In the early 20th century, proposals were made to carve a large sculpture in memory of General Lee on Stone Mountain, a huge rock outcropping. The owners of Stone Mountain agreed to transfer title on condition the work was completed within 12 years. Borglum was engaged to design the memorial, and proposed expanding it to include a colossal work depicting Confederate warriors, with Lee, Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis leading them.
The work proved expensive, and the Association advocated the issuance of a commemorative half dollar as a fundraiser for the memorial. Congress approved it, though to appease Northerners, the coin was also made in honor of Harding, under whose administration work had commenced. Borglum designed the coin, which was repeatedly rejected by the Commission of Fine Arts. All reference to Harding was removed from the design by order of President Calvin Coolidge.
The Association sponsored extensive sales efforts for the coin throughout the South, though these were hurt by the firing of Borglum in 1925, which alienated many of his supporters, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy. A 1928 audit of the fundraising showed excessive expenses and misuse of money, and construction ground to a halt the same year—a scaled-down sculpture was eventually completed in 1970. Due to the large quantities issued—over a million remain extant—the Stone Mountain Memorial half dollar remains inexpensive compared with other U.S. commemoratives.
John Gutzon de la mothe Borglum (usually called Gutzon Borglum), was born in Idaho Territory in 1867, to one of several wives of a Dane who had converted to Mormonism. As a boy, Borglum lived in various places in the Far West. Turning to art as a career, he attended the San Francisco Art Academy, the Académie Julian, and the École des Beaux-Arts. Greatly influenced by Rodin, whom he met, Borglum switched from painting to sculpture in 1901. His Mares of Diomedes won a gold medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and became the first work of sculpture to be purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The following year, the release of the film The Birth of a Nation sparked increased interest in the Confederate cause in the South. Plane, who was lifetime honorary president of the Georgia organization of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), asked Borglum to carve the image of General Lee on the mountain. The Stone Mountain project was initially a UDC endeavor. Officials originally contemplated a monument of perhaps 20 feet (6.1 m) by 20 feet (6.1 m). Putting that on Stone Mountain, Borglum supposedly stated, would be like putting a postage stamp on a barn. He proposed a much larger sculpture, 200 feet (61 m) high and 1,300 feet (400 m) long, and drew up plans in his Stamford, Connecticut, studio. He envisioned a huge depiction of the Confederate army, including artillery and infantry, as well as 65 Confederate generals, five to be nominated by the governor of each Southern state. In 1917, the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association (the Association) was founded to publicize and raise funds for a colossal sculpture at Stone Mountain. Samuel H. Venable and his family, owners of the land, agreed to deed it over for a monument, on condition that if the project was not completed in 12 years, title would revert to them. A formal dedication took place in May 1916; the preliminary work was interrupted by the US entry into World War I in 1917. Another organization which took an interest in the Stone Mountain work was the recently revived Ku Klux Klan, of which both Venable and Borglum were members. The Klan, through much of the 20th century, held regular encampments on or near Stone Mountain. Plane, in a 1915 letter to Borglum, stated that the original Klan had saved the South from "Negro domination" in the Reconstruction era, and suggested that the design include a small group of Klansmen in robes, seen in the distance, approaching.
Beginning in 1920, the project slowly came under the control of Atlanta businessmen, brought in to aid with the massive fundraising, and the UDC became marginalized. The work on the sculpture resumed on June 18, 1923, when Borglum began carving Lee's figure into the mountainside; he planned for General Stonewall Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis to be close by Lee. Borglum's plans were for a huge sculpture depicting the Confederates, a memorial hall hewn from the granite at the base of the mountain in which artworks and artifacts could be displayed (as well as rolls of honor listing the contributors) and a giant amphitheater nearby. He estimated the total cost at $3.5 million. Instead, the scope of the project was scaled back, though different sources give varying cost estimates and dimensions. Borglum signed a contract to complete the group of Lee, Jackson, and Davis within three years for $250,000.
The work was expensive and by November 1923, the Association decided to advocate for a commemorative coin which it could buy from the government at face value and sell at a premium as a fundraiser. Two men each sought credit for coming up with the idea for a coin. Daniel W. Webb, executive secretary of the Association, said he had thought of it after finding an Alabama Centennial half dollar at home; journalist Harry Stillwell Edwards made a similar claim and apparently collected a reward from the Association.
Borglum later stated that the Association asked him to write to people in Washington because of his contacts in the Republican Coolidge administration. He wrote to the powerful Republican Massachusetts senator, Henry Cabot Lodge, urging him to support legislation for a Stone Mountain commemorative coin; the appeal apparently worked, as late in 1923 the committee chairmen having jurisdiction over coinage, Reed Smoot in the Senate and Louis Thomas McFadden in the House of Representatives, introduced legislation for a Stone Mountain Memorial half dollar. McFadden later wrote that he sponsored the legislation because of his friendship with Borglum. With the threat of sectional opposition if the coin only honored the South, the bill's sponsors included language making the new half dollar also in memory of the recently deceased Harding (an Ohioan), during whose presidency the renewed work had begun. The bill passed by unanimous consent in the House on March 6, 1924, and in the Senate five days later; Coolidge signed it on March 17. The bill authorizing the coin read:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That 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 memory of Warren G. Harding, President of the United States of America, in whose administration the work was begun ...
Preparation and design
Even though all necessary approvals had been received, the Philadelphia Mint refused to proceed with preparations because of the lack of the mention of Harding, which it believed was congressionally mandated. Borglum wired Coolidge on October 31, notifying him of the problem; the President confirmed his approval of the design the following day. Despite the support of the federal government for the coin, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union Civil War veterans, tried to prevent the issuance of a coin they believed honored treason by lobbying in late 1924 and early 1925. Work on the sculpture slowed (the head of Jackson was then being carved) because of the sculptor being distracted by designing the coin, flaws in the rock on Stone Mountain, and the fact that the Association had ceased fundraising efforts in anticipation of a campaign to sell the coin. Revenues from the medal were not sufficient to meet expenses.
The obverse of the half dollar depicts Confederate generals Lee and Jackson, the latter with head bare, mounted on horseback. Although both Lee and Jackson were respected in the North, Davis would not have been acceptable on a federal coin, and he was omitted, although he appears on the Children's Founders Roll medal which Borglum adapted for the obverse of the half dollar. There are thirteen stars in the upper field of the obverse; they represent the thirteen states which either joined the Confederacy or had Confederate factions. Borglum's initials, "GB", are found on the extreme right of the piece, near the horses' tails. The reverse depicts an eagle with wings stretched, representative of liberty, perched upon a mountaintop. There are 35 stars in the field, supposedly to represent the number of states at the start of the Civil War, although there were in fact 34 in 1861, and there were 35 states only from 1863 to 1864, between the admissions of West Virginia and Nevada.
Art historian Cornelius Vermeule, writing in 1971, noted that the half dollar represents an unusual circumstance in American art, where a designer uses a coin as a bozzetto or small-scale model of a work to be completed. Vermeule considered the children's medal a better work of art, due to the inclusion of Davis. He believed that Borglum's original design, before its rejection by the Commission of Fine Arts, was superior, as it included a sense of motion through the depiction of marching soldiers in the background, balanced by the inclusion of the head of Davis's horse, though the rebel president himself is unseen. According to Vermeule, the original design "would have made a magnificent coin, an unusual compression of monumentality and power into a limited and unorthodox historical space".
Production and conflict
Between January and March 1925, that mint struck 2,310,000 of the authorized mintage of five million, plus 4,709 pieces reserved for inspection by the 1926 Assay Commission. Except for the first thousand, for which Randolph paid in gold, the pieces were sent to the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, which advanced the funds to purchase them from the government.
Although the Association unveiled the completed head of Lee on January 19, 1924 (the general's birthday), within months, relations between itself and Borglum had become strained. Technical problems over the medal and the work on the mountain caused tensions, and political differences between Borglum, a Republican, and Randolph, an active Democrat, led to poor relations between the two. Borglum, Venable, and Randolph backed different KKK members for national leadership. Both Borglum and the Association accused each other of graft; the sculptor proposed that he form a syndicate to purchase the half dollars from the Mint and sell them with the profits to be applied directly to construction costs. Randolph ridiculed the suggestion, stating that it would allow Borglum to carve "whatever he pleased on the mountain". Borglum accused Randolph of using donations for his own benefit, and spending freely on an expense account. These dissensions became public, and in February 1925, the Association fired Borglum. Randolph stated, as one reason for dismissing the sculptor, that Borglum had taken seven months to design the coin, when, he said, any competent artist could have done it in three weeks. He accused Borglum of delaying so that the Association would be embarrassed. According to Freeman, "despite all the points of conflict between Borglum and the committee, it was actually the commemorative coin that ended his career at Stone Mountain."
Upon being dismissed, Borglum wrecked his models for the monument; the Association sought to have him jailed for destruction of property. Borglum was addressing the ladies of the Atlanta chapter of the UDC when his assistant, Jesse Tucker, burst in and hurried him out the door with a minimum of explanation, only moments before a sheriff's deputy arrived to serve the warrant. He left the state, but was arrested in Greensboro, North Carolina, though quickly allowed bail, and the Association abandoned extradition proceedings. Freed, the sculptor soon took up a project in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore. The publicity surrounding these events hurt the Association's fundraising, as did allegations that the Association had misused hundreds of thousands of dollars put aside for the project.
Marketing and distributionThe Association hired Augustus H. Lukeman as replacement sculptor; all of Borglum's work was eventually blasted away. Despite the dispute with Borglum, the Association proceeded to market the half dollars; it hired New York publicist Harvey Hill to run the campaign. The Association hoped for the opportunity to present the first coin to President Coolidge in person as a means of overcoming the bad publicity; White House officials warily declined, writing that "no good purpose would be served by a formal presentation". The half dollars were officially released on July 3, 1925 (though some were displayed as early as May); they were sold at a price of one dollar. They were sent to 3,000 banks by the Federal Reserve, with the proceeds from sales credited to the Association. White Southerners applauded the piece as symbolizing sectional reconciliation, the federal government paying homage to its Confederate heritage.
The coins were to be distributed through banks, and the Federal Reserve System cooperated by moving coins as needed, though at the Association's expense. The Association set up local affiliates, with organizations throughout the South, as well as Oklahoma and the District of Columbia. Each state's governor served as nominal head of the organization within his jurisdiction; on July 20, 1925, at a meeting of the Conference of Southern Governors called for the purpose, they (or their representatives) resolved that the Association allocate sales quotas among the states on the "basis of white population and bank deposits". The pieces were to be sold at the price of one dollar, and local organizations were to generate promotions for selling them. The overall drive to sell half dollars was dubbed the "Harvest Campaign" and began with the governors' meeting in July 1925. Georgia Governor Clifford Walker told his colleagues that the "South would be eternally disgraced if it failed to accept the challenge" of meeting the sales goal of 2,500,000 coins; nevertheless, the governors devoted little time to the campaign.
Although volunteer enthusiasm was essential to the Association's plans in the Harvest Campaign, it did not rely on it at the higher levels; the state chairs were compensated, both by salary and commission. J.W. Gibbes, clerk of the South Carolina House of Representatives, was hired as that state's executive director; he undertook to sell 100,000 coins and received just under $3,500 in salary and commissions, all paid in 1926. Local volunteers organized Chamber of Commerce luncheons to sell coins throughout the South; chapters of the UDC purchased pieces to present to surviving Civil War veterans. Mrs. N. Burton Bass of Atlanta was reported to be the leading seller, once disposing of 233 coins in an afternoon. A series of dance balls honored the UDC members who sold large numbers of pieces. Nevertheless, Hyder and Colbert suggested that there was "a general lack of more ladies such as Mrs. Bass"; many municipalities had trouble finding local chairs. Outside the South, sales were promoted by three professional publicists hired by the Association. To keep public interest high, the Association released Lukeman's conceptions for Stone Mountain, which were on a smaller scale than Borglum's. Lukeman conceived a scaled-down concept, of the three Confederate leaders on horseback. Despite the campaign, sales were slower than expected. In late 1925, the Association offered Northern banks a commission of seven cents a coin; it is uncertain if any took up the offer. The continuing opposition of the GAR to the coins dampened sales in the North.
One means of fundraising that Harvest Campaign administrators decided on was to counterstamp some of the coins for sale at premium prices. The letters and numbers are believed to have been punched by the Association, as they are almost entirely uniform. Some were given a state abbreviation and a number, and were sent to be auctioned in various towns. Gibbes reported that the counterstamped pieces sent to South Carolina sold for an average of $23, ranging from $10 to $110, and recommended that the auctions be preceded with the account of the sale of one in Bradenton, Florida for $1,300.
Which town got which number was the luck of the draw. Others were marked with "U.D.C." and a state abbreviation, together with a number which probably represents a membership or chapter number. These were intended for presentation to members deserving of special honor, such as an outgoing president. They did not sell well, as the Association had alienated many UDC members over the firing of Borglum. The Association also announced a program for sale to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, although whether any coins were sold under this program is unclear, as none have been identified. Pieces marked "G.L." and "S.L." were puzzled over by collectors for many years; A. Steve Deitert in the January 2011 edition of The Numismatist identified the markings as "Gold Lavalier" and "Silver Lavalier". These coins were given to county winners and runners-up in a selling competition for young ladies.
The Association sold coins through other means. They asked companies to purchase them: the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Southern Fireman's Fund Insurance Company, the Coca-Cola Company, and a number of banks, purchased thousands of pieces, many of which were given away as promotions. Those outside the South could obtain coins by orders passed through local banks.
The Association called an end to the Harvest Campaign as of March 31, 1926, most likely because the sales did not justify the continued salary expenses. Coins remaining at banks were to be sent to the Federal Reserve, and any credit balances remitted to the Association. Thereafter, coins were available either through the Association or the Federal Reserve at an increased price of $2. With a price increase and the end to the campaign, sales plummeted. Total sales from the Harvest Campaign were about 430,000 pieces. One exception to the drop in sales was a drive in New York under the sponsorship of Mayor Jimmy Walker, which succeeded in selling 250,000 coins in 1926, though at the original price of one dollar. Bernard Baruch, then a prominent investor and later a counselor of presidents, was honorary chairman of the organizing committee, and personally subscribed for some of the pieces.
The Association was discredited by the results of the audit; the Georgia Senate voted to accuse it of gross mismanagement of funds. Randolph resigned when Venable made it clear he would not negotiate an extension of the twelve-year deadline unless he did. The Atlanta lawyer had begun a political career; the scandal finished it. With funds drying up, the Association stopped work on Stone Mountain on May 31, 1928, and when negotiations failed, the Venable family successfully sued to regain the property. Borglum was now a folk hero in Atlanta; he was called upon to return to Stone Mountain in the early 1930s, but busy with Mount Rushmore, he did not. At the time of Borglum's death in 1941, no work was being done on Stone Mountain. The State of Georgia voted funds to purchase Stone Mountain in 1958 and five years later selected Walker Kirkland Hancock as architect. The sculpture, which depicts Lee, Jackson and Davis, and bears only a resemblance to Borglum's original design, was dedicated in 1970. At 90 feet (27 m) by 190 feet (58 m), it is the largest relief sculpture in the world.
In 1930, Secretary Mellon reported that although no Stone Mountain Memorial half dollars were held by the Mint, it was his understanding that large quantities of the piece were in the possession of banks. Eventually, arrangements were made to return a million half dollars to the Mint for melting. In spite of this, the State of Georgia still had Stone Mountain half dollars for sale at its exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. Many more were dumped into circulation in the 1930's. A quantity of half dollars once owned by Baruch were sold for $3.25 each through a Georgia bank in the 1950's to finance a building in honor of Baruch's mother, a Southerner, in Richmond, Virginia. A total of 1,314,709 Stone Mountain Memorial half dollars were distributed, after deducting those pieces melted.
Due to the large quantities extant, Stone Mountain Memorial half dollars remain inexpensive in comparison with other commemoratives. The 2014 edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins lists the piece at $65 in Almost Uncirculated condition (AU-50) with pieces in near-pristine MS-66 at $335.
A Guide Book of United States Coins
Augustus H. Lukeman