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Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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we got home, and then Autie gave me up my
pocket-book with all the money, and we all had a
good laugh, while the boys told their mother of
the pranks they had played on me."

My father's story ceases without doing justice to
himself ; for the cunning manner in which he cir-
cumvented those mischievous fellows, I remember,




STAND THF.RE, COWARDS, WILL YOU, AND SEE AN OLD MAN ROBBED.'"'

295



296 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

and it seems my husband had given a full account
to our friend the Hon. Harry Conant. He writes
to me, what is very true, that " it seems one must
know the quaint and brave old man, to appreciate
how exquisitely funny the incident, as told by
the General, really was. The third day after the
robbery, the General and Tom, thinking their
father engaged at a remote part of the boat, while
talking over their escapade incautiously exhibited
the pocket-book. Suddenly the hand that held it
was seized in the strong grasp of the wronged
father, who, lustily calling for aid, assured the
passengers that were thronging up (and, being
strangers, knew nothing of the relationship of the
parties) that this purse was his, and that he had
been robbed by these two scoundrels, and if they
would assist in securing their arrest and restoring^
the purse, he would prove all he said. Seeing the
crowd hesitate, he called out, For shame ! stand
there, cowards, will you, and see an old man
robbed ? " It was enough. The spectators rushed
in, and the General was outwitted by his artful
parent and obliged to explain the situation. But
the consequent restoration of his property did not
give him half the satisfaction that it did to turn
the tables on the boys. Though they never ac-
knowledged this robbery to their father, none were
so proud of his victory as Tom and the General,"



TURNING THE TABLES. 297

I must not leave to the imagination of the literal-
minded people who may chance to read, the
suspicion that my husband and Tom ever made
their father in the least unhappy by their incessant
joking. He met them half-way always, and I
never knew them lack in reverence for his snowy
head. He was wont to speak of his Texas life
with his sons as his happiest year for many pre-
ceding, and used to say that, were it not for our
mother's constantly increasing feebleness, he
would go out to them in Kansas.

When he reached his own ground, he made Tom
and the General pay for some of their plots and
plans to render him uncomfortable, by coming to
the foot of the stairs and roaring out (and he had
a stentorian voice) that they had better be getting
up, as it was late. Father Custer thought 6 o'clock
A. M. was late. His sons differed. As soon as
they found the clamor was to continue, assisted
by the dogs, which he had released from the stable,
leaping up-stairs and springing on our beds in ex-
citement, they went to the head of the stairs, and
shouted out for everything that the traveler calls
for in a hotel hot water, boot-black, cock-tail, bar-
ber, and none of these being forthcoming in the
simple home, they vociferated, in what the out-
sider might have thought angry voices, " What
sort of hotel do you keep, any way ? "



298 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

Father Custer had an answer for every question,
and only by talking so fast and loud that they
talked him down did they get the better of him.
Our mother Custer almost invariably sided with
her boys. It made no sort of difference if father
Custer stood alone, he never seemed to expect a
champion. He did seem to think she was carrying
her views to an advanced point, when she endeav-
ored tp decline a new cur that he had introduced
into the house, on the strength of its having " no
pedigree." Her sons talked dog to her so much
that one would be very apt to be educated up to
the demand for an authenticated grandfather.
Besides, the "Towsers" and " Rovers " and all
that sort of mongrels, to which she had patiently
submitted in all the childhood of her boys and
their boyish father, entitled her to some choice in
after years.

At Cairo our partings began, for there some of
the staff left us for their homes. We dreaded to
give them up. Our harmonious life, and the
friendships welded by the sharing of hardships
and dangers, made us feel that it would be well
if, having tested one another, we might go on in
our future together. At Detroit the rest of our
military family disbanded. How the General re-
gretted them ! The men, scarce more than boys
even then, had responded to every call to charge



LEA VE- TAKINGS. 299

in his Michigan brigade, and afterward hi the Third
Cavalry Division. Some, wounded almost to death,
had been carried from his side on the battle-field,
as he feared, forever, and had returned with
wounds still unhealed. One of those valiant men
has just died, suffering all these twenty-three years
from his wound ; but in writing, speaking in pub-
lic when he could, talking to those who surrounded
him when he was too weak to do more, one name
ran through his whole anguished life, one hero
hallowed his days, and that was his " boy general."
Another oh what a brave boy he was ! took my
husband's proffered aid, and received an appoint-
ment in the regular army. He carried always,
does now, a shattered arm, torn by a bullet while
he was riding beside General Custer in Virginia.
That did not keep him from giving his splendid
energy, his best and truest patriotism, to his coun-
try 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. That summer when we were at
home in Monroe, the General sent for him to come
to us, and get his share of the pretty girls that
Tom and the Michigan staff, who lived near us,
were appropriating. The handsome, dark-haired
fellow carried off the favors ; for though the oth-



300



TENTING ON THE PLAINS.



ers had been wounded Tom even then bearing
the scarlet spot on his cheek where the bullet had
penetrated the last comer won, for he still wore
his arm in a sling. The bewitching girls had be-
fore them the evidence of his valor, and into what
a garden he stepped ! He was a modest fellow,
and would not demand too much pity, but made
light of his wound, as is the custom of soldiers,
who, dreading effeminacy, carry the matter too
far, and ignore what ought not to be looked upon
slightingly. One day he appeared without his
sling, and a careless girl, dancing with him,
grasped the arm in the forgetfulness of glee. The
waves of torture that swept over the young hero's
face, the alarm and pity of the girl, the instant
biting of the lip and quick smile of the man,
dreading more to grieve the pretty creature by
him than to endure the physical agony oh, how
proud the General was of him, and I think he
felt badly, that a soldier cannot yield to impulse,
and enfold his comrade in his arms, as is our
woman's sweet privilege with one another.

Proudly the General followed the career of
those young fellows who had been so near him in
his war-life. Of all those in whom he continued
always to retain an interest, keeping up in some
instances a desultory correspondence, the most
amazing evolution was that of the provost marshal



A METAMORPHOSED SOLDIER. 301

into a Methodist minister. Whether he was at
heart a stern, unrelenting character, is a question
I doubted, for he never could have developed into
a clergyman. But he had the strangest, most im-
placable face, when sent on his thankless duty by
his commanding officer. He it was who conducted
the ceremonies that one awful day in Louisiana,
when the execution and pardon took place. I
remember the General's amazement when he re-
ceived the letter in which the announcement of the
new life-work was made. It took us both some
time to realize how he would set about evan-
gelizing. It was difficult to imagine him leading
any one to the throne of grace, except at the point
of the bayonet, with a military band playing the
Dead March in Saul. I know how pleased my
husband was, though, how proud and glad to
know that a splendid, brave soldier had given
his talents, his courage and oh, what courage,
for a man of the world to come out in youth on
the side of one mighty Captain! and taken up the
life of poverty, self-denial, and something else that
the General also felt a deprivation, the roving life
that deprives a Methodist minister of the blessings
of a permanent home.

The delightful letters we used to get from our
military family when any epoch occurred in their
lives, like the choice of a profession or business



3O2 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

(for most of them went back to civil life), their
marriage, the birth of a son all gave my hus-
band genuine pleasure ; and when their sorrows
came he turned to me to write the letter a heart-
letter, which was his in all but the manipulation
of the pen. His personal influence he gave, time
and time again, when it was needed in their
lives, and, best of all in my eyes, had patience
with those who had a larger sowing of the wild-
oat crop, which is the agricultural feature in the
early life of most men.

Since I seek to make my story of others, I take
the privilege of speaking of a class of heroes
that I now seldom hear mentioned, and over whom,
in instances of my husband's personal friends,
we have grieved together. It is to those who,
like his young staff-officer, bear unhealed and
painful wounds to their life's end, that I wish
to beg our people to give thought. We felt it
rather a blessing, in one way, when a man was
visibly maimed ; for if a leg or an arm is gone, the
empty sleeve or the halting gait keeps his
country from forgetting that he has braved every-
thing to protect her. The men we sorrowed for
were those who suffered silently ; and there are
more, North and South, than anyone dreams of,
scattered all over our now fair and prosperous
land. Sometimes, after they die, it transpires that



FORTITUDE IN SUFFERING.



303



at the approach of every storm they have been
obliged to stop work, enter into the seclusion of
their rooms, and endure the racking, torturing
pain, that began on the battle-field so long ago.
If anyone finds this out in their life-time, it is
usually by accident ; and when asked why they
suffer without claiming the sympathy that does
help us all, they sometimes reply that the war is
too far back to tax anyone's memory or sympathy
now. Oftener, they attempt to ignore what
they endure, and change the subject in-
stantly. People would be surprised to know
how many in the community, whom they
daily touch in the jostle of life, are silent sufferers
from wounds or incurable disease contracted
during the war for the Union. The monuments,
tablets, memorials, which are strewn with flowers
and bathed with grateful tears, have often tribute
that should be partly given to the double hero
who bears on his bruised and broken body the
torture of daily sacrifice for his country. People,
even if they know, forget the look, the word of
acknowledgment, that is due the maimed patriot.
I recall the chagrin I felt on the Plains one day,
when one of our Seventh Cavalry officers, with
whom we had long been intimately associated
one whom our people called " Fresh Smith," or
" Smithie," for short came to his wife to get her



304



TENTING ON THE PLAINS.



to put on his coat. I said something in bantering
tones of his Plains life making him look on his
wife as the Indian looks upon the squaw, and tried
to rouse her to rebellion. There was a small blaze,
a sudden scintillation from a pair of feminine eyes,
that warned me of wrath to come. The captain
accepted my banter, threw himself into the sad-
dle, laughed back the advantage of this new order
of things, where a man had a combination, in his
wife, of servant and companion, and tore out of
sight, leaving me to settle accounts with the
flushed madame. She told me, what I never knew,
and perhaps might not even now, but for the out-
burst of the moment, that in the war " Smithie "
had received a wound that shattered his shoulder,
and though his arm was narrowly saved from
amputation, he never raised it again, except a few
inches. As for putting on his coat, it was an im-
possibility.

One day in New York my husband and I were
paying our usual homage to the shop windows
and to the beautiful women we passed, when he
suddenly seized my arm and said, "There's Kid-
doo ! Let's catch up with him." I was skipped
over gutters, and sped over pavements, the Gen-
eral unconscious that such a gait is not the usual
movement of the New Yorker, until we came up
panting each side of a tall, fine-looking man, ap-



A FIRESIDE CONFESSION.



305



patently a specimen of physical perfection. The
look of longing that he gave us as we ran up,
flushed and happy, startled me, and I could
scarcely wait until we separated to know the
meaning. It was this : General Joseph B. Kid-
doo, shot in the leg during the war, had still the
open wound, from which he endured daily pain
and nightly torture, for he got only fragmentary
sleep. To heal the hurt was to end his life, the
surgeons said. When at last I heard he had been
given release and slept the blessed sleep, what
word of sorrow could be framed ?

In the case of another friend, with whom we
were staying in Tennessee, from whom my hus-
band and I extracted the information by dint of
questions and sympathy, when, late one night,
we sat about the open fire and were warmed into
confidence by its friendly glow, we found that no
single night for the twelve years after the war had
such a boon as uninterrupted sleep been known to
him. A body racked by pain was paying daily its
loyal, uncomplaining tribute to his country. Few
were aware that he had unremitting suffering as
his constant companion. I remember that my
husband urged him to marry, and get some good
out of life, and from the sympathy that wells per-
petually in a tender woman's heart. But he denied
himself the blessing of such companionship, from



^O6 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

\j

unselfish motives, declaring- he could not ask a
woman to link her fate with such a broken life as
his. When we left his fireside, my husband
counted him a hero of such rare metal that few in
his experience could equal him, and years after-
ward, when we sometimes read his name in print,

he said, " Poor , I wonder if there's any

let-up for the brave fellow."

Our home-coming was a great pleasure to us
and to our two families. My own father was proud
of the General's administration of civil as well as
military affairs in Texas, and enjoyed the congratu-
latory letter of Governor Hamilton deeply.
The temptations to induce General Custer to leave
the service and enter civil life began at once, and
were many and varied. He had not been sub-
jected to such allurements the year after the war,
when the country was offering posts of honor to
returned soldiers, but this summer of our return
from Texas, all sorts of suggestions were made.
Business propositions, with enticing pictures of
great wealth, came to him. He never cared for
money for money's sake. No one that does, ever
lets it slip through his fingers as he did. Still, his
heart was set upon plans for his mother and father,
and for his brothers' future, and I can scarcely see
now how a man of twenty-five could have turned
his back upon such alluring schemes for wealth as



OFFERS FOR 'A FUTURE. 307

were held out to him. It was at that time much
more customary than now, even, to establish cor-
porations with an officer's name at the head who
was known to have come through the war with
irreproachable honor, proved possibly as much by
his being as poor when he came out of service as
when he went in, as by his conduct in battle. The
country was so unsettled by the four years of
strife that it was like beginning all over again,
when old companies were started anew. Con-
fidence had to be struggled for, and names of
prominent men as associate partners or presidents
were sought for persistently.

Politics offered another form of temptation.
The people demanded for their representatives
the soldiers under whom they had served, prefer-
ring to follow the same leaders in the political
field that had led them in battle. The old sol-
diers, and civilians also, talked openly of General
Custer for Congressman or Governor. It was a
summer of excitement and uncertainty. How
could it be otherwise to a boy who, five brief
year before, was a beardless youth with no appar-
ent future before him ? I was too much of a girl
to realize what a summer it was. Indeed, we
had little chance, so fast did one proposition for
our future follow upon the other. When the
General was offered the appointment of foreign



308 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

Minister, I kept silence as best I could, but it was
desperately hard work. Honors, according to
old saws, " were empty," but in that hey-day
time they looked very different to me. I was
inwardly very proud, and if I concealed the fact
because my husband expressed such horror of
inflated people, it was only after violent effort.

Among the first propositions was one for the Gen-
eral to take temporary service with Mexico. This
scheme found no favor with me. It meant more
fighting and further danger for my husband, and
anxiety and separation for me. Besides, Texas
association with Mexicans made me think their
soldiery treacherous and unreliable. But even in
the midst of the suspense pending the decision I
was not insensible to this new honor that was
offered.

Carvajal, who was then at the head of the
Juarez military government, offered the post
of Adjutant-General of Mexico to General Cus-
ter. The money inducements were, to give twice
the salary in gold that a major-general in our
army receives. As his salary had come down
from a major-general's pay of $8,000 to $2,000,
this might have been a temptation surely. There
was a stipulation, that one or two thousand men
should be raised in the United States ; any debts
assumed in organizing this force to be paid by



A COMMENDATORY LETTER. 309

the Mexican Liberal Government. Senor
Romero, the Mexican Minister, did what he could
to further the application of Carvajal, and
General Grant wrote his approval of General
Ouster's acceptance, in a letter in which he speaks
of my husband in unusually flattering terms, as
one " who rendered such distinguished service as
a cavalry officer during the war," adding, " There
was no officer in that branch of the service who
had the confidence of General Sheridan to a
greater degree than General Custer, and there is
no officer in whose judgment I have greater faith
than in Sheridan's. Please understand, then, that
I mean to endorse General Custer in a high de-
gree."

The stagnation of peace was being felt by
those who had lived a breathless four years at the
front. However much they might rejoice that
carnage had ceased and no more broken hearts
need be dreaded, it was very hard to quiet them-
selves into a life of inaction. No wonder our
officers went to the Khedive for service ! no won-
der this promise of active duty was an inviting
prospect for my husband ! It took a long time
for civilians even, to tone themselves down to the
jog-trot of peace.

Everything looked, at that time, as if there was
success awaiting any soldier who was resolute



3 10 TJStfT/NQ ON TffJS FLAWS,

enough to lead troops against one they considered
an invader. Nothing nerves a soldier's arm like
the wrong felt at the presence of foreigners on
their own ground, and the prospect of destruction
of their homes. Maximilian was then uncertain
in his hold on the Government he had established,
and, as it soon proved, it would have been what
General Custer then thought comparatively an
easy matter to drive out the usurper. The ques-
tion was settled by the Government's refusing to
grant the year's leave for which application was
made, and the General was too fond of his coun-
try to take any but temporary service in another.
This decision made me very grateful, and when
there was no longer danger of further exposure of
life, I was also thankful for the expressions of
confidence and admiration of my husband's ability
as a soldier that this contemplated move had
drawn out. I was willing my husband should
accept any offer he had received except the last.
I was tempted to beg him to resign ; for this
meant peace of mind and a long, tranquil life for
me. It was my father's counsel alone, that kept
me from urging each new proposition to take up
the life of a civilian. He advised me to forget
myself. He knew well what a difficult task it was
to school myself to endure the life on which I had
entered so thoughtlessly as a girl. I had never



FA THEKL Y CO UN'S EL. 3 1 1

been thrown with army people, and knew nothing
before my marriage of the separations and anxie-
ties of military life. Indeed, I was so young that it
never occurred to me that people could become so
attached to each other that it would be misery to
be separated. And now that this divided exist-
ence loomed up before me, father did not blame
me for longing for any life that would ensure our
being together. He had a keen sense of humor,
and could not help reminding me occasionally,
when I told him despairingly that I could not, I
simply wozildnot, live a life where I could not be
always with my husband, of days before I knew
the General, when I declared to my parents, if
ever I did marry it would not be a dentist, as our
opposite neighbor appeared never to leave the
house. It seemed to me then that the wife had a
great deal to endure in the constant presence of
her husband.

My father, strict in his sense of duty, constant-
ly appealed to me to consider only my husband's
interests, and forget my own selfish desires. In
an old letter written at that time, I quoted to the
General something that father had said to me :
" Why, daughter, I would rather have the honor
which grows out of the way in which the battle of
Waynesboro was fought, than to have the wealth
of the Indies. Armstrong's battle is better to hand



3 I 2 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

down to posterity than wealth." He used in those
days to walk the floor and say to me, " My child,
put no obstacles in the way to the fulfillment of
his destiny. He chose his profession. He is a
born soldier. There he must abide."

In the midst of this indecision, when the Gen-
eral was obliged to be in New York and Washing-
ton on business, my father was taken ill. The
one whom I so sorely needed in all those ten
years that followed, when I was often alone in the
midst of the dangers and anxieties and vicissi-
tudes attending our life, stepped into heaven as
quietly and peacefully as if going into another
room. His last words were to urge me to do my
duty as a soldier's wife. He again begged me to
ignore self, and remember that my husband
had chosen the profession of a soldier ; in that life
he had made a name, and there, where he was so
eminently fitted to succeed, he should remain.

My father's counsel and his dying words had
great weight with me, and enabled me to fight
against the selfishness that was such a temptation.
Very few women, even the most ambitious for
their husbands' future, but would have confessed,
at the close of the war, that glory came with too
great sacrifices, and they would rather gather the
husbands, lovers and brothers into the shelter of
the humblest of homes, than endure the suspense



AN OFFICER'S WORD HIS NOTE.



313



and loneliness of war-times. I am sure that my fa-
ther was right, for over and over again, in after
years, my husband met his brother officers who had
resigned, only to have poured into his ear regrets
that they had left the service. I have known him
come to me often, saying he could not be too
thankful that he had not gone into civil life. He
believed that a business man or a politician should
have discipline in youth for the life and varied ex-
perience with all kinds of people, to make a suc-
cessful career. Officers, from the very nature of
their life, are prescribed in their associates. They
are isolated so much at extreme posts that they
know little or nothing of the life of citizens. After
resigning, they found themselves robbed of the
companionship so dear to military people, unable,
from want of early training, to cope successfully
with business men, and lacking, from inexperience,
the untiring, plodding spirit that is requisite to
the success of a civilian. An officer rarely gives



Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 17 of 39)