For absolute rarity, historic significance, and sheer romantic appeal, the 1861 Confederate half dollar is unsurpassed in the annals of American coinage. It is the only coin officially authorized and struck for the Confederate States of America. Thomas Elder was correct when he wrote in 1910 that this coin has profound historical significance that extends far beyond the bounds of traditional numismatics. Historians, numismatists, and Civil War aficionados find this issue equally interesting.
Only four examples were struck at the New Orleans Mint in April of 1861, after that facility was “taken into trust” by the Confederacy. The coins were dispersed to non-numismatic owners at the time of striking and all knowledge of the issue vanished for the ensuing 18 years. All four coins eventually resurfaced over an extensive period of 110 years, but they were subsequently held tightly in important collections and institutions, and the opportunity to acquire a specimen has been almost as rare as the coins themselves. Heritage Auctions is privileged to present this iconic numismatic treasure, which was once owned by CSA President Jefferson Davis himself, in just its second public offering in Heritage’s January 7 – 12 FUN US Coins Signature Auction in Orlando.
Among the four known examples, this coin claims the most illustrious history of them all. How many collectors have looked at their favorite coin and wondered if George Washington or Abraham Lincoln ever held it, or used it to buy a loaf of bread? The owner of this coin will know for certain that Jefferson Davis carried it as a keepsake for four years through all the turmoil of the Civil War. Its historical interest and charisma is unmatched by any other issue.
Following usual mint procedure, dies for 1861 coinage were sent to New Orleans from the Philadelphia Mint late in 1860 and a considerable store of bullion was on hand to conduct business as usual when the new year started. As things turned out, the New Orleans Mint struck coins under the auspices of three different governments in 1861. From January 1 to January 26, the mint remained under federal control and a total of 330,000 Seated Liberty half dollars and 5,000 Liberty double eagles was coined. The State of Louisiana assumed control of the mint from January 26 through March 31, and a coinage of 1,240,000 half dollars and 9,750 double eagles was accomplished. Finally, the Confederacy officially took over the facility on April 1, and struck 962,633 half dollars and 2,991 double eagles before closing the mint on April 30, 1861. In addition, a program of Confederate coinage was briefly contemplated in April, and four specimens of the proposed half dollar, with a standard Seated Liberty obverse and a unique reverse design were struck to demonstrate the concept. These are the famous Original Confederate half dollars known to numismatists today.
Although lack of bullion was reported as the official reason for discontinuing the Confederate coinage, this seems unlikely. The remainder of the bullion fund was evacuated from New Orleans in April of 1862 on the steamer Star of the West under the care of A.J. Guirot, before the city was recaptured by Union forces. The bullion was valued at nearly $1 million, enough to continue coinage for some time. The real reason for stopping the coinage was a combination of factors, including Treasury Secretary Memminger’s belief that the decline in trade that followed the opening of hostilities would reduce the need for coinage. Memminger also believed the considerable expense of running the mint, paying salaries, etc. should be avoided, and the money used for other purposes.
In the case of the Confederate half dollar, the real problem was more immediate and decisive. In a situation reminiscent of the Saint-Gaudens Ultra High Relief double eagles struck almost 50 years later, the reverse design of the Confederate half dollar was engraved in such high relief that the design detail could not be brought up with one blow of the regular coin press.
The “successive blows of a screw press” gave the coins sharp definition and deeply reflective surfaces, and most numismatists classify them as proofs today. Of course, high-speed coinage was impossible under these circumstances. Neither B.F. Taylor, who drew up the design, nor A.H.M. Peterson, who engraved the die, had much experience in preparing dies for coinage, as these were normally supplied by the Philadelphia Mint every year. In any case, the plan for a distinctive Confederate coinage was abandoned in April of 1861, the Confederacy itself fell four years later, and the long gray shadow of the Lost Cause obscured the coin’s existence for a generation.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the present coin is the one presented to CSA President Jefferson Davis by his Secretary of the Treasury, Christopher Memminger, and later stolen from his wife’s luggage by unruly Union soldiers.
This attractive NGC-graded PR30 specimen displays delicate shades of lavender-gray, reddish-gold, and cerulean-blue toning on the obverse, with a silver-gray center on the reverse that yields to pinkish-gray and amber at the peripheries. The design elements are unevenly struck, with much sharper detail on the high relief reverse. On the obverse, the letters in LIBERTY remain bold and much interior detail in the shield and drapery remains intact. Liberty’s hair and bodice show some wear. The famous die crack from Liberty’s nose to the rim is evident. On the reverse, only light wear shows on the design elements, with the vertical stripes in the shield and the two stars on the lower left a little soft. The surfaces are lightly abraded and faintly reflective, and a minor rim bruise shows at 10 o’clock on the reverse. This coin is the only specimen that has ever been sold at public auction and its illustrious pedigree is unmatched.