Confederacy And Chemistry: Chemicograph Plates Captured At Sea
Posted on 12/21/2015
At the start of 1864, the once-porous Union blockade in the American Civil War was capturing nearly half of all blockade runners attempting to enter the South. The Union Navy had crippled the Confederacy’s cotton exports and thwarted smugglers running arms and ammunition to any of the Confederacy’s eight major ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
One of these ports—Wilmington, North Carolina—had enjoyed protection in the shadow of Fort Fisher and relative success in the face of the blockade. But after the March of 1864 passed, Confederate officials abandoned hope that a special set of Chemicograph printing plates for their final series of currency would ever reach Wilmington’s bulwark at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Pervasive counterfeiting had plagued the Confederacy throughout the war. Despite the efforts of the Congress of the Confederate States to punish counterfeiters, the Confederacy struggled with rampant inflation and a multitude of counterfeited tax receipts.
In response, Christopher Memminger, the first Secretary of the Treasury for the Confederate States, approved the outsourcing of the manufacture of new printing plates to Great Britain for the backs of the 1864-issue Treasury Notes. S.G. Jamison, one of his staff, wrote in a report that “The style is so different in the two countries”, and so the new notes would be more difficult for the Union to imitate. Memminger ordered plates for the backs of the 1864 $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, and $500 denominations.
The Confederacy hired S. Straker & Sons of London to create the plates. Once completed, they were first shipped to Nassau in the West Indies in multiple voyages, and then were to be run by smugglers into Wilmington. The Union Navy captured most, if not all of them.
S. Straker & Sons made the plates using a process called electrotyping, a drawn-out electrochemical reaction that uses an electric current to stimulate conducting ions suspended in an electrolyte solution. Invented in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi of Potsdam, Prussia, electrotyping can be used to mass produce facsimiles of items used for printing, 3-dimensional art forms like sculptures, or other mediums for art purposes.
The electrotyping process begins with an impression taken of the original work. A common practice for printing plates was to press the master plate into wax to form a negative impression of the master plate. The wax was then dusted with a coat of graphite or another conducting substance.
The process takes place as the mold is suspended from the cathode (the negative electrode of the battery) in the electrolyte solution alongside a rod of copper at the anode, the positive electrode. An electric current oxidizes—or strips electrons from—the copper at the anode, which breaks off into positive ions and travels through the negatively-charged solution. Copper ions gain electrons at the cathode, and then return to a neutral charge (metallic copper) and adhere to the conducting graphite over the mold; eventually the ions build up to form a solid mass in the impression of the mold, and the new, copper, positive impression is removed from the negative impression of the wax to be reinforced and used for printing.
Copper and sulfate (the electrolyte solution) are used in this example, but various types of metals can be used to form facsimiles. To this effect, electrotyping is also used to counterfeit coins.
Because the facsimiles form at the molecular level, electrotyping is capable of duplicating detailed and complex items. The term “Chemicograph” used to describe these captured plates was a term coined by S. Straker & Sons, perhaps in reference to a twist Straker had on the electrochemical process that likely appealed to Memminger for its secrecy and security.
For all their detail, however, the plates were never used for issued Confederate currency due to their capture. An entry in the American Journal of Numismatics a decade later mentions a man named Charles Chaplin who had purchased some of the plates before they were melted for scrap metal—a common practice of the Union Navy after confiscating cargo from blockade runners. Most of the plates have been lost, and the colorful printings above are the yield of later printings from what few plates remain. Of those, a complete set donated by Philip H. Chase resides in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
When the plates never arrived, Memminger looked south to have the new Treasury Notes printed on schedule. Keatinge & Ball of Columbia, South Carolina threw together the basic, blue backs that instead inhabit the backs of the 1864 issues. Thus, the chronic problem of the Confederacy’s inferior-quality notes that invited counterfeiting continued into the final series, despite Memminger’s best efforts to the contrary.
- Cuhaj, George S. (2008). Confederate States Paper Money: Civil War Currency from the South. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.
- Todd, Richard Cecil. (1954). Confederate Finance. Athens: University of Georgia.
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