The silk guidon with a field of thirteen red and white stripes and a canton of blue with 35 applied gold stars, with a swallow-tail design at free edge;
some fraying, splits, and tears; some running of color; staining, including, evidently, blood stains; with losses from both battle and souvenir-takers, including an 8 ¾ x 6 inch patch just below the canton at the hoist and one of the gold stars;
measuring 27 ½ inches (699 mm) at the hoist by 33 inches (838 mm) at the fly. Pressure mounted in a plexiglas display.
The most significant and symbolic artifact recovered from the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
The only flag flown by George Custer's Battalion known not to have been captured by Indian combatants.
The traditional story of the recovery flag is now confirmed by recently discovered letters and documents written by troopers of the Seventh Cavalry.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn—or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as the Indians called it—was a pivotal moment for a country about to celebrate its centennial and exercising its manifest destiny as it expanded relentlessly across the plains that had been occupied for centuries by American Indians. The Battle, especially that element popularly known as Custer's Land Stand, is also one of the most controversial and debated topics in American historiography and has inspired hundreds of books, movies, and songs. Custer's widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, fiercely and astutely promoted her husband's reputation until her death in 1933, and for at least two generations, tales of Custer's personal bravery and charisma dominated studies of the Little Bighorn. An inevitable correction of this view attributed responsibility for the massacre to Custer's own blundering and as well as to federal Indian policy. A more nuanced and balanced view is now coming to the fore, epitomized by Nathaniel Philbrick's recent The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The Battle was the central event of the Indian Wars that raged across the Great Plains from the 1860s through the 1880s. The administration of President Ulysses S. Grant had broken an earlier treaty agreement by opening the Black Hills to settlers, and a militant resistance, pivoted on the Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull, was developing among many of the affected tribes. Many villages—including Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples—had left their reservations in defiance of federal directives in order to pursue buffalo and other traditional, nomadic activities. Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were ordered from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakotas to disband these villages and diffuse the increasingly tense military situation.
Planned rendezvous with the Second Cavalry and portions of the Seventeenth and Twentieth Infantries failed, and on 24 June, Custer found himself near the Little Bighorn River, close by to a seemingly large Indian encampment. For a planned attack the next morning, Custer divided his troops into three battalions, putting three companies each under the commands of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. He retained five companies under his own direction and sent the unit's twelfth company, under the command of Captain Thomas McDonald, to the rear to guard the pack train, which was carrying provisions and ammunition.
Custer ordered Reno and Benteen to the south of the Indian village, unwittingly leaving his own command isolated. Although he had been told by one of his scouts that the nearby Indian village was the largest he had ever seen, Custer was utterly unprepared for the size of the force that attacked him. Various sources believe that between 600 and 1,800 Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors under the leadership of Crazy Horse and Gall overwhelmed Custer and the five companies (C, E, F, I, and L) with him. The Seventh Cavalry had 258 officers and men killed, including everyone under Custer's immediate command. Ten scouts and other civilians attached to the Seventh were also killed, and some fifty-five others were wounded. Two of Custer's brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law were among the dead.
Almost nineteen years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a stirring article appeared in the principal newspaper of one of the many adoptive hometowns that George Armstrong Custer acquired during his peripatetic life. Headlined "Memento of a Massacre" and credited to the byline of "Colonel C.," the Detroit Free Press article romantically and reverently describes the recovery and subsequent safeguarding of one of the five cavalry guidons that were carried into battle by Custer's Battalion on 25 June 1876.
"The Hero with a Thousand Faces" was the phrase that the mythologist Joseph Campbell invented to describe the shared characteristics of great heroes from many different cultures and periods. But the phrase could be quite aptly applied to Custer alone, for seldom has a man left behind him so many personas, such a splintered reputation: Schoolmaster, Goat of West Point, Boy General, Yellow Hair, Long Hair, Son of the Morning Star, Insubordinate, Undisciplined, Cavalier in Buckskins, Martyr, Murderer.
But even though Custer had no shortage of critics—and even enemies—during his lifetime, Colonel C. was no revisionist and the purpose of his article was to praise Custer and the men under his command. Colonel C. was the penname of Charles C. Colbrath, who grew up in Michigan and enlisted as a musician with the Michigan volunteers during Civil War, where he served under Custer's command. Colbrath wrote for the Free Press for forty-five years, from shortly after the War until his death in 1913, and annually covered the national encampments of the Grand Army of the Republic.
"Memento of a Massacre," published on 31 March 1895, brought back to light a relic from the Battle of the Little Bighorn that had fallen from sight since it had been recovered by a member of the Seventh Cavalry's burial party three days after the fighting. Colbrath quotes a retired major, one of seven former army officers who met periodically to discuss the olden days, describing a sacred artifact that he had brought to the small assembly. "I have something with me here that tells mutely of butchery almost unparalleled in the history of our country. It was the silent witness of the slaughter of a band of gallant men. ... If it had a tongue it could tell how those heroes fell one by one, overpowered and outnumbered, but fighting gamely until the last life was wiped out. ... It would say that not a man of all that brave band lived to tell the awful story of the massacre on the Little Big Horn. But it cannot talk, and its history must be related, as nearly as possible, by one of those who, a few days later, came that way and discovered the bodies of those fearless horsemen, lying where they has fallen by ones and twos along the fatal route on the banks of the river, their remains mutilated ... and presenting a horrible appearance. Draw around the table, comrades, for I am about to show you a relic of that bloody day which will make your eyes dim with sorrow when you behold it. It is the battle flag of Gen. Custer, carried into the fight by his orderly, who followed the general and died fighting by his side."
The article next describes the unfolding of "a faded silk American flag with thirty-two golden stars in the blue ground" and movingly describes the damage it had sustained: tears and fraying; "numerous holes, evidently made by bullets from Winchesters in the hands of the hostile foe"; bloodstains "from wounds received by the brave youth who carried the emblem into battle and defended it at the cost of his life"; and a ragged loss at the hoist edge that looked "as though an Indian has seized it the top and ripped it bodily away."
Passionate and patriotic as is Colonel C.'s prose—and as close in time to the battle as is his article—the author quite rightly raises the question of the authenticity of what he describes as "this mute witness of that massacre." The major who brought the flag to the private gathering testified that he had no doubt about the genuineness of the relic, stating that "It was found on the field by those who came after to bury the dead. ..." The Major then turned the proceedings over to a former non-commissioned officer who had initially brought the flag to his attention. This sergeant identified the trooper who recovered the flag as Sergeant Ferdinand A. Culbertson of Company F of the Seventh Cavalry. He told the story of how Culbertson found on the battlefield, amongst other things, this tattered and shot-worn flag, the very one that Custer's orderly had carried close to the general in that fatal fight and for many a day before it. Culbertson found this precious relic pinned to the earth by the body of the brave trooper who had carried it, having escaped the piercing eyes of the bloodthirsty Sioux, and it was when the dead cavalryman was about to be borne away by his sorrowing comrades for interment that the sergeant picked it up from the ground, folded it and placed it in his pocket."
Colbrath outlines the subsequent history of the flag: Culbertson presented it to friends of his, Sergeant and Mrs. Charles Fowler, some four years later. After Sergeant Fowler's death, his widow married another army man, Ordnance Sergeant Zachary Reidel. While the Reidels were visiting the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 they saw a large exhibition devoted to the life of George Armstrong Custer, and that prompted them to take steps to find an appropriate repository for the flag. The Reidels, while publicly spirited were also, according to Colbrath's article, "poor people, comparatively." The little congregation broke up with the understanding that Colonel C. would take custody of the flag and that attempts would be made to raise a small subscription for its purchase by an appropriate institution. Colonel C. alerted his readers that interested parties could "see this souvenir of that awful day in June can do so by calling at his room in The Free Press building between 2 and 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. and 1 a.m."
"Memento of a Massacre" seems to have struck a chord with many readers, for just five days after its appearance, Colbrath was able to report in the 5 April Free Press that the flag had been placed on exhibition at the Detroit Museum of Art and the its director, A. H. Griffith, had taken charge of raising funds for its purchase. The follow-up article revealed some other facts about the Ferdinand Culbertson, who recovered the flag from the battlefield: that he was a principal witness at the court martial of Major Marcus Reno; that he was stationed in Detroit on recruiting duty for three years; and that he died in that city, where his widow was still residing. (The second article also corrected the name of Culbertson's company commander from "Brenteen" to "Benteen.") A small subscription was raised, and the flag went into the collection of the Detroit Museum of Art, which then had a very eclectic mission, encompassing the preservation and display of American history and natural history, as well as fine and decorative arts. Most of the $54 that was donated for the flag came from Donald Dickinson, a successful Detroit businessman who had a cousin, Lieutenant William E. Cooke, killed at the Little Bighorn.
For all his seeming lack of journalistic objectivity, Colonel C.'s account of the Culbertson-recovered battle flag is remarkably accurate. There are some errors, but they tend to be minor and with little or no bearing on the central facts. The flag found by Culbertson was actually a cavalry guidon, a swallow-tailed or pennant-shaped abbreviation of the national flag made specifically for cavalry use and first authorized by the U.S. Army in 1861. Guidons were used to mark company positions, and their flagstaffs were actually shaped like lances so they could be driven into the ground to mark the company's line. The swallow-tailed design was intended to reduce wind drag and promote flight. Cavalry guidons were mandated to be made of silk, and to measure along the fly three feet, five inches, and along the hoist two feet, three inches; the fork of the swallow-tail was to be equidistant from the top and bottom of the guidon and to measure fifteen inches from the fork to the outer edge. The Culbertson guidon does not bear thirty-two stars as described by Colbrath, but thirty-five. This error is especially odd since the line-cut of the flag that accompanied Colbrath's first article depicted more than thirty-two stars.
The Culbertson guidon, like all Seventh Cavalry guidons, featured thirty-five stars, which is something of an oddity in its own right since in June 1876 there were thirty-seven states in the United States. There is a simple explanation for this seeming contradiction, however: over-supply caused by the Civil War. As Howard Madaus and Whitney Smith write in their 2006 book The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict, "in January 1862 the War Department changed the pattern of the swallowtailed guidons that were carried by each company ('troop') of a regiment to the design of the Stars and Stripes. More than ten thousand of these 'Stars and Stripes guidons' were made and carried in the Civil War. In fact, so many remained after the close of the conflict that they were issued—unchanged as to the number of stars—until 1883." W. A. Graham's 1952 study, Custer's Battle Flags: The Colors of the Seventh at the Little Big Horn also clarifies that any U.S. cavalry guidon in 1876 would have had 35 stars, as "prescribed by 1876 regulations."
Colbrath's explanations of the condition of the flag are almost entirely accurate, particularly his surmise of the damage cause by the flag being pulled from its hoist—though he could not have known that the flag was evidently taken by its bearer, not by an enemy combatant. However, one of his speculations about condition is certainly incorrect. He writes that "Just under the blue ground and stars you will see that a piece some four inches long is wrenched away probably by some savage hand." In fact, a 9 by 6 inch section is not "wrenched," but neatly clipped away, undoubtedly by cohorts of Culbertson who were following a long tradition of taking small snippets of flags and other celebrated textiles as souvenirs.
The sergeant that Colbrath interviewed for his article was likely Zachary Reidel, and the information that he provided about Ferdinand Culbertson and the subsequent owners of the flag was similarly correct. Culbertson was in Company A, not F as reported in the Free Press. But he was a trooper in the Seventh, and he was detailed to burial duty after the Battle.
Some discrepancies in Reidel's accounts may be due to discretion. Rose Fowler Reidel may not have been married at the time Culbertson gave her the flag (and, of course, Culbertson might not have been married when he presented the flag to her, which would explain why the flag was not bequeathed to his widow). The flag may also have been given a few years later than Reidel recollected for the newspaper. It also seems that Rose's first husband, Charles W. Fowler, had not died prior to her remarriage to Reidel but had abandoned her to pursue his fortune on the west coast. Reidel himself enlisted in the Union army as a drummer boy the day before his thirteenth birthday. He served for thirty years, retiring to Detroit, where he met and married Rose. The couple lived in Detroit until Reidel's death in 1910.
Even allowing for these few inconsistencies, Colonel C.'s brief for the authenticity of the Culberson guidon as the only flag retained by Custer's battalion during the Last Stand is more thorough and convincing than the evidence for many similar historical objects, which is often founded on equal parts family tradition, hope, and faith. But independent, corroborating evidence has recently been discovered in the letters and other writings of two of Ferdinand Culbertson's fellow Seventh Cavalry troopers. Letters from Corporal Stanislas Roy of Company A to Sergeant Samuel Alcott of the same Company; letters from Sergeant Alcott to the renowned Indian Wars researcher and historian Walter Camp; and an unpublished memoir by Alcott, General Custer's Battlefield, have recently been studied by George Kush, a noted Western artist and historian from Calgary (Alcott moved to Canada after retiring from the service.)
Kush's study of these recently recognized documents—"There Lies Foley of 'C'!"—appears here as Appendix 1 and absolutely substantiates and expands the provenance of the Culbertson guidon from the Little Bighorn as it was first reported by the Free Press in 1895. Most significantly, Kush is able to identify the trooper under whose body the guidon was found: Corporal John Foley, the standard-bearer for Captain Thomas Custer's Company C. Additionally, he provides evidence that Culbertson was given permission by his commanding officer, Captain Myles Moylan, to keep the guidon, and he is able to identify four of the troopers who received swatches of the flag as their own personal mementoes.
Kush's article also adds a poignant and personal perspective that was necessarily lacking in Colbrath's newspaper accounts, as when he quotes Corporal Roy's lament, "Poor Foley, he died trying to save the colors." The Culbertson guidon—perhaps it should now be more accurately called the Foley-Culbertson guidon—is the only one of five carried by Custer's Battalion that was saved.
The guidon presumed to have been carried by Company I was captured by Indians and recovered at the Battle of Slim Buttes, 9–10 September 1876, by Captain Anson Mills. Because the guidon was found with a pair of gauntlets belonging to Captain Myles Keogh, the commander of Company I, it has become known as the Keogh Guidon. Captain Mills subsequently loaned this guidon to the Museum of the Military Service Institution on Governors Island, in New York Harbor. When it was returned to him, it had been virtually destroyed by moths. The Keogh Guidon is now the property of the Little Bighorn Battlefield Museum, where it is in the midst of a major conservation project.
The guidon of Company F, commanded by Captain George Yates, was captured during the Battle by a Cheyenne warrior, Yellow Nose, whose exploit is captured in a dramatic ledger drawing by Spotted Wolf that depicts him counting coup with the captured flag.
The remaining guidons flown under Custer's command, for Companies E and L, are presumed to have been taken at the Battle by Indians. In fact, of the fourteen flags in the field with Seventh Cavalry on 25 June 1876 (including those with Reno and Benteen's Battalions), only one other is known today apart from the Foley-Culbertson and Keogh guidons. The third surviving flag is the Seventh Cavalry's Regimental Standard, which is believed to have been with the pack train and not on the battlefield. Like the Keogh guidon, it is today at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Museum. For a full history of the flags of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn, see the census compiled by the Zaricor Flag Collection in Appendix 2.
The recovery of the Foley-Culbertson guidon is even more remarkable because very few physical artifacts were left on the battlefield. First Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey of Company K described the scene that confronted the burial details: "Everything of value was taken away: arms, ammunition, equipment and clothing. Occasionally there was a body with a bloody undershirt or trousers, or socks, but the name was invariably cut off. The naked, mutilated bodies with their bloody, fatal wounds were nearly unrecognizable and presented a scene of sickening, ghastly horror." Foley's body was likely undisturbed because it had fallen in tall grass, several hundred yards from the site of the Last Stand (see Kush, Appendix 1).
The lessons of the Battle of the Little Bighorn are manifold and contradictory. In death, George Armstrong Custer achieved the glory and renown that he had sought in life. Sitting Bull and his followers achieved a resounding victory, but at a terrible cost. The public frenzy to avenge Custer accelerated the government's policy of confining and transforming the Plains Indian cultures to an almost incomprehensible degree: within a dozen years, Lakota warriors who fought against the Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn were recreating the battle for Eastern audiences as part of Buffalo Bill Cody's "Wild West Show."
The Little Bighorn has become part of American myth. The Foley-Culbertson Guidon—a sacred relic and a national treasure—is a vivid yet somber reminder that it really happened and that brave men on both sides fought and died in an epic collision of cultures that few of them could comprehend.