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Published on Saturday, June 22, 2002.
Last modified on 6/22/2002 at 1:50 am

'Custer's Last Fight' sales to benefit battle memorials

By ED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff

"Custer's Last Fight," one of the most famous depictions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and one of the most famously inaccurate, has been seen by millions of people in the past 106 years. And undoubtedly many of them were seeing double at the time.

The lurid, melodramatic lithographs, which show a flowing-maned, red-scarved, saber-swinging Custer - all inventions of the artist - were distributed to saloons all over the country as advertisements for Budweiser beer.

Now, prints of one the nation's most famous soldiers will be sold to benefit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Peace Memorial, both on the grounds of the private Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen.

Chris Kortlander, owner of the nonprofit museum just southwest of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said it was a real coup to get permission from the Anheuser-Busch Co. to reprint the poster-size lithograph.

"This is the first time they've ever given permission for it to go outside of corporate hands," he said.

Kortlander said he opened talks with Anheuser-Busch more than a year ago, when he pitched the idea to William Vollmar, the brewer's corporate historian and senior manager.

"The credit really needs to go to him because he was the one who believed in what we were doing," Kortlander said.

"Custer's Last Fight" was originally painted on a wagon canvas by Cassilly Adams in 1884, eight years after the battle, but the painting from which the lithographs were made was created by F. Otto Becker in 1889.

In "Custer's List," published in 1969, Don Russell said, "No single event in United States history, or perhaps world history, has been the subject of more bad art and erroneous story than Custer's Last Stand."

Whatever its artistic merits, the Adams-Becker painting definitely contributed to erroneous notions of the battle. The dress of the Indian attackers could charitably be described as fanciful, the Indian village in the background is shown on the wrong side of the Little Bighorn River and some of the warriors appear to be carrying what Kortland described as "Zulu shields."

To OrderReproduction prints of "Custer's Last Fight" - at 36-by-27 inches about 6 inches smaller than the original - are selling for $29.99 through the Custer Battlefield Museum. To order, call (406) 638-1876 or visit
But it remains a striking, unforgettable depiction of the fight. Kortland said he has four different versions of the Anheuser-Busch lithograph, and "it's unbelievable how many people at our museum lock in on this thing."

Kortland had 2,000 copies of the print produced at Artcraft Printers in Billings, one of the first art reproductions to roll off Artcraft's new printing press. He said Anheuser-Busch shipped him a copy of the lithograph on CD-ROM. That print was compared with the copies in Kortlander's possession, with an eye toward creating a print whose colors were closest to the original work of art.

Artcraft then digitally enhanced the print, producing a much brighter, more colorful print than most people are accustomed to seeing, Kortlander said.

Proceeds from sales of the print will go toward maintaining the Peace Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which Kortlander said is the only such tomb in the country that is not on government property. It contains the remains of a 7th Cavalry trooper, uncovered in 1926 during the construction of Highway 87.

Last summer, to mark the 125th anniversary of the battle, the Peace Memorial honoring all of the battle's participants was dedicated on museum grounds.

TimelineThe following timeline of the history of "Custer's Last Fight" was prepared by William Vollmar, corporate historian for the Anheuser-Busch Co., with assistance from the Custer Battlefield Museum:

1876 - Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 210 of his men are killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That same year, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association begins production of Budweiser beer in the United States.

1884 - Cassilly Adams paints the first version of "Custer's Last Fight," measuring 16 feet 5 inches by 9 feet 6 inches on a wagon canvas for a traveling exhibit.

1888 - Adolphus Busch conceives of an advertising campaign based on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He purchases Adams' Custer painting, but is unsure whether it is right for his planned ad campaign.

1889 - Busch employs the Milwaukee Lithographing Co. to make prints of Adams' painting. F. Otto Becker, an employee of the lithographer, is hired by Busch to make a master painting of "Custer's Last Fight," from the which the famous advertising lithograph would be created. Busch pays for the painting but never takes possession of it; it remains in Becker's hands.

1895 - Anheuser-Busch makes a gift of the Adams painting to the 7th Cavalry during a ceremony at Fort Riley, Kan. The painting is moved to Fort Grant, Ariz., briefly and then put in storage.

1896 - The Milwaukee Lithographing Co. uses the Becker painting to create lithographic plates, but must first cut it into eight sections so that a number of artists can make the intricate color plates at the same time. Shortly thereafter, lithographic reproduction begins. The print contains a border advertisement for the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association, which would change its name to the Anheuser-Busch Co. in 1919. The extremely popular poster is distributed to saloons, bars and restaurants across the nation.

1934 - The Adams painting is discovered, badly damaged, in storage at Fort Bliss, Texas.

1935 - The Adams painting is sent to the Works Progress Administration in Boston for restoration and returned to Fort Bliss in 1938.

1936 - Becker reassembles the eight pieces of his painting and paints over the seams to restore it to its original state.

1939 - Becker sells his original painting to Anheuser-Busch for $2,000.

1946 - A fire at the Fort Bliss officers mess destroys the Adams painting.

2002 - The Custer Battlefield Museum becomes the first outside entity granted permission by the Anheuser-Busch Co. to reproduce, in a limited edition, the original advertising lithograph of "Custer's Last Fight."

Ed Kemmick can be reached at 657-1293 or

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