By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek …..
Rewriting history is a great temptation to ideologues of left and right, but recalls the old child’s prayer in the wake of some unimaginable tragedy, “Lord. Make it didn’t happen!” Retrofitting the past with concepts of today can be very appealing but it is illogical and indefensible.
American news media have been filled in recent months with escalating controversy over the public display of Southern monuments to the Civil War and its participants. New Orleans made headlines by removing statues of Generals P.G.T. Beauregard, Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis for relocation in less public venues. Before opposition progressed to violence, several other cities were reportedly giving thought to their public statuary in what was clearly becoming a regional movement.
Over the August 10 weekend, controversy exploded in Charlottesville, Virginia over demands for the removal of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee by sculptors Frederick Shrady and Leo Lentelli. In the opening stages, demonstrating students and civil rights advocates faced off against members of the Alt-Right, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and participants in the militia movement. Noisy protest escalated to violence when one counter-demonstrator was run down and killed by a speeding automobile driven by an extremist opponent.
President Donald John Trump was soon embroiled in vigorous controversy by his shifting and contradictory stands over the events in Charlottesville. Soon after, an unruly mob in Durham, North Carolina, pulled down a monument to the common soldiers who served in the Confederate army. This statue did not portray an upper-class, elitist, slave-owning officer but one of the sturdy, hard-fighting men who filled the Confederate ranks, many of whom faced post-war ruin after the South’s surrender.
As is often the case, the destruction was carried out by people ignorant of the facts and of the full history behind the statuary. Driven by emotion, those destroying statues gave little thought to the chaos the country would experience if their emotional “pull ‘em down” program was fully extended.
The week after the rioting in Charlottesville, someone in the media awakened to the inconvenient fact that the Hall of Statuary under the dome of the nation’s capitol was the site of no fewer than nine statues of former Confederate leaders. This writer visited the hall in 1961 and was fascinated by the standing figure of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, placed by Mississippi, and even more so by Georgia’s seated figure boldly inscribed ALEXANDER HAMILTON STEPHENS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.
It should be remembered that when the Hall of Statuary was being assembled, the immediate post-war mood of vengefulness toward the defeated South had largely dissipated. Self-rule had returned to the occupied states and Reconciliation became the goal of a reunited nation. Robert E. Lee was a prominent advocate of Reconciliation, opposing diehards and their call that “the South will Rise Again.”
Despite initial opposition from one-time Radical Republicans and the leadership of the Grand Army of the Republic, Confederate symbols reappeared in public as the United Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) were organized. When the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University was created in 1900 in New York City in the Bronx, the UDC succeeded in placing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in its monumental colonnade.
There was at that time a New York Camp of the United Confederate Veterans and a memorial plaque at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in the Fort Hamilton section of Brooklyn, where Lee had worshipped as a Union officer in 1845. Stationed at West Point, Lee politely rejected President Abraham Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union army. He returned to defend his home state of Virginia.
Perhaps the apex of memorialization was begun in 1925 on the massive granite outcropping of Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Here sculptor Gutzon Borglum began carving the 165-foot high Memorial to the Valor of the Soldier of the South, which will be described in depth below. Stone Mountain was also the birthplace of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915, which swept the nation in the 1920s, gaining hordes of members especially in the mid-west. [Editor’s Note: Borglum was an anti-semite and a white supremacist allied with the Klan. —CoinWeek]
The 1961-65 Civil War Centennial was celebrated throughout the U.S. and was hailed by a national commemorative medal by Joseph Renier portraying both Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. No demands for statue removal were heard during this nationwide commemoration.
1925 Stone Mountain Half Dollar
If a ban on all public recognition of Confederate themes and symbols were to be enforced, this would leave older depictions of Civil War events, leaders and symbols on the United States commemorative coins of 1892-1954 in an uncertain position. Many of these silver half dollars are rich in such references, none more forthrightly than the 1925 Stone Mountain commemorative noted above.
This half dollar was planned as a fund-raiser for the vast mountainside carving hailing “the Valor of the Soldier of the South” by the cantankerous Borglum. The coins sold poorly in the aftermath of the post-World War depression and thousands ended up in circulation at face value. Borglum’s guerrilla warfare with the monument project‘s governing committee further slowed the sculpture’s completion, culminating in his destruction of his models, flight from the scene and his subsequent arrest.
Swept up in the mood of the monument, Borglum had joined and become an officer of the Ku Klux Klan before abandoning Stone Mountain, going on the carve Mount Rushmore in the far Dakotas. Sculptor Augustus Lukeman tried to carry on this ill-omened project, but Stone Mountain was not completed by Walker Hancock until 1970.
Out of sensitivity for Northern sensibilities, the half dollar carefully omitted the figure of Jefferson Davis from the obverse and included the additional statement of purpose “in memory of Warren G. Harding”. However that might be, the week of August 15, 2017 saw the first call for demolition of the entire monument by someone clearly unaware of the magnitude of such a task.
Other Civil War-Related Commemoratives
Other commemoratives might be cited. Sharp-eyed critics might note that the 1936 Lynchburg (VA) Sesquicentennial half dollar shows that city’s Confederate Monument amid the court house columns on its reverse though without identification. Two half dollars forthrightly celebrated both sides in the struggle: the 1936 Battle of Gettysburg and 1937 Battle of Antietam commemoratives.
Designed by Frank Vittor, the Gettysburg coin involved three dates, 1936 (striking), 1937 (actual anniversary of battle) and 1938 (Blue and Gray Reunion of Union and Confederate veterans in the presence of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Its obverse presents conjoined busts of a Union soldier in kepi, Confederate in wide-brimmed slouch hat. Their strong facial resemblance suggests “Brother versus brother” and was believed a deliberate design feature.
This coin’s reverse presents shields of Union and Confederacy devices separated by a twin-axe fasces. Here is another long-standing mystery to many collectors. What is carelessly called “the Confederate flag” was actually the red battle flag with its blue “X” displaying 14 stars.
The first national flag consisted of wide red-white-red stripes with a blue canton (upper corner) bearing seven white stars. A very few examples exist showing 11 stars. Used for a longer interval was the “Stainless Banner”, displaying a pure white field with the battle flag in the upper left corner. Anywhere near battle, this version could easily be confused with a white flag of surrender. The shield on the Gettysburg half dollar was an artistic rather than a strictly historic device.
Among the last classical series commemoratives was William Marks Simpson’s half dollar for the 75th anniversary of the battle of Antietam, like Gettysburg a reminder of the flood tide of the Confederate armies. Portrayed are Robert E. Lee and Union commander George B. McClellan. The serene reverse depicts the Burnside Bridge, the end of Lee’s advance into Federal territory.
At this battle, it became apparent that while the Confederacy had plenty of fight left in it, it had reached its limits in renewable manpower and the end was in sight despite McClellan’s reputation as “the great American hesitator”. Literature depicted veterans of North and South all in tune with Reconciliation.
These are the high points in Civil War symbolism in U.S. coinage. If any coherent push were made to totally eradicate all Confederate references from American public life, where would the coinage go? Is any such attempt worth pursuing?
PCGS Gettysburg Half Dollars Currently Available on eBay