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Cool Things - Custer's Last Rally Lithograph

Custer's Last Rally lithography by Mulvany

Many artists have tried to depict what happened at Little Bighorn in 1876. John Mulvany's version was the first and perhaps the best known.

A minor military engagement occurred along the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, in what is now eastern Montana. The Seventh U.S. Cavalry under Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer met up unexpectedly with the fighting men of a large Sioux and Cheyenne village, and five companies of cavalry—some 270 soldiers—were killed.

Despite the fact that no white eyewitnesses survived, the event soon became a major saga in the mythology of our country's history, and hundreds of artists, poets, composers and historians have tried their hands at producing a true depiction of events as they may have unfolded that day.

The first artist to realize the potential appeal of the subject matter was John Mulvany (1844-1906), who had arrived in the U.S. from Ireland in the mid-1850s, served in the Civil War, and later traveled to Europe to study art under masters well known for their battlefield scenes. Returning to the U.S. in the early 1870s, Mulvany lived in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and points west.

Mulvany was living in Kansas City as of 1879, when he began work on Custer's Last Rally, a huge painting depicting the cavalrymen's last minutes on earth. In his quest for accuracy of detail, the artist researched his subject on the actual battlefield, on Sioux reservations, and at Fort Leavenworth. After two years of work on his masterpiece, Mulvany completed the 11 x 20 ft. canvas and took it on the road. The monumental painting remained on tour until at least 1890, wowing paying audiences in a number of U.S. cities. A newspaper commentator in Boston saluted Mulvany's forceful depiction of "a grim, dismal melee," and Walt Whitman, the famous poet, praised the work as being sketched "from reality, or the best that could be got of it."

In order to reach an even larger audience, Mulvany prepared his composition to be issued as a color lithograph. As part of this process, the artist painted a smaller version of his work, from which a lithograph artist could prepare a print to be mass-produced. The smaller painting is in the collections of the Woolaroc Museum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The large original painting is in private hands.

Mulvany continued his career as a painter but is remembered now, if at all, only for Custer's Last Rally, which was said to have made him a small fortune. Although he enjoyed tremendous commercial success for a time, the artist finally succumbed to the lure of alcoholism and drowned himself in the East River in 1906.

This lithograph of Mulvany's Custer's Last Rally is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cool Things - Custer's Last Rally Lithograph

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 1997

Date Modified: June 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.