NEW YORK -- Lt. Col. George Custer and the men of his 7th Cavalry Regiment went into the Battle of the Little Bighorn with flags flying, but they were wiped out, and nearly all their military artifacts were carried away by the victorious Lakota Sioux warriors.
A single swallowtail flag was found days later under the body of a fallen soldier.
Since 1895, the silk American flag, called a guidon, has been the property of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has decided to sell it and use the proceeds to build its collection.
The guidon, discovered by Sgt. Ferdinand Culbertson while on a burial detail of the battlefield, has been valued at $2 million to $5 million and will be auctioned in October, Sotheby's auction house announced on Friday, the 134th anniversary of the battle.
The current auction record for a flag or any textile is $12.3 million, for an American flag captured by the British in a 1779 battle in Bedford, New York. It was sold by Sotheby's in 2006.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand, claimed 210 soldiers, including Custer, as several thousand warriors led by Sitting Bull fought for their land near what's now Crow Agency, Montana.
The Black Hills in southeastern Montana (present day South Dakota) were declared Indian land in the late 1860s. The conflict erupted when the government tried to drive the Indians off the land after white settlers discovered gold there.
The battle's devastating loss came as a great shock to the nation as it prepared to celebrate its centennial.
It was a pivotal moment in American history, told and retold in books, in film, on stage and in song as mystical portrayals of Custer's bravery. And while the view of Custer as a hero has changed over time, anything associated with the battle still resonates, Sotheby's said.
"It's still one of those truly legendary events of 19th-century American history, and I suppose for a reason it was this extraordinary clash between the two cultures of America," said David Redden, Sotheby's vice chairman. "However you look at it, it's still an extraordinary and tragic encounter. Anything connected with that, particularly something that's as significant as a battle flag, also has that kind of iconic stature."
The guidon measures 32 1/2 inches by 26 1/2 inches (82 1/2 centimeters by 67 1/2 centimeters). One star and a patch of the white and red stripes are missing, cut from it as souvenirs, a common 19th-century practice, Sotheby's said.
"It means the flag was considered a sacred relic," Redden said. "Literally, it was absolutely par for the course to take small snippets of extraordinary objects, whether it's the dress of Martha Washington, which was snipped to pieces, or the Star-Spangled Banner."
The 7th Cavalry had five guidons and one regiment flag. Three of the guidons have vanished, and the fourth, known as the Keogh guidon, is in very poor condition, eaten by moths, Redden said.
The regiment flag was on a train en route to the battlefield when the 7th Cavalry was annihilated. That flag and the Keogh guidon are owned by the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Crow Agency.
Company guidons at Little Bighorn were abbreviated versions of the American flag, said John Doerner, the monument's historian. Each had a V-shaped cutout at the end to reduce wind drag, and they "served as beacons on the battlefield because they actually marked company positions," he said.
He called the guidon Culbertson found a "national treasure."
"It's part of American history and heritage that's being sold," he said. "It would be nice to have that guidon returned to the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument. It could be enjoyed by the public coming to this very hallow ground."
Since the guidon doesn't fit the criteria for a work of art, Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham W.J. Beal said, "We hope to be able to exploit it for our real mission, which is to collect and interpret art."
The guidon will go on view at Sotheby's in September.