Rags, Blacking, and Paper Soldiers

in Face Value

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print June 2012 | ISBN: 9780226629377
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226629391 | DOI:
Rags, Blacking, and Paper Soldiers

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During the Civil War, America abandoned slavery and gold in favor of pure legal tender paper money known as greenbacks. African Americans enlisted in the Army helped the Union prevail, while the greenbacks were used to finance the war. Black soldiers were often compared to inflated paper money: Both lacked “natural” value. Abraham Lincoln's opponents saw greenbacks and African American soldiers as both representing “inflation,” unstable and unreliable value. On the other hand, those who favored racial equality argued that both greenbacks and African American soldiers represented the way social relations created meaning: Both “value” and “equality” came from culture rather than nature. During Reconstruction, there were calls to retire the greenbacks and to roll back civil rights for the former slaves. Those in favor of greenbacks expressed support for racial equality and the social legislation required to bring it about. Reconstruction failed in part because the race debate was linked to the money debate.

Keywords: Civil War; African Americans; greenbacks; paper money; value; inflation; racial equality; Reconstruction; soldiers; slavery

Chapter.  14548 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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