It was stitched in simple crimson and blue silk by a loving wife for her husband. Yesterday, the swallow-tailed cavalry battle flag sold for just under $900,000 during an auction of Civil War memorabilia in Gettysburg, Pa., that included both the mundane and magnificent.
The flag once belonged to Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
It was cut and hand-sewn by his wife, Elizabeth, to be tucked beneath the uniform of one Lt. Peter Boehm and rushed to the general during the Battle of Dinwiddie Courthouse near Petersburg, Va., in 1865.
"The handsomest flag," as Custer called it, never left his side until he met his fate at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana 11 years later. The flag survived; the officer did not.
Its seamstress' embroidered signature shot off in battle, the fraying flag was one of 750 items available to the highest bidder during a two-day event that ended yesterday. It was billed by its organizers as "the most important Civil War auction in history." Indeed, Gen Ulysses S. Grant's silver and gold presentation sword fetched a dizzying $1,673,000. It had a 3-foot blade engraved with battle scenes, a scabbard glinting with the general's diamond-studded monogram, and a sizable purple amethyst that befitted his rank.
"When those two items, the flag and the sword, were brought out onto the floor for bidding, the atmosphere was absolutely hushed, and electric," said Douglas Brown, spokesman for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, which organized the event at a hotel near the battleground where 75,000 Confederate troops collided with 97,000 Union Army soldiers over the first three days of July 1863.
"I got the feeling many of the people here felt they were bearing witness to history, and in some ways that is true. Some of these items won't appear again in public for generations," Mr. Brown said.
The Custer flag went to a private collection, and Grant's sword will go to a new home at the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, where it will be on display.
"Aside from these headliner items, there were also uniforms, manuscripts, letters, personal items, art, weapons, books," Mr. Brown added. "Those bidders who take them home take the history with them. It is history that you can touch. Literally."
A rare, knee-length frock coat went for $71,000, but simple letters and tintypes could be had for under $500.
Confederate items in particular commanded premium prices. A courier's jacket fetched over $59,000. But it was no simple garment: The courier in question once worked for Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and the jacket was worn during Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. A simple gray wool officer's cap went for over $38,000; a sash and belt, $36,000.
Attendees who came to view the $10 million worth of memorabilia included diehard private collectors, museum representatives, historians, curiosity seekers and family descendants.
"Yes, we had a few Custers in the group, and descendants from those who fought in the Civil War on both sides," Mr. Brown said. "But you won't find anyone still arguing about the conflict. They want to touch, feel and be a part of what has come before them."