1864 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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In April the Federal Red River campaign degenerated into exactly the kind of misguided side show that the new supreme commander, Ulysses S. Grant, had vowed to eliminate from his war effort. The former chief of staff, Henry Halleck, had devised the campaign in the hope that U.S. troops in Mexico could frighten off the puppet dictator that the French emperor, Napoleon III, had installed in Mexico. Grant replaced Halleck too late to prevent a Union column under Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks from marching north through Louisiana in an attempt to invade Texas. The naval force under Adm. David Dixon Porter that followed Banks up the Red River was more interested in seizing cotton than in battling the Confederates.

Neither force even got into Texas. Banks, a former Massachusetts politician with no military experience, had been manhandled in Virginia earlier in the war by Stonewall Jackson, and he repeated this failure in Louisiana at the hands of Jackson’s protégé, Gen. Richard Taylor. On April 8 Taylor routed Banks at Sabine Cross Roads, pursued the Union retreat, and defeated Banks again the next day at Pleasant Hill, ending the Union offensive.

In his haste to escape, Banks almost had to abandon his naval support. Porter’s boats, bloated with commandeered cotton bales, were mired on the Red River’s bottom by unusually low water levels, and only an ingenious damming of the river downstream saved them. Despite the fortunate escape, Grant was furious that troops so frivolously used were unavailable to him for an attack on Mobile that spring.

The Reverend M. R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, was distressed about the spiritual health of a nation adrift in the trauma of civil war when he wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase in November 1861. “If our Republic were now shattered beyond recognition,” he asked, “would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?” Watkinson proposed that the nation’s faith be represented on its coins by the motto “God, Liberty, Law.”

Secretary Chase, grappling with the politics of war financing, immediately recognized the idea as a chance to tap into the nation’s resurgent religious sentiment. He ordered several new coin patterns based on Watkinson’s model. After considering mottoes like “God Our Trust” and “God and Our Country,” the government settled upon “In God We Trust,” which first appeared on the two-cent pieces of 1864 by order of the Act of April 22. The motto grew in prominence, and since 1938 it has been part of every coin minted by the U.S. government.