As Lincoln was unable to finance his war with the traditional tax and customs revenue sources, he turned to paper fiat money to be printed as needed, though the Constitution permits only gold and silver as legal tender. The predictable speculation in the value of greenbacks versus gold prices caused murky markets to emerge. In New York’s “Gold Room,” decisions were guided not so much by patriotic motives as the desire for profit. It was said that “Sectional feeling often entered largely into bull and bear contests in the Gold Room, and Union men and rebel sympathizers fought their battles sometimes, as much to gratify this as to make money.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Financing the War with Inflation
“To help finance the Civil War, the federal government began issuing “demand notes” in July 1861. These government obligations were not a legal tender currency and were freely convertible into gold upon presentation to a federal depository. During the course of 1861, the Union’s financial condition deteriorated, and in December the Treasury issues a very bleak report on the budgetary situation.
In the face of such news, bankers concluded that investors would lose confidence in the demand notes and the banks would soon experience a massive outflow of gold. On December 30, the banks suspended specie payments of gold [for greenbacks]. The government followed suit almost immediately.
Soon thereafter, in February 1862, Congress passed the first of the Legal Tender Acts. These acts authorized the government to issue “greenbacks” – a currency that was to be legal tender for both public and private debts. Of course, since demand notes were no longer convertible into gold, neither were greenbacks . . . [though] all available evidence indicates that the public believed that at some future date convertibility would be reinstated and all greenbacks would be redeemed in gold.
[Because Lincoln] was unable to finance the war with the available tax revenues . . . Greenbacks were a way of using inflation to pay for the war. Speculators knew that the degree to which the Union would have to rely on future greenback issues depended on just how much the war would ultimately cost. A long, expensive war would require more greenback issues and make it less likely that greenbacks would ever be exchanged for gold dollars on a one-for-one basis.
Not surprisingly, a formal market for buyers and sellers to trade gold came into existence within two weeks of the suspension of convertibility. The first organized dealings took place at the New York Stock Exchange on January 13, 1862. At about the same time a second market formed . . . in New York City . . . known as the Gold Room.
An important question for our purposes is how the gold market used the [political and war] information coming to it. Did the financial market react quickly to news that was available, or did it take several days to digest it? A closely related question is whether news of battles . . . reached all participants at the same time.
In a report on the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on July 31, 1864, the New York Herald explicitly noted that the government frequently withheld information from the public to minimize alarm and protect intelligence and sources.
The daily registry of the Gold Room was a quicker messenger of successes and defeats than the tardier telegrams of the Associated Press. A private secretary of a high official, with no capital at all to save his position, which gave him authentic information of every shaping of the chess game of war a full twenty hours in advance of the public, simply flashed to the words “sell, buy” across the wires, and trusted the honor of his broker for the rest.
If there was a sufficiently large number of “insiders” competing with each other, then the market would quickly transform war news into changes in the price of greenbacks, despite the fact that the news was not coming through published sources.
The observation of [New York Herald writer] Kinahan Cornwallis are consistent with this notion: “Almost every individual speculator in the Gold Room, whose transactions were large enough to make it of consequence, had a correspondent in the national capital, who sent him a telegraphic dispatch as occasion required . . .”
(Greenback Prices as Commentary on the Union Prospects, Guinnane, Rosen and Willard, Civil War History, The Journal of the Middle Period, Kent State University Press, December 1995, Volume XLI, No. 4, excerpts, pp. 315-318)