Rebels Were Losers in Phony Money Game

By Hughes, Brent | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 2, 1999 | Go to article overview

Rebels Were Losers in Phony Money Game


Hughes, Brent, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


During the early years of the Civil War, New York City created difficult problems for Union officials. The major banking houses had enormous investments in Southern real estate and businesses and desperately wanted to protect them. They probably quietly supported the mayor who openly recommended that the city secede from the Union and go its separate way.

In this climate, many questionable activities were ignored by city authorities as the Confederacy's secret agents made deals to obtain supplies to fight the war. Historians believe Confederate Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger was so desperate to get a supply of paper money that he would have employed anyone.

Thus we come to a mysterious lithographer and printer named Winthrop E. Hilton, whose business was at 11 Spruce St., New York City.

Historian Arlie Slabaugh believes Hilton signed a contract with Confederate agents to conduct normal printing activities by day and secretly print sheets of Confederate currency by night. Payment was to be in gold coin. Mr. Slabaugh believes something went wrong and when Hilton did not receive the promised payment he salvaged his lithographic stones by adding a facsimile label to the margins of the Rebel notes.

The spacing was such that the label could be easily trimmed off with scissors, thereby creating a counterfeit. It is well-known that thousands of such notes went into circulation and did great damage to the Southern economy. Hilton never put his name on his notes as a competitor in Philadelphia did, but all such labels could be trimmed off. Today's collectors have dozens of these facsimile-counterfeits with and without the margin inscriptions.

Hilton's advertisements in several newspapers offering $500 face value in excellent "fac-similes" of Confederate notes for only $5 proved to be irresistible to smugglers operating in Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee. They trimmed off the facsimile labels, wrote in serial numbers and signatures and had readily acceptable counterfeits.

Sam Upham, the "facsimile merchant" in Philadelphia, countered with an ad offering $20,000 face value for $5, but his notes were printed from electrotype plates made from wood engravings and were crude compared with Hilton's lithographs.

Historian Slabaugh says that in December 1863, a Rebel agent in New York sent a coded letter to his associate in Canada. Union agents intercepted the letter and deciphered its message: "Say to [Treasury Secretary] Memminger that Hilton will have the machine all finished and dies ready for shipping by the first of January. The engraving of the plates is superb."

Union authorities then went to Hilton's printing plant and arrested him. Hilton proclaimed his innocence, stating that all his products were clearly labeled as facsimiles, obviously designed to sell as souvenirs. "My notes are better than the originals," he bragged.

"But the originals are worthless because Lincoln and our government have never recognized the Confederate States of America as a legitimate nation," Hilton said. "I am not a counterfeiter and I have not attempted to pass my notes as money."

It was said that the case finally went to Secretary of State William Seward, who passed it on to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who already knew that Hilton's counterfeits were creating havoc in the South. Stanton must have chuckled as he signed the order to release Hilton on parole.

Brent Hughes is a writer in Inman, S. …

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