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Custer On The Auction Block
Hal Schindler
Published: 04/02/1995 Category: Features Page: J1

What would you pay for George A. Custer's personal Civil War guidon, handmade by Libby, his wife? Or how about a pair of Sitting Bull's moccasins? It all comes under the heading of "memorabilia," but to a Western history buff Tuesday's Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco is like being whisked back in time.

That afternoon, beginning at 1:00, the largest and most important collection of Custer, Indian War and frontier military items--335 lots (some consisting of several items)--ever to reach the auction block will be offered to the public. It is not a typical "bring a few dollars and take home a bargain" outing. This promises to be a big-time, deep pockets, multimillion-dollar sale that could set records.

Utahns will identify with Lot #248, a small group of personal items once the property of Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, who commanded the Utah Expedition in its 1857-58 march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Great Salt Lake City with federal appointees unseating Brigham Young. The expedition was stalled at Fort Bridger that winter and was harassed by Mormon guerillas until President James Buchanan declared amnesty in April 1858. Camp Floyd was established near Utah Lake and at the time was the largest military base in the United States. Johnston eventually resigned from the U.S. Army to join with the Confederacy; he was considered the South's most brilliant strategist. Johnston died of wounds suffered in the battle of Shiloh.

Butterfield & Butterfield will auction as a group the general's Model 1840 cavalry saber with steel scabbard, a fine pair of gold bullion shoulder epaulets, a framed display featuring a small photo print of Johnston, and his silver bullion General's stars. Also included are his gold-rimmed eye-glasses, a bracelet with woven band and miniature painting of a monument; a mechanical pencil in a purple velvet case; related ephemera including pamphlets entitled Shiloh, A Southern Woman's War-Time Reminiscences, and Civil War Letters of Brigadier-General William Ward Orme. There also is a batch of Confederate correspondence from March 18 to September 1, 1862; as well as copies of various documents, maps and letters relating to the life and career of Johnston.

The auctioneers and appraisers estimate the items will fetch between $20,000 and $30,000. Bidding is expected to be vigorous on the bulk of auction material, which is remarkably heavy in Custer and Indian War memorabilia, representing some of the most desirable frontier military artifacts ever offered for sale, among them, a .22-caliber Sharps four-barrel Derringer, inscribed to "Lt. G.A. Custer" from friends of West Point Military Academy. Its value is estimated at $15,000-plus.

Custer's personal pocket Bible, thought to be a gift from his mother, was stored with other items in a rear supply train during the Little Bighorn campaign and was returned to his widow. Estimated value: as much as $50,000. A real gem, Custer's personal Civil War Cavalry Guidon, the 6th Michigan swallow-tail flag depicting white crossed-sabers against a blue background, was handmade by his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer. It will bring $80,000 or so at auction.

There are any number of Custer photographs, Carte de Vistes, albumin prints,and cameos by Mathew Brady and other photographers. All of the artifacts appear to be of museum quality and have a distinguished provenance that includes the original Custer family collection and more recently two private collections, one owned by prominent New York art dealer Alexander Acevedo.

Many of the items offered in this sale originally were part of collections assembled by two members of Custer's command on the Sioux Expedition of 1876: Winfield Scott Edgerly, a lieutenant in Capt. Frederick Benteen's battalion at the Custer fight, saw action on Reno Hill. In his subsequent military career, he reached the rank of brigadier general. Edgerly maintained an interest in the Little Bighorn battle and through the years collected many photos and documents connected to the tragedy.

The other soldier, Cpl. William O. Taylor served with Company A, 7th Cavalry, under Major Marcus Reno and also saw action on Reno Hill. He was assigned to the burial detail after the fight. He is the author of an original unpublished diary of the battle featured as Lot #138 in the auction. The Taylor collection was acquired by Acevedo and has been a part of his private Custer collection for years. A decision by the owners to sell brought the two collections to the auction block at this time.

A few of the items are completely out of the mainstream, so to speak, specifically: Two Sioux arrows removed from the body of Lt. George Grummond, killed at the Fetterman Massacre. (Estimated value $10,000 to $15,000.)

A human scalp lock taken near Rawlins, Indian Territory.

Two Sioux arrows taken from the body of a soldier at the Little Bighorn fight, both are believed to have been recovered from the body of Tom Custer, the commander's brother.

There are a number of weapons in the sale, including a Remington New Model Army percussion revolver recovered from the Rosebud Creek battle site-- (estimated value near $25,000); and Capt. Tom Custer's cased Galand & Sommerville revolver .44 caliber (estimated value $90,000). For those who believe in getting to the nitty gritty of history, a pair of Sitting Bull's moccasins--bought right from the old medicine man's feet for $5 and a pair of replacement slippers--will also go on the block. (Estimated value: $30,000.)

An eight-page handwritten manuscript eyewitness account of the massacre at Wounded Knee, written by 1st Lt. Ezra Bond Fuller, Quartermaster Corps, 7th U.S. Cavalry, the day after the tragedy also is in the sale, as are two letters written in her own hand by Elizabeth Bacon Custer in later years.

One lot, #279, consists of a queen of hearts playing card shot from five paces by gunfighter John Wesley Hardin in an exhibition at the opening of the Wigwam Saloon in El Paso, Texas, July 4, 1895. One of fourteen cards known to exist, this one shows four hits. Hardin used a .38 caliber double-action Colt Lightning in the demonstration. The card is autographed "J.W.H." Six weeks after shooting this card, Hardin was killed by John Selman.

A rare Wells Fargo & Company Express "mug" book of sixty pages filled with the photographs of wanted or known criminals of the 1890 period. Among the "mugs" are those of Bill Miner, Black Bart, "the PO8," and Grattan, Emmett and Bob Dalton, of the infamous Dalton gang. A pair of Jesse James' frontier revolvers are prized items--#335, the final lot of the auction--and too valuable to even venture a guess as to value. The guns are probably worth more as historic memorabilia than all the loot Jesse collected using them.

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