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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Mrs. General Custer at Fort Riley

1866

Edited by Minnie Dubbs Millbrook

Spring, 1974 (Vol. 40, No. 1), pages 63 to 71;
Transcribed by Sheryl Wagoner; edited and composed in HTML by Name withheld upon request;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets refer to endnotes for thistext.

I. Introduction

ELIZABETH BACON CUSTER came with her husband, Gen. George A. Custer, from Monroe, Mich., to Fort Riley, Kan., in October, 1866. According to the Junction City Union of October 21 the Custers arrived October 16, but according to the Fort Riley post returns Custer did not report for duty until November 1. The general was already a famous man, having made a brilliant record during the Civil War. Thereafter a major general by brevet in the volunteer army, he had been stationed for some months in Texas. On leave through the summer of 1866, he had been active in politics and a member of the party of Pres. Andrew Johnson in his swing around the country. When the army was reorganized after the war, Custer was commissioned July 28, 1866, lieutenant colonel of the Seventh U. S. cavalry, a new regiment then forming at Fort Riley. Though this entailed some reduction in rank he retained the stars on his shoulders and the honor of being addressed in his brevet rank as general. Therefore in the parlance of the day his wife was Mrs. General Custer.

In the letter that follows Elizabeth Bacon Custer (1842-1933) writes to her first cousin, Rebecca Richmond, of Grand Rapids, Mich. Their mothers were sisters and Rebecca, two years older and unmarried, had long been Libbie's favorite cousin and most regular correspondent. Almost 20 years later Mrs. Custer would write a book, Tenting on the Plains, covering her residence at Fort Riley and other places in the West, but this letter gives many additional details concerning garrison life and the Custer house-hold. The letter comes from the "Elizabeth B. Custer Collection" at the Custer Battlefield National Monument. (Microfilm I, pp. 16-26.)

II. The Letter

Fort Riley, Kansas
December 6, 1866

My Dear Rebecca:

I am sure I don't know whether you were indebted to me for that nice letter I received night before last but I am quite sure that it was very welcome and I hope my speedy answer will inspire you to send me another right quickly. And now I want to tell you all about Fort Riley as you asked to know. How many many times I have wished for you here! Before I started from home I wanted to send you word to join us but Mary's marriage [1] I thought would make it necessary for you to remain at home. And you know I wouldn't write you out of form. Oh if you were only here! I know you would be so delighted for we all are.

We are so much more comfortably situated here than we were at Winchester. [2] The climate of Kansas is very fine, so pure and free from dampness. As yet we have not had a week of cold weather altogether. No snow, nor mud, nor rain except a few small attempts at a feeble drizzle. At home they write of rain, snow & mud. How can they live in such a vile climate?

We started from Monroe Saturday night and staid with Mayor Barker in Detroit till Monday night. He is so fond of dogs & horses and hunting. [3] Autie and he are great friends and Mrs. Barker, his daughter Caddie and niece Josie Eaton, are very hos-pitable and entertaining. These ladies and their friend Miss Strong, her lover Mr. Whitbeck, and a gentleman friend of the Barkers formed a gay party to accompany us to St. Louis. [4] Caddie & Josie are sweet young ladies & so gay. I suppose you know Anna Darrah [5] also came with us. She is sitting beside me now reading, "The Head of the Family." [6]

Libbie and George Armstrong Custer, ca. 1865

Libbie and George Armstrong Custer in Texas about 1865, from a tintype, courtesy of W. H. Edwards.

Custer home at Fort Riley, view 1
Custer home at Fort Riley, view 2

Two views of Building #24-A at Fort Riley, long identified as Custer's house where he and Libbie lived in 1866-1867. It is proposed to open the quarters as a museum in June, 1974, under the auspices of the Fort Riley Historical and Archaeological Society. (U. S. Army photographs.)

In St. Louis we had an elegant time. We thoroughly did the city and were in consequence nearly undone ourselves. Tired! Oh no! I guess not! (i. e. slang). We went to the famous "Missouri Botanical Gardens" owned by an old English gentleman -- a bachelor. [7] They are said to be the most superb gardens in America. I wish I could describe them to you! Six hundred acres; and graperies, summer houses, exquisite lawns, statuary, all varie-ties of landscape gardening, every kind of flower, shrub and tree besides extensive conservatories, groves, romantic walks cover the six hundred acres. His house, his immense museum for seed, bulbs, roots, etc., his carriage house, the main entrance, the graveled carriage way, are in excellent taste. I went there first with the President's party. [8] It is five miles from the city. He is to give it to the city at his death. Your father will remember him as the famous Shaw divorce -- no breach of promise man -- of notoriety some years ago. [9]

My pen fails me when I attempt to describe the Southern Hotel. It is simply superb -- and yet thoroughly home like. [10] We were treated very politely. For two days we raced from one famous place to another. The "Southern Relief Fair" was then in ex-istence -- Their gallery of Paintings were really a treat and really Rebecca no one need call Southern ladies indolent who caught sight of oceans of sofa pillow, afghans & embroideries of all de-scriptions. [11] It was a pretty sight. Speaking of paintings -- Aut & I saw Bierstadt's Storm in the Rocky Mountains -- then on exhibi-tion. It is much finer than his "Rocky Mountains." His atmospheric effects rival any I've ever seen. [12] And Kansas must have given him his idea for his sunsets and the haze on the hills and the evening purple -- for we have beautiful skies and many hills all about us. I also saw "Bancroft and his friends." It is a fine painting.

We also saw the "Tournament" for the benefit of the S. R. Fair -- Oh, Rebecca, how delighted you would have been! It was something so novel to us and reminded us of "Ivanhoe" and other descriptions of olden days. The Fair Grounds are said to be the finest in America. The State Fairs are usually there. [13] Thousands of people sat around the arena on the spectators stand. The Judges Stand is a three story temple built building in the centre, with fountains on the lawn around it. The costumes of the riders and the excitement of each tilt was so new to us. Each rider was allowed three tilts around the ring -- each time they made efforts to take from 3 horizontal poles at equal distances from each other, three rings not as large as my wrist. They used a lance in taking the rings. In the evening the Queen of Beauty was crowned by the successful chevalier at a ball given at the Southern Hotel which we attended but did not dance. [14]

We heard the distinguished Lawrence Barrett in "Rosedale" and after the play became acquainted with him at the hotel. He is an elegant gentleman, and do you know he actually began life as a bell boy at the Russell House in Detroit. [15]

And now I must tell you about our life now. We are living almost in luxury. It does not seem life in the army for you know I have had mostly a rough time. This is not a fort, tho' called so, it is a garrison. For there are no walls enclosing it. But the long stables five in number, the sutler's store and Billiard House, Ex-press Office and post office, Quartermaster employee's houses, and mess houses, Sutlers residence, Chaplains residence and chapel, the laundress houses, superintendents house, Ordinance building, situated all of them near the barracks, give the post the appearance of a little city. The mens barracks are composed of six large two storied buildings, three on two opposite sides of a hollow square, and the six double houses for officers quarters on the remaining two sides of the square. This square is a large lawn for parade, a flag and two cannon in the centre. A Carriage drive runs all round the parade ground.

Our houses are not built side by side, but they are double except the Commanders house next to ours. The halls of each house are at the end so we are separate from each other as need be. The houses all have wide verandas. Our house has a large parlor, my bedroom back of it and dressing room next to that at the end of the hall. We have a back entry and Eliza's room at the rear. [16] Four chambers upstairs. Anna's the front room with a dressing room off from it. Tom's is at the head of the stairs. Our large kitchen and dining room are quite the pride of my life for the rest of the quarters haven't them as yet. Our house is so comfortable and cheery for we have the sunlight in the parlor all day. As yet we have not a house crowded with furniture, but enough to be comfortable. I have bought Autie a lovely black cane seated & backed arm chair, for him when he returns. I have an oak and green carpet -- a green & black tablecloth on a round table and albums, card basket, book rack, & on it; another round table we use for a writing table. Our chairs are quite comfortable and the wood fire in the place makes the room very cheerful. I have lace curtains like mothers and put up like hers. My easel stands by one of the windows and I am just finishing a picture for Autie when he returns, of a bulldog smoking a pipe.

We have five dogs, cow & chickens -- and such a nice new cow house & chicken coops. So, you see, we are comfortable. I have a carpet on my bedroom also and expect to have one on the dress-ing room. Eliza never did better than now.

I have scarcely a care. Tom is now quite sick, he is lame with rheumatism. [17] But the Doctors think he will be around in a few days. He is First Lieutenant in the 7th. Autie is the Lieut. Col., Gen. A. J. Smith is the Col. [18] A number of our old friends of the army of the Potomac are appointed Capt. and Lieuts in the 7th. Mike Sheridan is Captain [19], Keough, the Irish officer of the 3rd Div., is Capt., [20] Col. Robson of the old 3rd Div. is Capt., [21] Gen Whittaker is Capt., [22] Gen, Fitzhugh is Capt. [23] Col. Weir is Lieut. [24] They have not nearly all arrived yet and some have and are gone on to other posts. It is said to be the finest officered regiment in the service. Only four or five companies are to be here this winter. [25] Gen. Gibbs, Auties old cavalry friend is Major and a more charming man I have rarely known. [26]

Is it not a privelige to have a little chapel all by itself and a chaplain who reads the service finely and preaches well also. [27] The chapel has a little organ also. We are only a short walk from the Depot and telegraph office. Oh, this Pacific R. R. is such a grand affair -- the cars are beautiful. [28]

We are three miles from a little town called Junction City where we shop and market. The Smoky Hill river & Republican form a junction just below here & form the Kansas which is below the post a little distance. We have had some of the finest rides Autie & I have ever taken. Anna has a pretty horse & rides very well already. I am riding Autie trotting Colt now & he is such a love & a great beauty. [29]

I suppose you know Autie was obliged to go on to Washington to pass the examination which Congress dictates. [30] All the new appointments in the new regiments have to go before an examining board in Washington. It is a perfect farce with officers of the West Point education & army experience of Gen. Gibbs and Autie. Gen. Gibbs has just returned. They asked him something like "When is a lady not a lady?" "When she is a little sulkey." And what drink he'd take! But the younger officers have terribly severe examinations that make their eyeballs jingle -- to use slang. I don't mean younger officers but the inexperienced and uneducated. Many are found deficient. [31]

Last evening the bachelors gave a very nice party. In the regular army the term bachelor is applied indiscriminately to un-married officers. It was a pleasant affair and more than that, quite gay. I do not dance this winter but I enjoyed myself very much. The supper was very nice. Boiled hams, roast turkeys, chicken salad, which I spent the whole day making yesterday for them, coffee and champagne, cake, nuts and sandwiches. Tuesday night the garrison ladies give a party for only the people at the fort. It is to be here, as my kitchen and dining room are so nice for parties, being large.

We have a curious little instrument in garrison, owned and played by a soldier, who is Swiss I think. It is commonly called a table harp but is a cither. It is lovely. I never heard anything so sweet, except the mocking birds on Red River. [32] He, the Swiss, plays his native airs so sweetly on it.

We had some pleasant visits from the excursion party from Philadelphia and St. Louis which you no doubt noticed as coming out on the Pacific R. R. [33] In fact, we are scarcely a day without some new arrival. It is the starting point for the overland route to California, Denver, etc. And the hunting country beyond here is fine. [34] Buffalo & antelope, deer, wolves I hear abound. (That last sentence sounds so like Mitchells Geography! but I assure you, I am not plagiarizing! ) Prince Qusosoff nephew of the Saar of Russia (the small dictionary don't say Sar so I cant spell it.) has been on a buffalo hunt. He visited us and so we found his highness the Prince quite like other dutchy boys. The English party of noblemen have not returned I think. [35]

I have received letters from Autie and expect him next Tuesday. He made the trip from here to Monroe in fifty hours. Just think of it, we are not far off. So if you would only come out & spend even a month with us! We would meet you at St. Louis and certainly the day or night from Chicago or Detroit to St. Louis would not frighten you. And we have a pass to take you free as part of our family to and from St. Louis. Cant you say yes -- How glad I am you are situated at the hotel so very pleasantly, and Mary right with you. I haven't told you yet how much pleased I was with Mary's husband. He is such a fine manly fellow, I adopted him immediately as cousin. Mr. and Mrs. Shelden are at Topeka, near here and I expect them to visit us soon.36 Autie expects to hear Ristori in Washington. [37] We all mean to go to St. Louis when she fulfills her engagement there.

I expect the rapidity with which I have written has caused me to misspell woefully but do pardon. I suppose I might write you a dozen sheets and still be unwritten, for I always know I can never go into detail too much to suit you.

You know I saw our sweet Aunt Harriet in Chicago. [38] She is just as lovely as ever. Tom and Anna send love. We have a set of table croquet and we play nearly every evening. It is so fasci-nating I know Mary and you would like it. The table is about eight foot long and the wire wickets are placed in the same order as in field croquet. We use marbles for balls. Its charm is that gentlemen like it. It is like billiards I think. We have company all the time. Anna expresses herself perfectly delighted with every-thing. Give much love to your family and all our friends and do write a speedy answer to this pamphlet I've written to you.

Your loving cousin,

LIBBIE

Notes

Mrs. Minnie Dubbs Millbrook, native of Ransom, is the author of a Kansas county history, Ness -- Western County, Kansas (Detroit, 1955). Now residing in Topeka she continues to contribute articles to newspapers and magazines relating to the history of the American West. Her main research project is a biography of Mrs. George A. (Elizabeth) Custer.

1. Mary Richmond, four years younger than her sister Rebecca, married Charles F. Kendall. By 1870 this couple had established themselves in Topeka, where Kendall had a dry goods store for many years thereafter.
2. Rebecca Richmond had visited the Custers early in 1865 when they were living in Winchester, Va., where the general was stationed. On page 64 of The Custer Album by Lawrence A. Frost (Superior Publishing Co., Seattle, 1964) is a picture of the Custers, Bacons, Custer's staff, and Rebecca Richmond. Letters indicate that the visitor was Rebecca rather than Mary Richmond as the caption reads.
3. Kirkland C. Barker was mayor of Detroit in 1866. In 1870 Barker and several o his friends came to Fort Hays for a buffalo hunt with General Custer.
4. In Tenting on the Plains (Charles L. Webster & Co., 1889), p. 339, Mrs. Custer writes that the party made their trip in a special railroad car.
5. Anna Darrah, 21 years, was the daughter of a Monroe, Mich., grocer. In Mrs. Custer's book she is called Diana, and described as bright-eyed with head "running over with curls."
6. The Head of the Family was written in 1857 by Mrs. Dinah Maria Craik (Mulford) , who was a popular writer of novels at this time. Her best-known book was John Halifax, Gentleman.
7. The Missouri Botanical Gardens, then privately owned by English-born Henry Shaw, were already world famous.
8. The Custers were with Pres. Andrew Johnson when he visited St. Louis on September 8, 1865.
9. Henry Shaw never married though he was at one time sued for breach of promise. -- Letter to writer from Elizabeth Tindall, Missouri Historical Society, February 21, 1973.
10. The mammoth Southern Hotel had just been finished in 1865, "six stories high in the Italian style of architecture." It fronted on four streets and accommodated 350 guests. -- Thomas Scharf, History of St. Louis City and County (L. H. Everts, Philadelphia, 1883), p. 1466.
11. Of the Southern Relief Fair the New York Daily Tribune, October 13, 1866, stated: "The secesh population have taken advantage of 'Fair Week' to inaugurate a grand Southern relief fair to raise money for the Southern widows and orphans. To give it a loyal aspect they have decorated their building purposely with red, white and blue, and have excluded portraits of generals and special emblems of rebellion. "Though no local contemporary account can be found, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in April, 1903, gives a more detailed account naming the women managers, and mentions the ball and the grand raffle for $10,000.
12. Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was a pioneer in painting the grand scenery of the Rocky mountains and the West. His work was much admired and important art collectors like August Belmont and Mrs. A. T. Stewart bought his pictures. "Storm in the Rocky Mountains" was painted in 1866, "The Rocky Mountains" in 1863.
13. In the New York Tribune, October 13, 1866, the fairgrounds and exhibits were described in admiring detail. The fairs had been discontinued during the war and had been resumed in October, 1866. Although Mrs. Custer says little about the fair in this letter, in her book (pp. 340-341) she relates how her husband dragged her about to see the horses, cattle, and pigs.
14. In Tenting, p. 346, Mrs. Custer states that one of their party, Lawrence Barrett, had part of a dance with the Queen of Beauty. Mrs. Custer herself was apparently not fond of dancing. She often wrote in her books that she did not dance that winter or at that party. General Custer was an excellent dancer.
15. Lawrence Barrett (1838-1891) came to Detroit with his father, a poor Irish mechanic, when very young. The boy first worked in a dry goods store where he taught himself to read and write. A natural mimic and possessed of a good memory he aspired to a theatrical career and got a job as a call boy in the theater. He received his first part in 1853 and was on the stage from that time on. He first played "Julius Caesar" in Detroit at the age of 17. From then on he rose rapidly and became associated with the Booths in Shakespearean roles. By 1866 he was well established in his art and had been playing in "Rosedale" since 1864 in Cincinnati, New Orleans, and St. Louis.
16. Eliza was the Custers' black cook. The general had acquired her in 1863 when his cavalry division was encamped near Amissville, Va. Desirous of employment she had left the plantation of her owner, Robert Pierce. -- Eliza Davison to Mrs. Custer, April 2, 1909, Microfilm III, p. 2006 -- "Elizabeth B. Custer Collection." She followed Custer throughout the war and after his marriage she became an important member of his household.
17. 1Lt. Thomas W. Custer (1845-1876), brother of General Custer, had been commissioned second lieutenant in the First U. S. infantry after the war. General Custer had him transferred to the Seventh cavalry. He came to Fort Riley November 12, 1866, and was reported sick for several months. He was still unable to go out with his troop when the Seventh left Fort Riley on March 26, 1867.
18. Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith (1815-1897) graduated from West Point in 1838 and thereafter had much experience in the West. He was a close friend of Col. Stephen W. Kearny with whom he made the march to California during the Mexican War. In the Civil War Smith made a distinguished record, commanding the 16th Army Corps in the West. He was one of Sherman's trusted commanders and was at Vicksburg and on Bank's Red river expedition. He was one of the few men to defeat Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a feat which he accomplished at Tupelo, Miss., July 14, 1864. Smith came to Fort Riley on November 12, 1866, in the rank of colonel though he was also by brevet a major general. He was thereafter the ranking officer at the post designated as commander of the District of the Upper Arkansas and colonel of the Seventh U. S. cavalry.
19. Cpt. Michael V. Sheridan (1842-?), brother of Philip H. Sheridan, was assigned to Company L, Seventh cavalry and sent to Fort Morgan in Colorado in December, 1866. Shortly after he arrived more than half of his company deserted. On July 1, 1867, young Sheridan was appointed an aide to General Sheridan and remained with him thereafter.
20. Cpt. Myles Keogh (1842-1876), an Irishman, who had service in the Papal guards before he came to America in 1862, was an aide on General McClellan's staff in the later months of his command in 1862 and must have known Custer at that time. Later he was an aide to Gen. John Buford of the U. S. cavalry. After reporting at Fort Riley he was sent to Fort Wallace with Co. I , where he was in command of the post.
21. Cpt. William P. Robeson (1836-1881) had been with a New Jersey cavalry regiment in the Civil War, which was a part of the Third division under Custer in the latter days of the war. He was assigned to Company A of the Seventh cavalry and stationed at Fort Lyon in Colorado. He remained in the army only a few months, resigning when threatened with court-martial.
22. Probably Gen. Edward W. Whitaker, Custer's chief of staff in 1865. He returned to civil life in 1865 and never joined the Seventh cavalry.
23. Probably Gen. Charles Lane Fitzhugh, who was a contemporary of Custer's at West Point. He did not join the Seventh cavalry.
24. Col. Thomas W. Weir (1836-December, 1876), a graduate of the University of Michigan, was an officer in the Third Michigan cavalry during the Civil War. This regiment served in the West throughout the war and was a part of Sheridan's army in Texas in 1865. Weir was acting assistant inspector on General Custer's staff for about two months when Custer was chief of cavalry in Texas.
25. The only companies of the Seventh cavalry in Fort Riley late in 1866 were A, D, H, and M, still in the process of recruitment and awaiting officers. As there was a great dearth of officers most of the companies had been sent out to posts with only one commissioned officer, a captain, or a lieutenant.
26. Gen. Alfred Gibbs (1832-1868), West Point graduate of 1846, major of the Seventh cavalry, held brevets of major general in both the regular and volunteer armies. He would seem to have had more to do with the initial assembling of the Seventh cavalry than any of the other officers since he reported to Fort Riley in September, 1866. In December he was at Fort Harker. Gibbs was a man of culture from a distinguished New York family and much admired for his wit as well as his administrative ability. In the Civil War he was a brigadier in the First division of the U. S. cavalry.
27. The stone walls of the chapel at Fort Riley were built in 1855, one of the promoters of the building being Lt. James E. B. Stuart, later a famous Confederate cavalryman in the Civil War. The army roofed the structure and used it as a store house during the War, turning it back to religious purposes afterwards. The chaplain in December, 1866, was Charles Reynolds, Episcopalian. The chapel, much altered by additions, is now St. Mary's chapel serving Catholic communicants at Fort Riley.
28. The official name of the railroad building through Kansas at this time was the Union Pacific, Eastern Division.
29. Custer's trotting colt was named Phil Sheridan -- a horse captured from the Confederates near the end of the Civil War.
30. General Custer left Fort Riley for Washington on November 9 and returned December 16. He was shown on the post returns as commander of the post beginning December 19. General Smith was shown as commanding the Seventh cavalry.
31. Some of the officer's service records still contain the test questions and their answers. The mathematics test referred principally to calculations necessary in requisitioning rations and supplies for troops. The geography questions were more general and quite elementary, e. g.:
Q. How many zones are there? A. 3 temperate, 1 frigid.
Q. How many motions has the earth? A. I cannot answer.
Q. Name the principal kingdoms in Europe. A. Ireland, England & Wales.
32. Evidently the instrument was a zither. Mrs. Custer heard the mocking birds on Red river when in Alexandria, La., from June 23 to August 8, 1865.
33. This refers to the party of business men and reporters who came early in November from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, escorted by the president and superintendent of the railroad. Charles G. Leland of the Philadelphia Press wrote about Mrs. Custer, he "had not for many days seen a lady.... You may imagine how I was impressed by Mrs. General Custer and her friend, Miss -- -- -- -- --." -- Tenting, p. 447. See, also, "Hans Breitmann in Kansas," by F. B. Streeter in The Aerend, Hays, Fall, 1934, p. 219.
34. The hunting was not bad at Fort Riley. George R. Faringhy, son of the hospital orderly at the post at that time, remembered Custer hunting in the hills surrounding the fort. "I have seen him many times with a gun upon his shoulder and with his dogs as he went out east of the post to the Kansas River. He never failed to return loaded with game. The prairie chickens were in thousands and quail in every arroyo.... The general never failed to give my mother some of the game as he stopped at our house upon his return from the hunt." -- Wichita Eagle, May 7, 1942.
35. No reference to the Russian prince has been found in any newspaper of the region. As for the English noblemen the Junction City Union noted on October 13, 1866, "That party of English Lords, Dukes, Barons, Squires or whatever they may be called have made a start for the buffalo country. They spent a great part of the past week in town out-fitting." On November 9 the same newspaper reported that the party had come back only to go again west. They had had "fair luck in hunting the bison and extra good luck in not seeing 'ye savages.' "
36. The John Sheldons were neighbors of the Richmonds earlier in Grand Rapids, Mich. They later settled in Wamego where Rebecca Richmond visited them.
37. Adelaide Ristori (1822-1906) was an Italian actress, famous at that time in Europe. She made her first trip to America in 1866 and the New York Tribune on October 9, 1866, commented on her in the play Judith, "C'est magnifique."
38. Aunt Harriet was the sister of Lorain Page Richmond and Eleanor Page Bacon, mothers of Rebecca and Libbie respectively.