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 cemetery for Federal troops. It was later expanded to become the resting place of many distinguished Americans.
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.