Many historians agree the Civil War of 1861-1865 was the most consequential event in American history. The ramifications of that conflict extended far, including into the United States monetary system, where its impact was still being felt more than two decades after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
In late 1861, the U.S. government suspended specie payments for the redemption of paper money, to preserve gold and silver in the nation’s coffers. That step was taken because after a few months of battlefield results, it became clear the struggle between the North and South was not going to be settled anytime soon.(1)
Starting in 1862, the Treasury Department issued legal tender notes dubbed “Greenbacks.” It was fiat money, supported only by the credibility of the federal government. The trading value of a Greenback dollar vacillated, never reaching par with a dollar’s worth of gold. By war’s end, a total of $431 million in Greenbacks had been issued, but a Greenback dollar was worth just 78 cents in gold.(2)
Although the hostilities ended in 1865, the Greenbacks continued to circulate. In 1875, Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act, mandating the Treasury Secretary to redeem in gold all Greenbacks presented to the Treasury on or after January 1, 1879.
Anticipating redemptions on a vast scale, Treasury built up gold reserves, much of it in the form of $20 double eagles. But then something unexpected happened: by the time 1879 rolled around, the Greenback had finally attained equal footing with gold. Most Greenback holders didn’t bother to exchange their paper for hard currency.(3)
With a glut of double eagles on hand and little demand for more, production of the $20 coin plummeted drastically during the 1880s at the Philadelphia Mint. Instead, manufacturing capacity was prioritized for Morgan dollars and smaller gold denominations. In the West, where new twenties were still needed, output remained high at the San Francisco Mint.(4)(5)
Only 1,000 business strike double eagles were minted at Philadelphia in 1886, with all of them eventually released into circulation. Contemporary coin collectors had scant interest in them, preferring Proof representatives instead, of which 142 were distributed. This explains why so few Mint State specimens of the 1886 double eagle exist today.(6)
An oddity surrounding the 1886 is that it was the only Coronet double eagle date that was struck exclusively at the Philadelphia Mint: none were issued from any branch mint. A rather remarkable statement for a coin type that was produced for nearly sixty years, from 1850 to 1907.
Not bad for a coin that once upon a time long ago, no one wanted.
|Estimated survivors in all grades: 68
? The survivor estimate from PCGS represents an average of one or more experts' opinions as to how many examples survive of a particular coin in all grades. Survival estimates include coins that are raw, certified by PCGS, and certified by other grading services.
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|PCGS Rarity Scale: 8.3
? The 'PCGS CoinFacts Rarity Scale' assesses the relative rarity of all U.S. coins, based on estimated surviving examples. The scale runs from 1.0 to 10.0. The higher the number, the rarer the coin.
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