First Posted: 7/25/2009
Many collectors of Civil War relics are drawn to such objects as swords, uniforms or bullets, but Gary Cook has found the financial side of the war almost as interesting as its battles.
Cook, an all-around collector of unusual historical items whose Mount Airy home doubles as a mini-museum, says that along with the Confederate money surfacing during the four-year conflict, the fledgling Southern government issued bonds to finance its operations.
Make that lots and lots of bonds. The Confederacy sold bonds worth $150 million in 1861 alone, with buyers usually offered at least a 4-percent return on their investment.
You could redeem it in Confederate money or cotton, Cook said. European investors sometimes used the latter option to obtain bales of the Souths major commodity.
But, just like its paper currency, the documents were rendered worthless at the end of the war with the collapse of the Southern economy.
Yet the defunct bonds, as well as the money, still command interest from serious collectors including Cook, a retired Army major whos accumulated numerous Confederate bonds over the years, all remarkably preserved in plastic sheets in his home.
Cook, 76, a 1950 Mount Airy High School graduate who after living 27 years in West Palm Beach, Fla., retired here two years ago with his wife, Mary Ann also a Surry County native is motivated as both a collector and historian. He first got involved in his hobby focusing on the financial side of the war by collecting a small amount of Confederate money.
Then I got interested in bonds and the concept of bonds, he said during a recent interview when examples of his hobby were on full display.
Typically, Confederate bond certificates are about the size of a large diploma and contain pictures of leaders such as President Jefferson Davis or Gen. Stonewall Jackson. The bonds had coupons attached, which were to be redeemed every six months through the Confederate Treasury. All bonds were individually signed.
Cook said in obtaining Confederate bonds, he mostly has networked with other collectors and dealers in various places. There are people who deal in old documents and things of that nature, he said.
He makes sure those he does business with are associated with reputable societies or other organizations, which ensures items they trade in are genuine. Everything I have is authentic, Cook said.
That even includes the not-so-authentic. The enemy was known to print counterfeit bonds as well as paper money in an attempt to undermine the Confederate monetary system, and Cook has accumulated some of the fakes as well.
Something just wasnt right, the local collector said during the interview as he held up copies of two bonds side by side, which appeared identical to a bystander although only one was real.
Finally, it dawned on me that the signatures were not right, Cook continued, pointing out how that element of the bogus document obviously is fake when compared to the legitimate bond.
While Confederate bonds only have value as collectors items these days rather than face value, Cook thinks one item in his possession might be an exception to that.
This is a North Carolina bond, Cook said, holding up another old document, which was issued by the state rather than Confederate government. The $1,000 bond from the 1860s is signed by Zebulon Vance, the states governor at the time, pledging a return of 6 percent per annum.
Unlike the Confederate government, Cook said, North Carolina never went out of business.
Under that reasoning, he thinks there is at least a remote chance of the bond being redeemable after more than 140 years. The collector joked that he might show up at the state treasurers office in Raleigh one day just to see officials reaction to the well-preserved document.
Along with bonds, Cook has obtained many newspapers from the Civil War era. That includes an April 1863 copy of The New York Times containing a financial article about the good investment opportunity represented by the purchase of Confederate bonds at 6-percent interest.
Cook marvels that a Northern newspaper would promote the sale of enemy bonds at the height of the war. It would be like us buying Japanese bonds in World War II, he added with a chuckle.
Not Civil War
One thing Gary Cook makes clear early on in discussions about the Civil War is that it was not really a civil conflict at all based on the definition of that term. A civil war, he explains, is waged among one or more factions within the same country to see whos going to be boss. However, since the South had seceded, the Confederacy had formed a separate nation.
Cook also bristles at another frequent reference to the conflict as the War Between the States. That is problematic as well, he said, since it implies that Connecticut was fighting South Carolina or Georgia was squaring off against Ohio.
Similar to many historical purists, Cook prefers instead to use such references as the War for Southern Independence or War of the Rebellion, because they more accurately portray the nature of the conflict.
I think it was a very fascinating struggle, he said of the war that divided a nation. Also as many purists believe, Cook thinks the conflict stemmed more from a desire by President Lincoln to preserve the Union rather than end slavery.
Southerners had become increasingly agitated with actions by Northern congressional leaders which they deemed excessively oppressive.
I think they thought, basically, that the North didnt really care, Cook said of the movement toward secession. But Lincoln didnt want to lose the South due to its taxation and other economic value, Cook said, especially the role of the agriculturally rich region in producing cotton.
Yet branching out on its own presented a whole series of new challenges for the 11 states in rebellion. They didnt have a post office, army, navy, none of that stuff, Cook said.
The issuing of bonds coincided with the Confederacy needing to raise funds in a hurry to finance its war effort against the North. It was principally through bonds and donations, he said of the way in which the South built its war chest.
However, by the end, the superior industrial strength and manpower of the Union had worn down the Confederacy, leaving its military disbanded and its monetary system including the bonds dissolved.
Other Items Abound
In addition to the old bonds, newspapers and money, Cook has accumulated numerous other items from the war era as well as autographs of various presidents, military leaders and others. Most of the autographs are contained with photographs that are framed and hanging on the walls of the Cooks home, which also includes a huge library.
Included is the signature of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest whom Cook considers the most interesting figure of the war as well as two autographs from Frederick Douglass.
I think he was a great guy, the Mount Airy collector said of Douglass, a former slave who bought his own freedom and that of his girlfriend, and went on to become a prominent abolitionist, orator, statesman, editor and author.
You never hear anything about him, Cook mused.
While many of the autographs in the local couples collection are from historical figures, along with sports starts of the past such as Mickey Mantle, they have amassed others from more contemporary leaders such as Ronald Reagan.
Reagans signature is among those in the Cooks possession which they have secured firsthand. They did so when unexpectedly encountering Reagan and his wife Nancy at a store in a resort town out West after Reagan had left office.
Despite a heavy Secret Service presence, the Cooks were able to converse with the Reagans as well as obtain the former presidents autograph.
She was absolutely delightful, Mary Ann Cook, a retired registered nurse, said of Nancy Reagan. I had always read in the papers that she was not very nice.
The Cooks have two children who live in Florida, as well as five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
A tour of their home also revealed a piano once owned by President John Tyler, as well as a number of historical tidbits including a container of sand from Omaha Beach and a chunk of charred aluminum from the Hindenburg.
Then there are the death masks. In addition to death masks of the composers Beethoven and Wagner, which hang prominently over President Tylers former piano, the Cooks possess one of John Dillinger.
There are people who collect nothing but death masks, Gary Cook said as he showed an anxious visitor the likeness of the notorious 1930s gangster.
Contact Tom Joyce at [email protected] or at 719-1924.