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Custer’s Last Battle

Cover, Custer's Last Battle by Charles Francis Roe, published in 1925 by Robert Bruce

“Lieut. Bradley sends word that he has counted 196 dead cavalrymen on the hills to the left; what appeared yesterday in the distance like buffalo lying down are dead troopers and horses.”

So reads the journal of Edward J. McClernand, 2nd Lieutenant of the Montana Column. The scene he describes is the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn. On the afternoon of June 25th, 1876, George A. Custer, Lieutenant-Colonel of Seventh Cavalry, along with five companies of the Seventh Cavalry had faced a force of Sioux and their allies near a tributary of the Big Horn River. All of Custer’s forces perished, save for a single horse. The battle was part of the Sioux War, the outcome of the United States government’s failure to honor the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which granted territory in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana to the Sioux nation.

A horse named "Comanche" was the lone survivor of the Battle. Now stuffed, the horse remains on display in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo courtesy of the Musuem of Natural History, University of Kansas.


Page 29, detail. Photograph of Gall, leader of Sioux forces at the Battle of Little Bighorn

Special Collections houses a copy of Custer’s Last Battle by Brigadier-General Charles Francis Roe. Our copy was signed by Custer’s widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer. She presented this copy to late MU professor John Neihardt, whose entire library is now housed in Special Collections. The library is an especially rich source of Americana. Custer’s Last Battle (Rare JGN  E 467.1 C99 R7 1927) presents the reports of Charles Roe and other veterans of the Sioux War, accompanied by photographs and maps.




Page 1, detail. Autograph of Custer's widow, Elizabeth B. Custer

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Spring brings things

The adult form of a privet hawk

Print 3 (detail)

And spring things bring people who collect them –naturalists and artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), the first to hitch entomology to fine art and to make a living doing so. Her interests were not limited to European species; she spent two years stalking the insects of Surinam, a colony the Dutch had acquired from the English in exchange for Manhattan about thirty years earlier. She devoted an equal amount of attention to giant flying roaches as to seemlier species, but there is no question that she had a special passion for caterpillars.

Print 7

Merian’s interest in metamorphosis led her to develop a new form of composition. She would depict a single species at each distinct phase simultaneously. She arranged these in a composition on and around the plant that formed its principal food source. In the image on the left several saw-fly specimens pose on a tulip. The caterpillar sits atop a gooseberry at the bottom center, while the adult fly prepares to land on a petal at the top right. In between on a stem and leaf are the pupa and larva. As Ella Reitsma, curator of a recent exhibit, observes about Merian’s work, “In the details the drawing is realistic; as a whole it is anything but. The beautifully balanced composition conjures up a seeming realism, for the successive stages in the development of an insect can never be found together!  Tricks have been played with time and place” (15)

A saw-fly at caterpillar stage on a gooseberry

Print 7 (detail)


Heliconiidae on Palma Christi

Print 46

Despite such innovation, Merian’s work languished for a long time under the misnomer “minor art.’ It has only recently come into its own, with exhibitions in Los Angeles and Amsterdam, and a digital exhibit hosted by The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library Rare Book Collection. She is even the subject of a children’s book. Ingrid Rowland notes her “crystalline accuracy, ” “incomparable precision,” and the “electric intensity” of her color. She asserts, “there is no question that she was an artist. Her disquieting view of life in all its forms has carefully, cleverly shaped every one of the images that seem, so deceptively, to present intimate, dispassionate snapshots of reality.”

Pervading her works is a healthy Aristotelian sense that something must be known in all its variousness. Working alongside this cognitive disposition and perhaps encouraging it was a habit that she shared with many contemporaries: collecting. Her life-like compositions conceal the artificial taxonomizing and categorizing that lie behind them, making it appear as if she had discovered, rather than created the scene depicted.

These are qualities that Peter the Great evidently appreciated; he was an avid collector of her work, much of which remains in the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. In 1974  The Leningrad Watercolours is a facsimile edition featuring fifty of the works housed there. It is a large-format edition limited to 1750 copies.  Several prints from the collection  are available to view in our reading room. The entire collection collection (RARE QH31 .M4516 .A34 1974) is also available to consult.


Select Bibliography

Reitsma, Ella, Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters: Women of Art and Science. Amsterdam : Rembrandt House Museum, 2008.

Rowland, Ingrid. “The Flowering Genius of Maria Sibylla Merian.” New York Review of Books. April 9, 2009.

Todd, Kim. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

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Historic Doodles

The week before spring break is traditionally a difficult time for students to remain focused on their books. Our collection of historic textbooks offers evidence that this trend is not new. Wide margins have always provided opportunities to practice the signature. The bald pates of historic personages have always asked to be filled in with comb-overs.

Benjamin Franklin got a spanking.

Enhanced portrait of Grover Cleveland. Pretty pretty, indeed!









Historic textbooks are an excellent resource, not only for those investigating the history of pedagogy, but also for those interested in getting a picture of the values and ideologies of any given historical moment. Ours is a diverse collection, comprising volumes from 1770 to 1929 and representing such core subjects as Arithmetic, and “Rhetorick,” as well as less conventional subjects.  American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades For Persons Connected with the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades sits next to a handwriting manual. Some textbooks defy disciplinary boundaries altogether. The title page of Thomas Wise’s The Newest Young Man’s Companion of 1770 (right) announces that it includes “a compendious English grammar, letters on compliment, arithmetic and bookkeeping, a compendium of geography, the management of horses, and the art of painting in oil and water colours.”

Though in many respects historic textbooks differ from their modern counterparts, in one respect they are the same. They all bear witness to their owners’ distraction. Paste downs can be filled in with faces. Margins provide space for recording personal notes that will perplex later generations, such as “This is a day of days,” (below) scrawled next to the life cycle of the mosquito.







In between reading about the Monroe Doctrine and the history of the American flag, a student using an 1885 edition of A Brief History of the United States found time to compose the following message to the reader: “Before you find out what I have got to say, page 28 you’ll have to see.” On page 28, the student continues, “It grieves me to think of the trouble you have taken but look on page 4.” There follow a total of seven directions until the final injunction concludes, “You fool don’t you know better than to chase this book from cover to cover?” 

One wonders if amidst so many pages of instructions, students liked to issue some of their. Ella Potts Allen was a seventh grader at Potts School in 1920. She provides the following instructions on the pastedown of  Primer of Sanitation, Being a Simple Textbook on Disease Germs and How to Fight Them.  “If this book should go to Rome, Just give it a kick and send it home.” Her book did not make it to Rome–Potts School was in Columbia, Missouri. But maybe Ella made it to Italy one spring. One would hope she had paid enough attention to her primer to avoid the roman fever that did away with so many of her headstrong, fictional contemporaries.


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Special Collections and Rare Books

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