For nearly six decades after Little Big Horn, George Custer’s widow burnished the general’s reputation and wrote movingly of reconciliation with former foes
Elizabeth Bacon Custer outlived her husband, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, by 57 years. In the nearly six decades between the annihilation of her husband and five companies of the 7th Cavalry on the Little Big Horn River in Montana and her own death, Libbie wrote three memoirs. The most famous of these, Boots and Saddles, describes the couple’s experiences in Dakota Territory and the years leading up to the 1876 summer campaign against the Sioux that ended in arguably the most famous blunder in American military history. Two other memoirs (Tenting on the Plains and Following the Guidon, respectively) treat the immediate postwar period in Texas, where Custer performed Reconstruction duty, and the events of the 1868 Washita Campaign, in which Custer served under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. They are almost unmatched in their detail about many elements of the U.S. Army’s experience in the aftermath of the Civil War, and, more broadly, about the meaning of that war for the future of the American West. For the most part, historians have dismissed the books as filled with nothing but saintly depictions of an army officer who fell from great heights after the Civil War and died trying to reclaim his military fame. Critics of George Custer’s vanity and impetuousness especially deride the work of his wife, who smoothed the edges off a prickly subject and countered depictions of the Civil War’s “Boy General” as an officer who disobeyed orders and endangered his command. In consequence of Libbie’s decades-long defense of her husband, she often has been categorized as one of the most prominent “professional widows” of the Civil War era.
The label of professional widow followed several well-known women whose husbands participated in the Civil War. Without a doubt, LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett became the most prominent and problematical professional widow of the Civil War generation. Civil War scholars spent years unravelling the myth Sallie created about her husband, Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, and his ill-fated charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Historian Gary W. Gallagher’s investigation into Sallie’s publishing record revealed that large sections of the widow’s work were plagiarized. In other cases, Gallagher noted, Sallie completely fabricated correspondence that later became the basis for popular historical fiction—in the form of author Michael Sharra’s The Killer Angels—as well as informing filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Civil War.
Sallie’s efforts to burnish her husband’s reputation and shift blame for the failure of Pickett’s Charge proved useful to advocates of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” mythologization of the war—supporting a narrative that Pickett’s Charge and the fight at Gettysburg had been the high-water mark of the Confederate struggle for independence.
In a study dedicated to prominent husband and wife duos from the Civil War era, historians Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon assert that Libbie Custer conformed to the stereotype of a professional widow, gaining “a measure of her own independence by promoting a man and creating a myth.” The authors include Libbie alongside Sallie Pickett, Mary Anna Jackson (widow of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson), and Jesse Benton Frémont (widow of Union general and 1856 presidential candidate John C. Frémont). In many ways, Libbie is the odd woman out among the other widows named by Bleser and Gordon.
Unlike Sallie Pickett, Libbie did not fabricate evidence about her husband and his military career. Neither did Libbie, unlike Jesse Frémont, write under her husband’s name, and Libbie’s memoirs, in contrast to Mary Anna Jackson’s, were not designed to provide an embellished biographical sketch of her husband. Libbie hoped her writing would provide a depiction of the couple’s life and experiences on the American frontier. George is a central figure in the three books, to be sure, but he is by no means their sole subject.
Yet Shirley A. Leckie, the most prominent biographer to tackle Libbie Custer, helped perpetuate the idea that George Custer’s widow wrote for the sole purpose of mythologizing her husband. Leckie contends that Libbie wanted her husband to serve as a model for young men, who could read her memoirs and be inspired to emulate the moral rectitude and Christian bearing she attributed to her husband. It is possible to read the memoirs of Libbie Custer and reach the conclusions drawn by Leckie and other Custer critics. Looking beyond the work Libbie did to weave the Custer myth, however, reveals the voice of a perceptive observer and active participant in the events of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Western expansion. Libbie Custer offers readers rare insight into the Civil War and its aftermath—providing glimpses of reunions between former foes, reflections on the meaning of the war, and a belief in the cause of reconciliation—that make her collected works well worth revisiting.
Born to a prominent local judge in Monroe, Mich., on April 8, 1842, young Elizabeth Clift Bacon experienced a privileged childhood, though not one without tragedy. Her mother, Eleanor Sophia Page, died before Libbie’s 13th birthday. Libbie spent the next several years enrolled at the local seminary school, Boyd’s, where she graduated in 1862 at the top of her class. One year earlier, her husband had graduated at the bottom of his West Point class. Libbie and George met shortly after her graduation, but until Custer earned promotion to brigadier general of volunteers and distinguished himself in the Gettysburg Campaign, Libbie’s father disapproved of the match between his daughter and the young professional officer. Daniel Bacon worried that Libbie would not adjust well to Army life and that marriage to an officer would be a step down in social standing for his daughter.
Whether or not Libbie found life in the Army difficult, her commitment to being by her husband’s side never wavered after they exchanged vows on February 6, 1864. That summer and fall, while her husband participated in General Philip Sheridan’s campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Libbie stayed in Washington observing and absorbing the culture of the national capital. She met many of the war’s most famous figures, including Abraham Lincoln, who recognized Libbie as the wife “of the man who goes into the cavalry charges with a whoop and a yell.”
Lincoln told Libbie marriage might make Custer more cautious. Libbie assured the president that would not be the case. Given the boost Sheridan’s success in the Shenandoah Valley provided to Lincoln’s reelection campaign in 1864, the president doubtless felt a fondness for “Little Phil” and the cadre of hand-picked young cavalry officers who served alongside him. Sheridan’s own fondness for Custer later helped George out of several scrapes with Army higher-ups, who benched the former boy general in 1867 after he led 75 men some 225 miles across Kansas, from Fort Wallace to Fort Harker, without orders—for the purpose of visiting Libbie.
Custer’s Civil War exploits, especially those that occurred after his marriage to Libbie, elevated him to the status of a national hero. He appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in March 1864. Increasingly, Libbie shared her husband’s spotlight, delighting in being recognized around Washington as General Custer’s wife. When Civil War sketch artist James E. Taylor accompanied Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley expedition, he sketched Libbie on horseback alongside her husband and as a solo rider during one of her visits to Custer’s headquarters near Winchester, Va. Taylor also sketched Libbie with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at a Washington reception, where Stanton received Confederate flags captured by Custer’s command in the Valley.
Libbie emerged from the war with a treasured memento that spoke to her husband’s importance and her own association with his activities. Sheridan gave her the table from Wilbur McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House upon which Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant drafted the terms of the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender. The accompanying note to Libbie read: “There is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.”
In 1912, Libbie loaned the table, which had spent much of its life in a fireproof warehouse in New York City, to the Museum of American History in Washington. Upon her death in 1936, the table officially joined the collections of the Smithsonian, in accordance with Libbie’s will. Libbie often defended her right to own the table in the press, denying that her husband had stolen the piece from the McLean House. In the December 5, 1885, issue of Harper’s Weekly, she supplied her reminiscences of acquiring the table—and a copy of a letter from Sheridan that proved “an unassuming little stand, of the cheapest stained pine” indeed belonged to her. The letter also served to remind readers of the high esteem Sheridan held for her husband at the close of the Civil War.
Libbie’s three volumes of memoirs focus most closely on details about living in army camps and at military forts on the Great Plains, which she believed Americans knew little about. Though she dedicated no book to Civil War recollections, the conflict is not absent from the three memoirs. Why did Libbie largely ignore the most formative national event her generation experienced? Perhaps she thought she had little original to say on the subject, as compared with her insights about life with the professional army after the war. She also never undertook a defense of her husband’s Civil War career comparable with that she offered regarding him as an Indian fighter. More than likely, she reckoned his Civil War reputation did not need polishing.
Despite the overall lack of Civil War content, Mark Twain and his publishing partners at Webster’s deemed Libbie’s work worthy of inclusion in their “Shoulder Strap” memoir series. The series included the two-volume memoirs of Generals Grant, William T. Sherman, and Sheridan. Both Ellen McClellan and Almira Russell Hancock shepherded recollections begun by their husbands, Union Maj. Gens. George B. McClellan and Winfield Scott Hancock, to publication in the series. Samuel Wylie Crawford also contributed a volume on the coming of the war. Libbie’s Tenting on the Plains stood as the only volume written by a woman and from the perspective of an Army wife, rather than from a general in command. Moreover, it alone deals exclusively with events after the war. Libbie emphasized her perspective on the events she experienced, which further weakens the case that she wrote as a professional widow attempting to absolve her husband for his perceived failures.
Libbie’s memoirs offer deep insight into how she made sense of the consequences of the conflict and the subsequent reunion of the country. She manifested a strong impulse toward sectional reconciliation throughout her work. Libbie’s recollections (all written within 25 years of the war’s conclusion) emphasized two primary themes in relation to how the Civil War should be remembered. First and foremost, the war had been waged for the preservation of the Union—Libbie and George (an ardent Democrat who joined Andrew Johnson on the campaign trail during his “Swing Around the Circle” campaign) gave little thought to emancipation as a further outcome of the conflict. Second, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, reconciliation with former Confederates should be the paramount goal of Americans. Libbie did not present these themes didactically; rather, she used stories to illustrate her strong feelings about national reunion and forgiving former Confederates.
Early in the text of Boots and Saddles, Libbie recalled the journey made by the 7th Cavalry from Elizabethtown, Ky., to Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, in 1873. While delighted at the prospect of escaping Reconstruction duty, Libbie arrived at present-day Bismarck, N.D., to find that she would not be allowed to travel with her husband while he accompanied a surveying expedition to determine a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad. She recorded her return to her family home, and the slow days she spent waiting for missives from her husband. Despite her disappointment in being left behind, Libbie gladly recounted her husband’s reunion with his old West Point comrade Thomas L. Rosser, a former major general in the Confederate Army who had taken a position as the chief engineer of the Northern Pacific.
Libbie told her readers of Custer and Rosser’s long association, from their West Point days to their frequent encounters commanding troops in opposing armies on the battlefields of the Shenandoah Valley.
During the war, Libbie suggested, neither man felt any true animosity toward the other, even though Custer had captured all Rosser’s supply wagons or routed his troops in battle. Libbie explained that even when one soldier got the better of the other, the letters that followed addressed a “dear friend.” That the two former generals should fall back into such an easy friendship, reclining on a buffalo robe and spending “hours talking over the campaigns in Virginia” provided evidence of an easy reconciliation. In present day Bismarck, Rosser Avenue remains a main thoroughfare. Libbie may have appreciated the fact that the street provides the northern boundary for Bismarck’s first municipal park, which the city named in the memory of her husband in 1909. The cityscape thus embeds their reconciliation story into the modern memorial landscape.
A number of famous Civil War personalities appeared in Libbie’s memoirs to make the case for reconciliation, especially in Tenting on the Plains, which presented the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to readers. Among the figures that Libbie drew on were William T. Sherman and former Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. Libbie remembered meeting Hood while sharing a steamboat bound for New Orleans as she and her husband prepared to travel to Austin, Texas, and begin their Reconstruction service.
Libbie related a story of Hood’s quest to find the best possible prosthetic leg after losing one of his at the Battle of Chickamauga. He had tried models from England, France, Germany, the South and the North. She happily noted that Hood acknowledged, despite his previous sectional loyalty, that “the Yankee leg was best of all.” When the steamer arrived at Hood’s destination and he disembarked, “General Custer carefully helped the maimed hero down the cabin stairs and over the gangway.”
Libbie believed that many of the Army’s highest-ranking officers shared her husband’s desire for an easy peace. “In retrospection,” she wrote, “I like to think of the tact and tolerance of General Sherman, in those days of furious feeling on both sides, and the quiet manner in which he heard the Southern people decry the Yankees.” Commending the general most famous for setting large swaths of the Confederacy ablaze, Libbie related that “he knew of their impoverished and desolated homes, and realized…what sacrifices they had made; more than all, his sympathetic soul saw into the darkened lives of mothers, wives and sisters who had given, with their idea of patriotism, their loved ones to their country.” He remembered a maxim that we all are apt to forget, ‘Put yourself in his place,’” she approvingly said of Sherman.
Beyond the theme of reconciliation, Libbie believed her readers should appreciate the sacrifices of the volunteer soldiers who fought the Civil War. The section of Tenting on the Plains dealing with the need to honor the service of individual soldiers is strikingly modern. She described the wounds received by many of the men who had campaigned with her husband as Custer’s Wolverines in the cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac. She described a soldier who “carried always, does now, a shattered arm, torn by a bullet while he was riding beside General Custer in Virginia.”
The wound, she explained “did not keep him from giving his splendid energy, his best and truest patriotism, to his country down in Texas even after the war, for he rode on long, exhausting campaigns after the Indians, his wound bleeding, his life sapped, his vitality slipping away with the pain that never left him day or night.” Libbie’s tribute to soldierly resilience could not ease the pain of the wounded men, but it recognized that not all Civil War service ended with an easy return to the pursuits of civilian life.
In their home at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, George and Libbie surrounded themselves with mementos of the Civil War. He hung portraits of McClellan and Sheridan in his library, and she described how much the couple treasured two examples of sculptor John Rogers’ groupings—mass-produced plaster statuettes of various Civil War scenes—with which they crisscrossed the Great Plains. Life traveling in the back of army wagons did not particularly suit the statuary, but Libbie explained to readers that her husband’s first chore upon unpacking his library was mending the figures depicted in “Wounded to the Rear” and “Letter Day.” Looking upon the figures with guests (many of whom were Civil War veterans) sparked lively conversations about the war and how participants remembered their service.
Elizabeth Custer revealed her memory of Civil War experiences in small glimpses, sprinkled among over 1,000 pages of recollections about life in the postbellum Army. Encouraging readers to practice sympathy toward defeated Confederates, she highlighted the degree to which her husband and other army officers committed themselves to reconciliation, while extending an army widow’s sympathy to maimed veterans. Her writings reveal that she thought a great deal about the war and its memory, independently of her husband’s role in saving the Union. To reduce Elizabeth Bacon Custer to just another professional widow denies modern readers a chance to explore the rich recollections she left of the most transformative period in the history of the United States.
In Boots and Saddles, Libbie Custer presented the wartime exchanges between her husband and Confederate cavalry commander Thomas Rosser as examples of a friendship the Civil War had briefly interrupted. In this passage from the book describing Lt. Col. Custer’s postwar campaign in the Dakotas, she put a humorous tone to events that occurred in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign:
“[Custer] wrote of his delight at having again his whole regiment with him, his interest in the country, his hunting exploits, and the renewal of his friendship with General Rosser…Once General Custer took all of his friend’s luggage, and found in it a new uniform coat of Confederate gray. He wrote a humorous letter that night thanking General Rosser for setting him up in so many new things, but audaciously asking if he ‘would direct his tailor to make the coat-tails of his next uniform a little shorter’ as there was a difference in the height of the two men. General Custer captured his herd of cattle at one time, but he was so hotly pursued by General Rosser that he had to dismount, cut a whip, and drive them himself until they were secured.”
Cecily N. Zander is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, where she is completing a dissertation on the army and empire in the American West. She will publish a larger essay about Libbie Custer in a forthcoming volume from LSU Press.
This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Civil War Times.