Monday, June 28, 2010

Custer's Last Flag

I'm surprised to learn that one of the guidons carried by Custer's five companies of the US 7th Cavalry, who were wiped out to a man at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25th, 1876, was recovered from the battlefield the following day, and for more than a century has been held by a museum in Michigan. It's now to be sold at auction. A Michigan TV station, WZZM13, reports:

On June 25, 1876 ... Gen. George Armstrong Custer, the pride of Monroe, led the 7th Cavalry into battle against the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne near the Little Bighorn River in Montana. It was not, shall we say, Custer's finest hour. All 210 men under his immediate command died in the massacre. So did Custer.

As a burial detail surveyed the carnage a few days later, Sgt. Ferdinand Culbertson discovered a tattered swallow-tail American flag, known as a guidon, hidden beneath a dead soldier. He picked it up, folded it and squeezed it into his pocket. Four years later, according to an 1895 Free Press report headlined "Memento of a Massacre", the first written document of the flag's history, Culbertson gave it to Rose Fowler, whose husband was a military man. After Mr. Fowler died, his wife married another soldier and retired to southwest Detroit.

Rose Fowler Riedel sold the flag to what then was called the Detroit Museum of Art in June 1895 for $54 - $50 came from a board member and $4 was raised in a public campaign.

Now, 115 years later, the Detroit Institute of Arts has decided to sell Custer's Last Flag at auction this fall at Sotheby's in New York. The estimated price it is expected to fetch?

$2 million to $5 million.

. . .

In 1895, the museum was still something of a cabinet of curiosities, including mounted animal heads and model racing sloops. Despite the historical significance of the 27 1/2-by-33-inch flag, it's no longer considered a work of art, and money from its sale could be put to better use buying something of true aesthetic value.

"It's a standard-issue military flag," said David Penney, the DIA's vice president of exhibitions and collections strategies. "The only thing distinctive or unique about it is its story, and the fact is, we don't have the context or expertise to properly display and interpret it. It needs an appropriate home."

For decades, DIA leaders have intended to sell the flag - "de-accession" it, in art world parlance - but other priorities kept it on the back burner. But with the museum in the midst of a sweeping five-year review of all 60,000 pieces in the collection, the flag's number has come up.

. . .

Sotheby's multimillion-dollar estimate for the flag reflects a confluence of factors, including Custer's iconic status in American mythology, the flag's direct witness to one of the best-known battles in American history and the way the story connects to broader historical currents, notably the nation's troubled relationship with American Indians.

"It is one of the most famous stories in American history and here you have one of the most important symbols of that story that you could possibly have," said David Redden, a vice chairman of Sotheby's and head of the special projects department. "The guidon represented the soul and heart of what the soldiers were fighting for."

Redden said the flag's provenance was impeccable. In addition to Free Press articles from 1895 that document its journey from the battlefield to the museum, the flag is referenced in books and the DIA has a letter acknowledging payment and acquisition. It remains in relatively good condition; even the fact that sections had been cut away as souvenirs in the 19th Century remains a testament to the awe in which it was held in its day.

There's more at the link.

That's a pretty amazing piece of history. I understand from other sources that the 7th Cavalry had five guidons and a regimental flag at (or near) the battle. Three guidons vanished, probably taken as trophies by triumphant Native American warriors. (I wonder if they're still cherished tribal possessions in some medicine lodge?) One was the so-called Keogh guidon, named for Captain Myles Keogh, also killed at the battle, which was recovered; and the regimental flag did not go into battle with Custer, being still en route to the Little Bighorn. Both it and the Keogh guidon (the latter in very poor condition) are held by the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

I hope the Detroit guidon is purchased by someone (or some institution) who will display it in a manner befitting its historical status. I'd be very disappointed if it were to disappear into private hands as an investment, rather than be available to all as an historical artifact.



LL said...

Very cool!

Thanks for sharing. The guidon needs to be in the Smithsonian, IMHO - National Museum of American History.

DaddyBear said...

I agree LL, either there or at the museum at the battlefield site. That way it will be with the other guide-on and the regimental flag. I just hope that whoever spends that much coin for it is willing to part with it so that the nation as a whole can benefit from it.