The 7th U.S. Cavalry flag – known as a “guidon” for its swallow-tailed shape – was sold for $2.2 million by Sotheby’s in New York on behalf of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which bought the flag for just $54 in 1895.
It is the only flag that was not captured or lost out of the 5 guidons that accompanied Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry 134 years ago during Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The flag was sold to an unidentified American private collector, Sotheby’s said. Two bidders vied for the banner.
Frayed, torn, and with possible bloodstains, the flag from one of America’s hallmark military engagements had been valued before its sale at up to $5 million.
“We’ll be using the auction proceeds to strengthen our collection of Native American art, which has a rather nice irony to it I think,” said the museum’s director, Graham Beal.
Custer’s last battle was part of the United States government’s 1876-77 campaign to retake the Black Hills region, ceded in perpetuity by an 1868 treaty to the Lakota. But when gold was discovered in the area, the army was sent to push the aboriginal Americans to a reservation set up for them.
On June 25,1876 the 7th Cavalry, comprising of more than 200 troopers and scouts from the Crow Tribe, surprised the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors camped on the river banks, but Custer vastly underestimated their number and his entire cavalry were killed.
Of the five guidons carried by Custer’s troopers, only the one sold on Friday was immediately recovered. It was found pinned beneath the body of Cpl. John Foley by a burial party that arrived three days after the battle was over. All the other flags under Custer’s command were believed captured by the victorious Indians.
The flag is tattered and fragile, measures 27˝ by 33 inches and may be stained with blood. It was found three days after the Battle of Little Bighorn — or the Battle of Greasy Grass Creek, as the victors called it — beneath the body of one of Custer’s men killed in the battle.
Sgt. Ferdinand Culbertson, a member of the burial detail assigned to retrieve the remains of the 7th Cavalry, found the Cavalry guidon, or swallow-tail flag, that was used by cavalry companies. The design reduced wind drag as the soldiers advanced. The recovered flag later became known as the Culbertson Guidon, after Sgt. Ferdinand Culbertson. Made of silk, it measures 33 inches by 27 inches, and features 34 gold stars.
According to testimonials from Indians involved in the fight, the trooper, Cpl. John Foley, was attempting to escape on horseback — and had almost succeeded — when he shot himself in the head.
While Custer’s reputation has risen and fallen over the years — once considered a hero, he’s regarded by some contemporary scholars as an inept leader and savage American Indian killer — the guidon has emerged as the stuff of legend.
“It’s more than just a museum object or textile. It’s a piece of Americana,” said John Doerner, Chief Historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana.
For most of the last century the flag was hidden from public view, kept in storage first at the museum and later, after a period on display in Montana, in a National Park Service facility in Harpers Ferry, W.V., according to Beal, the museum director.
Sealed in a custom-made Plexiglas case by the Detroit museum since its return from the Park Service in 1982, the flag has several holes and the red of some its stripes has run into the white stripes. Its once-sharp swallow tail tips are now tattered and torn.
Culbertson’s Guidon is missing a star and a section of striping about 9 inches wide and 6 inches high – apparently cut away as a souvenir before its acquisition by the museum. Yet on the auction block, even what’s missing is worth a story.
“I’m sure Culbertson let other men take small snippets for themselves,” Sotheby’s vice chairman David Redden said.
Beal added that he was “very pleased” with Friday’s sale price: “We had a couple of people comment to us that we would be lucky to get a million for it.”
The $2.2 million included commissions. Before the gavel went down, Sotheby’s estimated the flag might go for between $2 million and $5 million.