Battle of Gettysburg Half Dollar
The name Gettysburg is synonymous
with the Civil War itself—no other campaign so captures the high drama and
terrible tragedy of America’s darkest chapter.
Fought over the course of three days—July 1, 2 & 3, 1863—it
cost Union casualties of 17,684 killed or wounded, while the Confederates lost
the even greater number of 22,638 killed or wounded.
This epic battle represented the highwater mark of Southern advancement
into Northern territory, and it marked the beginning of a long and painful
Confederate withdrawal which led to the South’s ultimate defeat in 1865.
The commemorative half dollar
which honors this battle and those who served in it shares with the
Delaware-Swedish Tercentenary coin a distinctive history:
Both were authorized and dated 1936, both were minted in 1937 and both
commemorate celebrations which took place in 1938.
Fittingly, they were likewise approved within weeks of one another at a
time when commemorative coins were the hottest area of the coin collecting
The principal opponents whose
armies met near the little town of Gettysburg in south-central Pennsylvania
were General George G. Meade, commanding the United States Army of the
Potomac, and General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army of Northern
Virginia. Sorely missed by Lee
during the first two days of battle was the fabled cavalry unit commanded by
General J. E.B. “Jeb” Stuart; off on a diversionary mission to harass the
Union capital at Washington, D.C., Stuart arrived too late to turn the tide of
battle. When it was all over, Lee
and his troops withdrew to the safety of Virginia, while the exhausted Meade
lost his opportunity to end the war once and for all when he failed to
immediately give chase.
Months later, on November 19,
1863, President of the United States Abraham Lincoln dedicated a national
cemetery on the outskirts of the little town of Gettysburg.
The featured speaker that day was famed orator Edward Everett, who gave
a formal speech lasting some two hours. After
he finished, Mr. Lincoln stepped up to read a few words which he had jotted
down during the train ride to Pennsylvania.
Today, it is his Gettysburg Address which is remembered as the great
summation of war’s immeasurable sacrifice.
The 75th anniversary of the
Battle of Gettysburg took place July 1-3, 1938. To recognize this important date, the Blue and Gray Reunion
was planned, honoring the few dozen surviving participants of that great
engagement. Bringing together
members of the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans,
this was a solemn yet congenial gathering of old men who would relive in words
what was almost certainly the greatest single event of their lives.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace
Memorial, which remains lit to the present day.
As a souvenir of the occasion,
and perhaps to assist in the funding of this event, the Pennsylvania State
Commission sought to have a commemorative coin issued.
Legislation passed on June 16, 1936 called for the minting of not more
than 50,000 half dollars to be coined at a single mint and of a single design.
Paul L. Roy, executive secretary of the Commission, hoped that this law
could eventually be amended to provide for a three-mint set, but this scheme
was steadfastly rejected by Congress, which by then was growing weary of
Hired to prepare the models for
this coin was Philadelphia sculptor Frank Vittor. In a departure from most commemorative programs, Vittor’s
models as submitted to the federal Commission of Fine Arts were favorably
received from the outset, and only minor changes were requested by sculptor
member Paul Manship. Among his
observations was one which has been the source of amusement to collectors and
numismatic writers ever since — the
Union and Confederate veterans depicted on this half dollar are virtual twins!
Giving Vittor the benefit of the doubt, some commentators have remarked
that this may have been intentional, as it reinforces the Civil War theme of
brother against brother.
The Commission of Fine Arts gave
its approval to the models on March 24, 1937, and production began at the
Philadelphia Mint in June. A
total of 50,028 pieces were coined, the odd 28 halves being reserved for the
Assay Commission and later melted. Vittor’s
obverse design portrays conjoined busts of Union and Confederate veterans in
uniform facing right. Above are
the mottoes LIBERTY and E•PLURIBUS•UNUM.
Arranged in arcs around the periphery are the legends UNITED•
STATES•OF•AMERICA and BLUE•AND• GRAY• REUNION, separated by stars.
The reverse is dominated by Union and Confederate shields, separated
from one another by a fasces. Wrapped
around these elements are branches of oak and olive, perhaps symbolizing war
and peace. The date 1936 appears
below; this was specified in the enabling act, though it has no other
relevance to this coin. Below the
date is the value •HALF•DOLLAR•, while above the shields is the motto IN
GOD WE TRUST, separated by the blades of the fasces.
Around the periphery are the inscriptions 75TH•ANNIVERSARY and
BATTLE•OF•GETTYSBURG and the dates 1863 and 1938, all separated by stars. The artist’s initials are not included.
The Gettysburg half dollars were
sold at $1.65 apiece by the Pennsylvania State Commission during the latter
months of 1937 and continuing through the Blue and Gray Reunion of July, 1938.
Shortly afterward, the unsold balance of the coins was turned over to
the American Legion - Department of Pennsylvania to fulfill any subsequent
orders. In an attempt to make the coins seem rare and more desirable,
the price was raised to $2.65. By
this time, however, the mania for commemoratives had long passed, and the
coins proved difficult to sell. Within
a few years, the unsold remainder of 23,100 pieces was returned to the
Philadelphia Mint for melting, leaving a net mintage of 26,900 coins.
The luster on Gettysburg half
dollars ranges from a brilliant frostiness all the way down to an outright
dullness. This design was quite
susceptible to contact marks, particularly within the exposed faces of the
shields. Most coins grade between
MS-60 and MS-64, while a number will show signs of wear, harsh cleaning or
some other mishandling. To spot
wear, check the cheekbones of either veteran and the crisscrossing bands of
No proofs are known of the
Gettysburg type, but it’s possible that matte proofs may yet turn up; this
style was favored by Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, and it’s known that he
had several commemorative coin types produced as matte proofs for his own
Gettysburg halves were delivered
by mail in unprinted, generic cardboard holders which provided holes for up to
three coins. These, however, were
shipped in attractively designed envelopes which are highly desired by
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure