fights with­out his pay.… / Though he waits six months for Green-Backs, worth forty-five per cent.” The song treats green­backs, ele­vated to a posi­tion of equal­ity with gold they can’t sus­tain, as part of the same pol­i­tics that ele­vated African Amer­i­cans to a coun­ter­feit equality.

For Lincoln’s oppo­nents the return to gold meant the return to racial hier­ar­chy, while paper money meant free­dom for slaves: “Oh! we want no… ‘Green­backs,’ such as Chase used to utter” went another cam­paign song:6 “We want no more rank nig­gers near the White House fry­ing pan; / Nor to sit at the head of the table!”

This song treated green­backs as part of a gen­eral scheme to upset the “nat­ural” order of things. A third cam­paign song chided those who “while wor­ship­ping the nig­ger, they’d let the Union slide.” It con­cluded that under McClel­lan, “we’ll chase away all green­backs, and gather in our gold, / And then we will pros­per, as in the days of old.”7 All these crit­ics linked paper money to a con­fu­sion of the line between thing and sym­bol, black and white. Paper money had helped depre­ci­ate the white man while it inflated the black; it had desta­bi­lized not just finan­cial value but the dif­fer­ences between things and people.

The Lin­coln admin­is­tra­tion, pro­claimed a Demo­c­ra­tic  par­ti­san, is com­posed of “stock job­bers, negro fanat­ics, bub­ble blow­ers, [and] broken-down wild­cat [ban­knote] dis­trib­u­tors.” 8 “Negro-worshipers,” the New York Her­ald insisted, have pushed through a pol­icy of finan­cial infla­tion. In depre­ci­at­ing the cur­rency they have also depre­ci­ated the value of white men.9  “For finance, issue Green­backs; for war, Black­backs,” one critic of the admin­is­tra­tion argued.10

Argu­ments about money are never just about money, and mon­e­tary value is never sep­a­rate from what we call “val­ues” more gen­er­ally. Dis­cus­sions about money are always dis­cus­sions other “val­ues:” the value of social posi­tion, the nature of self and  char­ac­ter, the “right­ness” of hier­ar­chy; the “order” of the world. Mod­ern dis­cus­sion of gold, or infla­tion, is never free of the same racial taint. Just do a google image search for “Obama” and “dol­lar” and see what turns up. Some sam­ples below (and  much thanks to Adam Roth­man for point­ing this out.)

 In these images Obama stands for inflated paper–the notes are either worth­less, because of infla­tion, or worth mil­lions of inflated dol­lars. The fact that lit­tle or no actual infla­tion has occurred as of this writ­ing has no bear­ing, because it’s not really about money. It’s not actual mon­e­tary infla­tion that’s at issue here: it’s about the “social infla­tion” Obama’s elec­tion rep­re­sents. Like the pres­ence of black men in the Union uni­form, it upsets what many peo­ple still believe to be the nat­ural order of things.

This is one of the many rea­sons to treat argu­ments about gold money with the most extreme skepticism.

  1. Lincoln’s green­backs were not exactly like mod­ern paper money. They were printed entirely at the Treasury’s dis­cre­tion. Our mod­ern paper money is gov­erned by the Fed­eral Reserve, a unique public/private hybrid.
  2. Lin­coln prob­a­bly regarded African Amer­i­cans as infe­rior, at least ini­tially: he also famously hoped to keep the bor­der states out of the con­flict while draw­ing the South­ern states back into the Union. Putting black men in uni­form, he thought, would enrage whites and doom reuni­fi­ca­tion.
  3. The Broker’s ‘Stamp Act’ Lament (July 1862); Amer­i­can Mem­ory, Library of Con­gress.
  4. J. F. Feeks, “Shout­ing our Battle-cry, ‘McClel­lan,’” The Demo­c­ra­tic Pres­i­den­tial Cam­paign Song­ster (New York, 1864); Amer­i­can Mem­ory, Library of Con­gress.
  5. William Kier­nan, “I Am Fight­ing for the Nig­ger” (New York, n.d.); Amer­i­can Mem­ory, Library of Con­gress.
  6. Feeks, “Shout­ing our Battle-cry, ‘McClel­lan.’”
  7. John A. McSor­ley, “McClel­lan Cam­paign Song” (New York, 1864); Amer­i­can Mem­ory, Library of Con­gress.
  8. Alexan­der Del­mar, The Great Paper Bub­ble, or, The Com­ing Finan­cial Explo­sion (New York, 1864), 54
  9. New York Her­ald, Jan­u­ary 27, 1863
  10. Albany, New York Atlas and Argus, Jan­u­ary 19, 1863, quoted in For­rest G. Wood, The Black Scare: The Racist Response to Eman­ci­pa­tion and Recon­struc­tion (Berke­ley and Los Ange­les, 1970), 44.


  • […] the past–during the Civil War, for exam­ple–Lincoln’s crit­ics rou­tinely com­pared paper money black men in uni­form. Both rep­re­sented infla­tion. At the turn of the 19th cen­tury, “gold bugs” dismissed […]

  • […] The elec­tion of Barack Obama ini­ti­ated a fren­zied spec­u­la­tion in gold as and new calls…. No less a blowhard than Don­ald Trump insisted, in 2011, that he would now take “rent on one of his New York office build­ings in gold bul­lion instead of dol­lars, because of his con­cerns about Pres­i­dent Obama’s reck­less finan­cial policies.” […]

  • Lin­coln was a seg­re­ga­tion­ist; he wanted to ship all the negroes out of the United States.
    Please read Pres­i­dent Lincoln’s sec­ond annual mes­sage to Con­gress:
    “I can not make it bet­ter known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization;”

  • I just noticed this. I’m cer­tainly well aware of Lincoln’s views on race and on colonization–they are no secret, cer­tainly not to his­to­ri­ans. Can you explain what it has to do with the sub­stance of the arti­cle? Did you not notice where I com­mented on Lin­colns racial attitudes?

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