What George Armstrong Custer was doing in Buffalo a month before his graduation from West Point in 1861 is a mystery.
The only known record of the visit is a tiny ruby ambrotype depicting Custer, who is remembered mostly for a disastrous military blunder, seated in his cadet's uniform. He is posed ramrod-straight, right leg over left, one elbow resting on a cloth-covered table.
Unlike the popular image of Custer as a long-haired, swashbuckling cavalryman, his hair in this photographic relic is rather close-cut and his expression somber.
Believed to be the earliest picture of Custer in uniform, the image sold Tuesday for $23,000 to an unidentified buyer at an auction in Manhattan.
The 3 1/4 -inch by 2 3/4 -inch portrait is in a sealed case with a brass clip, with the following inscribed in pencil on the paper lining: "2nd Lieut. G.A. Custer, 2nd Regt. Cavalry U.S.A., Washington, D.C.," "Picture taken at Buffalo, N.Y., June 1861, while a Cadet at Military Academy West Point, N.Y." and "Cadet G.A. Custer U.S.C.C., U.S.M.A."
According to Swann Galleries, which held the auction, the date indicates the photograph was taken weeks before Custer's June 24, 1861, graduation from the U.S. Military Academy, "approximately one month prior to his joining his troops in Virginia at the start of the Battle of Bull Run.
"It is unclear why Custer would have been in Buffalo, though it is possible that it was a stopping point on his way home to visit his family in Ohio," the gallery said. "It has been suggested that the uniform he is wearing is his summer furlough uniform."
There are no clues as to who took the picture or who owned it before it made its way to Jerome Shochet, the collector who put it up for sale.
The rest of the Custer story, of course, is history. After graduating last in his West Point class of 34 cadets, he became a brigadier general in command of a Michigan volunteer cavalry brigade. He distinguished himself in numerous Civil War battles, and his pursuit of Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee helped hasten Lee's surrender in April 1865.
After the war, the Army turned to asserting U.S. mineral rights in the West, a campaign that brought the government into conflict with Native Americans. Custer commanded a column of more than 266 men who attacked Sitting Bull's encampment on Montana's Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1874, without waiting for a second calvary group that was to have arrived two days later.
Custer and his entire troop were killed, and his decision to attack has been characterized as one of the biggest blunders in U.S. military history.
The sale included four other Custer portraits and a number of other Civil War-era treasures, including a period album containing dozens of images by Mathew Brady, 135 portraits of Union generals and four of President Abraham Lincoln.