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George Armstrong Custer

and accompanying archive

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Rare commission by which Custer appoints a sergeant in the famed 7th Cavalry, with related archive

George Armstrong Custer, 1839–1876.  Lt. Colonel, United States Army; Brevet Major General of Volunteers. Partially printed Document Signed, G A Custer, one page, 10 x 16, on vellum, Fort A. Lincoln, Dakota Territory, February 11, 1875.  With accompanying archive of documents relating to Sgt. Charles F. Smith.

This is a rare military commission by which Custer appoints Smith as a sergeant in the 7th Cavalry.  Our research has found only four other 7th Cavalry commissions that have been offered at auction since 1975. 

This commission is ornately imprinted with the American eagle bearing a shield and clutching arrows and an olive branch beneath the heading the commanding officer of the seventh regiment of cavalry.  Custer has signed it with a bold 4’ brown ink signature.  It is countersigned, W. W. Cooke, by William Winer Cooke (1846–1876) as 1st Lieutenant of Cavalry and Adjutant of the Regiment. 

Cooke died near Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.  He wrote the famous “last message” to Captain Frederick Benteen, telling him that Custer had found a large Native American village and urging him to join the coming battle:  “Come on.  Big village.  Be quick.  Bring packs.  WW Cooke.  P.S. Bring packs.”

There is a bit of ink bleeding on Custer’s signature, and Cooke’s gray ink signature and the engrossment of the document are a bit light but fully readable.  The document has normal storage folds, tiny pinholes in two places where folds cross, slight soiling at the edges, and unobtrusive stains in the left and right margins, affecting nothing.  Overall it is in fine to very fine condition.

This commission is the centerpiece of an archive of documents relating to Smith’s military career and his United States citizenship.  Those documents, which accompany this commission, include his discharge at the end of his first term of service in the Army; his oath of reinlistment and allegiance; a letter of recommendation; his membership certificate in the Regular Army and Navy Union; and a certificate of deposit issued by Boatmen’s Saving Bank in St. Louis.

Smith, born in Germany in 1848, enlisted in the United States Army on March 3, 1871, for a term of five years.  Custer appointed him a sergeant in Company E of the 7th Cavalry, and thereafter he served in Company C.  He was discharged on March 3, 1876, when his enlistment expired—fortunately for him, a little more than 3½ months before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which both of those companies were annihilated in Custer’s Last Stand.  He later reinlisted on November 3, 1881, for another period of five years.

Smith’s discharge is signed by Lt. Col. Lewis Cass Hunt (1824–1886).  At the bottom, his character was attested as “excellent” by 7th Cavalry Capt. Thomas Mower McDougall (1845–1909), a survivor of the Little Bighorn, who has boldly signed the attestation.  The manuscript letter of recommendation, dated in 1886, is signed by Maj. Gen. Eugene Asa Carr (1830–1910).

McDougall, a captain in the 7th Cavalry, was in command of Company B, escorting the pack train, at the Little Bighorn.  When the fighting commenced, his company joined the battle with Marcus Reno’s battalion.  McDougall survived the hilltop fight and remained in the 7th Cavalry until he retired as a major in 1890.

Hunt, an 1847 graduate of West Point, participated in the 1862 Peninsular Campaign and was severely wounded at Fair Oaks.  He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in late 1862, and he was brevetted as brigadier general in the United States Army for his service in the Civil War.  Afterward he held various commands, becoming a lieutenant colonel in 1868 and colonel of the 14th infantry in 1881.

Carr, nicknamed “The Black-Bearded Cossack,” served in the mounted rifles in Indian warfare until the Civil War, when he served in the Army of the Southwest.  He showed special bravery and military ability at Wilsons Creek, Pea Ridge, Black River Bridge, and the capture of Little Rock.  He received a medal of honor and successive brevets for gallant and meritorious service in the field, rising to the rank of major general in both the volunteers and the regular army.  After the Civil War, Carr conducted successful frontier operations against the Indians, winning a significant battle at Summit Springs.

The archive documents are generally in fine to very fine condition.  The vellum discharge, signed by Hunt and McDougall, has minor stains and a bit of edge chipping with paper loss at the upper right, affecting nothing.  The reinlistment oath has two normal folds and a bit of paper loss at the right edge of the top fold.  Carr’s letter of recommendation, on stationery of the Headquarters Mounted Recruiting Service in St. Louis, Missouri, has two normal mailing folds, one of which affects the signature.  The citizenship document is certified by the clerk of the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis and bears a pristine red paper seal.  It has horizontal and vertical folds, and there is some edge splitting at the ends of the folds, the worst of which is a 1” split at the right end of the bottom fold.  The membership certificate for the Regular Army and Navy Union has two folds, and it shows some wrinkling and has a small stain in the right margin.  The certificate of deposit has a split at the bottom of the single vertical fold. 

Custer’s autograph material is in demand.  This commission and the accompanying archive are an outstanding pieces that belong in the finest of collections.


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