The name Gettysburg is synonymous with the Civil War itself—no other campaign so captures the high drama and terrible tragedy of America’s darkest chapter. Fought over the course of three days—July 1, 2 & 3, 1863—it cost Union casualties of 17,684 killed or wounded, while the Confederates lost the even greater number of 22,638 killed or wounded. This epic battle represented the highwater mark of Southern advancement into Northern territory, and it marked the beginning of a long and painful Confederate withdrawal which led to the South’s ultimate defeat in 1865.
The commemorative half dollar which honors this battle and those who served in it shares with the Delaware-Swedish Tercentenary coin a distinctive history: Both were authorized and dated 1936, both were minted in 1937 and both commemorate celebrations which took place in 1938. Fittingly, they were likewise approved within weeks of one another at a time when commemorative coins were the hottest area of the coin collecting market.
The principal opponents whose armies met near the little town of Gettysburg in south-central Pennsylvania were General George G. Meade, commanding the United States Army of the Potomac, and General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Sorely missed by Lee during the first two days of battle was the fabled cavalry unit commanded by General J. E.B. “Jeb” Stuart; off on a diversionary mission to harass the Union capital at Washington, D.C., Stuart arrived too late to turn the tide of battle. When it was all over, Lee and his troops withdrew to the safety of Virginia, while the exhausted Meade lost his opportunity to end the war once and for all when he failed to immediately give chase.
Months later, on November 19, 1863, President of the United States Abraham Lincoln dedicated a national cemetery on the outskirts of the little town of Gettysburg. The featured speaker that day was famed orator Edward Everett, who gave a formal speech lasting some two hours. After he finished, Mr. Lincoln stepped up to read a few words which he had jotted down during the train ride to Pennsylvania. Today, it is his Gettysburg Address which is remembered as the great summation of war’s immeasurable sacrifice.
The 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg took place July 1-3, 1938. To recognize this important date, the Blue and Gray Reunion was planned, honoring the few dozen surviving participants of that great engagement. Bringing together members of the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans, this was a solemn yet congenial gathering of old men who would relive in words what was almost certainly the greatest single event of their lives. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, which remains lit to the present day.
As a souvenir of the occasion, and perhaps to assist in the funding of this event, the Pennsylvania State Commission sought to have a commemorative coin issued. Legislation passed on June 16, 1936 called for the minting of not more than 50,000 half dollars to be coined at a single mint and of a single design. Paul L. Roy, executive secretary of the Commission, hoped that this law could eventually be amended to provide for a three-mint set, but this scheme was steadfastly rejected by Congress, which by then was growing weary of commemorative coins.
Hired to prepare the models for this coin was Philadelphia sculptor Frank Vittor. In a departure from most commemorative programs, Vittor’s models as submitted to the federal Commission of Fine Arts were favorably received from the outset, and only minor changes were requested by sculptor member Paul Manship. Among his observations was one which has been the source of amusement to collectors and numismatic writers ever since — the Union and Confederate veterans depicted on this half dollar are virtual twins! Giving Vittor the benefit of the doubt, some commentators have remarked that this may have been intentional, as it reinforces the Civil War theme of brother against brother.
The Commission of Fine Arts gave its approval to the models on March 24, 1937, and production began at the Philadelphia Mint in June. A total of 50,028 pieces were coined, the odd 28 halves being reserved for the Assay Commission and later melted. Vittor’s obverse design portrays conjoined busts of Union and Confederate veterans in uniform facing right. Above are the mottoes LIBERTY and E•PLURIBUS•UNUM. Arranged in arcs around the periphery are the legends UNITED• STATES•OF•AMERICA and BLUE•AND• GRAY• REUNION, separated by stars. The reverse is dominated by Union and Confederate shields, separated from one another by a fasces. Wrapped around these elements are branches of oak and olive, perhaps symbolizing war and peace. The date 1936 appears below; this was specified in the enabling act, though it has no other relevance to this coin. Below the date is the value •HALF•DOLLAR•, while above the shields is the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, separated by the blades of the fasces. Around the periphery are the inscriptions 75TH•ANNIVERSARY and BATTLE•OF•GETTYSBURG and the dates 1863 and 1938, all separated by stars. The artist’s initials are not included.
The Gettysburg half dollars were sold at $1.65 apiece by the Pennsylvania State Commission during the latter months of 1937 and continuing through the Blue and Gray Reunion of July, 1938. Shortly afterward, the unsold balance of the coins was turned over to the American Legion - Department of Pennsylvania to fulfill any subsequent orders. In an attempt to make the coins seem rare and more desirable, the price was raised to $2.65. By this time, however, the mania for commemoratives had long passed, and the coins proved difficult to sell. Within a few years, the unsold remainder of 23,100 pieces was returned to the Philadelphia Mint for melting, leaving a net mintage of 26,900 coins.
The luster on Gettysburg half dollars ranges from a brilliant frostiness all the way down to an outright dullness. This design was quite susceptible to contact marks, particularly within the exposed faces of the shields. Most coins grade between MS-60 and MS-64, while a number will show signs of wear, harsh cleaning or some other mishandling. To spot wear, check the cheekbones of either veteran and the crisscrossing bands of the fasces.
No proofs are known of the Gettysburg type, but it’s possible that matte proofs may yet turn up; this style was favored by Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, and it’s known that he had several commemorative coin types produced as matte proofs for his own collection.
Gettysburg halves were delivered by mail in unprinted, generic cardboard holders which provided holes for up to three coins. These, however, were shipped in attractively designed envelopes which are highly desired by collectors.