DescriptionGeneral George Armstrong Custer's Personal Battle Flag From Lee's Surrender at Appomattox to the Little Bighorn
View the Letters of Authentication
The personal battle flag of General Custer, the most famous US Cavalry Officer in American history, this flag was handmade of silk by his wife Elizabeth 'Libbie' Custer during the final days of the Civil War and delivered to him on the battlefield in the midst of battle at Dinwiddie Court House near Petersburg, Virginia on March 31, 1865. Custer immediately took this flag as he charged his horse over the breastworks of Confederate General George Pickett winning the battle and bringing about Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House within a few days. Custer kept this flag by his side for the rest of his life as a symbol of the valor and patriotism shared by him and his beloved 'Libbie'. Fortunately for posterity, the flag was left at Custer's headquarters at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory in 1876 as Custer and his men rode to their immortality at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
General Custer's silk, swallow-tailed cavalry battle flag measures 68" by 36". Centered between the red over blue bars are two hand-cut white, crossed cavalry sabers making this flag instantly recognizable as a distinctive cavalry flag. Custer carried this flag throughout the remainder of the Civil War in battle at Five Forks, Namozine Church, Sayler's Creek, Dinwiddie Court House and Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House. Custer received the first flag of surrender from Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia with this personal battle flag at his side, which brought about the end of the American Civil War.
Soon thereafter, Custer was promoted to major general and became the hero of the United States Army, victorious at Gettysburg as in all of his cavalry battles, he became the leading cavalry officer of the Civil War in 1865 - and he achieved this distinction by the age of 25. But Custer had many battles left to fight, and he accepted a reduction in rank to stay in the US Army in command of all the cavalry in Texas in 1866 with headquarters in Austin. He soon became the commander of the legendary 7th Cavalry for service first in Kansas and across the Great Plains during America's westward expansion after the Civil War. This personal battle flag was with Custer as he made his way from the war-torn battlefields of Virginia to Texas and the West and finally to his destiny at Little Bighorn, Montana where he and his entire command fought to their death against the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians of the Northern Plains.
Being one of the most important flags in American history, it remained in the Custer family and was preserved by relatives from the Custer farmhouse in Monroe, Michigan. It was purchased directly from General Custer's nephew Lieutenant Colonel Charles Custer by the noted historian and Custer biographer Dr. Lawrence Frost who first published this flag in his book entitled The Custer Album, just 75 years after it last flew above General Custer. The Custer flag has been authenticated by noted flag expert and historian Howard Michael Madaus and is accompanied by a volume of historical research and authentication documents validating this as one of the greatest American icons in existence: Custer's Flag.
1. Elizabeth "Libbie" Custer: Flag hand-sewn in 1865, and delivered to General. Custer at Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia on March 31, 1865
2. General George Armstrong Custer: 1865 - June 25, 1876 (his death)
3. The Custer Family: 1876 - 1956
4. Dr. Lawrence A. Frost: 1956 - 1990 (View Provenance Letters)
5. Elizabeth Lawrence: 1990 - 2003
6. Thomas Minckler: 2003 - Present.
The following is a speech given by Thomas Minckler of New York on the Custer flag: General Custer's Appomattox Campaign Cavalry Flag Throughout history, armies have carried flags. Flags provided a sense of identity and built pride and morale for the unit. Flags also provided a means of identifying unit locations and as a rallying point for soldiers in the confusion of combat. The U.S. Cavalry used swallowtail flag guidons in both the Civil War and Plains Indian Wars. In addition to regimental flags, various commanders adopted these as their own personal flags.
Custer's fourth Civil War personal flag was his pride and joy because it was hand sewn by his dear wife Libbie. It was made of a double layer of silk, red over blue bars, and adorned with white crossed sabers on both sides and bound with a coarse woven cord. Custer's Appomattox Campaign Guidon is the single most important and documented personal article from the Civil War period. Delivered on horseback by one of his staff and unfurled in the fury and fire at Dinwiddie Court House on March 31st, 1865, it was in Custer's hand as he leaped his horse over Pickett's breastworks the next day at Five Forks. A personal inspiration to Custer, this Guidon was with him until the end came at Appomattox. Custer's constant hammering of the rebel forces played a major part in the final phases of the war. This Guidon was present at the following Civil War battles: Dinwiddie Court House, Five Forks, Namozine Church, Saylor Creek, and Appomattox Station.
The final Campaign of the Army of Northern Virginia began March 25, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee sought to break General Ulysses Grant's stranglehold at Petersburg, Virginia by attacking Fort Stedman. Lee failed and Granted counterattacked at Five Forks, which led to the Confederate retreat that eventually resulted in the Confederate surrender at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865. On March 29th General Phillip Sheridan undertook a flank march to attack Lee's Petersburg defenses. A steady downpour turned roads into mud, slowing his advance. Major General Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry and Major General George Pickett's infantry division met the Union vanguard north and northwest of Dinwiddie Court House and drove it back, temporarily stalling Sheridan's movement. When the Union infantry approached from the east, General Pickett withdrew to the vital road junction at Five Forks. General Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett to hold this vital intersection at all cost. The battle at Dinwiddie Court House on March 31 involved 65,277 troops and both sides suffered a total of 821 casualties.
Prior to this time, General Custer had sent Lieutenant Peter Boehm to Washington with letters to the War Department. In addition, he carried a personal letter to his wife, Libbie. She received the letter and, in turn, entrusted Lieutenant Boehm with this magnificent silk flag hand made by her and embroidered with her name on one of the swallowtail points. Libbie had promised Custer she would make him a new personal flag to be carried in the Appomattox campaign and had spent every moment to complete it in time.
Lieutenant Boehm wrapped this flag around his body underneath his uniform for fear he might be captured en route to the battlefront in Virginia. Boehm arrived safely after riding through Mosby's Confederacy alone and unscathed.
Late the next day, Private Huff, the Color Bearer of Custer's Cavalry, was carrying it during an engagement at Five Forks. He was mortally wounded, along with Custer's Bugler and Orderly and Libbie's name was shot off the Guidon. Custer was untouched by the fusillade and swung down from his saddle to grab this flag without dismounting, swirled this flag over his head and leapt over the breastworks of Major General George Pickett.
George Custer wrote to his wife Elizabeth 6 miles from Dinwiddie, Virginia on March, 31, 1865:
"Owing to the impassible state of the roads, we are still at the point from which I wrote yesterday. Last Night Lt. Boehm arrived, with what all pronounced 'the handsomest flag I have ever seen.' What renders it infinitely dear to me is that it is the work of my darling's hands. It could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. It was attached to the staff when battle was raging all along our lines. Cannon and musketry saluted it as its folds opened to the breeze. I regarded it as a happy omen. We have planned to procure a new staff for our beauty. Lt. Boehm had to pass through enemy country for a considerable distance without an escort. He is extremely venturesome, and was determined to join us. Fearing capture he wrapped the flag about his person under his clothes, and in this way brought it to your Boy."
On April 1st the final Union Army offensive of the civil War occurred at Five Forks. The Union forces were commanded by Sheridan and the confederate forces were led by Pickett. Five Forks was to be the Waterloo of the Confederacy. The confederate loss at Five Forks threatened Lee's last supply line, the South Side Railroad. Pickett's total casualties most likely exceeded 6,000.
In a letter dated April 2, 1865 from Washington, Libbie wrote to her parents, Mr. And Mrs. Bacon, about the same guidon:
"...Then, too, I have been making a flag for Autie to take on this last raid. It really is beautiful, like the old one, only larger - red and blue silk with white crossed sabers on both sides, and edged with heavy white cord. Lt. Boehm took it to him."At Saylor's Creek on April 6, Custer's horse was killed from under him on one foray, and in another, one of his color bearers was killed instantly. Later Custer seized his Guidon and led a successful charge at Appomattox Station on a Confederate battery.
Albert Barnitz was an officer in the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry and was present with General Custer at Appomattox. As a published poet, he wrote years later to immortalize this large charge in verse:
"Custer led! - with his flag unfurled!
His breeze-blown standard of scarlet and blue,
Far seen at the front, when the fight waxed hot,
And the shells crashed loud, and the bullets flew!
Blithely he rode and with dauntless air,
Girl-like but resolute into the fray,
With a luster of Gold on his wind-tossed hair,
And jacket resplendent with bullion gay!
Over his shoulders his scarlet scarf
Floated and flamed as he held his course;
Never a leader so buoyant as he
Fell on the foe with such measureless force!"
Lieutenant Boehm recollected the following in a letter to Mrs. Custer on September 15, 1910 from Chicago:
"My Dear Mrs. Custer,
I am highly honored to be still in your remembrance. I do indeed remember taking your flag to the General. The flag was the incentive, which gave me strength to carry out my mission, which resulted in my most highly prized honor.
The General had dispatched me with letters to the War Department, also with one to you. You entrusted me with Cavalry Guidon on one of the points of which you had embroidered your name.
The command to which I had formerly belonged was now General Grant's bodyguard, and knowing the old men pretty well, I appealed to their sergeant who procured me a horse - a splendid animal. Pass and countersign enabled me to pass the pickets - the two lines were very close to each other - having wrapped your Guidon around my body. And so I reached the General.
Being extremely tired I lay down to sleep, but shortly the General received orders to push forward to reinforce Merritt and Crook who were being driven back from Five Forks...March 31st.
The General rode ahead of the command with a few men, including myself, reaching Dinwiddie Court House about 4 in the afternoon. We found our lines in considerable confusion, being driven back. I took your Guidon from the color bearer, and with and orderly, Huff, rode with the General along the lines. We succeeded in rallying the men and re-informing the line, checking Pickett's advance. This enabled the General to place his command in position that evening.
It was during this engagement your name must have been shot off the Guidon, as we were under very heavy fire. Huff was mortally wounded while riding alongside of me, and died that evening. My arm was almost shattered at Five Forks next day and does not trouble me to speak of, except when occasional pains make me a judge of weather."
Years later, after the Guidon's illustrious career along side General George Custer during the Appomattox campaign, it was found in the attic of the Custer farmhouse on the north side of North Custer Road in Monroe, Michigan by Lt. Col. Charles Custer, a grandson of General Custer's brother Nevin. It was purchased by Dr. Lawrence Frost on May 31st, 1956. The Guidon is item #22 on page 2 of Dr. Frost's sale list of General Custer's possessions. Also, a document signed by Lawrence Frost describing the Guidon states it is unquestionably the same one referred to in Merrington's The Custer Story on page 147. On the reverse of the document Frost drew a diagram of the Guidon with measurements of 36" high and 5 1/2" long. All of the three documents accompany the Guidon. On page 57 of Frost's book, The Custer Album, is a sketch by Civil War artist and Harper's Weekly correspondent and Harper's Weekly Correspondent A.R. Waud, entitled "Receiving the Flag of Truce." It depicts Custer and his troops receiving the Flag of Truce (a white towel tied to a branch) from a Confederate officer near the Appomattox Court House. The flag of truce came just in time to prevent a charge Custer was preparing to lodge and procured an exchange of notes between Grant and Lee agreeing to meet the village of Appomattox Court House. Clearly visible in the sketch of the Confederates surrendering to General Custer by Waud is Custer's flag with its distinctively designed crossed sabers sewn by his wife Libbie.
Provenance: Elizabeth Custer; George A. Custer; Charles A. Custer Family Collection; Dr. Lawrence Frost Collection; Private Collection; Thomas Minckler Collection.
Literature:Whittaker, Frederick. A Complete Life of Gen. George A. Custer. New York, 1876, pp. 302, 306.
Barnitz, Albert. With Custer at Appomattox.Cleveland, 1903, p. 37.
Merington, Marguerite, ed. The Custer Story: the Life and Intimate Letters of General George A. Custer and his Wife Elizabeth. New York, 1959, pp. 147-148.
Graham, Col. W.A. Custer's Battle Flags. 1952.
Frost, Lawrence. The Custer Album. Seattle, 1964, p. 61.
Madaus, Howard Michael. The Personal And Designating Flags of General George A. Custer, 1863-1865. Washington, 1968, p. 13.
Frost, Lawrence. General Custer's Libbie. Seattle, 1976, pp. 126-127.
Reedstrom, Ernest Lisle. Bugles, Banners and War Bonnets, pp. 126-127.
Urwin, Gregory J.W. Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer. Edison, N.J., 1983, pp. 233-260.
Leckie, Shirley A. Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth. Norman, 1993, p. 65.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF MAJOR-GENERAL GEORGE A. CUSTER'S FOURTH PERSONAL HEADQUARTERS FLAG DURING THE CIVIL WAR by Howard Michael Madaus Major-General George Armstrong Custer's fourth personal headquarters flag dates from March of 1865, but its basic design is the same as the three other personal headquarters flags that had been made for him in 1863 and 1864. This design was wrought on a swallowtail field, that is an otherwise rectangular flag with a triangular wedge cut out of the flying edge so that the design would be readily identifiable even in the lightest movement of the wind or motion of the flag. The design that appeared on the four personal headquarters flags flown near Custer was otherwise simple: the field was divided horizontally into two bars of equal width, the upper red and the lower blue. Appliquéd in the center of this field were two white crossed sabers, unsheathed and displayed crossing with their cutting edges up. In the years before the Civil War such crossed sabers served as the distinctive insignia of the cavalry regiments serving on the western frontier. Custer's flag bearers during the War carried four successive flags of this basic design. Fortunately a combination of production idiosyncrasies conjoin with surviving documents and references to permit a reasonably accurate sequence of usage.
The first personal headquarters flag carried to mark his presence on the battlefield and in camp was made shortly after the Gettysburg campaign. The use of a coarse woolen material for its field, its crude quality, and the non-symmetry of its crossed sabers suggests that it was improvised in the field. The flag bears two battle honors, "BOONESBORO" over "FALLING- WATER", first penciled in outline and later finished in silver thread embroidery. Since the former honor commemorates an action fought on 7 July and the latter one on 14 July, it is thought that the making of this flag took place during the second week of July, 1863.while Custer and his brigade were in the field. By contrast, Custer's second personal headquarters flag evidences the professional workmanship of a commercial flag maker. Of the same basic design as the first personal flag, the second flag is made of silk, edged on its exterior sides with a gold fringe. The crossed sabers are painted to each side of the field in their natural colors-- silver blades, golden hilt, and brown grips, and are perfectly symmetrical. Also painted to the field in shadowed gilt letters in a single column between the sabers and what had been the pole sleeve is a list of eleven battle honors starting with "HANOVER" ( fought on June 30th 1863) and ending with "CULPEPPER" (fought on September 13th 1863). Since all the honors (save one) are applied in the same artistic style and in the same paint, it seems likely that they were all applied simultaneously by the same artist that applied the crossed sabers to the field of the flag, in the case of the second personal flag, sometime after the engagement at Culpeper on September 13th 1863. Supplementing the probability of a September-October date of manufacture, in a letter written by Custer on October 12th 1863 by he refers to "my new battle-flag, so soon to receive its baptism in blood." Custer concludes his account of the battle of by commenting that: "My color-bearer had his horse shot." Eight months later, Custer's color-bearer would suffer a more grievous calamity , as would the flag he carried.
At the battle of Trevilian Station (June 11th and 12th 1864) Custer's Michigan Cavalry Brigade was all but surrounded by two divisions of Confederate cavalry. Nine days later (June 21st 1864), Custer related an incident of the battle: "Sergeant Mashon was struck while gallantly carrying his flag at the head of the charge. He lived until morning. When shot he remained in his saddle till our lines began to waver., when he made his way to me, saying, 'General, they have killed me. Take the flag'. To save it I was compelled to tear it from its staff and place it in my bosom." The editor of this letter evidently misread the flag bearer's name. In his official report of the May- July 1864 campaign, Custer correctly identifies his personal flag bearer's name: "I am called upon to record the death of one of the 'bravest of the brave,' Sergt. Mitchell Beloir, of the First Michigan Cavalry, who has been my color bearer since the organization of this brigade. Sergt. Mitchell Beloir received his death-wound while nobly discharging his duty to his flag and to his country. He was killed in the advance while gallantly cheering the men forward to victory." Since the leading edge of Custer's second personal flag is tattered and torn, as would be expected if it was torn from its staff, Custer's letter of June 21st 1864 serves to indicate the date of the last usage of that flag. This same data at the same time it also suggests when his third personal flag approximately came into use.
Because its field is well made and composed of high quality scarlet and dark blue wool bunting with white appliquéd cotton sabers, Custer's third personal flag is thought to have been commercially produced. After two months of intense campaigning in May and June of 1864, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was granted a respite and was permitted to refit. It is likely that Custer may have ordered a new personal flag at that time. Shortly afterward two of the three cavalry divisions of the Army of the Potomac were sent to the Shenandoah Valley. The Army of the Potomac's 1st Cavalry Division (which contained Custer's Michigan Brigade) left on August 8th 1864, followed by the 3rd Cavalry Division on the 16th of August. Custer continued to lead his Michigan Brigade to the Valley in August. However, on September 26th 1864 to assume command the 2nd Cavalry Division, Department of West Virginia, whose commander (Brigadier-General W.W. Averill) had proven less than satisfactory as a division commander. However, before Custer could take command of 2nd Cavalry Division, Custer received a "gift" from the War Department. Brigadier-General James H. Wilson , a staff officer without any prior field experience, who General Grant had brought with him to the east in the Spring of 1864 (and whom Custer considered to be an "imbecile"), was relieved of the command of the 3rd Cavalry Division and ordered back to the "western theater". On the same day that Wilson was sent back "west" (September 30th 1864), Custer's orders to take command of the 2nd Cavalry Division were revoked, and he was reassigned, instead, to the command of the 3rd Cavalry Division.
A week later (October 7th 1864), Harpers Weekly sketch artist, Alfred Waud, executed a drawing of Custer's division near Mount Jackson, Virginia. Near Custer an orderly holds a flag, divided into two horizontal bars and bearing crossed sabers. This is thought to be the earliest representation of Custer's third personal flag. The same flag (as well as the 3rd Cavalry Division designating flag heretofore flown with General Wilson) appears draped on its staff in a photograph of Custer's headquarters on Christmas Day, 1864. The much worn designating flag seems to have been retired shortly after the photograph was taken, and only the third personal flag was carried in the first three months of 1865. Confirming the use of but a single headquarters flag in the weeks prior to the receipt of his fourth personal flag, on March 11th 1865, Custer informed his wife: "I wish you could see your boy's headquarters now. My flag is floating over the gate, and near it, ranged along the fences, are 16 battle-flags captured by the 3rd Division." These battle-flags had been captured by Custer's division at Waynesboro, Virginia on March 2nd 1865. Shortly afterwards the 3rd Cavalry Division (as well as the 1st) was ordered to return to the Army of the Potomac for operations against the flank of General Lee's over-extended lines. It was here, near Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia that Custer received his fourth personal headquarters flag.
Custer's fourth personal headquarters flag measured essentially three feet on its hoist (staff edge) by five and a half on its fly (to the points of the swallowtail-- but only four feet from the hoist to the cut of the swallowtail.) Like its three predecessors, thee design consists of a red horizontal bar over a medium blue horizontal bar, with white, unsheathed crossed sabers (edges up) appliquéd in the center of each side. Like the second personal flag, the fourth is made from silk, but in two thicknesses for durability in the field. Despite the flag's high quality ingredients, it was not commercially made, but rather was hand sewn by Mrs. Elizabeth Custer, who commented about the project she had recently completed in a letter to her parents, dated April 2nd 1865: "Then too, I have been making a flag for Autie to take on his last raid. It really is beautiful, like the old one, only larger-- red and blue silk with white crossed sabers on both sides, and edged with heavy white cord. Lt. Boehm took it to him." This "heavy white cord", a nearly ¼ of an inch in diameter and made of hemp or twisted wool, extends around the full flag, including the leading edge where it secures three pairs of ties for securing the flag to a staff. Importantly, its presence serves to confirm the identity of the fourth personal flag. One other identifying feature distinguished Custer's fourth personal headquarters flag, but that element is now missing from the flag.
Evidently Elizabeth Custer signed her name in embroidery stitches to identify the source of the flag she sent in March of 1865. The portion of the flag with this embroidery, probably the upper tail of the swallowtail, is now missing, it having been shot away in one of the engagements between the 31st of March and the 8th of April 1865. Newly appointed Second Lieutenant (later Brevet Captain) Peter Martin Boehm of the 15th New York Cavalry, who had brought the flag from Mrs. Custer to the general, carried Custer's new flag for most of March 31st 1865. With it he (Lt. Boehm) rallied the retreating Union forces, and he remembered the original presence of Mrs. Custer's name on the flag. In his letter to Elizabeth Custer under the date of September 15th 1910, Lieutenant Boehm recollected:
"The General had dispatched me with letters to the War Department, also with one to you. You entrusted me with the Cavalry guidon on one of the points of which you had embroidered your name."
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF GENERAL CUSTER'S FLAG IN TEXAS AND THE WEST 1865-1876 by Howard Michael Madaus
It is well known that the " Personal Flag" of Major General George Armstrong Custer made for him by his wife Libbie was hand-delivered to him during the last days Civil War, in the midst of battle where it was immediately put into use during the battle at Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia in March of 1865. These events set into play Lee's surrender to Grant less than two weeks latter. But due to the battle wear on this cavalry guidon it is obvious that Custer used this flag well beyond the Civil War.
The history of Custer's flag in the post-civil war period. Custer's fourth personal flag and the only flag ever made for him by his wife "Libbie" is detailed here. The flag is mentioned twice and that peripherally during the period Custer served in Texas and the "American West."
While the evidence is suggestive, it is known that there was a gradual diminishing role for high-ranking officers "personal flags" in the post- war U. S. Army. However, it is also known that General Philip Sheridan carried one of his "Personal Flags" in Texas, which is now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution, as did General Wesley Merritt who also carried his "Personal Flag" in Texas while serving with Custer as the other cavalry division commander. Merritt's flag now occupies a prominent place in the West Point Museum at the United States Military Academy.
Personal Headquarters flags were devised to permit staff officers and couriers to locate an officer in the field. Generically, these flags fall into two types. "Designating flags" identified the location of a specific level within a command structure, regardless of the officer in command. "Personal flags", on the other hand, indicated the presence of a high-ranking officer, notably a "general" whether on the battlefield or at his headquarters.
On 22 May 1865, just one day before the two day long celebratory parade in Washington DC, honoring the victorious Union hero's of the Civil War, Lieutenant General U. S. Grant commanded the Adjutant General's office in Washington to issue orders that detached the two most aggressive cavalry commanders in the Union Army to the West - Major General George Armstrong Custer and General Wesley Merritt, with their staff officers, to report to Major General Philip Sheridan in New Orleans for duty in Texas to command Sheridan's cavalry in his newly created "Military Division of the Southwest". Ostensibly the cavalry divisions of these two officers' commands were to engage the last Confederate forces under General Edmund Kirby Smith's still operating in Texas, which would not formally surrender until 26 June 1865. But there was also a hidden agenda for this "Army of Observation" that Custer served in; they were to carefully monitor the Confederate forces that refused to surrender and had crossed the Rio Grande, aiding Maximilian in his conquest of Mexico. To insure that these rebels would not reorganize and begin the rebellion all over again General Grant ordered two columns of about 5,000 cavalrymen to patrol the Texas border with Mexico and maintain Law & Order during the Federal occupation of Texas.
While Custer would proudly led his cavalry men in the "Grand Review-Victory Parade" in the nations capitol on 23 May 1865, he and his entourage with his wife "Libbie" and "Eliza" (the Custers' domestic cook) in tow began their trek to Texas and eventually the West. The trip involved a rail ride from Washington DC after the Victory parade to the Ohio River, followed by a steamboat journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Sheridan's headquarters in New Orleans. On 18 June 1865, Custer was provided with more detailed instructions through Special Orders No. 13 from the headquarters of the Military Division of the Southwest.
"Major General George A. Custer, U. S. Volunteers, will assume command of the following number regiments, and the commanding officers of the said regiments will report their respective commands to him on their arrival at Alexandria, La. ; Seventh Indiana Cavalry; First Iowa Cavalry; Fifth Illinois Cavalry; Twelfth Illinois Cavalry; Second Wisconsin Cavalry."
E. P. Parsons
Sheridan had supposedly selected these five regiments from among the three brigades, which formed the Cavalry Division, Department of West Tennessee, stationed at Memphis after a review to demonstrate the division's proficiency.
A cavalry division of only five regiments was quite a contrast to the divisional structure of the 3rd Cavalry Division, Army of the Potomac which Custer had commanded only a month earlier. When Custer's 3rd Division returned from the Shenandoah in January of 1865, his command consisted of sixteen regiments organized in three brigades. Despite the diminished numbers, Custer further divided his command into two brigades, even before his limited force had gathered at Alexandria. Emmet C. West of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry (and no admirer of Custer) wrote in the post-war period:
"...after so long service, the five regiments were so reduced in members that probably there were engaged in the force for two small regiments, but Custer, being a Major-General, must command a division, therefore he divided the small brigade and made two of it. The first, composed of the 5th and 12th Illinois and 7th Indiana , was commanded by Col. (sic) [Brigadier-General] James W. Forsyth. The second, composed of the 1st (sic) [2nd] Wisconsin and 1st Iowa was commanded by Colonel Thompson."
Custer's ego was not the only consideration in the dividing of the five regiments into two brigades. James William Forsyth's military career paralleled Custer's in many respects, including service as a staff officer before graduating to Brigadier, received his commission as Brigadier-General of Volunteers on 19 May 1865, only a few days before Custer was ordered to Sheridan's command in Louisiana. This suggests that his assignment to command a brigade of Custer's new division was anything but accidental.
The official creation of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd (Custer's) Cavalry Division was not made until 5 August 1865, with General Orders No. 14:
"Hereafter this command will be known as the Second Division Cavalry, Military Division of the Gulf and will be composed as follows:
I The First Brigade is organized by Special Order No. 14; from this headquarters.
II The Second Brigade comprising the following regiments; First Iowa Cavalry, Lieutenant-Colonel A. G. McQueen commanding; Second Wisconsin Cavalry' Lieutenant Colonel N. H. Dale commanding
III Colonel Wm. Thompson, first Iowa Cavalry will assume command of the Second Brigade
By Command of Major General Custer
J L Green, A.A.G.
Under this organizational structure, Custer's 2nd Cavalry Division finally departed Alexandria, Louisiana on 8 August 1865 for Hempstead, Texas. The close column march from Alexandria to Hempstead lasted until 26 August 1865, under abominable 120-degree heat. Their stay at Hempstead was a little over two months in length. Edmund Kirby Smith having surrendered in late June, the Union forces in Texas devolved into "occupation duty" maintaining Law & Order. Reflecting their new role, on 29 October 1865, Custer's Division departed Hempstead for the state capitol in Austin, arriving there on 4 November 1865
Before the Custer division's departure to the Texas state capitol on 27 October 1865, the 5th Illinois Cavalry was mustered out of federal service, reducing the division to four regiments. On 15 November 1865 the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry was also mustered out and sent home. Over the next six months, the balance of the division fulfilled their terms of enlistment and were phased north - the 7th Indiana on 18 February 1866; the 1st Iowa on 16 March 1866, and finally the 12th Illinois on 29 May 1866. In the interim, the War Department took measures to reduce the expenses of the army in the upkeep of the surfeit of high-ranking officers by decommissioning them from volunteer service. Forsyth was the first general officer to lose his commission, being honorably discharged on 15 January 1866. Custer would feel the next "blow". On 1 February 1866, Custer was honorably discharged from the U. S. volunteer service.
George Armstrong Custer and "Libbie" would remain in Austin only a few days longer to close their financial affairs. Custer would revert to his Regular Army commission as captain, as the Grand Army of the Republic dissolved into history.
It was during this nine-month period from May of 1865 to February of 1866, while Custer commanded a two-brigade division, that Custer continued the field use of this "Personal Flag " just as Gen. Sheridan and Gen. Merritt who brought their flags to Texas. General Sheridan never devised a system of designating flags for the forces he commanded in Texas, although some of the eastern commands transferred to Texas during its occupation, continued to fly their old designating flags. Sheridan preferred to fly his own personal headquarters flag - a swallowtail flag divided horizontally, red over white into two equal width bars, and having a five-pointed star of contrasting color on each bar, which is now in the Smithsonian.
Custer would have carried this flag with him while he put down the lawlessness; even the slave trading that was still taking place in south Texas. On many occasions he prevented the destruction of private property, endearing him to many Texans. This flag made for him by his wife Libby, would have also been used at the home he and his wife shared at Austin, the building the included the Asylum for the Blind, a structure that still stands today. Libbie was the only US Army officer's wife to travel and live with her husband throughout the west. She was always by his side making their home, at his Headquarters from 1865 to his death in 1876, from Texas to the northern plains of the West. Custer was one of the few military officers in the West that actually had a home to come back to at the various western forts where his was stationed.
On 28 July 1866, Congress authorized the creation of four new regiments of cavalry - the 7th and the 8th Cavalry for white troops and the 9th and 10th Cavalry for African American troops who became famous, known as the, "Buffalo Soldiers". When formed, George Armstrong Custer was appointed the 7th Cavalry's Lieutenant Colonel, with immediate field command of the regiment. These four new regular cavalry regiments supplanted the volunteer forces that had served on the plains in 1865 and 1866. Operating on smaller scale when the great volunteer forces gathered during the Civil War, brigades and divisions seldom were called into service, the battalion or the regiment being the prime operational combat unit. As such, the regimental standard became the latter day "headquarters' flag".
The regimental standard of mounted forces from 1833 through 1877 consisted of a fringed dark blue silk field, 27 inches on the pike by 29 inches on the fly, bearing a painted rendition of the "Arms of the United States" surmounting a three-piece scroll bearing the regimental designation, also painted. Six photographs are known to survive from the Custer era that depict the regimental standards of the 7th Cavalry. Of note is one photograph credited to November 1868, depicting Custer's Osage scouts and the 7th's regimental standard, wherein both the eagle's wing from the cavalry's arms and a section of the scroll are visible. Significantly, a penciled notation on the right margin of the photograph identifies this standard as "hdqrs. flag", giving credence to the concept that the "personal" headquarters flags used during the Civil War were retired by that date, being replaced by new flags issued in the field.
An important newspaper account gives us evidence of Custer's "Personal Flag " being displayed in his study at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory in 1876. It comes from the Detroit Free Press in a July 31, 1879 article relating to the unveiling of the Custer monument at West Point. After reviewing the upcoming ceremonies, the article shifts to Monroe, Michigan and to Custer's former home where his parents and sister still lived. His study had been reproduced exactly the same as when he was living at Fort Lincoln before his Last Stand. Open to visitors by the then, three years after his death at The Little Bighorn, the newspaper notes that:
"Here the visitor may find reproduced with the most minute fidelity of detail the General's study or private office exactly as it appeared at his headquarters at Fort Abraham Lincoln when he left it for the last time to engage in the fatal expedition."
The newspaper spares no detail in describing the office - the books, pictures, revolvers with pearl handles - and more:
"His headquarters flags, with captured colors hang upon the walls..."
We are fortunate that this personal flag of General Custer, his most prized military possession, made for him by his beloved wife Libbie, is still existent, and privately held. The most important Custer Icon that exists, it was carried by Custer from Lee's Surrender to Texas and the West.
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