Samuel Upham: The Counterfeiter Who Helped Win the Civil War

It was early in 1862, and the Civil War had been raging for almost a year. Samuel Curtis Upham owned a little store in Philadelphia where he sold perfumes, drugs, cosmetics, stationery, and newspapers. But suddenly, on February 24, 1862, Upham came face to face with what he quickly recognized as the biggest business opportunity of his life.

On that fateful day, Upham was surprised and puzzled by the extraordinary number of customers who came to his shop to buy copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. When he asked why so many people wanted that day’s paper, a customer drew his attention to the front page. It featured a copy of a five-dollar Confederate bill, and everybody was curious to see what Confederate money looked like.

Suddenly a light went on in Upham’s mind. That picture would be on the Inquirer’s front page for just that one day. But with this much interest, he could sell replicas of Confederate money every day.

He was soon on his way to the offices of the newspaper, where he purchased the plate used to print the image of the bill. He quickly ran off 3,000 copies, and was highly gratified that they sold out at a penny each in a few days. Just that quickly Samuel Upham was in a new line of business.

In Upham’s mind, at least at the beginning, his new business was that of selling these reproductions of Confederate money as souvenirs of the war. At the bottom of each replica he placed a note identifying what these bills were and where they came from:

FAC-SIMILE CONFEDERATE NOTE SOLD WHOLESALE OR RETAIL BY S. C. UPHAM, 403 CHESTNUT STREET, PHILADELPHIA.

(Note: “Fac-simile” was the standard spelling of the word at that time).

Whether by accident or design, Upham printed this note along the very bottom edge of the bill, and in small print. That meant his acknowledgment that this was fake money could be easily cut away. Since in the technology-poor Confederacy scissors or shears were often used to cut apart sheets of genuine bills produced by Confederate authorities, an Upham facsimile, shorn of its identifying note at the bottom, looked just like the real thing.

It soon became clear that Samuel Upham wasn’t the only one to recognize a good business opportunity when he saw it. Soon he was receiving bulk orders for his replicas. Upham would have had to have been pretty dense not to realize that his customers weren’t just putting his bills in scrapbooks as mementos of the war. It was quickly recognized that each of the Upham bills was just one snip of the scissors away from being able to pass as real Confederate currency, and savvy Yankee traders soon began to take advantage of that fact. Many of them were cotton smugglers carrying on an illicit trade across enemy lines with Southern planters.

That Upham understood that his bills were being used as counterfeit Confederate money, and that he in fact now intended just that result, is shown by what he did next. First, he ran ads in newspapers all over the North offering to sell his “perfect fac-similes” by mail order to anyone who wanted to buy them. His ad boasted that the “engraving is fully equal to that of the originals.”

Upham also offered to pay in gold for genuine samples of other denominations of Confederate money and postage stamps so that he could reproduce those also. An enterprising Northern entrepreneur could purchase Upham bills of up to $100 face value for five cents each, and a replica Confederate postage stamp for three cents.

By May of 1862 Upham was able to boast in a circular, “Upwards of 80,000 of the Notes, Shinplasters and Postage Stamps have been sold during the past four weeks, and the cry is for more.” By the end of May Upham put out another circular claiming, “500,000 sold in the past three months.” Hilariously, this circular also warned potential purchasers, “BEWARE OF BASE IMITATIONS.” Upham was worried about his counterfeits being counterfeited!

By the summer of 1862 Upham’s bills were turning up in large numbers in northern Virginia. As Union armies moved south into areas previously held by the Confederates, many of the soldiers came well equipped with Confederate “money” which they freely used to make purchases from the civilian population.

An illustration of how this trade was carried on is provided by Captain Chester Barney, an officer with the 20th Iowa Infantry. He wrote in September of 1862 of what was happening among Union troops in Arkansas. His description demonstrates just how shameless soldiers could be in palming off these fake bills (which in this case may or may not have been Upham’s) on unsuspecting rebel citizens:

It was here that I learned that many of our men had commenced a large business in Confederate currency, or what seemed just as good, the fac-simile money, which was deemed by the rebel sympathizers better and safer than greenbacks. Having learned of this weakness of our “Southern brethren” before leaving Rolla, many of them had bought large amounts of this spurious trash which only purported to be an imitation of the Confederate note, and were now passing it off freely in the way of trade, but always in such amounts as required at least some change in return. We met here many who were willing to exchange “Lincoln Greenbacks” for this fac-simile stuff, dollar for dollar, and as the boys had purchased it at Rolla for about the original cost of the paper, they made quite a handsome profit in this transaction. … The Bank of “Fac-Simile” will have a large run if it redeems all its notes our boys put in circulation in Missouri and Arkansas.

By April the fakes were appearing in Richmond, catching the attention of Confederate authorities. The rebel Treasury Department soon recognized them for what they were and passed on the information to the most popular of the Richmond newspapers, the Daily Dispatch. In its May 31, 1862 edition, the Dispatch voiced its outrage in an article headlined “Yankee rascality”:

The Yankee swindle before us is an engraved note, of the denomination of fifteen cents…and so like the original, which is lithographed, that it can only be detected by the words, in very small print underneath the border line, “Facsimile rebel shinplaster — sold, wholesale and retail, by S. C. Upham, 408 Chesnut street, Philadelphia.” Who is this man Upham? A knave swindler, and forger of the most depraved and despicable sort…

Doubtless the counterfeits in question have been scattered broadcast wherever an execrable Yankee soldier polluted the soil with his cloven foot.

As the summer of 1862 came to a close, the circulation of Upham’s faux currency was so great throughout the Confederacy that Jefferson Davis felt he had to address the issue before his Congress. In his August 18, 1862 message to the Confederate House and Senate, Davis spoke of his conviction that the Union government had mounted an effort to flood the South with counterfeit money in order to destabilize its financial system:

The moneyed obligations of the Confederate Government are forged by citizens of the United States and publicly advertised for sale in their cities, with a notoriety that sufficiently attests the knowledge of their government; and its complicity in the crime is further evinced by the fact that the soldiers of the invading armies are found supplied with large quantities of these forged notes, as a means of despoiling the country people by fraud of such portions of their property as armed violence may fail to reach.

Was Jefferson Davis right? Was the U. S. government behind, or at least complicit in, Upham’s counterfeiting operation?

According to Dr. Marc D. Weidenmier, professor of Economics at Claremont McKenna College, the U. S. government was certainly aware that Upham was producing counterfeit currency; after all, he was advertising his wares in newspapers. But the concern of Treasury officials was simply to make sure that the counterfeits he was selling were not of U. S. money. Dr. Weidenmier says that Upham specifically told federal investigators “that he was not making bogus Greenbacks. Rather, he was crippling the Confederate economy by producing large numbers of counterfeit Grayback notes that were being used to purchase cotton in the South.” Apparently Upham now viewed his operation as part of the Union war effort.

The Upham investigation was referred to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who found no breach of U. S. law and dismissed the case.

Dr. Weidenmier notes that some historians believe Stanton did surreptitiously assist Upham in his efforts to destabilize the Southern economy by supplying him with genuine Confederate banknote paper produced in England and captured from blockade runners.

Whether the U. S. government provided direct aid or not, the bottom line is that it had no legal issues with Upham and others producing counterfeit Confederate money. Why? Because as far as Abraham Lincoln’s government was concerned, no such thing as the Confederate States of America existed. (See Why Abraham Lincoln Refused To Respect Jefferson Davis). Thus any banknotes or other negotiables printed by them was just so much pretty paper. And there’s nothing wrong with printing pretty paper!

So Samuel Upham had hit upon a perfect business opportunity for a nation engaged in civil war. By spreading counterfeits of the enemy’s money, he was able to legitimately profit by undermining the rebels’ economic resources while remaining absolutely on the right side of the law as far as his own government was concerned.

Of course, Confederate president Jefferson Davis didn’t see it quite that way, and put a $10,000 bounty on Upham’s head. (Wouldn’t it have been ironic if the bounty had been paid, which it never was, in Upham’s own notes!) In addition, wanting to insure that none of their own people followed Upham’s example, the Confederate Congress made counterfeiting a capital crime. They actually did execute a man named John Richardson for counterfeiting in August of 1862.

Upham’s counterfeiting business only lasted until August of 1863. By that time Confederate finances were in such a mess that even genuine notes were losing all value. Southern cotton traders would accept only U. S. Greenbacks or gold in payment, and the trade in Confederate counterfeits almost completely dried up.

In a way Samuel Upham was the victim of his own success. Dr. Weidenmier estimates that Upham printed between 0.93% and 2.78% of the Confederate money in circulation during the time he was active as a counterfeiter. Based on calculations of the total supply of Southern currency, Dr. Weidenmier believes that “Upham’s counterfeiting business had a significant impact on the Confederate price level.”

After the war Upham was quite proud of the contribution he had made to Union victory. He wrote:

I commenced printing them in the early part of March, 1862. I printed from March 12, 1862, to August I, 1863, 1,564,050 facsimiles of these notes of denominations ranging from five cents to one hundred dollars, and presume the aggregate issue in dollars and cents would amount to the round number of $15,000,000…

I printed in all twenty-eight different varieties of notes and shinplasters and fifteen different postage stamps.

During the publication of these notes Senator Foote, in his speech before the Congress at Richmond, in 1862, said I had done more to injure the Confederate cause than Gen. McClellan and his army. Since the close of that war I have learned that President Davis, during the rebellion, offered a reward of $10,000 for my “corpus, dead or alive.”

After his counterfeiting business dried up, Upham went back to selling stationery and newspapers. When he died on June 29, 1885 at the age of 56, he left an estate valued at $4,889.97, a not inconsiderable sum in those days.

Ironically, Upham’s counterfeits may be more valuable today than they were during the war. One modern day trader says of Upham’s notes:

Today, Confederate contemporary counterfeit notes are very collectable and in many instances, worth as much as the authentic note counterfeited after, and in a few instances, it is worth more.

In other words, the notes Samuel Upham began printing as almost worthless souvenirs now are now highly valued … as souvenirs!