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Antietam and Gettysburg: Classic US Civil War Commemorative Coins

Bridge at Antietam and 1937 Antietam Half Dollar

The Antietam and Gettysburg Classic Civil War Commemoratives are popular with collectors of coins and Civil War history

By Jim BisognaniNGC Contributor ……..
When I was young, as I am sure it is with school-age children today, seeing Memorial Day finally appear on the calendar was a time to rejoice, as summer vacation was just around the corner. Old Glory was on display seemingly everywhere in all different sizes, unfurled for everyone to admire. The unmistakable aroma of backyard barbeques wafting throughout the neighborhood beckons a return to my youth, too. Family outings, perhaps some travel plans (all yet to be determined, mind you) were my primary focus.

But as we all grew to know, there is a much more solemn side to Memorial Day.

While my numismatic roots are wide they all share their origins within history, especially as it pertains to our great republic. Originally known as Decoration Day, the tradition that became known as Memorial Day commenced in May 1868, almost out of necessity as a tribute to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives during the Civil War. It has evolved into a day upon which we all give our gratitude to those in the military that gave the ultimate sacrifice. For me numismatically there are two coins that are front and center as commemoratives of the War Between the States.

The first Civil War-related coin I ever acquired was the Battle of Antietam Anniversary Half Dollar. Issued in 1937 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the horrific September 17, 1862 battle, it is a truly historic coin.

The obverse features the finely sculptured joint profiles of generals George B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee, while the reverse features the strategic Burnside Bridge near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Referred to as the single bloodiest day in US history, General McClellan, then commander of the Army of the Potomac and with forces more than double that of General Lee, was only able to hold Lee to a draw on the battlefield. Only when Lee’s forces ran out of ammunition and retreated to Virginia was the battle “decision” given to the north.

Quite amazingly, with this victory President Lincoln felt confident as to the Union’s strength and resolve and five days later issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. This technical Union victory was key to preserving our Republic as prior to this battle both France and Great Britain were considering acknowledging the Confederacy as a viable government entity.

The proud commemorative half dollar, designed by William Marks Simpson, is justifiably considered one of the keys to the classic US silver commemorative series. Although the authorized production was 50,000 coins, only 36% of that number were actually sold at the $1.65 issue price set by the Washington County Historical Society. Unfortunately, the nearly 32,000 unsold coins were melted, leaving us a total reported mintage of 18,028 coins.

United States 1937 Antietam Commemorative Half Dollar. Images courtesy NGC

The NGC Census reveals that of the 2,748 coins graded by NGC the plurality of those graded MS 65 and above is 73.5% – including two at MS 69! According to the NGC Price Guide a Choice MS 63 example is listed at $710, while a full MS 65 is quoted at $775. Obviously go for the best coin you can afford and with such a small gap between MS 63 and MS 65 certainly the full gem would be a good way to go.

Also worth noting, based on the coin’s historic significance and popularity with Civil War-themed numismatics, in MS 63 the Antietam ranks in the top 10 price valuations within the entire 144-piece classic silver commemorative series!

The other classic silver commem, which is a must for collectors in my opinion, is the Battle of Gettysburg. Approved by Congress on June 16, 1936, Philadelphia sculptor Frank Vittor designed the historic and quintessential Civil War coin and production was approved in March 1937. Stately and highly medallic in appearance, the obverse features joint busts of a Union and a Confederate soldier flanked on the bottom by “Blue And Gray Reunion”. The reverse features massive Union and Confederate shields separated by a double-bladed fasces surrounded by the inscription “75th Anniversary Battle of Gettysburg 1863-1938”.

United States 1936 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Commemorative Half Dollar. Images courtesy NGC

This coin also had an authorized limit of 50,000 and all were minted in June 1937. Like the Antietam, the Gettysburg issue was originally distributed for $1.65 each by the Pennsylvania State Commission in late 1937. The sales continued up until the 75th anniversary of the Blue and Gray Reunion in July 1938. Later sales were attempted by the American Legion in Pennsylvania to the tune of $2.65 per coin. This higher reboot did little to conjure up more sales and nearly 23,100 were returned for melting. The apocalyptic and defining battle which took place, July 1-3, 1863 in Gettysburg is memorialized for collectors as well as Civil War and history aficionados.

Posting an actual mintage of 26,928 coins, as is the case with most classic silver commemoratives, a higher percentage of coins reside in very choice/MS 64 and better. So it is not at all surprising that nearly 77% of the 3,278 coins graded by NGC appear in the MS 64 (1,282) and MS 65 (1,305) columns. The powerful theme seems to perpetuate a never-ending collector demand. Here the divide between MS 64 and MS 65 is significant, with the former listed at $575 and the latter $900.

Today it is truly amazing to fathom that over 55% of the combined Antietam and Gettysburg commemoratives went to the melting pot. True, our country was still recovering from the Great Depression and many of the commemoratives produced in the later 1930s were not at all historically significant. So as a plethora of new releases bombarded the collector, it was harder to find buyers. Yet for $1.65 (or just 3.3 times face value) I certainly wouldn’t mind stepping back in time.

Until next time, happy collecting!

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Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

Jim Bisognani
Jim Bisognani
Jim Bisognani has written extensively on US coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in Southern California and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.

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