Sotheby’s to Auction General Custer Little Bighorn Flag

One hundred and thirty-four years ago, George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed near the Little Big Horn River by warriors of the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. No survivors remained among those who fought under Custer’s direct command and few physical artifacts of the battle were left on the field, the Indians carrying with them anything that might reflect on their prowess or prove to be of utilitarian use. But a cavalry guidon, or swallow-tail flag, was hidden under the body of a dead trooper and discovered three days after the battle by Sergeant Ferdinand Culbertson, who was assigned to a burial party.

Sotheby’s announces that this sacred relic, emblematic of one of the most significant events in American history, will be offered for sale in October 2010: Custer’s Last Flag: The Culbertson Guidon from The Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Since 1895, this fragile silk flag has been preserved at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The guidon had been given by Culbertson to Charles and Rose Fowler of Detroit in approximately 1880. The flag was purchased from Rose Fowler Reidel, by a public contribution in 1895. It will be offered for sale at Sotheby’s in October 2010 with an estimate of $2/5 million and proceeds from the auction will be used by the museum exclusively for future art purchases. The guidon will be unveiled to the public in September.

“This immortal battle flag represents the spirit, the bravery and the tragedy of one of the most dramatic moments in American history,” commented David Redden, Vice Chairman of Sotheby’s. “Battle-worn and bullet-torn, the Culbertson Guidon conjures the ferocity of that terrible battle.”

“The Detroit Institute of Arts has been a steward of this flag for more than 115 years,” said Graham W. J. Beal, DIA director. “In 1895, the flag fit in with the wide range of artifacts collected and displayed at that time. It remains, without doubt, an important historical treasure, but has long since ceased to meet current criteria as a work of art. It makes sense for us to sell it for the benefit of the collection.”

The Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, was a pivotal moment in American history – and one of the most debated topics in American historiography. News of the Native American’s annihilation of the United States forces and Custer’s death reached the East just as Centennial celebrations were getting underway and shocked a nation that had become accustomed to victory. The massacre of Custer’s troops brought a renewed urgency–and an altogether new brutality–to the Indian Wars. The reports of the stoic bravery of cavalry troopers (whether accurate or not) provided the impetus for the Federal government to reprise the lessons of total warfare so efficiently taught during the Civil War by Sherman and Grant. The frenzy to avenge Custer accelerated to an almost incomprehensible degree the confinement and transformation of Plains Indian culture: within a dozen years Sioux warriors who had fought the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn were recreating the battle for Eastern audiences in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

Custer’s widow fiercely and astutely promoted her husband’s reputation, and for at least two generations, tales of Custer’s personal bravery and charisma dominated studies of the Little Big Horn. The Last Stand inspired hundreds of movies, songs and books, including one published just this month — “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Big Horn” by Nathaniel Philbrick. After a sharp reversal of this traditional view — which attributed responsibility to Custer’s blundering as well as to federal Indian policy — a more nuanced view now prevails.

The significance of the Culbertson Guidon was recognized immediately. Even before it arrived at the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of its stars and a patch of the white and red stripes had been carefully snipped away as relics, very possibly by other members of Culbertson’s burial party. Otherwise, it has survived in remarkably fine condition, a tangible reminder of the uncertainty of martial triumph.

Image: The Culbertson Guidon from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 32 ½ by 26 ½ in. Estimate: $2/5 million. Photo: Sotheby’s