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The central preoccupation of Americans — those who are literate enough to be preoccupied with history — is the Civil War, a.k.a. the War Between the States, a.k.a. the Recent Unpleasantness. The degree of preoccupation varies according to the distance between where one lives and the areas where most of the fighting took place. Since Virginia is the state where most of the battles were fought, any Virginia family — black or white — of sufficiently long lineage can tell you stories that have been passed down from generation to generation for a century and a half.
Mind you, I’m not talking about the hysterical preoccupation with “racism”, “slavery”, and “oppression” that is raging in the land as I write these words. I’m talking about a deep and abiding interest in the tragic years 1861-1865 generated by the impact they had on one’s family and environment.
I wrote about such matters in my poem “Sayler’s Creek” (the full text is here), which opens with these stanzas:
There is too much history here in Virginia;
we are drowning in its muddy flood.
Every April sweeps its pontoons from their moorings
on the North Fork of the Shenandoah
with Federal soldiers watching helplessly from the bank.
Every pitcher toeing the mound
scuffs up a lode of Minié balls.
A metal detector swept over any ravine
uncovers the belt buckles and canteens
urgently shed by fleeing infantry.
A faded daguerreotype of General Lee
stares down from every wall,
a stern reminder of all that vanished glory.
The top drawer of every dusty dresser
in every second-hand shop
opens to reveal a brittle bundle of worthless banknotes.
Everyone’s great-great-uncle Theophrastus
led the charge at the Crater.
That poem was written in 1996, when one could still see photographs of General Lee here and there in public places. Those days are gone, alas. A rearguard action is even now being fought against the removal of his statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond, but the cause is just as lost as it was the spring of 1865. The Wokerati will prevail. The last depictions of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will eventually be erased from public view in the Commonwealth, no matter what the average Virginia citizen might think of the matter. All objective accounts of Confederate history will be removed from high school and university curricula. The stories will be passed down by word of mouth only. The artifacts and written accounts of the events of those years will be confined to private collections and family attics.
And one such attic will obviously be mine.
There are little pieces of family lore in the stanzas of my poem. My mother’s great-great uncle was famous for leading the charge at the Crater in Petersburg, but his name wasn’t Theophrastus. He was Brigadier General David Weisiger (pronounced “Wizziger”, for readers who live outside the Richmond area), and was renowned, at least in Virginia, for his heroism on that day.
I am also in possession of a brittle bundle of worthless banknotes from the period. For many years they were kept in the top drawer of Dymphna’s and my dresser.
My grandmother’s first cousin (i.e. my first cousin twice removed) was the only daughter of the eldest daughter (there were five daughters, no sons) of David Weisiger’s brother, so she inherited most of the family heirlooms from the plantation. She never married, and when she died the various items were divided among her cousins.
The largest pieces of furniture went to my uncle and my mother. The item that I coveted most was a plantation medical kit, which was a wooden cabinet with little drawers and cubbies for medicinal substances, surgical implements, etc. I remember one drawer was labeled “Opium”, and there was a dried black tarry residue at the bottom of it. I really wanted that cabinet, but it went to one of my cousins.
One of the few things I received (which I had also wanted) was an envelope full of Confederate money. I’ve scanned some of the notes to display here.
In my bundle of worthless banknotes are two hundred-dollar bills, one twenty (not shown here), eighteen Confederate tens, one Virginia ten, and three pieces of fractional scrip from the City of Richmond — 25¢ (not shown here), 30¢, and 75¢. That makes a total of $411.30, which was a lot of money in 1862, especially since it was presumably received in exchange for gold and/or silver coins. I’m certain those were sorely missed in April of 1865.
This is the back of the hundred-dollar note shown at the top of this post:
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The interest rate paid on the note was 2¢ daily, which is an APR of 7.3%.
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There’s no indication that any interest was paid on the tens and twenties.
The fractional notes issued by the City of Richmond are worn and wrinkled, indicating that they saw wide circulation. The other bills were in better shape, and may not have circulated much before coming to rest in the family strongbox.
For the higher-denomination notes, the Confederate government promised to pay the bearer the face amount on demand six months or two years (depending on the note) after a peace treaty was signed with the United States. It was hoped that the delay would allow the nascent state to accumulate enough gold and silver through taxes and tariffs to be able to pay off its promissory notes.
Alas, no peace treaty ever came. The surrender was signed by General Lee on April 9, 1865 (which day I refer to in my more sardonic moments as “the Confederate naqba”), and all those Confederate, Virginia, and Richmond banknotes suddenly became worthless pieces of paper.