Civil War tokens are some of the most coveted collectors' items from the era. They have become even more popular this year, as 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil war.

When the war began, Union citizens immediately began hiding and storing coins in preparation for the nation's imminent financial difficulties. During the first year of the war, government-issued coins had gone almost completely out of circulation. Though the U.S. Mint Building in Philadelphia continued to make new coins, most were hoarded immediately, and private minters began making coins to fill the void.

H.A. Ratterman, a private minter from Ohio, made the first known Civil War tokens in 1862. By 1864, there were an estimated 25 million Civil War tokens in circulation. Almost all of the estimated 7500 different types of tokens were worth one cent.

These tokens generally displayed patriotic slogans and images. Although Confederate coins are also popular collectors' items, the majority of Civil War tokens were minted in Union states and displayed pro-Union messages. There were some troubles with these coins, as many merchants and businesses refused to redeem them because they weren't really worth anything. Eventually, the U.S. government, displeased with the production of non-government-issued money, made it illegal to privately mint coins.

By 1964, the U.S. government found a way to get real coins back into circulation, and outlawed all private production of substitute money. Today, these tokens fascinate collectors, and are often sold for modest prices. Some still circulate, mistaken for regular coins. If you find any of these coins in your collection, consider taking them to a collectors' show. They may be worth more than you think.