Elizabeth Custer—The Great Woman Behind the Man
For nearly 160 years, Elizabeth Bacon Custer has been the most famous military wife in American history. During her lifetime, she was widely admired for her grit, humor, intelligence, and vivacity and is still remembered today, but perhaps more as George Armstrong Custer’s widow than for her own accomplishments. Most people don’t realize that, in fact, perhaps the biggest reason George Armstrong Custer is so mythologized today is because Elizabeth Custer worked tirelessly for nearly six decades after her husband’s death to protect and enhance his legacy.
Elizabeth Bacon Custer—called “Libbie” by her husband and friends—was born the daughter of a judge in Monroe, Michigan, into a wealthy, upper-class family. She graduated at the top of her class from a prestigious female academy and wanted to attend the New York Art Academy to become an artist. But fate had something different in mind for her.
A young, handsome, and brash man named George Armstrong Custer met Libbie in 1862, fell madly in love with her and wooed her doggedly. (Libbie later described his relentless marriage proposals as a “cavalry charge.”) But Libbie’s father did not approve of George, especially his wildness and womanizing. George had attended West Point and graduated at the rock-bottom of his class, which didn’t do much to convince Libbie’s father of his worthiness. But, during his service and indefatigable bravery in the Civil War, he catapulted up the ranks. When he became America’s youngest brigadier general at age 23, Libbie’s father finally agreed to the marriage.
They were made for each other: Both handsome, literate, passionate, adventurous, and drawn to the rough-and-tumble military life. They were wildly in love with each other, and their relationship sexually charged. But George was known to be a womanizer and Libbie, flirtatious, so their relationship was fiery, as well. They wrote amorous letters full of innuendo and double-entendres. When Confederates captured some of the letters and published them in newspapers, both George and Libbie were undaunted.
They insisted on being together wherever George was assigned. During their 14 years of marriage, they were only apart for 18 months total, but their separation was mutually agonizing. Libbie described her time alone in 1867 as “the summer of my discontent." It was during that summer that George yearned so powerfully for his wife that he left his post to be with her and was later court-martialed for “absence without leave,” for which he was suspended from his rank and command for a year without pay. But Libbie was nonplussed by the verdict: “We are quite determined not to live apart again, even if he leaves the army otherwise so delightful to us.”
The couple’s final home together was Fort Abraham Lincoln. The fort, near Bismarck, North Dakota, housed about 500 troops as well as many wives and staff. From there, her husband would conduct forays against Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, and the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne.
George and Libbie lived in a large home and often entertained the officers and their wives. Libbie often rode with her husband and his soldiers for outings on the Plains. She did not fear the perils of encountering hostile Indians as much as she feared waiting at home for her husband with her worse fears for his safety. She later wrote:
“I well knew there was something far worse than fears for my own personal safety. It is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to one we love. You eat your heart slowly out with such anxiety, and to endure such suspense is simply the hardest of all trials that come to the soldier's wife.”
On May 17, 1876, Custer led twelve companies of 650 men and a group of Indian scouts out of the fort while the band played, “The Girl I Left Behind.” The weeks following were interminable for Libbie. On the afternoon of June 25, she had a sense of foreboding and taking pen to paper, wrote:
God pity the wife who is waiting at home with her lily cheeks and violet eyes dreaming that old dream of love while her lover is walking in paradise
On July 6, she heard a knock on the back door, slipped on her dressing gown, and hurried downstairs. Captain William McCaskey was waiting for her in the parlor. Grim-faced, he read the dispatch: “Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and every officer and man of five companies of the 7th U.S. Cavalry have been killed in battle at the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876.”
The captain later recalled that was the hardest day of his life, but he was relieved when Elizabeth stiffened in resolve as if to stand at attention, then said she would accompany him to inform the other widows. Elizabeth had lost her husband, three brothers-in-law and a nephew in the battle.
Soon after, she was informed that she would have to promptly vacate her quarters and she would receive a widow’s pension of $30 a month. But, George, perhaps having had his own premonition, had taken out a life insurance policy for $5,000. She was left with that and only her memories. She boarded the Northern Pacific Railroad in Bismarck and went home to Monroe, Michigan. There, she sequestered herself away, writing that a “a wounded thing must hide.”
But her husband’s reputation was under attack. It seemed that President Grant and many of the officers in the Indian campaign were blaming the defeat on Custer. Even Custer’s friend, General Sheridan, seemed silent. She saw that her husband's defense had fallen to her alone. She first worked with author Frederick Whittaker to write a laudatory biography of her husband, then rushed it into print. Then she convinced General Sheridan to rebury George’s remains at West Point. She then worked to have statues created for his West Point grave, at his birthplace in Rumley, Ohio, and in Monroe, Michigan.
But her most lasting achievements and what affected public opinion the most in her husband’s favor was writing several memoirs about his career, frontier adventures, and their lives together. Her first book, Boots and Saddles, was published to great acclaim in 1885, then Tenting on the Plains in 1887, and Following the Guidon in 1890.
She wrote her final book, The Boy General, in 1901, also published with great success. The books were best-sellers and made tremendous gains in restoring her husband’s legacy. Her writing also secured for her financial security that his meager life insurance policy and military pension had failed to provide. She became a very popular lecturer and continued to write magazine and newspaper articles and make public appearances to speak about his life.
But, apart from her tireless public appearances, she closed herself off to life. “The hours that one sees people and keeps up the farce of perpetual happiness are few compared with the never ending hours when one is alone with the past,” she wrote, “and all those who were nearest have gone to the country from which no traveler returns.” For six decades, she lived completely with the memories of her true love.
She died on April 4, 1933, just as she was advocating for the battlefield of the Little Bighorn to be declared a national historical site. She was buried beside her husband at West Point, in the shadow of his immense monument--a golden-haired cavalier wrought of iron and steely courage—the stature of which she had worked so tirelessly to build.
For related posts, go to NotesfromtheFrontier.com
-Who Killed Custer?
-Gall, The Mightiest Warrior
-The Magnificent Legacy of Crazy Horse
-The Amazing Little Bighorn Drawings
-Red Horse at the Little Bighorn
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