Charles Miller
6th U.S. Cavalry
October, 1863
Belle Isle, Richmond, Virginia

Charles Miller takes up counterfeiting

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Perhaps a few notes from my diary will show the daily routine of events, beginning with the first of October, after three months a prisoner: Thursday. Cool wind and looks like rain. A Squad of about 180 came in from the Army of the Potomac and reported that Gen. Mead is about to make a move.

Friday, Oct. 2nd--Cloudy and misty in the morning, but cleared off and was pleasant in the afternoon. We got salt on our beef, and but one ration today. No news, Saturday, October 3rd--Cold and rainy. I staid in the tent all day. Three months today I have served Uncle Sam under Confederate rule. October 4th, (Sunday) - The news today General Rosecrans has had an engagement, defeated the enemy, and Gen. Bragg was on the retreat. Weather rather cool, especially at night. Monday, October 5th--Cool wind all day. All prisoners without tents were taken over to the city. A few sticks of wood were issued to the lower Squads. Tuesday, October 6th--We were all taken out and counted. Some men dug through the embankment but did not escape. Salt is worth five cents a spoonful. Wednesday, October 7th--We were again counted, owing I suppose to some mistake yesterday. No news. Thursday, October 8th00A man was shot by the Guard. 150 came from the West. Friday, October 9th--The news is that the Commissioners have agreed to exchange all prisoners taken prior to September 25th. I hope it is a fact.

Saturday, October 10th--Cool and some rain. Heavy cannonading heard at a distance. I laid in the tent all day. No news, Sunday, October 11th--Great excitement - a magazine of powder exploded on the opposite shore of the river. The Citizens all ran out to learn the cause, thinking no doubt, that the Yankees were coming. Monday, October 12th--Quite warm and pleasant. We were counted again. A man was shot by the Guard while dipping water. Tuesday, October 13th--Lowery all day. I mended my clothes, etc. Perhaps it would be well to state here that all the needle I had was one of my own manufacture from bone. It worked very well. The patches were tattered ends of our tent, and the thread from ravelings. The "etc." which I have before mentioned, was one of the laborious tasks of every day. The vermin which so pestered the camp, must be kept in subjection. To accomplish that our clothing each day had to be searched, and all uninvited guests dispatched without ceremony. To tell the truth, I have, for curiosity, counted, so I could average how many "Grays" and "Linebackers" I had slaughtered during my incarceration. From two to three hundred was the daily yield, and to multiply 200 (which was a small yield) by six months, 200 times 180 days make 36,000, and by no means was I the lousiest man in camp! Whether I am believed or not, I will talk plain, and I venture to make the statement that I have seen human beings so literally covered with vermin that the hair of their heads was stiff, and their clothing so overspread with mites, that you could scarcely distinguish the texture.

Wednesday, October 14th, 1863--Rainy. Busied myself with home work. Thursday, October 15th--Still rainy. Rations scant and poor. There was all sorts of bargaining with the guards for something to eat. Greenbacks were worth 10 Dollars in Confederate money, to 1 in Greenback. The orders were strictly against conversing or having any deal whatever with the guards, but to get possession of a few dollars in U. S. Currency, they would run the risk of detection, and smuggle provisions across the river, and during the night find a purchaser. On one occasion I bought 20 biscuits from a guard, put them in a blanket, and on the way to my tent was seized by two men coming up from behind. I was flung to the ground, the bread taken, and before I could recover, they had disappeared among the tents. Such was the fraternity of Belle Isle.

Attempts to Suppress Trading with Guards

The Confederate officers, failing through orders to suppress the Yankees in their trading, concluded to search them and take away every dollar they could find. The better to accomplish their search, they circulated a report through camp that the prisoners were all to be exchanged in a few days. To give this report credence, a man was sent through camp to exchange gold and silver equally for greenbacks, there being a high premium on specie within the Union lines. Many of the men seemed over anxious for the speculation and exchanged all the money they had.

The next day the men were all turned out of camp and marched single file through a tent, and there searched, and every dollar found on their person was taken from them. This was the fifth time I had been searched. Upon being asked if I had any money, I replied that I believed I had a little. "Hand it out," was the request. Rather than be searched, I reluctantly thrust my hand from one pocket to the other and finally brought forth the faded and flattened wallet, and took therefrom a tattered dollar bill. Greedily it was taken from me and I was commanded to "pass on." With pleasure, I obeyed the order, for I knew I had passed their vigilance successfully.

In the lining of my boots was stored five twenties and a ten in Greenbacks, fresh and new from the hands of the Paymaster. And today I carry a watch that was upon my person during the whole of my imprisonment. Many who refused to produce their money, or vowed they had none, were searched, not only their pockets, but every seam, cap, buttons, boots, and even their mouths were closely examined.

They took from the men a large quantity of money. A twelve quart pail was nearly filled with specie when I passed, and many more were yet to follow. This plan did not, however, stop altogether the barter with the guards. Some money was still left in camp, and plenty of Yankee ingenuity.

It is said that destitution and hunger may be justly ascribed as one of the attributes of crime, and leniency is always expected and always granted upon public confession. Therefore, throwing myself wholly upon the merits of the people, I make bold to reveal a crime which has never before been made public. Imagine, my friends, what you would do if you were driven to the point of starvation. I can answer the question. Every vice, and every device, which human ingenuity can conceive would be resorted to for the sake of something to satisfy the cravings of hunger. Money was scarce in camp. The rebels had gotten it all, and money being the only souvenir which would procure the necessities of life, it became an absolute necessity that some be manufactured.

Therefore, I resolved to test my qualifications for the present emergency. Greenbacks were too finely engraved, so I thought I would first try my hand on Confederate notes. I had some tinted paper (remnants of an old portfolio) which very much resembled in color, the $5.00 Confederate bills. I importuned one of the guards to procure for me a box of water colors, representing to him that I was a celebrated artist, and wished to sketch the beautiful scenery surrounding our present abode (Belle Isle Prison, Richmond). I then borrowed a Confederate $5.00 for a sample. I cut the paper to correspond in size, outlined the engraving with a pencil, and with water-paint put on the finishing touches. I completed three "fives" which occupied several days. But mind you I did not forget to turn my clothes wrongside out each day.


There were several types of Confederate $5 bills. The above is the most common type. Perhaps the bills Charles crafted were based on this example.

To give the bills the appearance of previous circulation, I rubbed them between my hands until they were soft and limp. Then choosing a dark and cloudy night to further my deed and genius plan, I started for the guard line. The first guard gave me the satisfaction, as I accosted him, that if I did not "git away dar", he would shoot me. I made up my mind the game was bluff, but I would not see it, so resolved to go five dollars blind on the opposite side of the camp, and as luck would have it, I won. The first guard I asked if he had anything to sell, replied he had fifty loaves of bread, for which he wanted $50.00 in Confederate money, or $5.00 in Greenbacks. Then I wished I had more money. I would have provisions to spare. I tried to have him divide it and give me $15.00 worth, being all the money I had made, but in fear of detection, he said, "No, take the whole or none." I was turning away discouraged when he said in a low voice, "Yank, my Pard on the next beat has a sack of bologna he will sell for $15.00 in Confederate." I already had palpitation of the heart, but when I heard that I thought it would just out of my mouth. I had indeed struck a bonanza. I did not stop to inquire whether they were fresh meat or what they were made of, but was willing to take them at his own price. Looking cautiously around to make sure no one was watching, he said, "Throw over the money, and I will pass you back the bologna."

No sooner said than done. Crouching close under the embankment, I tossed to the unsuspecting guard the counterfeit $15.00. He looked it over, pronounced it all right, and according to agreement, passed me back the sack of bologna.

I seized the treasure, and with guilty conscience returned to my quarters, resolved to chance the penalty of the crime and have one hearty meal, whether it was composed of cats and dogs or what not. I relished them exceedingly well, but suspected and finally came to the conclusion that rather than risk their own fingers to stuff the meat through the cutting machine, like the monkey took the cat's paw, and unfortunate for the cat, her paw must have got clipped.

The usual drift of conversation among the men was the chances of getting away, and what they would like to eat. Night after night they would sit in their tents in darkness, and describe such rich and highly flavored dishes as they would like to have set before them. But like a spector [sic] in their dreams, the object of their thoughts would appear, and it would seem they were actually enjoying a most luxurious repast. But on awakening, all would vanish as a dream. I slept well that night, and did not dream of Mother's cupboard.

The very next day the rebel Sergeant came into camp inquiring who had bought a sack of bologna from the guard. It has always been a mystery to me how he found out I was the man. He came into the tent where I was lying down, and pointing to me said, "You Yankee rascal, are you the man who passed that counterfeit money on the guard?" I must confess I was a little anxious about myself, thinking, of course, he would take away the bologna, and in his rage subject me to serve punishment, all of which he threatened to do if I did not tell of whom I got them. Of course I did not know.

"Well, what time of night was it, and what beat was he on?" he asked. I explained to him that I was nearly starved, and went around the guard line trying to find something to sustain life a little longer. "Give us enough to eat, and we won't trouble the guards--can you blame me?" I asked. "No Yank," he said, "But it is against orders and trading must be stopped. I will let you off this time, but a second offense will be severely punished." I had escaped justice much easier than I had expected or actually deserved. It was an unjust act on my part, to thus impose upon the honesty and generosity of the guard. He was risking the penalty of disobeying orders, not for pecuniary gain, for he asked but a fair compensation for the goods, but I believe, prompted by his sympathy for suffering humanity, he changed the result.

At that time Greenbacks were depreciated 100% or more, the Confederate ten times lower than greenbacks. Now the question arises in my mind, which was worth the most, the counterfeit or the genuine. The former at that time was not depreciated, and ever since their valuation has been enhanced until today. If they can be produced, I will pay their face value, interest compounded.

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By Charles Frederick Miller. Historical Wyoming, January 1966.