Jim Bisognani: Memorial Day Memories and Civil War-themed Coins

Posted on 5/25/2023

As Memorial Day approaches, Jim reminisces about the excitement he has found since childhood in collecting Civil War era coins.

Well, my fellow coindexters, as this article posts, yours truly will be taking some time away from the clock and coins for an extended Memorial Day holiday. It will be a tall order, but I will capitulate, as Beth has threatened to drag me away from my monitors, keyboard and auction data if I don’t go willingly. I would think that I would have gotten used to this by now, yet each year seems to blaze by. I mean here we are, nearly halfway through 2023. Slow down, I say!

I swear it was just a few weeks back that I was hearing the blades of snowplows thundering through and scraping the streets free of snow. Now, that has been supplanted with aromatic wafting of early seasonal barbecuing. Ahh, to wax nostalgic back to my youth. This was the time of year that my fellow classmates would relish. Just a few short weeks until school would be letting out for the summer. Memorial Day was truly a time to embrace with family and friends, and it always seemed to usher in that wonderful early summer weather here in New England.

While my numismatic roots are wide, they all share their origins with history, especially as it pertains to our great Union. Originally known as Decoration Day (a tradition that is known today as Memorial Day), it commenced in May 1868. It was virtually out of necessity that the annual tribute began to pay homage to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives during the Civil War. The holiday has evolved into a day upon which we all give our gratitude to those in the military that paid the ultimate sacrifice, then and now.

The "War Between the States" was a popular subject in my pre-teen years, one that was shared with many of my schoolmates. I recall a specific and enlightening sequence that took place, and according to my memory bank, it was the week prior to Memorial Day of 1969. One classmate, Jerry B., said that his grandfather had a sword from the battlefield at Gettysburg. And when his grandfather died, his father inherited the sword, and it was now at his house. Upon hearing this, I knew I had to see this piece of history for myself. So, I promptly made arrangements with Jerry to see firsthand the Civil War relic.

I was able to stop over after school on a Friday. The sword was in a glass display case on the living room wall. The blade was buffed to a nice sheen. It was indeed quite impressive. Jerry’s mom was present, and I asked if I could actually touch the sword. She said sure but be careful as the blade was sharp! She proceeded to open the glass case and I swear, as I touched the blade and handle, I could envision being transported to that battlefield. It was eerie and exciting.

Back at school that Tuesday morning, the Civil War was our primary focus and topic in class. Tracy S. said that he had a few newspapers from 1862, which had stories about the battles and soldiers missing in action. Kathy K. advised that she had a canteen from her great-granddad from Vicksburg and Alan W.'s dad had several bullets from the Battle of Antietam. As the kids were talking, all present in class could sense palpable excitement from their respective storytelling. I, of course, knew too well about the coin connection to history.

I was just a few years into my numismatic journey as I told of the Copper-Nickel Indian Head Cents, which I had in my collection. "They were minted during the Civil War," I said. That set the tone for me, proclaiming in a proud but reverent tone (as much as could be mustered by a 12 year old) that, "These coins were tangible objects that actually circulated during the Civil War and beyond. Just think, these coins could have been used to buy supplies by Union soldiers or by family or friends to send letters, which could have been read on the battlefield. Who knows, maybe Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant could've actually transacted business with these very coins."

That last statement elicited a few "oohs" and "aahs." Of course, I proudly pulled out my moderately circulated 1862, 1863 and 1864 Indian Head Cents for my peers to ogle. Now, over a half century later, I can still recall the fascination of my classmates as each took a coin and held it in their hands. I was still young, but I muttered something about how scarce silver and gold coinage was during the Civil War years, as a lot of it was being hoarded and there was very little in actual commerce.

Today, for the collector looking to attain a tangible Civil War era artifact, I can think of none better than one of these Copper-Nickel Indian Head cents. Although the normal advice would be to acquire the best grades possible, in this instance, I prefer coins that are moderately circulated. So, some pleasing Fine to Very Fine examples would be great. In this way, you can get coins that are steeped in history, ones that actually circulated during the Civil War.

If you were to acquire a coin in Fine condition for the 1859 to 1864 run, you would only have to spend around $200 for the six coins. The 1861 and 1864 Copper-Nickel Indian Head Cents are the keys to this brief series and will run around $50 or so in Fine condition, and the other coins average under $30 each in similar grades.

Somewhere along the infinite corridors of time, my 1862 and 1863 have taken flight. But I still have my 1864, which was one of my proudest possessions back in 1969. Here she is...

Jim's 1864 Indian Head Cent

Additionally, there is a trio of Civil War-related Commemorative Half Dollars within the Classic US Commemorative series to ponder: The Stone Mountain, Gettysburg and Antietam are front and center. The latter is the first Civil War-related commemorative coin I ever acquired.

LEFT: 1925 Stone Mountain Commemorative Half Dollar RIGHT: 1936 Gettysburg Commemorative Half Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

The Battle of Antietam Anniversary Half Dollar, issued in 1937 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the horrific September 17, 1862 battle, is a truly historic and well-designed coin. The obverse features the finely sculptured joint profiles of generals George B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee, while the reverse features the strategic Burnside Bridge located near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Referred to as the single bloodiest day in US history, General McClellan (then commander of the Army of the Potomac) and his forces, which were more than double that of General Lee, were only able to hold Lee to a draw on the battlefield. Only when Lee's forces ran out of ammunition and retreated to Virginia was the battle "decision" given to the North.

Quite amazingly, with this victory, President Lincoln felt confident as to the Union’s strength and resolve and five days later issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. This technical Union victory was key to preserving our Republic, as prior to this battle both France and Great Britain were considering acknowledging the Confederacy as a viable government entity.

The proud Commemorative Half Dollar, designed by William Marks Simpson, is also considered one of the keys to the classic US silver commemorative series. While the authorized production was 50,000 coins, only 36 percent of that number was actually sold at the $1.65 issue price set by the Washington County Historical Society. Unfortunately, the nearly 32,000 unsold coins were returned to the Mint and melted, leaving us a total reported remaining mintage of a rather modest 18,028 coins.

Also, there is something worth noting based on the coin's historic significance and popularity with Civil War-themed numismatics and design. That is that in MS 63, the Antietam ranks as the ninth-highest priced coin within the entire 144-piece classic silver commemorative series!

The NGC Census reveals that of the 3,002 coins graded by NGC, the overwhelming plurality of those graded (73.5%) are designated MS 65 and above. The Census also includes a pair graded a phenomenal MS 69! The Antietam was obviously treasured and preserved, as only 15 non-Mint State examples appear within the NGC Census: four as AU 55 and 11 as AU 58. The Census corroborates a Q. David Bowers assertion from 1991 when he wrote, "This issue was handled with care."

According to the NGC Price Guide, an MS 63 example is listed at $670 and a Gem MS 65 is quoted at $715. Unlike the Copper-Nickel Indian Head Cents, I say opt for the best coin you can afford. And with such a small gap between MS 63 and MS 65, certainly the full Gem MS 65 would be a good way to go. This fantastic NGC MS 69 1937 Antietam Half Dollar realized a phenomenal $25,300 around 16 years ago, and it still stands as a record for any price paid for any Antietam.

1937 Antietam Half Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

So, my friends, please enjoy the upcoming holiday with family and friends. And if so inclined, perhaps track down a historic Civil War era coin or two for your collection or start a new one! Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

Want to see more articles like this? Subscribe to the free NGC Weekly Market Report.

Stay Informed

Want news like this delivered to your inbox once a month? Subscribe to the free NGC eNewsletter today!


You've been subscribed to the NGC eNewsletter.

Unable to subscribe to our eNewsletter. Please try again later.

Articles List

Add Coin

Join NGC for free to add coins, track your collection and participate in the NGC Registry. Learn more >

Join NGC

Already a member? Sign In
Add to NGC Coin Registry Example
The NGC Registry is not endorsed by or associated with PCGS or CAC. PCGS is a registered trademark of Collectors Universe, Inc. CAC is a trademark of Certified Acceptance Corporation.