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    Charles Varnum's 7th Cavalry Outfit. This may well be the most nearly complete set of uniform accessories belonging to an officer of Custer's 7th Cavalry that remains in private hands. Originally obtained from the Varnum estate by an Arizona collector, most of the pieces were marked "C A V" for "Charles Albert Varnum." Varnum (1849-1936) graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1872 and almost immediately joined the 7th Cavalry as a second lieutenant. He was made first lieutenant on that fateful day - June 25, 1876 -- and served at that rank for another fourteen years and one month until finally being promoted to captain in 1890. This is a reflection on the slowness of promotion in the Old Army rather than on Varnum's qualities as an officer.

    During the 7th Cavalry's ill-fated march in 1876, Lieutenant Varnum commanded the company of Indian and civilian scouts who first spotted the great village of Sitting Bull and his allies. It was Varnum who led Custer to the Crow's Nest that looked out on the valley of the Little Bighorn. As battle plans were hurriedly made, he was assigned to his own Company "C" which participated in the opening charge as part of Reno's battalion. He was remembered by the survivors of the Reno-Benteen fight for his cool leadership even after being wounded twice. Almost twenty years later he was awarded the Medal of Honor for the initiative and gallantry he showed in saving his company from destruction at Wounded Knee. In between, he served with distinction as regimental quartermaster during the period that included the Nez Perce campaign of 1877. In 1879 he was one of the officers called to testify at the Reno Court of Inquiry.

    But like many others of his generation, Varnum would have to wait for the retirements of those officers whose careers were forged during the Civil War. All this is by way of explanation for the lieutenant's bars on the shoulder knots of a uniform that dates from the early 1880s.

    The centerpiece of this grouping is the Model 1881 dress helmet, complete with plume, chin strap chain, and deluxe cord with waffles, in excellent condition. The 7th Cavalry shield and other brass fittings are gold-washed. The helmet was manufactured by Horstmann of Philadelphia, arguably the maker of the highest quality headgear for the Indian Wars army. The sweat band shows some slight sweat stains, but the red silk lining is fully intact. Most remarkably, the inside crown bears a paper label signed in his hand "C Varnum." Even without its association with one of the best-known officers of the 7th Cavalry, this is an extraordinary piece.

    His 7th Cavalry officer's shoulder knots were obviously a source of pride to Varnum - they are in fine condition and show virtually no fading. They are lined beneath in blue wool, and the buttons and fittings are gold-washed. The silver thread of the regimental insignia "7" and of the first lieutenant's bars is intact and untarnished. The gold braid is as shiny and unrubbed as new. Varnum's bullion saber belt with both straps attached is 35" long (his girth would grow prodigiously before he retired in 1907) was made by Ridabock & Company of New York and features a gold-washed eagle buckle plate.

    With this grouping is an officer's Model 1872 dress saber, also by Ridabock, with its bullion saber knot. The shoulder knots and saber belt accompany a cavalry officer's 1879-pattern 14-button frock coat. The name "Wagner" is inked in the lining. The pair of cavalry breeches, 36" in overall length, bear Ridabock-marked buttons.

    Rounding out the personal items from the Varnum estate are two pocket watches and a pair of white cotton dress gloves. The gloves are lightly soiled and moisture-stained. Neither of the watches is in running condition. The first, made by the Illinois Watch Company in about 1896 is missing its crystal and hands. The serial number is 1338440. The second, SN 3607952, was manufactured in about 1900 by the New York Standard Watch Company and is missing only its second hand. Varnum may have carried one or the other in 1926 when he attended the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Last Stand in Montana. When he died ten years later, he had outlived all of his brother officers from the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

    For more information, see pages 132-133 of Glenwood Swanson's G. A. Custer: His Life and Times (Agua Dulce, CA: Glen Swanson Productions, 2004).
    From the Glenwood Swanson Collection.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    June, 2018
    9th Saturday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 2
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
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