The Battle of Antietam and the Commemorative Half Dollar

Discussion in 'US Coins Forum' started by johnmilton, May 30, 2020.

  1. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    It's Saturday and the lots I won in a recent auction are taking longer than I had hoped to arrive. When you are old and in lock-down, you look forward to such things.

    So it's time for another article from the archives.

    On the morning of September 17, 1862 Confederate and Union forces began a battle near Sharpsburg, Maryland that would become the bloodiest one day confrontation of the Civil War. In addition to that carnage this battle would result in profound political changes that would alter the course and objectives of the conflict. Of lesser importance it would also mark the beginning of the end for one of the war's most famous generals.

    In early September of 1862 Robert E. Lee dispatched his Army of Northern Virginia on a march northward through Maryland that had multiple objectives. Lee wanted to shift the focus of the fighting from war ravaged Virginia during the fall harvest season to areas further north, perhaps as far north as the railroad hub at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the process Lee hoped to gather recruits from the Maryland countryside to bolster his ragged Confederate Army. Further Lee hoped to impress the European nations with a military success that would gain diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy. Finally Lee thought that if he could score a major military success on northern soil, he might convince the Yankees to sue for peace.

    In yet another daring move that would characterize Lee's military leadership he divided his forces in close proximity to his enemy. Lee sent 10 thousand of his 40 thousand man force to subdue a Union garrison that was located near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. That action was intended to open a supply line and an escape route through the Shenandoah Valley for Lee's army. Union general, George McClellan, noted Lee's movements and cautiously began to follow him.

    On the morning of September 13th two Union infantry men found a piece of paper wrapped around three cigars. The paper turned out to be Lee's Special Order # 191 which contained the plans for the Confederate general's campaign. McClellan now knew that Lee's army was divided and vulnerable. With that information McClellan had an opportunity to crush the Army of Northern Virginia in detail, but the Union General did nothing for sixteen critical hours. Lee realized that his forces were in danger and consolidated them to fight a battle that could salvage his campaign. If he won he would continue north; if he lost he would be forced to return to the south. The scenario was set for the Battle of Antietam which some Southern people prefer to call the Battle of Sharpsburg.

    1862 Dunker Church.jpg

    Alexander Gardner, who took photographs for Mathew Brady and then went out on his own took a series of photos soon after the battle. He arrived before that dead had been removed from when they had fallen. The Dunker Churuch, which is the main landmark for this phase of the battle is in the background. The original struck was damaged and repaired after the battle. It fell in a windstorm in the early 1900s and was resconstructed used some of the original materials on the site.

    The battle began at 5 AM in cornfields surrounding a Dunker Church. Union forces under General Joseph Hooker attacked a Confederate force commanded by Stonewall Jackson. The fighting was intense, and at one point 2,200 Northern soldiers fell during a span of 20 minutes. Jackson attempted to take advantage of that hole in the Union line only to see his men suffer even greater casualties during his counterassault.

    Sunken Road low.jpg
    "The sunken road" ground view is shown here. The tower, from which the next photo was taken, is in the background. West Point cadets have used to study the phases of the battle.

    Sunken Road High.jpg

    "The sunken road" as viewed from the observation tower.

    The next phase of the battle occurred on a sunken country road. There Southern soldiers hunkered down behind the earthen furrows of the road and repulsed repeated Union assaults on their position for three hours. Confederate dead and wounded covered the entire surface of the road two or three bodies deep while the Union side lost more than a division of soldiers. Finally the Union forces prevailed, but McClellan did not to follow up on that hard won advantage by failing to attack the defeated center of the Confederate line.

    Burnside Bridge.jpg
    This is Burside's Bridge, which was the site of the final hours of the battle. It is named for Union General Ambrose Burnside, who is best known for his sideburns. I made an effort to take this photo from the same angle as the reverse of the Antietam commemorative half dollar. I stood with the coin in my hand to line up the picture.

    General Ambrose Burnside was the pride and joy of the State of Rhode Island for a while. He is shown here on a Rhode Island Civil War token.

    The final phase of battle began over a stone-arched bridge that crossed Antietam Creek. There a 12,500 man Union force under General Ambrose Burnside was opposed by a Confederate force 400 men. Burnside could have crossed the creek at several points, but he chose to concentrate his attack at the bridge which gave the outnumbered Confederates an advantage. Although the crossing had been known as Rohrback Bridge before the battle, it would forever be known, derisively in the opinion of some people, as "Burnside's Bridge."

    After three hours of fighting Burnside's men took the bridge and moved forward toward Sharpsburg. Just when it appeared that the Union Army were about to win the day, a Confederate force under Ambrose P. Hill arrived from Harpers Ferry to smash into the Union flank and force Burnside's men back to their previous positions. The battle ended from the military perspective as a draw.

    Neither army seemed ready to renew hostilities the following day, and Robert E. Lee was able to withdraw his forces without a fight and return to Virginia. The total casualties were 4,810 dead and 18,440 wounded which totaled more than 23,000 men.

    McClellan Large.jpg

    Die maker, William Key, produced this large (51 mm), heroic McClellan medal in the mid 1860s. His list of battles ends with Antietam with the date September 17, 1862.

    Criticism of Union General George McClellan for his leadership during this battle has grown over the years. Despite the fact that McClellan had a distinct manpower advantage of 70,000 Union soldiers against 40,000 Confederates, McClellan chose to fight the battle on a piecemeal basis which allowed the Southerners to move men from one part of the field to another. In fact McClellan held out 20,000 men in reserve who never got into the battle at all.

    Lincoln & McClellan.jpg
    Lincoln met with McClellan after the battle in November 1862. Lincoln decided that McClellan had a fatal case of "the slows" and relieved him of command. McClellan would wait for another Civil War assignment which would never come.

    After McClellan failed to pursue Lee during the following days, President Lincoln came from Washington to meet with the General. After extended discussions and further procrastinations, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command in early November. It marked the end of McClellan's military career; he would never receive another assignment. In 1864 McClellan won the Democratic presidential nomination but lost to Lincoln in the general election.

    Lincoln Emancipation 1862.jpg

    William Barber designed this medal in 1871 which noted Lincoln's term in office and the Emancipation Proclaimation.

    Despite the fact that the Battle of Antietam was technically a draw, Lincoln used the appearance of a military victory to his advantage. That summer Lincoln had planned to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that would free all slaves who were living in states that were still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. Secretary of state, William Seward, cautioned Lincoln that such a move would look like a desperate, futile gesture given the fact that the Union military situation had not gone well that summer. Lincoln agreed and postponed issuing his decree.

    The Battle of Antietam provided Lincoln with enough of a military victory to deliver his proclamation. It marked the first time that the freedom for the slaves became an official objective of the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation placed the Union on the high moral ground and made it far more difficult for the Confederate States of America to gain diplomatic recognition from the European powers.

    Antietam half dollar.jpg

    The Antietam commemorative half dollar was issued in 1937.

    In 1937 the Washington County (Maryland) Historical Society held a 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Antietam. To aid in the fundraising Congress authorized the coinage of 50,000 commemorative half dollars to mark the event. The coin, which was designed by William Marks Simpson, had an official issue price of $1.65. The design featured the profiles of Robert E. Lee and George McClellan on the obverse and a view of Burnside's Bridge on the reverse.

    Although Philadelphia mint produced the fully authorized 50,000 coin allotment, only 18,000 coins were sold. The remaining 32,000 pieces were returned the mint and melted. By this time the collector and speculator market for commemorative half dollars had faded, in part because of abuses by some of the issuing authorities. Collectors had tired of paying high prices for commemorative half dollars because of market manipulations.

    Today the Antietam commemorative half dollar is a popular collector coin which has sold for several hundred dollars for more than three decades. Most of these coins were initially sold to collectors who preserved them well. Pieces with wear or any signs of circulation are seldom seen, and most of the pieces that come to the market today are in grades that range from MS-64 to MS-66. The coin is quite attractive, and has become a "must have" for dedicated collectors who have a strong interest in the "old" commemorative series or the Civil War.

    dwhiz, ldhair, NSP and 4 others like this.
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  3. longshot

    longshot Enthusiast Supporter

    Nice write-up. The Antietam is one of the top 10 classic commems IMO.
    johnmilton likes this.
  4. -jeffB

    -jeffB Greshams LEO Supporter

    Okay, finally had to figure out how to measure distance on Google Maps. Bottom point on the ruler is Antietam Battlefield; top point is the house where I lived until I was 11.


    We learned about the battle in elementary school, but less than you might expect. I don't believe we ever had a field trip to the site. You never appreciate what's in your own back yard.

    My parents retired to a house just a bit further away. On one visit to them, I took my bike, and made an afternoon trek to the site. It was a beautiful summer day, but hardly anyone else was there -- except, of course, all the dead.


    I wish some of the lessons from this conflict had been better learned. :(

    JCKTJK Active Member

    Very nice write up, been to Antietam a few times, love the coin, Price is a little steep for me due to the low mintage. If I ever get the damn stimulus check I might just purchase one.

    Thanks for the write up!!
    johnmilton likes this.
  6. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    If you do buy one, make it a nice example. They generally come in high grades because collectors bought and preserved most of them. The sinking commemorative coin maket should help you a lot.
    JCKTJK likes this.
  7. GoldFinger1969

    GoldFinger1969 Well-Known Member

    JCKTJK and johnmilton like this.
  8. Worn Out

    Worn Out Well-Known Member

    Very nice write-up. Thank you for sharing!

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    -jeffB, ldhair and johnmilton like this.
  9. Worn Out

    Worn Out Well-Known Member

  10. ksparrow

    ksparrow Coin Hoarder

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