George Custer’s zealous pursuit of Elizabeth Bacon may have resembled a cavalry charge, but their 13-year marriage became a love story for the ages.
Candles tinted in amber the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Michigan, on the night of February 9, 1864. Family members, friends and guests filled the church “almost to suffocation,” awaiting the social event of the season in the city. A young woman from a noted local family was to wed a Union brigadier general. For the bride, Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon, and for the groom, George Armstrong Custer, the ceremony ended an unusual courtship and began a passionate love affair.
Called “Autie” by family and close friends, Custer met Libbie Bacon at a party on Thanksgiving Day, 1862, while on leave in his adopted hometown of Monroe. A pretty, slender brunette, Libbie was educated and possessed an indomitable will and spirited personality. Custer claimed to have fallen in love with her at the party. As he admitted later, he faced “well-nigh insurmountable obstacles” in obtaining the love of one of Monroe’s most eligible belles.
Libbie soon learned that nothing seemed to deter this handsome, blonde-haired captain. Custer began attending Libbie’s church. She scolded him after one service, “You looked such things at me.” When he returned to the army before Christmas, Libbie confided in her journal: “I could almost have given way to the melting mood. I feel so sorry for him. I think I had something to do with his going.” She admitted that it all had been “in too much haste tho’ I admire his perseverance.”
The whirlwind intensified when Custer returned to Monroe at Christmas. Daily he walked past the Bacon home. “Whenever I put my nose out of doors,” Libbie told a friend, Custer awaited her. Before New Year’s, Custer broached marriage, pledging to “sacrifice every earthly hope to gain my love,” as Libbie recounted his words. “I told him to forget me and he said he never could forget me and I told him I never should forget him and I wished to be his true friend through life but it is no use to offer myself as a friend for he will never think of me otherwise than his wife.”
What Custer had asked of her, Libbie saw as an impossibility. Her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, had learned of the officer’s attention to his daughter. A year earlier, Judge Bacon and Libbie had seen a drunken Custer stumble through the streets of Monroe. Although Bacon could not know, Custer vowed to his half-sister that night that he would never drink alcohol again, a pledge that he kept. But to Bacon, he was a lowly captain with an unsavory local reputation. He forbade Libbie to invite him into their home or to be seen with him.
Custer returned to duty, and Libbie struggled in a maze of emotions—her attraction to Autie, her pledge to her father. At one point, she wrote to her father, “You have never been a girl, Father, and you cannot tell how hard a trial this was for me.” In her journal she revealed the conflict: “Yes, I like him so much now—no one knows how much—but I feel that is proof that I do not really love for how could I silence so soon feelings that are always so deep.” But after they had been together during the holidays, she wrote, “I long so to put my arms about his neck and kiss him and how often I lay my head on his breast—in imagination—and feel how sweet it would be to make him entirely happy.”
Before Custer entrained for the East, he and Libbie conspired with one of Libbie’s closest friends, Nettie Humphrey, to circumvent Judge Bacon’s order that Libbie could not correspond with Custer. Custer instead wrote to Nettie, who read the letter to Libbie. Nettie then included Libbie’s thoughts in her reply.
Custer’s fortunes, meanwhile, changed dramatically on June 29, 1863, when he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 23. He had been serving on the staff of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry commander. When George G. Meade succeeded Joseph Hooker as army commander, the War Department granted Meade the authority to change unit commanders. Pleasonton requested that Custer and two other young officers be elevated from captains to brigadiers. Custer was assigned to command the Michigan Brigade of cavalry.
Before long, the state’s newspapers reported on the exploits of the Michigan cavalrymen and their “Boy General” at Hunterstown and Gettysburg. During an engagement at Culpeper Court House, Va., on September 13, Custer suffered a painful foot wound and was granted leave to recuperate. He boarded a train for Monroe, arriving three days later.
Autie and Libbie had not seen each other for five months. He resumed his “attack” on her at once, and Libbie could no longer resist. She accepted his proposal of marriage if he received her father’s approval. When Custer returned to the army, Libbie recorded in her journal: “The last few leaves will bear a name I love—Dear C—try as I did to suppress the ‘fancy’ for six months it did no good. The fancy I know was more, it was love. I do love him and have all the time….I believe I shall marry him sometime.”
Custer soon wrote to Judge Bacon requesting permission to marry Libbie: “It is true that I have often committed errors of judgment, but as I grew older I learned the necessity of propriety….I left home when but sixteen and have been surrounded with temptation, but I have always had a purpose in life.” A few days later after an “intimate” conversation with Libbie, Judge Bacon allowed her to correspond with Custer. He had bowed to the desire and will of his beloved daughter. That night Libbie wrote, “Every other man seems so ordinary beside my own bright particular star.”
The letters traveled back and forth from Monroe to Virginia. Custer pressed her for a wedding ceremony during the winter of 1864. Libbie remarked that his marriage proposal “was as much a cavalry charge as any he ever took in the field.” Libbie acquiesced in a December 14 letter to which he replied: “I am so supremely happy that I can scarcely write….I will wait until I see you, for then I can make up in action what language fails to make clear. In one full loving embrace I can testify more clearly than in words the ecstasy I feel at this moment.”
The couple’s private correspondence reveals the fervor and sensuality of their relationship. In one letter, he wrote: “I am longing and anxiously hoping for the time to come when I can be with my little darling one again. It seems so long since I saw her and had ‘Just one.’ I do not think the squirrel you sent me can satisfy the want and cravings of ‘our mutual friend’….I know where I would kiss somebody if I was with her tonight.” In turn, he chided her about “the need for prudence in writing” because some of her letters had been captured by Confederates. “I shall not again offend my dear boy’s sense of nicety,” she responded, “by departing from that delicate propriety which, I believe, was born in me.”
The marriage, indeed, had difficulties. Custer subjected Libbie to periods of “long silence” and bouts of jealousy. She undoubtedly heard rumors of his alleged infidelity although no definitive proof exists of their accuracy. Libbie wrote publicly that she had desired children, but none were born to the union. Custer had contracted gonorrhea during leave from West Point in the summer of 1859, and was hospitalized for treatment. It is likely the disease left him sterile.
George Custer died with some 200 fellow soldiers on June 25, 1876, at Little Bighorn. Libbie learned the terrible news on July 5. From that day until her death on April 2, 1933, Libbie devoted her life to guarding his reputation and to making him an American hero. She was buried beside her husband’s gravesite at West Point. To her, no man had so fired her body and heart as “my own bright particular star.”
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.