Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Widow of General George Armstrong Custer, author. Born: April 8, 1842, Monroe, Michigan. Married: February 9, 1864, Monroe, Michigan. Died: April 4, 1933, New York City.
Elizabeth Custer's final glimpse of her husband came as the Seventh Cavalry marched out of Fort Lincoln onto the Dakota plains in May 1876. The regimental band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me" as General George Armstrong Custer led his command toward Montana and death on the Little Bighorn River.
Ironically, Elizabeth Custer was one army wife who insisted on not being left behind. She claimed to be "the only officer's wife who always followed the regiment." Her stories of life on the plains with her beloved "Autie" are as entertaining today as when they first appeared in the late 19th century.
Widowed at 34, Elizabeth Custer began writing to supplement her meager army pension. Kansas is the setting for two of her books, Following the Guidon (1890) and Tenting on the Plains (1893).
Elizabeth Bacon was born April 8, 1842 in Monroe, Michigan to a wealthy family. She met George Armstrong Custer in 1862, during the Civil War, and was quickly attracted to the West Point graduate. Her father, an influential judge, disapproved of her choice and refused to allow a marriage. Judge Bacon considered Custer's undistinguished family to be a poor match for his daughter. He finally agreed to the marriage when Custer was promoted to brevet brigadeer general in 1864. They were married February 9, 1864, in Monroe Michigan.
Small and slender with delicate features, Elizabeth Custer seemed physically unfit for a life in the field. Although in many ways Libbie (as she was known to her friends) was a traditional 19th-century wife, she found nontraditional camp life invigorating.
From the first days of their marriage during the Civil War, the Custers lived together in military encampments whenever possible. Separation, though often unavoidable, was agony. "It is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to one we love," Libbie wrote years later.
The Custers lived in Kansas from 1866 until 1871, while the U.S. Seventh Cavalry was headquartered at Fort Riley to protect settlers and railroad workers on the western plains. The already tense atmosphere escalated as army troops engaged in violent campaigns against the Southern Cheyennes, Sioux, Comanches, and other tribes.
Elizabeth joined her husband in the field whenever it was reasonably safe to do so. During her years in Kansas, she encountered prairie fires, an earthquake, mutiny by soldiers at Fort Riley, and a cholera epidemic. Yet, she wrote later, "there was never a suggestion of returning to a well-regulated climate."
Tenting was particularly dangerous during storms. Shortly after Libbie joined her husband on Big Creek near Old Fort Hays, a nighttime squall blew down their "rag house" and drenched her possessions. She borrowed her husband's dry underclothes to wear beneath a wet dress and donned a pair of cavalry boots. "The tent might go down nightly for all I cared then," she wrote in Tenting on the Plains. "Every thought of separation departed, and I gave myself up to the happiest hours, clamping about the tent in those old troop boots, indifferent whether my shoes ever dried." Her fondness for the boots she later donated to the museum may date from this event.
Elizabeth Custer was not the only female camp follower with the Seventh Cavalry, but she was the most faithful. Other officers' wives occasionally joined their husbands in camp, and young ladies visited the Custers at Libbie's invitation. The presence of comely single women made the Custers' tent the center of camp social life. Billiards, croquet, target shooting, and even buffalo hunting were enjoyed by men and women alike. "This wild jolly free life is perfectly fascinating," Libbie wrote a friend in 1869. "We dress as we like and live with no approach to style."
The Custers left Kansas when the Seventh Cavalry was reassigned in 1871. Stationed in Kentucky for a short time, the Custers pined for the West. "A true cavalryman feels that a life in the saddle on the free open plain is his legitimate existence," Libbie observed. Their wish to return to the plains was granted in early 1873 when they received orders to report to Fort Lincoln in Dakota Territory. Three years later, during a disastrous campaign against the Sioux, General Custer and five companies of the Seventh Cavalry were killed.
For the remaining 52 years of her life, Elizabeth devoted herself to protecting and defending her husband's reputation. She shaped the public's memory of her dead spouse through lectures, magazine articles, and books. She was lobbying Congress for a museum at the Little Bighorn battlefield when she died a few days before her 91st birthday on April 4, 1933.
Elzabeth Custer's legacy to Kansas includes a pair of General Custer's boots, on display at the Kansas Museum of History. The boots "traversed a great deal of the Western frontier," she wrote in a letter preserved in the Historical Society's collections. Purchased from a Philadelphia bootmaker for $40, the boots endured campaigns that took the Custers "from near the Mexican border to the Viscinity [sic] of the Canadian frontier."
Entry: Custer, Elizabeth Bacon
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: February 2013
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