Capt. Frederick Benteen hated all things Custer.
He shredded the reputation of his commanding officer, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, at every opportunity. His enmity extended to what he derisively referred to as the “Custer Gang,” which included Custer’s brother, Capt. Tom Custer, and his brother-in-law, Lt. James Calhoun.
What the caustic Benteen thought when he viewed their naked and decaying bodies on the battlefield two days after the June 25, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn can only be imagined. Unlike others in the Seventh Cavalry regiment, Benteen never believed Custer was invincible.
Benteen survived because Custer divided his command into three parts. Troops under Benteen and Maj. Marcus Reno eventually joined in a defensive position on the bluffs above the Little Bighorn River several miles from where Custer and more than 200 men made their last stand. The survivors, surrounded by angry and well-armed warriors, couldn’t have known the extent of the disaster until a relief column arrived on June 27.
As he surveyed the carnage on that hot summer day, Benteen might have doffed his black campaign hat to clear the dust or to wipe the sweat from his face.
His hat, its lining now gone and tears visible at the folds of the crown, may be one of the “most important pieces” to be sold Saturday in Dallas, Texas by Heritage Auctions' Legends of the West Auction. The huge event will feature hundreds of artifacts from the cache of collector Glenwood Swanson. Many of the items in the catalog, which can be viewed and purchased online at HA.com, are directly related to the battle of the Little Bighorn in what is now Montana.
It was a difficult decision to part with much of a collection he has been putting together since the 1970s, but at 78, Swanson said he was feeling the need to put the responsibility in other hands.
“My health is going from bad to worse,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Agua Dulce, California. “So if something does happen, my wife won’t have to deal with it.”
Swanson had been thinking about the collection’s future for a few years.
“I dearly hoped a museum would buy the whole collection,” he said. “I wish I could donate it, but I can’t afford to do that.”
With no institutional buyer on the horizon, he settled on an auction. Swanson said he still has high hopes that museums and other public entities will acquire much of what he has to sell. That probably won’t include the cash-strapped National Park Service, which operates Little Bighorn Battlefield near Crow Agency.
Swanson said he doesn’t know how much money the auction will raise. He’s left that to the experts at the auction house. Benteen’s hat is expected to sell for more than $10,000. It’s important, not just because it belonged to a surviving Seventh Cavalry officer, but because only two or three of 1872 version of the campaign hat survive.
Benteen, who blamed the Little Bighorn debacle on Custer’s decision to divide his command before engaging an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne, is well represented in the collection including binoculars, books with his hand-written notes and photographs.
Custer is also amply represented. The most personal item is a lock of his blonde hair trimmed by a barber in 1864, in the midst of Custer’s Civil War glory days. It was part of an envelope of hair intended for his wife, Libbie. Before he could put it in the mail, Custer’s belongings were captured by Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Trevilian Station. His cache of personal items was later recovered, and the hair presumably made its way to his doting wife. The starting bid on the lock of hair is $7,000.
An inscribed .22 revolver likely presented to Custer by his troops when he was given the brevet rank of brigadier general in 1863 has a pre-auction estimate sale price of more than $50,000, Custer, not long graduated from West Point, was just 23, the youngest general in the Union Army, at the time of his promotion. After the war, his rank in the regular army was lieutenant colonel, but he retained the honorary title.
A U.S. Model 1873 Springfield Trapdoor Carbine positively linked to the Little Bighorn Battle may bring the highest price of the sale. Archaeologists have identified three individual cartridges found at the Reno-Benteen defensive site as having been fired from the gun. Bidding is expected to start at $100,000. Heritage Auction experts, however, note that the average price of a Little Bighorn related Springfield carbine is $315,000, and one sold for $650,000.
A flintlock carbine purchased by Sitting Bull in Saskatchewan when the medicine man fled north after the Little Bighorn likely will also rate high in the bidding — probably $50,000 or more, the auction house predicts. Sitting Bull is believed to have signed his name into the gunstock.
Among Swanson’s most prized auction items is the dress uniform worn by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding general of the U.S. Army at the time of the Little Bighorn. Sherman liked Custer and they spent time together in Washington, D.C., while Custer was there testifying on the corruption of Indian agents in the West, one of whom was President Ulysses S. Grant’s brother.
Angry with Custer, Grant did not want Custer commanding the Seventh Cavalry in its spring 1876 campaign in Montana to corner free-roaming Sioux and Cheyenne and force them onto reservations in the Dakotas. Sherman delivered the order to Custer. But generals closer to the field of battle persuaded Grant that Custer was the only man for the job, and the president relented. Although technically, at Grant’s insistence, Gen. Alfred Terry would be in charge of the column as it marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota, Custer led the way to the Little Bighorn.
Sherman’s uniform could sell for more than $50,000, Heritage Auctions predicts. The general designed unique epaulettes for his frock coat that featured two stars and an eagle, Swanson said.
“He was the only one who ever wore them,” Swanson said.
Other items on the block starting at 10 a.m., include three Sioux arrows from the Little Bighorn (estimated sale price at more than $10,000); a Tiffany walking stick given to Custer in 1866 by famed actor and theatrical producer Lawrence Barrett (online bidding was at $10,000 Tuesday); and a knife presented to Custer’s Crow scout White Swan, who was injured at Little Bighorn (bidding was at $2,000 Tuesday). Uniforms, rare photographs and battle-related items are up for bid as well.
“I’m letting go of a lot,” Swanson said. But there are some things he just can’t bear to sell. Among them is another battle-related carbine with a piece of bone imbedded in the stock.
“I speculate that the guy was shooting and got shot in the wrist,” he said.
He also is keeping a carbine that belonged to trumpeter John Martini — the messenger who delivered Custer’s last message to Benteen.
“Benteen, Come on. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring packs.”
It was already too late.