Doug Winter: The 1861-O was the last double eagle produced at the New Orleans mint until 1879. It is a historically significant issue due to the fact that it was struck under three different authorities: the Union, the State of Louisiana and the Confederacy. It is believed that mintage figures for each of these can be broken down as follows:
- Union: 5,000, struck from January 1 to January 26, 1861.
- State of Louisiana: 9,750, struck from January 26 to March 31, 1861.
- Confederacy: 2,991, struck from April 1 to April 30, 1861.
Is there are a way to determine which coins were struck under which auspices? With the help of collector Dr. Joseph Gaines, I have come up with a plausible theory that, at the very least, explains which coins were produced by the Confederacy. See below for more information.
The 1861-O is a scarce issue which has seen substantial price appreciation in the past few years. It is most often seen in VF and EF grades and is usually found with poor eye appeal. AU examples are a bit more available than generally assumed, although most of these are no better than AU50. The 1861-O is very rare in the higher AU grades. I have seen a few that I believe are Uncirculated by today’s standards but none of these are Choice.
STRIKE: This is the most poorly struck New Orleans double eagle and it is one of the hardest Type One issues to find with acceptable detail The obverse shows considerable weakness on the hair of Liberty with little definition visible on the curls around the face and below the ear. The hair at the top of the head is very weak and the bow is incomplete. The obverse stars are often flat with the ones at the right showing a bit more detail than the ones at the left or those over the head of Liberty. The date is quite weak with most examples showing weak detail on the lower parts of all four digits. The reverse is slightly sharper but is always found with softness on the wing tips, tail feathers and the eagle’s neck.
SURFACES: The great majority of 1861-O double eagles show extensive deep marks on the obverse and the reverse. Many had been mishandled and show scratches or scrapes. There are also a number that have rim bruises. There are a few relatively clean pieces known and these are extremely desirable.
LUSTER: Most 1861-O double eagles are prooflike with considerable reflectiveness noted. This reflectiveness is often marred by extensive deep marks. In addition, a number have been cleaned or dipped enough times that they have a very “washed out” appearance.
COLORATION: The natural coloration ranges from a medium green-gold to a lighter yellow-gold. It is hard to find an example with nice color as many have been cleaned or dipped.
EYE APPEAL: The level of eye appeal of the 1861-O double eagle is considerably below average. This is due to the fact that most are softly struck, heavily marked and unoriginal. Pieces that have average to above average eye appeal are rare and extremely desirable.
MAJOR VARIETIES: The 1861-O double eagle is thought to have been created from a single pair of dies. The obverse is usually fairly well struck. The majority of coins (approximately 75%) have a weak date, with the lower portions of the 186 and sometimes the final 1 being weak or nearly absent. The obverse and the reverse appear to have been lapped, giving the surfaces a slightly prooflike appearance. In the latest state of the weak die coins, it appears that a mint employee scribed a series of lines into the die, partly restoring the base of the 8. A good example is this die state is the Bass III:807 coin.
There are also a number of strong date coins which show an obverse die crack that begins at the rim atop the denticles over the second star extending to near the chin of Liberty. A branch of this crack extends upwards to start three. The strong date coins show no repunching or remnants of the scribe lines seen on the latter die state(s) of the weak date coins. A good example of the weak date with die crack variety is ANR 6/05:588. There may be a few with strong date that do not show the obverse crack but I have yet to see one.
Three sets of dies were sent to the New Orleans mint in December 1860, and it has always been assumed that only a single pair was used. The date logotype and position for the weak and strong date coins is exactly the same. Many researchers have assumed that the weak date coins are connected to the Confederacy. The weak date coins show no evidence of the obverse die crack as seen on the strong date coins and this suggests that a second obverse die was, in fact, used. This obverse crack is too deep to have been completely removed by die lapping. It is not clear whether the weak or strong date coins were struck first. It is certainly plausible that the weak date coins were made first, the die was repaired, the defective die was removed from service and then the strong date coins were made; first with no defects and then later with the obverse die crack. Another possibility exists as well: the obverse die was repaired and strengthened by someone at the mint. This does not appear likely, as the New Orleans mint probably did not have the date punches it needed to do this in 1861, and the weak date coins do not show the aforementioned die crack.
After looking through hundreds of auction catalogs and studying images of 1861-O double eagles offered for sale, I have determined that approximately one-fifth of the coins offered had a strong date and showed the obverse die crack. When one considers that the Confederacy is said to have struck approximately 17% of the original mintage figure of this issue (2,991 of the 17,741 struck) this is almost exactly the percentage of the coins that exhibit the strong date with the crack. It is my belief that these are the coins produced by the Confederacy.David Akers (1975/88): The 1861-O is the last Double Eagle from the New Orleans Mint until 1879. Coins were both before and after the Confederacy took control of the Mint but it is impossible to state with absolute certainty which coins were struck by the Federal Government and which were struck by the Confederacy. The 1861-O is rare but obviously not nearly as rare as the 1856-O, 1854-O, 1855-O or 1860-O. It is closest in overall rarity to the 1857-O and 1858-O (a bit less rare than either) and it is decidedly rarer than the 1850-1853 O-Mint issues. The 1861-O is very rare in AU and virtually all known specimens grade only VF or EF. I have not personally seen a strictly uncirculated specimen: the best I've encountered was a choice AU-55 and I have seen three in that grade. The Miles specimen was called uncirculated and there was also a specimen graded uncirculated in Stack's 1946 Deetz Sale. Whether or not the Miles or Deetz coins were really Unc. I cannot say since I have not seen them. Most 1861-O Double Eagles are partially or fully prooflike and quite well struck although the bottom part of 186 in the date is usually weak from die wear.
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