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Custeriana: The Old Soldier’s Mystique Hasn’t Faded Away

by Wes Cowan (02/19/09).

custer-photograph

This autographed photograph of Custer in his Civil War uniform sold for $23,000.

Custer may not have survived his fabled last stand but memorabilia and artifacts certainly have.

For the uninitiated, a natural first question is likely to be: “What in the world is Custeriana?” In the lexicon of the antiques collector, Custeriana is anything and everything related to the life and death of George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876). Custer was a flamboyant U.S. Cavalry officer who, along with 210 troopers, died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Custer’s demise came at the hands of the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.

Almost immediately after his death, controversy arose about the battle. Some say Custer blindly led his troopers to massacre despite having reliable reports that he was outnumbered. The mystique surrounding Custer never faded and today anything related to his Civil War or Indian Wars career is highly collectible, with rare items fetching astronomical sums. Custer memorabilia includes photographs, weaponry, military gear and battle artifacts, among other items.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio. Early in his life his family moved to Monroe, Michigan, where he spent much of his boyhood. He attended West Point, where he was a lackluster student, and graduated last in his class – just in time for the Civil War.

During the war Custer quickly became known for his daring and flamboyant personal appearance. He favored personally designed uniforms and grew his hair to his shoulders. As a Cavalry officer Custer was fearless, dashing into battle at the head of his cavalrymen, often directly into the fire of an enemy position. Entering the war in 1861 as a lieutenant, he was rapidly promoted, and by 1863, at the tender age of 23, he held the rank of brigadier general. Thanks to extensive press coverage Custer developed a national reputation.

After the Civil War, Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel in the 7th Cavalry and assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas in 1867. In 1874 he led an expedition into the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota and triggered a stampede when he announced gold had been discovered. The wave of emigration into the Dakotas triggered inevitable encroachment on lands that had been set aside for Indians during an earlier treaty with the government. Citizen’s demand for protection set in motion events that ultimately led to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Custer was never shy about being around a camera. So, it’s not surprising that photographs are today’s collector’s most common encounter with the life of this iconic soldier. Custer’s letters and autographs are highly desirable, especially those written during his time on the American Plains.

Collectors also prize anything related to the 7th Cavalry, particularly photographs or possessions of the troopers who were killed alongside Custer at Little Big Horn. This interest naturally also extends to Custer’s foes. Many of the tribal warriors who participated in the battle lived to have their photographs taken again and again, all to satisfy the endless public curiosity about Custer and the greatest military defeat in U.S. history.

Custer memorabilia is popular among collectors nationwide. Cowan’s Auctions, in fact, has handled a number of important items related to Custer and the Indian Wars. Some of these have included historical documents, photographs, military artifacts and weaponry.

About the Author:cowansphoto_wes_bio

Kentucky native Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at info@cowans.com.

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