Flag from Custer’s Last Stand sells for $2,210,500

The Foley-Culbertson guidon from the Battle of the Little BighornThe Foley-Culbertson guidon, one of only two 7th Cavalry battle flags known to have survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, just sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction for $2,210,500, including buyer’s premium. The hammer price was $1.9 million, less than the pre-sale estimate (for a change), which valued the extremely rare and historically significant flag at $2-5 million. It was purchased by an American collector. No news on who the buyer is or whether he’ll be willing to loan it for public display.

The flag was discovered on June 28, 1876, three days after the disastrous battle, under the body of Corporal John Foley, the standard bearer of Captain Thomas Custer’s Company C, by burial detail soldier Sergeant Ferdinand Culbertson. (Thomas Custer was General George Armstrong Custer’s younger brother, and a highly decorated Civil War veteran who was awarded two Medals of Honor for having captured Confederate flags in battle {insert eerie music here}. He is one of only 19 soldiers and sailors to have received two Medals of Honor.)

Culbertson kept it for four years, after which he gave it to friends of his, Sgt. James Fowler and his wife Rose. In 1895 the Detroit Museum of Art bought the guidon from Rose Fowler, now a widow, for $54. At that time the DMA had an eclectic mission of preserving and presenting American history and art, but today the Detroit Institute of Art, as it is now known, has a more narrow focus on being exclusively an art museum. In order to help fulfill their mission, they decided to sell some of the artifacts they’ve been keeping in storage for decades. This flag is the prize piece.

Unlike the record-breaking Revolutionary War battle flag that sold for $12.3 million in 2006, the Culbertson guidon bears many scars from the battle and its aftermath. There are bloodstains, tears and holes, plus cutouts, including a large missing rectangle under the blue ground with the stars that was snipped out by soldiers in the 7th Cavalry burial detail. Interesting factoid about those stars: there are 35 on the flag, even though there were 37 states in the Union in 1876. That’s because it was Civil War surplus. They had so many of those 35-star flags left over after the war that they kept using them until 1883, when there were 38 states in the union.

It’s in great condition compared to the only other surviving flag from the Little Bighorn, however. The Keogh guidon, currently owned by the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, is so fragile that curators describe it as “nearly dust” and is far too delicate to be on display. It was captured by an Indian warrior at Little Bighorn and then captured back by Captain Anson Mills at the Battle of Slim Buttes (September 9-10, 1876). It was found with a pair of gauntlets belonging to Captain Myles Keogh, commander of Company I, 7th Cavalry, hence the name.

Mills loaned the flag to the Museum of the Military Services Institution on Governors Island in New York harbour, but they inexplicably allowed it to be infested with moths, so when Mills got the guidon back it was almost destroyed. The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is currently working on an extensive conservation project to try to arrest the damage.

Sotheby’s Vice Chairman David Redden talks about the history of the Foley-Culbertson guidon and the battle in this video. There’s also an online Flash version of the fascinating auction catalog here.

5 thoughts on “Flag from Custer’s Last Stand sells for $2,210,500

  1. This is American history at its best. I do hope both flags survive for they are part of the old west and show both American Indians and Army history in that moment in time.

  2. Great article. I became interested in the battle years ago, and did so much reading on the subject that I decided to write a book: “Red Otter, Tale of a Crow Warrior and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.” I hope this flag finds a place in a museum where all can see it and let their imagination run wild. “Garry Owen!”

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