1936 Gettysburg Half Dollar

Another Confusing Anniversary

To observe the 75th anniversary of one of the most famous Civil War conflicts, the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, Congress on June 16, 1936, provided for the coinage of not more than 50,000 silver half dollars to be produced of a single design and struck at a single mint. The 75th anniversary was to be held in 1938, but once again the promoters sniffed an immediate profit and simply could not wait. The Commission originally requested 20,000 coins from Philadelphia, 15,000 from Denver, and 15,000 for San Francisco to make up the quantity, an idea that was rejected. The coins were dated 1936, a year completely irrelevant to the situation.

Design and Distribution

The Pennsylvania State Commission, located at the Hotel Gettysburg in Gettysburg, hired Frank Vittor, a Philadelphia artist, to prepare designs. On the obverse two busts were depicted, one of a Confederate and the other of a Union soldier. The inscription, BLUE AND GRAY REUNION, referred to an event scheduled for July 1-3, 1938. The reverse showed two shields, one representing the Union and the other the Confederacy, divided by a fasces, with the date 1936 below. The dates 1863-1938 were to the left and right at the border.

In June 1937, 50,028 coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Thus we have a situation similar to that of the Delaware half dollar: a coin dated 1936 struck in 1937 for an event scheduled to take place in 1938, still another shameful example of commemorative half dollar exploitation. Paul L. Roy, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania State Commission, held out the hope that he would have Denver and San Francisco coins until the very end, when he reluctantly told those who had ordered sets of three different coins that he would send them three examples all from the same mint (philadelphia). Refunds were offered to anyone not wanting that quantity. Single coins were priced at $1.65.

By May 15, 1937, Paul L. Roy mailed a postcard containing the blatant lie that the issue had been oversubscribed: "This will advise you that the 50,000 Gettysburg commemorative half dollars will be issued from the Philadelphia Mint only .... Because of the large oversubscription and the tremendous demand, which we will not be able to fill, we will appreciate your limiting your order to your actual needs in order that all who desire may secure one of the new half dollars .... " (Postcard to H. J. McCloskey postmarked May 15, 1937. Bowers and Merena Galleries Reference Collection.)

The reunion between the Blue and the Gray eventually took place as scheduled in 1938, and among those in attendance was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Commemorative half dollars were among the souvenirs on sale there.

In correspondence with the author, Art Leister recalled the event (Letter dated April 2, 1991.) "My mother took me to this reunion at Gettysburg when I was eight years old. I remember the suprisingly many uniformed old soldiers from both sides with their white beards and rifles and back packs. They camped out in tents. There was a man dressed to resemble Abe Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address from a platform built on the same place it was originally delivered.

“I remember we had to park about two miles out of town and walk in because it was so crowded. That evening we watched the lighting of the Eternal Peace Light. It was impressive and a little scary for a boy of eight trying to encompass for the first time all of the meaning of the Civil War."

In August 1938 it was reported in The Numismatist that Paul L. Roy had announced that the unsold balance of the Gettysburg coins had been turned over to the American Legion - Department of Pennsylvania for further distribution. The American Legion raised the price from $1.65 each to $2.65 in the hope that this would make the coins appear to be rare and a good investment. 23,100 remained unsold and were subsequently melted.

While collectors considered the Gettysburg half dollar to be of pleasing design and appearance, interest was less than usual; for by the time they were available for sale in 1937, the commemorative market had faded.

Collecting Gettysburg Half Dollars

The 1936 Gettysburg half dollars, properly called Battle of Gettysburg half dollars, are popular with collectors today. Examples are fairly plentiful on the market. Most specimens seen today are in lower Mint State ranges, from about MS-60 to MS-63. MS-64 and MS-65 coins are available but are somewhat more elusive.

GRADING SUMMARY: Most coins show scattered contact marks which are most evident on the cheeks of the soldiers on the obverse and, on the reverse, on the two shields (particularly at the top of the Union shield on the left side of the coin). Most Gettysburg half dollars are very frosty and lustrous.