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. 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.]

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 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.] 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.[1. “The Broker’s ‘Stamp Act’ Lament (July 1862); American Memory, Library of Congress.]

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![1. J. F. Feeks, “Shouting our Battle-cry, ‘McClellan,’” The Democratic Presidential Campaign Songster (New York, 1864); American Memory, Library of Congress.]

“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.[1. William Kiernan, “I Am Fighting for the Nigger” (New York, n.d.); American Memory, Library of Congress.]

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:[1. Feeks, “Shouting our Battle-cry, ‘McClellan.’”] “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.”[2. John A. McSorley, “McClellan Campaign Song” (New York, 1864); American Memory, Library of Congress.] 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.” [3. Alexander Delmar, The Great Paper Bubble, or, The Coming Financial Explosion (New York, 1864), 54] “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.[3. New York Herald, January 27, 1863]  “For finance, issue Greenbacks; for war, Blackbacks,” one critic of the administration argued.[1. 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.]

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.


  • […] 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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