The 1937 silver 50-Cent Antietam coin was minted to commemorate the 75th anniversary of a Civil War battle that had major national significance.
On September 17, 1862, nearly 5,000 were killed and 20,000 were wounded in the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. it was the first field army–level engagement in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War to take place on Union soil and is remembered as the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. Civil war buffs will remember that this battle saw Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia pitted against Union General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
The period leading up to the battle was fraught with tension. Confederate forces, commanded by the esteemed General Robert E. Lee, were on a winning streak and had initiated an invasion into the Northern states. Their objectives were manifold: to sway the impending midterm elections, garner recognition from Europe, and shift the war’s pressure off Virginia.
On the other side, Major General George B. McClellan led the Union forces. Known for his cautious approach, McClellan moved his troops to counter Lee’s advance into Maryland. In a stroke of luck, the Union stumbled upon the Confederate battle strategies (Special Order 191), offering critical insights into Lee’s tactics, although McClellan’s actions following this discovery were less decisive than they might have been.
The ensuing battle was characterized by ferocity and a high death toll. It was a sequence of relentless attacks and counterattacks across the Antietam Creek, leaving heavy casualties in its wake. The Cornfield, the Sunken Road (also known as “Bloody Lane”), and Burnside’s Bridge were some of the critical conflict zones during the battle.
Despite the intense fighting, the day concluded without a definitive victor. However, due to their numerical disadvantage, Lee’s troops withdrew to Virginia. McClellan’s decision not to chase the retreating Confederates eventually led to his dismissal by President Abraham Lincoln. While the battle ended in a tactical stalemate, the Union considered it a strategic triumph as it halted Lee’s Northern invasion.
The outcome of the Battle of Antietam provided Lincoln with the assurance he needed to present the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This declaration asserted the impending freedom of slaves in territories held by the Confederacy, transforming the war’s goal from solely preserving the Union to actively abolishing slavery. Consequently, this new objective made it problematic for European nations to justify siding with the Confederacy.
Baltimore sculptor William Marks Simpson designed the highly sought Battle of Antietam silver half dollar, which was minted in 1937 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle.
The coin’s obverse features the two generals who led the fight that day: General Lee and General McClellan. The reverse reveals a view of Burnside’s Bridge over Antietam Creek which was ground zero for that historic battle in 1862.
The Philadelphia Mint produced the entire mintage of 50,000 silver half dollars in August 1937. The first coin struck was presented to President Franklin Roosevelt on August 12, 1937. The remainder of the mintage were offered by the Washington County Historical Society to the public at $1.65 a piece.
At the time, however, the coin didn’t attract large public interest and, ultimately, 32,000 were sent back to the mint to be melted, leaving a remaining mintage of 18,000 coins. The survival rate is estimated at no more than 15,000 today.
The Antietam silver half dollar attracts strong collector interest today and typically sells for a premium over the price of other commemorative issues with similar mintages and survival rates. Perhaps this is due to the historical and military significance of the battle it commemorated in our nation’s early history.
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