The Athenæum’s collection of over 6,000 pieces of Confederate national and state currency provides a comprehensive look at historic pieces of Confederate currency while also revealing interesting details about their design, production, and distribution. This collection contains examples of most of the types of currency from the Confederacy and many for each state within the Confederacy.
The cataloging, conservation, and digitization of this collection was made possible through a generous gift from Caleb Loring, Jr., a Trustee Emeritus of the Boston Athenæum.
About the Confederate Collection at the Boston Athenæum
The Athenæum’s extensive collection of Confederate imprints is both an historical artifact of a terrible time in American history and a very useful tool for the contemporary study of solutions both successful and unsuccessful for many problems that still plague the United States.
The Athenæum’s Confederate Imprint Collection consists of material of any sort printed in the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Due to the constraints of limited local supplies and the Union blockade of shipping that made European goods hard to procure, the paper used in these publications was often of poor quality and the books were cheaply bound. As the war went on, supplies in the Confederacy became even less available so the later publications are often limited in size and printed on any paper that came to hand. Of course the physical characteristics of the Confederate imprints were mute testimony about conditions in the Confederacy during the war but their textual contents rather than their presentation was of the utmost importance.
During the middle of the nineteenth century the Boston Athenæum was growing rapidly and was able collect numerous publications concerning the disputes that lead up to the war. During the war, it had access to material published in the North as it appeared but what it lacked was the corresponding material that that was being produced in the South. As soon as the war ended, Francis Parkman, historian and Athenæum Trustee, traveled to the Confederacy with a Boston friend, Dr. Algernon Coolidge, who was trying to locate some of his Southern relatives and learn how they had fared during the fighting. The Library Committee of the Boston Athenæum seized this opportunity to authorize their eminent historian colleague to purchase Confederate material for the Library as he traveled through the war torn region. Parkman made a number of purchases, most importantly all of the issues of the Richmond Examiner that had been printed during the war. He also advertised the Athenæum’s willingness to provide cash in exchange for the often-ephemeral productions of Southern printing presses during the conflict. This advertising and the resulting voluminous correspondence with potential sellers was avidly continued after Parkman’s return by the Athenæum’s Librarian, William F. Poole, who was doggedly energetic in his pursuit of materials for the Athenaeum.
In 1944, the Athenæum acquired from Justice Raymond S. Wilkins of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts 1,530 Confederate imprints. The Library’s Annual Report for 1944 termed this purchase “the outstanding event of the year” and postulated that the Athenæum was then “in possession, if not of the largest, certainly very nearly the largest collection of Confederate items in the country, and therefore the world.” While other organizations have also been very successful in building collections of Confederate materials, the Athenæum’s continues to grow both in size and usefulness. Certainly the vision of Francis Parkman has flowered into a resource useful for scholarship and, hopefully, understanding between the divergent philosophies that led to the Civil War.
Stanley Ellis Cushing
Anne C. and David J. Bromer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts