I just finished reading the new book by Nathaniel Philbrick, the Last Stand (Viking 2010), which I’ll be reviewing for the upcoming April/May issue. (It’s a MUST-READ, by the way, for any American-history buffs—the definitive word on the subject.) So the recent news that the only U.S. flag not captured or lost during the Battle of Little Bighorn sold at auction for $2.2 million caught my attention.

The buyer was identified by Sotheby’s in New York as an “American private collector.” Frayed, torn, and with possible bloodstains, this 7th U.S. Cavalry flag (known as a “guidon” for its swallow-tailed shape) had been the property of the Detroit Institute of Arts since 1895. The institute paid just $54 for it. Now that’s appreciation!

AC ran a story about the second surviving guidon from the battle (“Then & Now,” June/July 2010)—another 7th Cavalry guidon that was recovered in September 1876, at the Battle of Slim Buttes near present-day Reva, S.D. Owned by the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, this flag is in poor condition—”almost dust,” according to the monument’s chief of interpretation, Ken Woody.

The following article was assembled from reporting by Associated Press writer Matthew Brown:

Custer and more than 200 troopers were massacred in southeastern Montana by Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors in the infamous battle of June 25–26, 1876. Of the five guidons carried by Custer’s battalion that day, only one—the one just sold for $2.2 million—was immediately recovered, from beneath the body of a fallen trooper.

And while Custer’s reputation has risen and fallen over the years—once considered a hero, he’s regarded by many 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.

The other flags were captured by the victorious Indians or destroyed.

This recovered flag became known as the Culbertson Guidon, after the member of the burial party who recovered it, Sgt. Ferdinand Culbertson. Made of silk, it measures 33 inches by 27 inches, and features 34 gold stars.

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 Harper’s Ferry, Md., according to Detroit Institute of Arts director Graham Beal.

Dating to an era when the museum took in a variety of natural history and historical items, the guidon was sold because it did not fit with the museum’s focus on art, Beal said.

“The irony is you get all these people phoning the museum upset we’re selling the flag, and no one knew we owned it,” he said.

The Culbertson’s Guidon—or Custer’s Last Flag, as Sotheby’s has billed it—would be just another piece of old cloth without the Custer mystique. “Some people like memorabilia and Americana, and they all want to own a little piece of it,” Ken Woody said.

Sealed in a custom-made plexiglass 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 also 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.

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