One of the more common U. S. commemorative coins, the Stone Mountain half dollar was a by-product of a much larger undertaking—the carving of monumental figures of Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis into the side of a sheer cliff. These heroes of the Southern Confederacy (only Lee and Jackson appear on the coin) were portrayed on horseback on a scale that would render them visible for miles. This great sculpture was not completed until more than fifty years after it commenced, and it left behind a legacy of strife and scandal which at one point brought all work to a halt. The coins that resulted from this visionary project possess a remarkable history of their own.
For many years after its sad end in 1865, the failed Confederate States of America remained a lost cause from which the South was continually attempting to recover. This all changed in 1915 with the release of The Birth of A Nation, an epic film by motion picture pioneer David Wark Griffith. Himself the son of a Confederate veteran, D. W. Griffith was raised on tales of Southern chivalry and the glorious cause of “states rights.” In his melodramatic depiction of the Civil War and its aftermath in the South, Griffith glorified this period and launched a revival of its traditions. These were manifested in a variety of ways, not all of them progressive, but one result of this renewed interest in the CSA was a grand scheme to memorialize its most beloved figures.
In 1916, sculptor Gutzon Borglum was commissioned by the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association to carve a large bust of General Robert E. Lee into the mountain’s broad northeast face. The Association envisioned something on the order of 20 feet square that could be viewed with a telescope. Borglum countered with a much grander pictorial scene of CSA officers on horseback accompanied by a parade of infantry. Also envisioned were a memorial hall and museum at the base of the mountain, as well as a gigantic amphitheater. Borglum’s power of persuasion was superb, and the Association followed his lead; the plan was approved.
Georgia’s Stone Mountain is located a few miles northeast of Atlanta. It stands 867 feet high and is more than seven miles in circumference at the base. The exposed northeast face is itself nearly a mile wide. At the time the sculpture was conceived, this mountain was still privately owned by the family of Samuel H. Venable. An agreement was reached in which the owners would permit the carving to go on for 12 years. If not completed in that time, all title to the mountain and its carvings would revert to the Venable Family.
A formal dedication of the project’s commencement was held in May of 1916. From this auspicious beginning, everything slid downhill. World War I interrupted the work in 1917, and it wasn’t until June 18, 1923 that the carving resumed. The real trouble began when the Association and sculptor Borglum became engaged in a feud. It was charged that the artist was negligent, appearing only rarely at the site while simple stone cutters did all the work. In addition, he was accused of being too involved in the promotional and fundraising aspects of the campaign to perform his primary responsibility as designer and sculptor. To this Borglum responded with charges of artistic interference from the Association’s officers and, more ominously, with a claim that President Hollins N. Randolph was diverting the donated funds to his own uses and running up exorbitant expense accounts. Both sides were ultimately proved correct. In the short term, however, Borglum was discharged on February 25, 1925. In a fit of fury, he destroyed all of his models and plans. This action caused him to be denounced by the Association, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. The charges were later dropped, but the animosity remained for several years.
The carving work was reassigned to Augustus Lukeman, who would later create the Daniel Boone Bicentennial half dollar in 1934. Although he entered the project by first blasting away whatever carving had been accomplished to that point, Lukeman proved to be more compliant than his predecessor and continued on the project until 1930. By then, all of the scandal and bickering, combined with the effects of the Great Depression, ruined the Association and brought all further work to a standstill for more than 30 years. In the meantime, Borglum went on to successfully create the monumental portraits of four U. S. presidents on the face of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. The Confederate Memorial project was finally revived in 1963 by the State of Georgia, which purchased the mountain and surrounding area from its private owners and completed the carving seven years later. The amphitheater was never built, but there is a visitor center at the site.
Amid all of these developments, the idea of a commemorative coin was almost an afterthought. The success of other organizations in raising funds through the sale of these coins prompted the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association to seek its own issue which would be designed and sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who was then still in its good graces. With strong support from President of the United States Calvin Coolidge, a bill was passed March 17, 1924 which authorized the minting of up to five million half dollars honoring the soldiers of the South and the memory of the recently-deceased President Warren G. Harding. In fact, Harding’s portrait appeared in Gutzon Borglum’s first models for this coin but was removed on the instructions of President Coolidge. This is ironic in view of the fact that Coolidge himself would appear in life on the obverse of the American Independence Sesquicentennial half dollar in 1926.
The models furnished by Borglum to the federal Commission of Fine Arts were repeatedly rejected by sculptor member James Earle Fraser, creator of the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel. These models were in very low relief, were inaccurately modeled and were overly crowded with lettering too small to be discernible on the finished coin. It was not until October 10, 1924 that Fraser finally gave his reluctant approval, declaring the revised models “barely passable.”
The Association proved naively optimistic in its projected sales of five million coins. Only 2,310,000 were actually struck to their order at the Philadelphia Mint, an additional 4,709 being coined for assaying purposes and later destroyed. The first minting occurred on January 21, 1925, the 101st anniversary of “Stonewall” Jackson’s birth. The first 1000 pieces were coined with a medal press; a number of these were presented to assorted dignitaries, while the remainder were reserved for later presentations to persons assisting in the Stone Mountain project. The remaining coins minted were delivered by the end of March. They were placed on sale at $1 apiece beginning July 3, 1925.
An amazing number of creative marketing techniques were devised to move these coins and realize a maximum return, no easy feat given that their enormous mintage discouraged sales to both coin collectors and speculators. A New York marketing specialist named Harvey Hill was engaged to oversee such promotions. Large corporations were drafted to purchase quantities of these coins to present or sell to their employees. Perhaps the most interesting scheme, however, and the one with the greatest value to present day collectors was Hill’s idea to counterstamp a number of coins with the initials of various southern states and a range of serial numbers. These special souvenirs were then auctioneered amid much publicity; one example counterstamped for Florida realized an amazing $1,300! These have become quite popular with coin collectors, but purchasers are warned to buy only coins which have accompanying documentation, as the counterstamps can be replicated.
All of these efforts were in vain, however, as sales lagged amid all of the bad publicity over the Association’s misadventures. After several years of attempting to sell the Stone Mountain halves, one million coins were returned to the Mint for melting. This left a net mintage of 1,310,000 pieces. Still too many for the market to absorb, countless coins remained in banks as late as the 1930s and were ultimately dumped into circulation at face value. This fact accounts in part for the great many survivors which evidence wear or other signs of mishandling. To detect such wear, examine General Lee’s elbow and the eagle’s breast.
Still, enough mint state coins exist in grades MS-60 through MS-65 that examples are relatively inexpensive. Even a sizable number of MS-66 coins have been certified by the grading services, although the totals drop off dramatically in higher grades. Stone Mountain halves are typically quite frosty, with luster that ranges all the way from dull to flashy. A few will appear flatly struck on the highest design points, but well struck coins remain abundant. Also fairly common and quite popular is the variety with a distinctly doubled obverse die. This is most visible in the date and legend STONE MOUNTAIN.