Q. David Bowers
A Memorial to the Confederacy
By any reckoning the 1925 Stone Mountain Memorial half dollar was the most publicized issue of the 1920s. It embodied all of the characteristics that a typical commemorative half dollar had by that period in time: a profit motive, a controversy concerning the issuance, and debate relative to the appropriateness of the design. To complete the picture, projections were overly optimistic and large unsold quantities were subsequently melted. As if that was not enough, a scandal erupted concerning the issuing commission.
Located about 15 miles northeast of Atlanta, Georgia, Stone Mountain is one of the largest known visible deposits of solid granite. Measuring 867 feet high and nearly a mile wide, the site is eminently suited for a sculpture. Although the idea had been considered earlier, it was not until 1915 that a number of Southerners took action to create a monument to the leaders of the fallen but not forgotten Confederate States of America by inviting sculptor Gutzon Borglum to visit the site to give his opinion about carving a tablet, bust of Robert E. Lee, or some other modest monument measuring perhaps 20 feet square. Borglum is said to have stated that such a small carving would be like putting a postage stamp on the side of a bam. Ideas of grandeur swept through the sculptor's mind, and within a matter of days he envisioned a grandiose pageant of multiple Southern leaders sculpted in stone. Despite the absence of a formal contract, the artist drew plans in his Stamford (Connecticut) studio during the following winter, proposing an ambitious carving 200 feet high and 1,300 feet wide. A formal dedication of the project took place in May 1916. Under a donor agreement with Samuel H. Venable and members of his family, owners of Stone Mountain, the project was to be completed in 12 years, or the title would revert to them.
In 1917 preliminary work began by cutting access steps into the rock, but the efforts were cut short with the advent of America into the World War and were not resumed until June 18, 1923, when Borglum began carving General Lee's figure, as part of a group that would also include Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and other heroes of the South. Outlines from the artist's plans were projected from glass slides onto the rock face at night, and an assistant in a sling seat painted white guidelines for the workmen to follow. (At first he practiced the concept near his Stamford studio, with his young daughter Mary Ellis operating the projector while he Inspected lines cast against the snow on the side of a hill. His new studio was part of a complex of buildings he named Borgland, on a bank of the Rippowan River.) At the time Borglum's latest plan envisioned a three-part memorial for Stone Mountain:
(1) Confederate States of America figures carved in the side of the mountain, to include the Central Group consisting of generals Lee and Jackson plus C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis, flanked by a panorama of soldiers and battle scenes including several dozen generals picked by the current governors of the Southern states (each of whom was to select five).
(2) The Memorial Hall, to be chiseled from granite bedrock at the base of Stone Mountain, and to contain plaques, artifacts, sculptures, and other items pertaining to the glory of the South and the Civil War, as well as several honor rolls listing donors to the Memorial project.
(3) The Amphitheater, to be situated at the base of the mountain, to the right of the carved figures, "rivaling the dimensions of the Roman Colosseum."
Borglum estimated the cost at $3,500,000 for the entire plan and stated that six or seven years would be needed to complete it. Soon thereafter the dimensions of the project were scaled down considerably, in view of the anticipated expense. (Various contemporary brochures, newspaper accounts, and other sources differ from each other in the measurements, cost estimates, and schedule details given for the Stone Mountain Memorial project. At one time Borglum signed a contract to do the Central Group of figures within three years, for $250,000.)
By early 1924 the sculptor had finished the upper part of General Robert E. Lee. A formal dedication was held on January 19th with an estimated 10,000 in attendance. Funds were needed to sustain the heroic undertaking, and as early as November 1923 it was felt that the currently popular fad of issuing commemorative half dollars would provide easy money. (At first he practiced the concept near his Stamford studio, with his young daughter Mary Ellis operating the projector while he Inspected lines cast against the snow on the side of a hill. His new studio was part of a complex of buildings he named Borgland, on a bank of the Rippowan River.)
Borglum, Harry Stillwell Edwards (who claimed to have originated the concept of a Stone Mountain coin), and Hollins N. Randolph went to Washington and met with President Calvin Coolidge, who was receptive to the idea. Spearheaded by numerous speeches and other efforts by Borglum, a bill to this effect was entered in Congress. On March 17, 1924, legislation was passed which provided for the staggering quantity of up to 5,000,000 silver half dollars to be produced "in commemoration of the commencement on June 18, 1923, of the work of carving on Stone Mountain, in the State of Georgia, a monument to the valor of the soldiers of the South, which was the inspiration of their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters in the Spanish-American and World wars, and in the memory of Warren G. Harding, president of the United States of America, in whose administration the work was begun."
Although the bill for the Stone Mountain half dollars stated the coins would relate to soldiers of the South in two wars, mention of the Civil War was omitted, although that was what the Stone Mountain Memorial was all about! If the coin had been proposed as a Confederate commemorative half dollar, which it what it really was, undoubtedly the bill would not have passed. In addition, the coins were intended to honor the memory of Warren G. Harding, who by that time was dead but not widely lamented because of the Teapot Dome scandal and other unsavory situations, details of which were disclosed during and immediately following his administration. The mention of Harding was a sop to Northerners, who objected to the idea of honoring Confederate heroes.