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Libbie Custer

Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, this 1941 western biopic follows the adventurous life of George Armstrong Custer, from his troublemaker days at West Point Military Academy to his heroics during the Civil War and his demise at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Includes Warner Night at the Movies 1942 newsreels; the military short, Soldiers in White; and the featurette, They Died With Their Boots On: To Hell or Glory.

From the beginning, Libbie's charm and attractiveness helped advance her husband's military career. She socialized with powerful Republican congressmen and senators, thereby countering their suspicions that Custer had ties to the Democrats. Moreover, her husband's superior, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, admired Libbie so greatly that he gave her the table on which Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had written the terms of surrender accepted by Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.

She spent almost sixty years commemorating her marriage-and her memories of it quite literally kept her alive. My husband rode to the top of a promontory and turned around, stood up in his stirrups and waved his hat. Then they all started forward again and in a few seconds they had disappeared, horses, flags, men. And we never saw them again.

Mail sent after him by courier was shortly returned unopened. For he had gone beyond reach of letters. "My thoughts, my dreams, my prayers, are all for you. God bless and keep my darling. Ever your own Libbie," her last one ended. To our modern eyes it sometimes seems as if no woman born in the last century was actually pretty. But that's not true of Elizabeth Bacon, the daughter of a Monroe, Michigan, judge. The pictures show it. She had, we are told, the most wonderful smile, her eyes almost squeezing shut as a happy look came over her face.

Among her hometown pursuers was a blacksmith-farmer's son never called George, always Armstrong or Autie. But they could never be more than friends, she told her diary. He twitted her by playing up to others and at social get-togethers refused to look at or speak to her. He strenuously flirted with another. "A lowminded girl," she told her diary. "He, like others, takes all she gives which I sometimes think is everything ."

Then, the war on and he fresh to it after a last-place finish in the rankings of his West Point class of 1861-she had been valedictorian of her female seminary-he obtained her father's permission to write. She had changed. "My more than friend," began her first letter to him; and soon, she wrote, she prayed "letter please arrive" when the mail was due.

By then he was the Boy General With the Golden Locks to the newspapers, a dashing "Come on, boys" as opposed to "Go in, boys" leader clad in velveteen and with swirling gold loops from wrist to elbow. They were married in February of 1864. Earlier she had refused him a kiss "4,000 times," she remembered; now she wrote home she was prouder to be his wife than she would to be Mrs. Lincoln or a queen.

They lived a dream existence. Graybeards stood to attention in the presence of the twenty-five-year-old commander of the Union's largest cavalry brigade, and Philip Sheridan purchased for twenty dollars the table at which Grant had written the surrender terms for Lee to gave his subordinate with instructions that he present it to his Libbie. (It is in the Smithsonian today.)

After the Civil War Sheridan, anticipating military action against Mexico, ordered Custer, now major general of volunteers, to march a cavalry division from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Hempstead, Texas. Elizabeth accompanied the troops in August 1865 and later wrote of her hardships in her second book, Tenting on the Plains, published in 1887. In addition, Elizabeth published two other books, Boots and Saddles (1885) and Following the Guidon (1890). In all her works, her husband emerged as an exemplary son, brother, husband, and conscientious commanding officer. Her early response to Texas was mixed. She found homes, even of the well-to-do, often poorly constructed. Moreover, many Texans struck her as violent and trigger-happy men who threatened both the federal troops and their local supporters. She was appalled that, despite a Union victory, some Texans were still trading slaves late in 1865.

Many planter aristocrats, however, welcomed the Custers warmly. Leonard Groce and his family, of Liendo Plantation on Clear Creek, nursed Libbie when she fell ill with malaria. After Custer became chief of cavalry in Texas, the couple moved to Austin, where they resided at the Asylum for the Blind. They continued associating with wealthy planters, who introduced them to the pleasures of breeding hunting dogs. Overall, whatever her criticism of the state, Libbie saw great economic potential in Texas and tried unsuccessfully to interest her father in investing in Texas land. After Custer became lieutenant colonel of the Seventh Cavalry in 1866, Elizabeth's prized Texas serapes decorated their quarters at forts Riley, Leavenworth, and Lincoln.

They were at posts in Texas, New Orleans, Kansas, Kentucky, and, in the end, Dakota Territory, their letters when they were apart filled with My Dearest Boy, My Durl, Bo, Bunkey, Sunbeam, Peerless Little One, Dear Old Sweetness, My Jewel, My Crown-"You are irrevocably my first, my present and my last love" from him and "An idolizing wife could not live without you" from her. Childless, they focused upon each other. Then came a June day of 1876, and he rode to attack with fewer than three hundred soldiers a force of Indians ten imes and more that number, the band playing as he went away "The Girl I Left Behind Me" and "Carry Owen," the Seventh Cavalry's song.

She was droll, cheery, unreserved, talkative, clever with a sketchbook, a capable writer. They rode, kept many dogs, sang, played charades, went to the theater and cried together at East Lynne . ("Don't keep it long, Libbie," he said, handing her a handkerchief to replace her soaked one. "I need it.") He thought of resigning the Army to make money, then decided to stay in.

Libbie Custer departed the West pale and with drooping head, feeling, she later wrote, that now God asked her to walk on alone and in the shadow. She had a thirty-dollar monthly pension from the government and little else, for he had squandered what money they had, impetuous and reckless and neglectful of caution as he was. Those were the qualities, history has ruled, that made it an easy work for the Indians to slaughter to the last man Yellow Hair and his bluecoats. That was not her view. "She was blind, deaf and dumb as to any shortcomings of her husband," a chronicler wrote. "To her, Custer was a god, a saint, an immaculate hero, a knight without stain or reproach."

She went to New York to work three days a week for the Society of Decorative Arts, which promoted home employment for women: needlework and the production of manufacturers' decorations and designs and handiwork on china, slate, porcelain, and pottery. She answered letters, received office visitors, arranged classes, and worked on arts displays. She made a living, but only just.

She remembered the twelve years of her marriage, the Civil War days, the travels, the Army, the summers with Autie she came to see as one long and perfect day to be hers in blessed memory for time and for eternity. She wrote a book about Autie, the Army, herself. It sold very well. She wrote more books and branched out into articles for newspapers and magazines on public affairs, art, the opera, ballet, people in the news, buffalo hunting, vandalism at Mount Vernon, children, an ice carnival, a Japanese village set up for viewing at Madison Square Garden. She went lecturing on the social and economic status of women, appearing in churches, libraries, schools for girls, and the drawing rooms of wealthy matrons who had their friends in.

She led a life of the most markedly and most strikingly self-contradictory nature. On the one hand, she was quintessentially the professional widow, forcing it to become a very touchy matter for any military writer or officer to criticize Custer for having insanely launched an attack without taking the most elementary precautions or making even an attempt at reconnaissance. To say or write such put one in the position of standing against bereaved Libbie.

On the other hand, she was forceful and strong and making her way unassisted at a time when there were very few assertive women such as she, proud to sit with a group of women writers and artists at an Onteora, New York, summer colony and say, "Why, we are all working women; not a lady among us." A very shrewd investor, increasingly prosperous, she traveled widely, went to England, Germany, Egypt, Turkey, China, and Japan, and spent winters in Daytona Beach. There was never another man.

Years passed, and decades rolled over the writer-lecturer-investor who was at one and the same time the late brevet major general's wife ready to help with the pension problems of the widows and children of the men who had fallen with her husband at the Little Bighorn. In 1910 she went back to Monroe to see President Taft dedicate an equestrian statue of her husband. (An earlier one had been erected at West Point, where he was buried, but she declared it a failure, and in the face of her attitude it was taken down and dismantled.) In practically every saloon in the country drinkers saw the famous, and famously fanciful, representation of the Last Stand, and people who had never heard of Generals Miles and Crook knew, or thought they knew, all about Custer.

In 1926, fifty years on, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was commemorated on its site, thousands attending. She listened to a radio description, for never in her life would she visit where her husband and his men had been overwhelmed. A year later, meeting with a magazine writer, her tendril curls worn in the manner of the 188Os, her wedding ring on her finger, she said when asked about the Roaring Twenties bareback dresses of women and what her interviewer termed other extremes of youth: "You know, I keep my sense of the ludicrous." Hobbling on a cane, whitehaired, tiny, unrecognizable as the Libbie of long before save for the bright and sparkling blue eyes, she asked in her old humorous manner, "It's really rather suspicious of me to be living on Park Avenue, don't you think?"

She died in 1933-four days short of her ninety-first birthday. "Heaven would not be Heaven till we are joined together," Custer wrote her in Civil War times while speaking of the possibility of his death in action. "Autie lies in such a lovely spot," she had said of his grave at West Point, and there fifty-seven years after the Little Bighorn she went to join him, the old lady put with her young hero, a military band playing "Carry Owen" as she went to his side.

Since army men and the public alike saw Elizabeth as a model wife and devoted widow, many Custer critics withheld their comments during her lifetime. Elizabeth survived, however, until April 4, 1933. A year later, Frederic Van de Water published The Glory-Hunter, and the reappraisal of Custer's character and career began. By then much of the historical record had been irretrievably lost.

Gene Smith. Libbie Custer. American Heritage. December 1993; Volume 44, Issue 8.


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