George Armstrong Custer Trove Highlights Western Americana Event At Heritage Auctions

A trove of letters from an officer among the first on the scene to identify bodies following Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s crushing 1876 defeat at Little Big Horn is expected to bring $75,000+ in Heritage’s $2.2 million Political, Western Legends & Americana Memorabilia Signature® Auction on Dec. 11.

The lot is just one of 19 featuring material related to the controversial general offered Dec. 11, including his personal Army-issued 1865 Spencer Carbine rifle (estimate $50,000+) to an important oil painting of the Battle of Washita by Frederic Remington (estimate $300,000+).

The artifacts offer buyers a rare selection of items relating to George Armstrong Custer who, of course, attained national recognition for his exploits as a Civil War hero, but gained immortality when he and his entire command were wiped out by an alliance of Plains Indian tribes at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

“The appearance of such a concentration of important Custer items in a single auction is a landmark event indeed,” said Tom Slater, Director of Americana Auctions at Heritage. “Among Legends of the West, there is no more mythic figure than George Armstrong Custer.”

The archive of 29 detailed letters was written from the field by Captain Otho Ernest Michaelis, a 7th Cavalry Ordnance officer who knew Custer personally and accompanied him on the Little Bighorn campaign. He would survive the Battle, as he was with Major Reno’s contingent rather than Custer’s, and was among the first on the scene of the massacre. Michaelis assisted in identifying bodies on the field, and is said by some to have been the first to recognize Custer’s. His unpublished commentaries on the march to Little Bighorn and subsequent events form a highly significant archive, of interest to institutions and collectors alike.

Additional highlights include but are not limited to:

The oil by Remington was painted to illustrate Edward Eggleston’s 1888 book The Household History of the United States and Its People, depicts Custer at the head of his troops at the 1868 Battle of Washita, when 7th Cavalry forces overran the village of Black Kettle, killing the Southern Cheyenne chief in the process. The work, estimated at $300,000+ is offered without consignor reserve.

The earliest Custer artifact in the sale is his Civil War gun belt with holster and leather cartridge or dispatch box. It can be seen in an 1863 photo of Custer on horseback, and is published in Ernest L. Reedstrom’s acclaimed 1977 Custer book, Bugles, Banners, and War Bonnets. It was formerly in the collection of Dr. Lawrence Frost from Custer’s hometown of Monroe, Mich. During the mid-20th century Frost assembled what was almost certainly the most extensive private collection of Custer artifacts on record. The gun belt is estimated to bring at $15,000+.

Custer firearms are especially sought-after by enthusiasts his personal 1865 model Spencer carbine, with his name and “7th Cav” carved into the stock, is expected to bring $50,000+. This military-issue gun is also from the Frost collection, and is pictured in his 1968 book The Court Martial of General George Armstrong Custer.

The last personally-owned artifact in the auction is General Custer’s own U.S. Cavalry officer’s fatigue coat, which is expected to bring $30,000+. This particular style coat was not introduced until 1872, making it highly likely Custer wore the coat during his time at Fort Abraham Lincoln.

“This is a highly important item in two respects,” Slater said. “Custer uniforms are almost unknown in collectors’ hands. Indeed, we have not been able to locate another example. Also, coat was worn during the period of his career which inspires the greatest excitement among collectors.”

Another unusual item is a magnificent, large half plate ambrotype of Custer as a 24 year old brigadier general, which is expected to bring $30,000+. This unique ‘hard image’ (the photo is actually on the glass, not underneath it) is from the same sitting as one in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, differing only in minor details of the pose. It was purchased directly from a Custer family member in 1971.

“The Smithsonian’s example is badly cracked,” Slater said, “but was deemed important enough to acquire even in that flawed state. Such early hard images of Custer are extremely rare, and the present example must surely rank as one of the most important privately-held Custer photos.”