The Portal Opens #2 (John Kraljevich): Robert E. Lee in Numismatics
Public art reflects the identity, history, and priorities of the nation that produced it, from the largest statue to the smallest coin. As a discipline, numismatics helps us understand the imagery that appears on coins, medals, and paper money: who designed it, what inspired it, where it was used, and by whom.
The current debate about the disposition of monuments erected to honor the Confederate States of America enables us to examine what coins, medals, and paper money have in common with other forms of public art, along with the evident differences. The most obvious contrasts are scale and location: there are no numismatic items that are 10 feet tall, nor any that dominate a public square. On the other hand, government issued coins dominate the theoretical public square in a way that no single statue ever could.
The lack of a standard book, monograph, or article written on the coins and medals that depict Robert E. Lee is an intriguing omission in the literature. The resources of the Newman Numismatic Portal can help fill that gap. If an author ever wished to catalogue Lee’s numismatic memorials, this would be a prime place to begin.
The first reference to a numismatic item related to Lee appears in the Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia for May 1865 through December 1866. https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/512400?page=245) and Lincoln.. The minutes of the January 4, 1866 meeting record that among the donations made to the society were “seven white metal medals by [Philadelphia dealer and medalist] Mr. Charles K. Warner,” including one depicting General Ulysses S. Grant on the obverse with a reverse inscribed “SURRENDER OF GEN. LEE TO GEN. GRANT APRIL 9 1865.” This same reverse was later muled to obverses depicting both Washington (listed as Baker-625,
The first medal depicting Robert E. Lee was issued in 1871, shortly after his 1870 death, though the exact circumstances of its issuance remain undiscovered. Like most of the 19th century medals related to Lee, this portrait piece was issued to support the fundraising for a Lee commemorative statue, a process that typically blurred the lines between public and private spheres. Sold to support the construction of a Lee memorial in New Orleans, the 1871 Lee tribute medal depicted his bust facing left on the obverse with an inscription that included “Who Will Ever Live in the Hearts of His Countrymen” and the names of four of his principal battles: Manassas, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, and Wilderness. The reverse showed the seal of the state of Virginia with Lee’s birth and death dates. The marketplace for this medal, which is known in white metal and bronze, was clearly outside of the numismatic marketplace, as reflected by the length of its absence in the NNP auction catalogue database. The first auction appearance was in Ed. Frossard’s March 23, 1881 sale, a full decade after the medal’s creation, where an example brought 95 cents, a strong price that reflects its then-perceived rarity. One wonders what Frossard, a former captain with the 31st New York Infantry (https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/PersonDetail/776), might have thought of it.
The New Orleans statue for which the 1871 Lee portrait medal was struck was honored with another medal when its construction was completed, issued upon its unveiling on February 22, 1884. The date chosen for the ceremony, George Washington’s birthday, was hardly accidental. The medal is today quite common and is listed in the So-Called Dollars book by Hibler and Kappen as HK-758. The first appearance of the 1884 unveiling medal recorded in the NNP was listed in Lyman Low’s sale of June 3, 1886 (https://www.archive.org/stream/catalogueofcoins00lowl#page/28/mode/2up/search/new+orleans), where examples were offered in both bronze and white metal. Low noted that the medal depicted an “erect statue of Lee on tall column,” a faithful rendition of the statue as installed. Low, a member of the 13th Massachusetts Infantry, faced Lee’s army at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and elsewhere. The New Orleans statue was dismantled on May 19, 2017.
Lyman Low’s June 1886 sale also included the first appearance of the 1883 statue to mark the installation of Lee’s statue in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee had been the president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University. Low describes the medal as showing a “recumbent statue of Gen. R.E. Lee,” perhaps the only American medal that depicts a soldier asleep in his uniform. The statue by Edward Valentine remains in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee. The Confederate flags that once surrounded it were removed in 2014.
While all of the previously mentioned medals appear to have been issued privately or by semi-public local entities charged with erecting public monuments, the Federal government has likewise honored Lee on multiple occasions. Until Booker T. Washington was honored on commemorative half dollars in both 1945 and 1946, Lee was the only non-President to have ever appeared on two different United States coins: the 1925 Stone Mountain half dollar and the 1937 Antietam half dollar. Even today, that group is a small one, as Christopher Columbus appeared on his second U.S. coin in 1992 and Benjamin Franklin joined the club in 2006. The Civil War Centennial Commission, created by Act of Congress in 1957, authorized and distributed a medal depicting Lee and Ulysses S. Grant that was struck not at the United States Mint but by the privately owned Medallic Art Company. Federal discomfort with overseeing what was sure to be controversial celebrations of the Civil War devolved most of the celebrations to state-run or semi-private entities. Grover Criswell’s correspondence with Eric Newman was written on letterhead that mentioned Criswell’s membership on the Florida Civil War Centennial Commission (https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/521643?page=82).
While these numismatic tributes are little known by today’s public, they reflect the same culture that erected the visible monuments so physically prominent. As such, they provide additional context to the works of stone and marble more familiarly recognized. That many of these numismatic pieces are directly tied to the monuments through fundraising or commemoration is particularly telling – it reflects a society wishing to commemorate historical figures in a variety of media.
History itself is indestructible, and repositories like the Newman Numismatic Portal help researchers better understand American history through the broad lens of numismatics. Numismatics, like other forms of public art, helps tell the story not only of historical actors and events, but also how those actors and events were interpreted over time. The modern controversy over statues has helped many more citizens understand that history is not simply the past, but rather how the past is presented to the present and into the future.
Link to previous edition of The Portal Opens: https://nnp.wustl.edu/blog-post/514743.