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Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

Tenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas online

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fish women, for she danced, rode and walked
with them, and when she was not so engaged,



22O TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

their orderlies held their horses before the official
door, while they improved every hour allowed
them within the hospitable portal.

It was a great relief to find a Southern State
that was not devastated by the war. The homes
destroyed in Virginia could not fail to move a
woman's heart, as it was women and children that
suffered from such destruction. In Texas nothing
seemed to have been altered. I suppose some
profited, for blockade-running could be carried on
from the ports of that great State, and there was
always Mexico from which to draw supplies.

In our daily'rides we found the country about
Austin delightful. The roads were smooth
and the surface rolling. Indeed, there was one
high hill, called Mount Brunnel, where we had
picnics and enjoyed the fine view, far and near,
taking one of the bands of the regular regiments
from the North that joined us soon after our ar-
rival. Mount Brunnel was so steep we had to dis-
mount and climb a part of the distance. The band
played the "Anvil Chorus," and the sound descend-
ed through the valley grandly. The river, filled
with sand-bars and ugly on close examination,
looked like a silver ribbon. At that height, the
ripened cotton, at certain seasons of the year,
looked like fields of foam. The thermometer was
over eighty before we left the lowlands; but at the



CHILDREN ' S SIGN LANG UA GE. 221

altitude to which we climbed the air was cool. We
even went once to the State Insane Asylum, taking
the band, when the attendants asked if dancing
music might be played, and we watched with
wonder the quadrille of an insane eight.

The favorite ride for my husband was across
the Colorado, to the Deaf and Dumb Asylum.
There seemed to be a fascination for him in the
children, who were equally charmed with the
young soldier that silently watched their pretty,
pathetic exhibitions of intelligent speech by
gesture. My husband riveted his gaze on their
speaking eyes, and as their instructor spelt the
passions of love, hatred, remorse and reverence
on his fingers, one little girl represented them by
singularly graceful gestures, charming him, and
filling his eyes with tears, which he did not seek
to hide. The pupils were from ten to sixteen
years of age. Their supple wrists were a
delight to us, and the tiny hands of a child of the
matron, whom the General held, talked in a
cunning way to its playmates, who, it knew,
could not comprehend its speech. It was well
that the Professor was hospitality itself, and did
not mind a cavalcade dashing up the road to his
house. My husband, when he did not openly
suggest going, used some subterfuge as trivial as
going for water-cress, that grew in a pond near



222 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

the Asylum. The children knew him, and wel-
comed him with lustrous, eloquent eyes, and went
untiringly through their little exhibitions, learn-
ing to bring him their compositions, examples
and maps, for his commendation. How little we
thought then that the lessons he was taking,
in order to talk with the children he learned
to love, would soon come into use while sitting
round a camp-fire and making himself understood
by Indians. Of course, their sign-language is
wholly their own, but it is the same method of
using the simplest signs as expressive of thought.
It was a long, pleasant ride; its only drawback to
me being the fording of the river, which had
quicksands and a rapid current. The Colorado
was low, but the river-bed was wide and filled
with sand-bars. The mad torrent that the citizens
told us of in freshets, we did not see. If I fol-
lowed my husband, as Custis Lee had learned to
do, I found myself guided safely, but it some-
times happened that our party entered the river,
laughing and talking so earnestly, noisily and
excitedly that we forgot caution. One lesson was
enough ; the sensation of the sinking of the
horse's hind legs in quicksands is not to be for-
gotten. The loud cry of the General to " saw en
the bit" or whip my horse, excited, frightened
directions from the staff to turn to the right or the



PISTOLS AND BOWIE-KNIVES. 22$

left, Custis Lee trembling and snorting with fear,
but responding to a cruel cut of my whip (for I
rarely struck him), and we plunged on to a firmer
soil, wiser for all the future on account of that
moment of serious peril.

We seldom rode through the town, as my hus-
band disliked the publicity that a group of
cavalrymen must necessarily cause in a city street.
If we were compelled to, the staff and Tom
pointed out one after another of the loungers
about the stores, or the horseman who had killed
his man. It seemed to be thought the necessary
thing, to establish the Texan's idea of courage, to
have either fought in duels, or, by waylaying the
enemy, to have killed from one to five men. The
Southern climate seems to keep alive a feud that
our cold Northern winters freeze out. Bad blood
was never kept in abeyance ; they had out their
bursts of temper when the attack of rage came on.
Each man, even the boys of twelve, went armed.
I used to wonder at the humped-up coats until a
norther, before which we were one day scudding
for safety, lifted the coats of men making a
similar dash, and the pistol was revealed.

It was the favorite pastime of our men (having
concocted the scheme with the General) to ride
near some of the outskirts, and, when we reached
some lone tree, tell me that from that limb a mur-



224 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

dered man had lately swung. This grim joke was
often practiced on me, in order that the shuddering
horror and the start Custis Lee and I made, to
skim over the country away from such a hated
spot, might be enjoyed. I came to think the
Texas trees bore that human fruit a little too often
for truth ; but some of the citizens gloated over
these scenes of horror, and added a lamp-post in
town to the list of localities from which, in future,
I must turn away my head.

The negroes of Texas and Louisiana were the
worst in all the South. The border States had
commonly sold their most insubordinate slaves in-
to these two distant States.* Fortunately, our now
well-disciplined Division and the regular cavalry
kept everything in a better condition ; but there
were constantly individual cases of outrageous con-
duct, and often of crime, among whites and blacks,

*In order to gain some idea of the immense territory in which our
troops were attempting to restore order, I have only to remind the
reader that Texas is larger than either the German or the Austrian
Empire. The area of the State is 274,356 square miles. It is as
large as France, Belgium, England and Wales all combined. If we
could place the northwestern corner of Texas at Chicago, its most
southerly point would be at Jacksonville, Fla., its most easterly
at Petersburg, Va., and its most westerly in the interior of Missouri.
It would thus cover the entire States of Indiana, Kentucky and the
two Carolinas, and nearly all of Tennessee, with one-third of Ohio,
two-thirds of Virginia, half of Georgia, and portions of Florida, Ala
bama, Illinois and Missouri. The cities of Chicago, Toledo, Cin-
cinnati, Washington, Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta and Nashville
would all be included within its borders.



HOME OF THE DESPERADO. 225

high and low. Texas had so long been looked upon
as a sort of " city of refuge " by outlaws, that those
whom the other States refused to harbor came to
that locality. A country reached only by sea from
the south or by a wagon-train from the north, and
through which no telegraph lines ran until after
we came,would certainly offer an admirable hiding-
place for those who leave their country for their
country's good. I have read somewhere that Texas
derived its name from a group of rascals, who, sit-
ting round a fire on their arrival on the soil that
was to protect them, composed this couplet :

" If every other land forsakes us,
This is the land that freely takes us (Texas)."

As story after story reached us, I began to think
the State was well named. There were a great
many excellent, law-abiding citizens, but not
enough to leaven the lump at that chaotic period.
Even the women learned to defend themselves,
as the war had deprived them of their natural
protectors, who had gone either in the Northern or
the Southern army for Texas had a cavalry regi-
ment of refugees in our service. One woman, while
we were there, found a teamster getting into her
window, and shot him fatally. Fire-arms were so
constantly about for the men did not dress with-
out a pistol in their belts that women grew ac-



226 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

customed to the sight of weapons. There was a
lady of whom I constantly heard, rich and re-
fined, but living out of town on a plantation that
seemed to be fit only for negroes. She rode fear-
lessly, and diverted her monotonous life by hunt-
ing. The planters frequently met her with game
slung upon her saddle, and once she lassoed and
brought in a wolf alone. Finally this woman
came to see me, but curiosity made me hardly
civil for a few moments, as I was trying to recon-
cile myself to the knowledge, that the quiet, grace-
ful woman before me, with rich dress, jewels and
a French hat, could take her gun and dogs, mount
a fiery horse, and go hunting alone. We found,
on returning the visit, that, though they were rich,
owning blooded horses, a plantation and a mill,
their domicile was anything but what we at the
North would call comfortable. It was a long,
one-storied, log building, consisting of a parlor,
dining-room, bedroom and two small " no-'count "
rooms, as the servants said, all opening into one
another and upon the porch. The first surprise
on entering was, that the roof did not fit down
snugly on the side wall. A strip of the blue sky
was visible on three sides, while the partition of the
dining-room only came up part way. There
seemed to be no sort of provision for " Caudle
lectures." The walls were roughly plastered, but



WALLS HA VE EARS. 2 2 7

this space just under the roof was for ventilation,
and I fancied they would get enough of it during
a norther.

I am reminded of a story that one of the witty
Southern women told me, after repeating some
very good comic verses, in which they excel. She
said the house I described was not uncommon in
Texas, and that once she was traveling over a por-
tion of the State, on a journey of great suffering,
as she was accompanying her husband's remains
to a family burial-ground. They assisted her
from her carriage into one of the rooms of a long
log house, used as a wayside inn, and the landlady
kindly helped her into bed, as she was prostrated
with suffering and fatigue. After she left her,
the landlady seemed to forget that the partition
did not extend to the rafters, and began question-
ing her servant as to what was the matter, etc.
Hearing that the lady had lost her husband, the
old dame exclaimed, sympathetically, " Poor
thing ! Poor thing ! I know how it is; I've lost
three of 'em."

The General and his staff got a good deal of
sport out of the manner in which they exagger-
ated the tales of bloodshed to me, and aroused
the anger, grief and horror that I could not sup-
press. I must defend myself from the supposition
that I may have been chronicling their absurd and



228 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

highly colored tales. All that 1 have written, I
have either seen or have reliable authority for.
Their astounding stories, composed among them-
selves, began with a concocted plan by which one
casually started a story, the others met it with
surprise and with an " Is it possible?" and the
next led up to some improbable narrative of the
General's I growing more and more shivery as
the wicked tormentors advanced. Always rather
gullible, I suppose, I must confess the torn and
distracted state of society in Texas made every-
thing they said seem probable. I don't know how
long I kept up a fashion of starting and shudder-
ing over the frequent crack of a rifle or pistol, as
we rode through the woods about the town. My
husband and his attendant scamps did all they
could to confirm my belief that the woods were
full of assassins, and I rode on after these sharp
reports, expecting to come upon the lifeless re-
mains of a murdered man. They all said, with
well assumed feeling, that Texas was an awful
country in which to live, where a man's life was
not safe an hour, and excitedly exclaimed at each
shot, " There goes some other poor fellow!" I
have reason to believe it was a serious disappoint-
ment to the whole confederation of jokers, to have
me actually see a Mexican driver (a greaser) crack
his whip over the heads of his oxen, as they



SOMETHING OP SOCIAL LIFE.

crawled along in front of us one day when we
were riding. There is no sound like the snap of
the lash of a " bull-whacker," as they are called,
and perhaps brighter women than I am might have
been taken in by it, and thought it a pistol-shot.
This ended my taking it as the signal of a death.
The lawlessness of the State was much dimin-
ished by the troops scattered through the country.
General Custer was much occupied in answering
communications that came from distant parts
of Texas, describing the demoralized state of the
country, and asking for troops. These appeals
were from all sides. It was felt more and more
that the presence of the troops was absolutely
necessary, and it was certainly agreeable to us
that we were not looked upon as invaders. The
General then had thirteen regiments of infantry
and as many of cavalry, scattered in every part
of the State comprised in his district. The regular
troops arriving, brought their wives and daughters,
and it was a great addition, as we had constant en-
tertainments, in which the civilians, so long cut off
from all gayety, were glad to participate. The
staff assisted me greatly in my preparations. We
dressed the long parlors in evergreens, made cano-
pies of flags, arranged wax-lights in impromptu
wooden sconces, and with the waxed floor it was
tempting enough to those who cared for dancing.



230 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

The soldiers soon organized a string band, and a
sergeant called off the quadrilles. Sometimes my
husband planned and arranged the suppers alone,
but usually the staff divided the duty of prepar-
ing the refreshments. Occasionally we attempted
a dinner, and, as we wanted to invite our own
ladies as well as some from the regular regiments,
the table was a subject of study ; for when twenty
came, the dishes gave out. The staff dined early,
so that we could have theirs, and the Southern
woman who occupied two rooms in the building
lent everything she had. Uncle Charley, our
cook, who now had found a colored church in
which to preach on Sunday, did up all his religion
on that day, and swore all the week, but the cellar-
kitchen was distant, and, besides, my husband
used to argue that it was just as well to endure
placidly the evils right about us, but not to seek
for more. The swearing did not interfere with
the cooking, and Charley thought it necessary to
thus clear the kitchen, as our yard at that time
was black with the colored race. Each officer's
servant had his circle of friends, and they hovered
round us like a dark cloud. The dishes that
Uncle Charley sent up were excellent. The Texas
beef and poultry were of superior quality, and we
even had a respite from condensed milk, as a
citizen had lent us a cow.



CHAGRIN OF A HOSTESS. 23 I

At one of these dinners Eliza had enlisted a
colored boy to help her wait on the table. I had
tried to borrow enough dishes, and thought the
table was provided. But the glory of the occa-
sion departed when, after soup, roast game, etc.,
all served with the great luxury at that place of
separate plates, Uncle Charley bethought himself
that he would add, as a surprise, a dessert. It is
almost unnecessary to say that a dessert at that
time was an event. Uncle Charley said his " best
holt " was on meats, and his attempts at pastry
would not only have ruined the remnant of his
temper, but, I am afraid, if often indulged in,
would have effectually finished our digestion.
For this I had not counted, and, to my dismay,
after the pudding had been deposited with great
salaam and ceremony before the General, the
colored boy rushed around and gathered every-
body's coffee-saucer. Until he returned them
washed, and placed them at the head of the table,
I did not imagine what he was doing ; I simply
waited, in that uncertain frame of mind that a
hostess well knows. My husband looked at the
array of cups down the long table, standing bereft
of their partners, laid his head back, and shouted.
Then everybody else laughed, and, very red and
very mortified, I concluded to admit that I had
not arranged for this last course, and that on that



232 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

table were the united contents of all our mess-
chests, and there were no saucers or dessert-plates
nearer than town. We were aware that our
stay in the South was limited, and made no
effort to keep enough crockery for dinners of
twenty.

After many enjoyable parties in our parlor, we
received a pathetic and carefully worded hint
from Eliza, who was now a great belle, that she
would like to return some of the hospitality
shown her by the colored people of the town, and
my husband was only too glad to prove to Eliza
how we valued her faithful, self-denying life in
our service. We composed an invitation, in which
Miss Eliza Brown presented her compliments to
Mr.Washington or Mr. Jefferson, as the case might
be, and would be happy to see him on such an
evening, with the word "dancing" in the left-
hand corner. A gathering of the darkies seemed
equally jubilant, whether it was a funeral, a camp-
meeting or a dance ; but it seemed they made a
difference in dress for these occasions, if not in
manners. So it was best, Eliza thought, to add
" dancing," though it was only at first a mirthful
suggestion of the General's fertile brain. He gave
the copying to the office clerk, who, being a profes-
sional penman, put as many tails to his capitals
and flourishes to his words as he did for the white



A NEGRO BALL.



233



folks, Eliza's critical eye watching for any less
elaborate embellishment.

The lower part of the house was given over to
the negroes, who polished the floor, trimmed the
windows, columns and chimney with garlands of
live-oak, and lavished candles on the scene, while
at the supper they had a heterogeneous jumble of
just what they asked for, including coon, the dish
garnished with watercress and bits of boiled beet.
I think we were not asked ; but as the fiddle
started the jigs, the General's feet began to keep
time, and he executed some pas seul around our
bedroom, and then, extracting, as usual, a promise
from me not to laugh, he dragged me down the
steps, and we hid where we saw it all. The quadrille
ended, the order of ceremonies seemed to consist
in the company going down to one end of the room
in response to an order from Uncle Charley to
" clar the flo'." Then the old man of sixty, a grand-
father, now dressed in white tie, vest and gloves,
with shining black clothes, took the floor. He knew
himself to be the cynosure of all eyes, and bore
himself accordingly. He had previously said to
me, " To-night, I expects, Miss Libbie, to put
down some steps those colored folks has never
seen befo'." And surely he did. He ambled out,
as lithe as a youngster, cut some pigeon-wings,
and then skipped and flung himself about with



234 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

the agility of a boy, stopping not only for breath,
but to watch the expressions, envious and admir-
ing, of the spectators at the end of the room.
When his last breath was exhausted, Aunt Ann,
our old laundress, came tripping down the polished
floor, and executed a shuffle, most decorous at
first, and then, reviving her youth, she struck into
a hoydenish jig, her son encouraging her by pat-
ting time. More quadrilles, then another clearing
of the floor, and a young yellow woman pirouet-
ted down the room, in bright green tarlatan
petticoats, very short and airy. She executed a
hornpipe and a reel, and, like Uncle Charley, im-
provised some steps for the occasion. This black
sylph was surrounded with a cloud of diaphanous
drapery; she wreathed her arms about her head,
kept on the smirk of the ballet-girl, and coquetted
and skipped about, with manners that brought
down the house. The fattest darkey of all wad-
dled down next and did a break-down, at which
all the assembly patted juba, and with their
woolly heads kept time to the violin. My husband
never moved from his hiding-place, but chuckled
and shook over the sight, novel to us, till Eliza
found us out and forgave the " peeking."

The clothes worn, looked as if the property-
room of a third-rate theatre had been rifled faded
finery, fag ends of old lace, tumbled flowers that



TOILETS OF THE DANCERS.



2 35



had done duty at many a "white folks'" ball, on
the pretty costume of the missus, old feathers set
up in the wool, where what was left of the plume
bobbed and quavered, as the head of the owner
moved to the time of the music, or nodded and
swayed back and forth while converration went
on. The braiding, oiling and smoothing had
gone on for days previous, to straighten the wool
and make it lie flat ; but the activity in the pur-
suit of pleasure soon set the little kinks free, and
each hair stood on tip-toe, joining in a jig of its
own. The powder begged from the toilet-table
of the missus was soon swept away in the general
shine ; but the belles cared little for having sus-
pended temporarily the breath of their rivals by
the gorgeousness of their toilets ; they forgot ap-
pearances and yielded to that absorption of
excitement in which the colored soul is spell-
bound.

Eliza moved about, " queening it " as she knew
how to do, and it was a proud hour of triumph to
her, as she cast a complacent side glance at the
tail of her gown, which siie had wheedled out of
me by cunning arguments, among which the most
powerful was that " 'twas getting so mussed and
'twasn't no sort of a dress for a GinnePs wife, no
how." The General lost nothing, for he sat in our
hidden corner, shaking and throwing his head back



236 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

in glee, but keeping a close and warning hold on
my arm, as I was not so successful in smothering a
titter as he was, having no mustache to deaden
the sound. After Eliza discovered us, she let no
one know of our perfidy, and the company, be-
lieving they were alone, abandoned themselves
to complete enjoyment as the fiddle played havoc
with the heels of the entire assembly.



CHAPTER VIII.

LETTERS HOME EXTRACTS CAUGHT BY A NORTHER

LONGING FOR A YANKEE WOOD-PILE COLONEL

GROOME OF l8l2 JACK RUCKER BEATEN IN A

HORSE-RACE GINNIE AND HER FAMILY OUR

FATHER CUSTER 7 S DOG.

HPHE trivial events of our daily life were
chronicled in a weekly letter home, and from
a number of these school-girl effusions I cull a few
items, as they give an idea of my husband's recre-
ations as well as his duties.

" We are quartered in the Blind Asylum, which
is large and comfortable. The large rooms in the
main part of the building we can use for enter-
taining, while the staff occupy the wings and the
building in the yard, that was used for a school-
room. Out there they can have all the ' walk-
arounds 7 and ' high-jinks ' they choose, without
any one hearing them."

"Our room is large, and, mother, I have two
bureaus and a wardrobe, and lose my things con-



238 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

stantly, I am so unused to so much room. We
women hardly knew what to make of the absence of
looking-glasses, as the house is otherwise furnished,
until it occurred to us that the former occupants
wouldn't get much good out of a mirror. It isn't
so necessary to have one, after all, as I got on all
summer very well, after I learned to brush my
hair straight back and not try to part it. I have
a mirror now, and am wrestling with back hair
again.

" I confess to you, mother, it is a comfort to get
out of bed on to a carpet, and dress by a fire ; but
don't tell Armstrong I said so, as I never men-
tioned to him that dressing before day, my eyes
streaming with tears from the camp-fire while I
took an ice-water bath, was not the mode of serv-
ing my country that I could choose."

"Last Sunday it was uncomfortably warm. We
wore thin summer clothes, and were languid from



Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 13 of 39)