The intelligent, educated and spirited wife of the one-time Civil War ‘Boy General’ turned Western Indian fighter stuck by her almost-true-blue Autie, even after his death kept them apart for 57 years.
July 5, 1876, dawned with the promise of a beautiful day at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Early in the morning a message arrived at the fort, containing the news of the terrible day at the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. Two officers and the post surgeon walked to the quarters of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Inside, they informed Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer of her husband’s death. Libbie Custer confided later, “To lose him would be to close the windows of life that let in the sunshine.”
And so he had been her “windows of life” for more than a dozen years. Theirs was a passionate love, emotionally and sexually. When Army duty brought him to the West after the Civil War, their marriage underwent common strains. Weeks and months of separation, a possible infidelity and bouts of jealousy affected the relationship. But it endured, despite the contemporary allegations and controversies.
Known as “Autie” to family and friends, Custer overcame, as he described them, “well-nigh insurmountable obstacles” in obtaining the love of Libbie Bacon. He met Libbie at a party in November 1862, in his adopted hometown of Monroe, Mich. He claimed later that he fell in love with her at that time. She was a pretty brunette, intelligent, educated and spirited. At first, she resisted his efforts, and her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, strongly objected to the then Army captain. Custer was, however, relentless—Libbie compared his numerous marriage proposals to “a cavalry charge.” She acquiesced in December 1863, and her father conceded before the desire and will of his beloved daughter. The “Boy General” and Libbie were married on February 9, 1864, in Monroe.
The marriage and honeymoon ignited a fervid physical relationship between them. Custer’s surviving letters to her allude to the intensity of their sexual desires. During the war while apart from Libbie, he wrote to her: “I am longing and anxiously hoping for the time to come when I can be with my little darling once again. It seems so long since I saw her and had ‘Just one!’” Similarly, while on an Indian campaign on the Plains, he asked Libbie to bring various items with her when they were reunited, and then added: “I knew something much, very much better and be sure you bring it along. I am entirely out at present, and have been for so long as to almost forget how it tastes….Remember, every moment gone can never be reclaimed.”
The separations from each other increased in number and lengthened in time after the Civil War. Appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly organized 7th Cavalry on August 3, 1866, Custer served with the regiment for the next 10 years. Except for 18 months of Reconstruction duty in Kentucky, he and Libbie lived at various Army posts in Kansas and Dakota Territory during these years. They were quartered at different times primarily at Forts Leavenworth, Riley, Hays and Abraham Lincoln. The accommodations varied at each post, and Libbie complained once to a friend, “You know I have had mostly a rough time.” Her major complaint seemed to be the wind, which “blew unceasingly all the five years we were in Kansas.” Wherever the Custers were, however, they were at the center of social activities at a fort.
His letters to her during these years when operations against the Plains tribes took him away contain a constant refrain. In one, after they had been apart for nearly two months, he wrote: “You remember how eager I was to have you for my little wife? I was not as impatient then as now. I almost feel tempted to desert and fly to you.” He also liked to describe the terrain that he saw and to recount details of a campaign. In a typical letter to her, he exclaimed after seeing the Yellowstone River region: “I have so much to write of this. I scarcely know where to begin, where to leave off, what to put down or what to omit.” To him, it “seemed almost like a new world,” calling it “the Wonderland.”
Like all Army wives, Libbie tried to be with Autie as frequently as duty allowed. When duty took him away, she either remained at a fort or returned to Monroe. When the 7th Cavalry conducted the Yellowstone Expedition beginning in June 1873, Libbie described the period as “the summer of my discontent.” Custer reminded Libbie of the responsibilities of a commander’s wife to other officers’ and enlisted men’s spouses while the regiment was on campaign. It was Libbie who comforted widows of slain cavalrymen.
In the summer of 1867, Autie’s concern for Libbie’s safety and yearning to be reunited with her resulted in a court-martial. On June 1, Custer and six companies of the 7th Cavalry left Fort Hays “to hunt out and chastise” Cheyennes and Sioux (see related story, P. 28). Libbie returned with other women to Fort Riley. During the subsequent weeks, Custer wrote to her but received no replies. “I never was so anxious in my life” about her, he confessed in one letter. Finally, after a grueling march, marked by desertions, the command arrived at Fort Wallace on July 13. Custer found neither orders nor news about Libbie.
It appears that fears about her now reached a breaking point. With a detail of three officers and 72 men, Custer rode east. He pushed men and horses relentlessly across the Kansas plains. More troopers deserted before they reached Fort Hays, having covered 150 miles in 57 hours. Here, Custer left the detachment, and with his brother Tom and a few others, rode in ambulances to Fort Harker, where he boarded a railroad train for Fort Riley and a reunion with Libbie.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered a general court-martial of Custer. He had been charged with “absence without leave from his command” and with “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” Libbie described the trial as “nothing but a plan of persecution for Autie.” The court, however, found him guilty of the charges, suspending him from rank and command for a year and taking away his pay. Libbie declared after the verdict, “We are quite determined not to live apart again, even if he leaves the army otherwise so delightful to us.”
Custer returned to duty in September 1868, in time to lead a winter campaign against the Cheyennes. After an arduous march through inclement weather, the cavalrymen attacked a village along the Washita River at dawn on November 27. The horse soldiers achieved a victory that embroiled Custer in controversy. They had killed Indian women and children during the action and captured a number of prisoners. Among the captives was, in Custer’s words, “an enchanting comely squaw” named Me-o-tzi or Monah-se-tah, which meant “Young Grass That Shoots in Spring.” Custer used her as an interpreter during the succeeding weeks.
It was alleged subsequently that Mo-nah-se-tah became Custer’s mistress and bore him a son, named Yellow Swallow or Yellow Tail. No definitive proof exists of such a relationship between them, or documentation that she gave birth to a child at the end of 1869. It is quite unlikely that Custer could have been the father of the child. While on leave from West Point in the summer of 1859, he contracted gonorrhea—not uncommon among cadets—that most likely left him sterile. Libbie stated later that she had two regrets in life—his death and having no children by him. Whether she heard of the rumors about Autie and Mo-nahse-tah, if they circulated at the time, remains unknown.
It would appear, however, that Custer might have transgressed while on a brief leave without Libbie in the East. Evidently, Libbie heard about something and wrote to him. He responded: “You may perhaps think of me when I return that spark of distrust which I alone am responsible for first placing in your mind but which others have fanned into a flame.” He went on, vowing: “My love for you is as unquenchable as my life and if my belief in a future state is true, my love will survive my life and accompany me to that future. You may doubt my love but that does not disprove its existence. I love you purely unselfishly and simply, no woman has nor ever can share my love with you. It has been so. It is and will be.”
If he had been unfaithful, Libbie apparently forgave him. History moves amid shadows, hiding much of the past’s truths from future generations. It is with this and other aspects of the Custer marriage. When they were courting, Libbie described him in her journal as “my own bright particular star.” That never appears to have changed with her. When informed of his death on that beautiful July day in 1876, she said later, “I wanted to die.”
Elizabeth Bacon Custer lived on, however, for more than a half-century, never remarrying. No man she ever met could compare to her Autie. She devoted those decades to enshrining him as an American hero, writing three books and trying to silence critics of him. Libbie died on April 4, 1933, and was buried beside Autie at West Point. Theirs had been one of the great romances of their era.
Pennsylvanian Jeffry D.Wert writes often on Civil War topics. His 1996 book Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer is recommended for further reading,along with The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth, edited by Margaret Merington; and Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth, by Shirley A. Leckie.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.