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1861-D half eagle history shrouded in mystery

As control of the Dahlonega Mint moved from the United States to the state of Georgia to the Confederate States of America in the early days of the Civil War, questions remain on how many 1861-D half eagles were struck and under what authority. (Images courtesy www.usacoinbook.com)

Some coins have great stories, and the 1861-D gold half eagle is certainly such a coin. Unfortunately, it is also somewhat shrouded in mystery. Parts of its history have been lost to the fog of the Civil War, and there will never be a perfect way to piece together its full story.

We know that the 1861-D was a product of the early days of 1861 and that a total of 1,597 pieces were produced. At that point in time, forces from the state of Georgia arrived to take over the facility. Later, when Georgia joined the Confederate States of America, the mint would be turned over to the Confederacy.

What we do not know is the number of 1861-D half eagles that might have been made under the control of Georgia versus the Confederacy.

Small bits and pieces of evidence do exist. It is generally believed that when the state of Georgia forces arrived on the scene, there was approximately $13,000 in gold (although it could have been a little more or a little less). We cannot be certain, as the records are gone.

Naturally, there would also have been dies. There were certainly dies for the 1861-D gold half eagle, as well as for an 1861-D gold dollar.
We know that because the latter exists even though the United States did not strike any. Someone had to make them, and that would most likely have been representatives of the state of Georgia or of the Confederacy. And if they made gold dollars, half eagles were not out of the question.

Some might think that half eagles made by amateurs would be easy to spot. Not so if they were produced at Dahlonega, where poor strikes, poor planchets, and poor overall quality were fairly typical. The 1861-D normally has a beveled obverse rim, but that unusual aspect cannot be traced to any particular group.

A major unanswered question centers around how many might have been made. The normal estimate is perhaps a total of 1,650. There should have been enough gold to make more, but it must be remembered that an unknown number of gold dollars were also struck. A similar number to the original production under United States control does not seem out of the question.

Although there is no way to be certain of the total mintage, the nearly 1,600 produced by the United States and a similar number produced by either the state of Georgia or the Confederacy would number about 3,000.

Testing known numbers to see if they resemble other half eagles with mintages of around 3,000 is not very scientific, and it is also not very easy. There are no other Dahlonega issues close.

The closest to the 1861-D in price, with a total mintage of 3,888, is the 1864-S. Respectively, they currently list for $20,000 and $11,000 in F12 condition; $42,000 and $58,000 in AU50; and $79,000 and $32,000 in MS60. This might be like comparing apples and oranges, but it is better than comparing apples and tuna.

The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has graded 39 examples of the 1861-D, with four of those being Mint State. The 1864-S has been seen by NGC just nine times, and none were Mint State. At the Professional Coin Grading Service, the 1861-D has been graded 72 times, with 12 called Mint State. PCGS has seen the 1864-S 17 times, with only one being called Mint State.

If anything, these totals suggest the 1861-D might have an even higher mintage than originally believed, although it could also be a case of better survival and more being sent in for grading. The point was to see if both were tough, and that certainly is the case. But long-standing estimates for the number of 1861-D half eagles struck appear to be optimistic, as the combined total of 111 from the two grading services almost certainly includes some repeats.

While we may not have complete answers to all questions about the 1861-D half eagle, it remains a historic and extremely interesting coin. Demand is far greater than any supply, and that makes it a great coin to buy if you get a chance.


This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.


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