Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 03 2012
Eriksmoen: Murder, mystery surround Custer statues
Plans were made to erect statues of Custer at the West Point Academy in New York, and in Washington, D.C.; Monroe, Mich.; and Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota.
Of those plans, only two were erected. Only one statue can still be accounted for, and it was moved from a city’s public square to what Custer’s widow, Libbie, claimed to be “stuck in the woods.”
A statue of Custer was unveiled in 1879 at West Point. Five years later, because of Libbie’s disapproval, it was removed and has since disappeared. As a result, the reported plan to erect a statue in the nation’s capital was scuttled.
In 1910, his statue in the public square at Monroe was unveiled and has been relocated three times. Plans were made to erect a statue of Custer at Fort Lincoln in 1954, but after the model was molded, the chief sponsor died, and the project came to a halt.
I was first alerted about a Custer statue on Oct. 24, 2011, when I received an email from Maj. Andrew Swedberg, an instructor at West Point. Swedberg, a native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., had been researching the whereabouts of the statue that stood at the academy from 1879 to 1884. I had no luck tracking down the statue after 1900, and I also became fascinated with other proposed and actual statues of Custer.
Custer was born in 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio. As a young boy, his family moved to Monroe, where he attended school and met Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon, the girl he eventually married. Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, just as the Civil War broke out. Custer rose to the rank of major general by the age of 25.
After gold was reportedly discovered in the Black Hills, Custer led a verification expedition into this land, which had been promised to the Sioux in 1868 by the Treaty of Laramie. This was one of many violations of the treaty and, in 1877, the Black Hills were seized by the U.S. government.
On June 28, 1876, two days after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the process of burying the fallen U.S. soldiers began. Most of the soldiers were buried in shallow graves, but Custer’s grave was accorded the traditional
6 feet. His body was later disinterred and reburied with a traditional military ceremony at West Point on Oct. 10, 1877.
A committee was formed to raise funds for a monument at his grave. They raised less than $10,000; an equestrian statue was too expensive. Two sculptors submitted designs, and the committee went with James Wilson MacDonald.
MacDonald created an
8-foot bronze statue with a saber in Custer’s right hand and a pistol in his left. It was unveiled on Aug. 30, 1879, before 3,000 visitors at a ceremony at West Point. Libbie did not attend and contended that she had never been informed about the project. She unsuccessfully tried to stop the dedication and later strongly urged authorities to have the statue removed. She convinced Secretary of War Robert Lincoln to order the removal of the statue in 1884. Plans had been made to cast a duplicate and display it in Washington, but the idea was scrapped because of Libbie’s protests.
The statue remained in storage at West Point until the turn of the century, when it was sent to Stanford White at the John Williams Ornamental Bronze and Iron Works Foundry in New York City. White, a noted architect, was planning to have the bust removed from the statue. Before completing this project, he struck up a relationship with actress Evelyn Nesbit and was murdered by Harry Thaw, Nesbit’s jealous husband. No one knows the fate of the Custer statue.
In 1907, the Michigan Legislature appropriated $25,000 to create a bronze equestrian statue of Custer. Sculptor Edward Clark Potter was commissioned, and it was decided to erect it in Monroe, Custer’s hometown. Libbie approved, and on June 4, 1910, it was unveiled. Libbie and President Taft were on hand for the unveiling. It was moved on June 20, 1923, to a park along the river. In 1955, the city officials decided to move it to a more accessible location.
In 1954, Eugene McAuliffe, a retired mining engineer, met with Russell Reid, the superintendent of the North Dakota Historical Society, and proposed erecting a statue of Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln. McAuliffe was a longtime Custer admirer. A decision was made to commission Avard Fairbanks, a noted sculptor who created the “Pioneer Family” in 1947. It stands at the south entrance of the Capitol grounds in Bismarck.
After seed money was collected, Fairbanks began to work on a proposed
13-foot bronze statue on a 10-foot granite pedestal. Two enlargement clay prototypes were completed, and the final molding was under way when McAuliffe died in 1959. For years the sculpture languished with the hopes that alternative funding could be found to complete the project. As time passed, the model dried out and began cracking and falling apart. In 1987, Fairbanks died and all that remained was a small model of the statue that was donated by Fairbanks’ son to the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.