First issued in 1861 and widely used by Union soldiers during the Civil War, the 3-cent Washington is probably the most familiar regular issue of the Classic Period. It appeared frequently on patriotic cachet covers that depicted inspiring images of Union strength and victory, scenes that rang true later in the war but not in the months following August 1861. Early in the war a string of major Confederate victories—Kessler's Cross Lanes, the Battle of the Hemp Bales, and Ball's Bluff—cast Union victory into doubt.
Though one of the 1861 Issue’s most common and widely used stamps, the subtleties of the 3-cent Washington's color shades are the most difficult of any stamp in the issue. The stamp’s shades range from rose, the most common, to the rare pigeon blood pink. This is due to a variance in pigment ingredients and/or quantities used when mixing the ink over many press runs during the four-years of issuance. According to specialist Richard M. Morris, issuance dates for the major shades ranged from its original release in August 1861 to 1865.
The 3-cent Washington’s primary use was to pre-pay the half-ounce first-class rate, but when used in combination with other denominations, greater weight and foreign destination rates were fulfilled. The National Bank Note Company printed approximately 1,782,000,000 stamps of the 3-cent issue, including all its shades.