Battle of Antietam Half Dollar
The date of September 17, 1862 is
remembered as the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War, as Federal
forces under the command of General George B. McClellan countered the advance
of Confederate troops led by General Robert E. Lee. By the day’s end, both sides had suffered losses of more
than 2,000 dead, Lee’s amounting to almost
3,000. Nearly 20,000 were
wounded, and another 1,000 or more from each side would subsequently die of
their injuries. All of this
misery occurred near the little hamlet of Sharpsburg, in south central
Maryland, adjacent to a slow-moving creek called Antietam.
Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 at
Stratford, Virginia. He was the
son of Harry “Light-Horse” Lee, a prominent commander during the War for
Independence. Graduating from
West Point in 1829, he became a career Army officer, at one point serving as
superintendent of the military academy. Although
opposed to the objectives of the Confederacy, Lee believed that his principal
loyalty was owed to his native Virginia.
With some misgivings, he resigned his commission in the United States
Army in 1861, but only after being offered command of that army by President
Abraham Lincoln! As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee
led the Confederate States of America through a series of victories and
near-victories that its limited resources and manpower scarcely deserved.
Idolized by his men and by most people of the South, Lee was never
blamed for the CSA’s ultimate defeat in 1865.
Upon surrendering, he was saluted even by his adversaries.
Following the war, he became president of Washington College, which was
later renamed Washington and Lee University.
He died peacefully in 1870. His
estate on the Potomac River, named Arlington, had been seized by the Union
during the war and was dedicated as a cemetary for Federal troops.
It was later expanded to become the resting place of many distinguished
George B. McClellan was a
Philadelphia native, born in 1826. He
graduated from West Point in 1846, just in time to serve with distinction
during the Mexican War. He was an
army engineer, achieving success in the building of railroads.
He resigned his commission in 1857 to become an executive with a
commercial railway. After volunteering his services in 1861, the army made him
head of the Department of the Ohio [River].
Modest success in this role brought him to the attention of President
Lincoln at a time when it seemed that no Federal officer was competent to lead
the nation’s army. He was
appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac on July 24. McClellan proved to be a brilliant organizer of troops,
seeing to it that the largely-volunteer Federal Army was disciplined and
well-trained. While quite able to
prepare men for battle, “Little Mac” seemed much less disposed toward
engaging the enemy. He fretted
constantly over his opponent’s imagined superiority, and such dilly-dallying
enabled Lee to reassemble his divided forces for the Battle of Antietam.
McClellan failed to vigorously pursue the Confederates after his
victory there, and he was soon relieved of his command by Lincoln.
He attempted to avenge this act by becoming Lincoln’s Democratic
opponent in the election of 1864, but lost in a bitter contest.
After the War, McClellan became a civil engineer for the city of New
York and served three years as governor of New Jersey.
He died in 1885.
Unlike many of its
contemporaries, the Antietam half dollar commemorates an event that was of
truly national significance. Its
coinage was prompted by the Washington County Historical Society of
Hagerstown, Maryland, which designated an Antietam Celebration Commission to
co-ordinate events marking the battle’s 75th anniversary in 1937. A bill authorizing the coinage of no more than 50,000
Antietam half dollars was passed on June 24 of that year. Recognizing the abuses perpetrated by other coin programs,
this legislation specifically required that the coins be struck with a single
design and at a single mint.
Baltimore sculptor William Marks
Simpson was selected to design and model the coin. Simpson was also the creator of commemorative halves for
Roanoke and Norfolk. His models
for the Antietam half dollar were reviewed favorably by the Commission of Fine
Arts’ sculptor member, Paul Manship, with only minor suggestions for
improvement. The obverse of the
Antietam half displays conjoined busts of McClellan and Lee facing left. Their names are below, and the statutory inscriptions IN GOD
WE TRUST and LIBERTY appear to left and right, respectively.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR are arranged in arcs around
the periphery. Stars reflecting
the respective ranks of McClellan and Lee are at left and right, and the
artist’s monogram is below the truncation of Lee’s shoulder.
The reverse features a scene of the bridge over Antietam Creek which
was the focus of fighting toward the end of that fateful day in 1862.
It was later called the Burnside Bridge, after Ambrose Burnside, whose
stubborn determination to take it wasted so many lives.
This title and the date of the battle appear below the bridge.
Above it is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Around the periphery is the inscription SEVENTY FIFTH ANNIVERSARY
BATTLE OF ANTIETAM and the date 1937.
The entire authorized mintage of
50,000 coins was struck at the Philadelphia Mint in August of 1937.
An additional 28 pieces were struck for the Annual Assay and later
destroyed. The first half dollar
coined was presented to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 12.
The remainder were offered by the Washington County Historical Society
at $1.65 apiece. Despite its
significant theme and attractive design, the Antietam half was a poor seller.
Coin collectors were still recovering from the speculative mania in
commemoratives which had peaked during the previous year, and new issues were
largely ignored. Despite
substantial advertising efforts, some 32,000 halves were returned to the
Philadelphia Mint for melting, leaving a net coinage of 18,000 pieces.
Although it did poorly as a
fund-raiser, the Antietam half dollar program was entirely free of scandal,
and it produced a very desirable coin for future generations of collectors.
Relatively few were sold to the general public, and this has assured
their survival in higher grades. Although
most coins encountered will grade MS-60 through MS-64, ones grading MS-65 are
plentiful, and even in MS-66 this coin is not especially rare.
Some coins will show weakness of strike at the top, central portion of
the bridge. Most possess satiny
luster, whether flashy or dull. A
relatively small number have been abused, mostly through misguided attempts at
cleaning of through usage as pocket pieces.
The first signs of wear will appear on Lee’s cheekbone and on the
leaves of the trees.
No proofs have been confirmed of
this issue, but any such coins would probably be of the matte finish.
At least some of the Antietam halves were distributed in four-page
booklets manufactured by J. N. Spies of Watertown, New York.
These are imprinted on their front 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF
ANTIETAM COMMEMORATIVE HALF DOLLAR and include the names of the sponsoring
committee and its members. Inside
is a page which could hold up to five coins.
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure