Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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stood, and off we flew, leaving the mystified man
urging his nag in vain. It was not quite my idea
of hospitality so to introduce a new-comer to our
horses' speed ; but then he was not a transient
guest, and the sooner he knew all our " tricks and
our manners " the better, while it was beyond my
power of self-denial to miss seeing the proud tri-
umph in my husband's eyes as he rode up and
patted the colt and received the little return of
affection from the knowing beast. Phil went on im-
proving in gait and swiftness as he grew in years,
and I once had the courage, afterward, to speed him
on the Government race-track at Fort Leaven-
worth, though to this day I cannot understand
how I got up to concert pitch ; and I could never
be induced to try such an experiment again. I
suppose I often made as good time, trotting beside
my husband's horse, but to go alone was some-
thing I was never permitted to do on a roadway.
The General and brother Tom connived to get
this bit of temporary courage out of me by an off-
hand conversation, as we rode toward the track,
regarding what Phil might be made to do under
the best circumstances, which I knew meant the


snaffle-rein, a light weight, and my hand, which
the General had trained to be steady. I tried to
beg off and suggest either one of them for the
trial ; but the curb which they were obliged to use,
as Phil was no easy brute to manage with them,
made him break his gait, and a hundred and sev-
enty pounds on his back was another obstacle to
speed. It ended in my being teased into the
experiment, and though I called out, after the first
half-mile, that I could not breathe any longer, the
air rushed into my lungs so rapidly, they implored
and urged by gesture and enthusiastic praise, until
I made the mile they had believed Phil equal to
in three minutes.

I wish I could describe what delight my hus-
band took in his horse life, what hours of recrea-
tion and untiring pleasure he got out of our com-
panionship with Jack Rucker, Phil and Custis Lee.
On that day we three and our orderly were alone
on the track, and such a merry, noisy, care-forget-
ting three as we were ! the General, with his stop-
watch in hand, cheering me, urging the horse
wildly, clapping his hands, and hallooing with
joy as the animal responded to his expectation.
Phil's coming up to their boasts and anticipations
was just a little episode in our life that went to
prove what a rare faculty he had of getting much
out of little, and of how persistently the boy in



him cropped out as soon as an opportunity came
to throw care aside. It is one of the results of a
life of deprivation, that pleasures, when they come,
are rarities, and the enjoyment is intensified. In
our life they lasted so short a time that we had
no chance to learn the meaning of satiety.

One of the hardest trials, in our first winter with
the regiment, was that arising from the constantly
developing tendency to hard drinking. Some who
came to us had held up for a time, but they were
not restricted in the volunteer service, as a man
who fought well was forgiven much else that
came, in the rare intervals of peace. In the new
state of affairs, as went the first few months of the
regiment, so would it go for all time. There was
a regiment stationed in New Mexico at that time,
the record of which was shameful. We heard of
its career by every overland train that came into
our post, and from officers who went out on duty.
General Sherman said that, with such a set of
drunkards, the regiment, officers and all, should be
mustered out of the service. Anything, then, rather
than let our Seventh follow such a course. But I
must not leave the regiment at that point in its
history. Eventually it came out all right, ably
officered and well soldiered, but it was the terror
of the country in 1867. While General Custer
steadily fought against drunkenness, he was not



remorseless or unjust. I could cite one instance
after another, to prove with what patience he strove
to reclaim some who were, I fear, hopeless when
they joined us. His own greatest battles were
not fought in the tented field ; his most glori-
ous combats were those waged in daily, hourly,
fights on a more hotly contested field than was
ever known in common warfare. The truest
heroism is not that which goes out supported by
strong battalions and reserve artillery. It is when
a warrior for the right enters into the conflict alone,
and dares to exercise his will, in defiance of some
established custom in which lies a lurking, deadly
peril or sin. I have known my husband to almost
stand alone in his opinion regarding temperance,
in a garrison containing enough people to make a
good-sized village. He was thoroughly unosten-
tatious about his convictions, and rarely said
much ; but he stood to his fixed purpose, purely
from horror of the results of drinking. I would
not imply that in garrison General Custer was the
only man invariably temperate. There were some
on pledge ; some temperate because they paid such
a physical penalty by actual illness that they
could not drink ; some restrained because their best
loved comrade, weak in his own might, " swore
off " on consideration that the stronger one of the
two backed him up ; some (God bless them !) re-


fused because the woman they loved grieved, and
was afraid of even one friendly glass. What I mean
is, that the general custom, against which there is
little opposition in any life, is, either to indulge in
the social glass, or look leniently upon the habit.
Without preaching or parading his own strength
in having overcome the habit, General Custer
stood among the officers and men as firm an advo-
cate of temperance as any evangelist whose life is
devoted to the cause.

I scarcely think I would have realized the con-
stantly recurring temptations of my husband's life,
had I not been beside him when he fought these
oft-repeated battles. The pleasure he had in con-
vivial life, the manner in which men and women
urged him to join them in enjoyment of the spark-
ling wine, was enough to have swept every resolu-
tion to the winds. Sometimes, the keen blade of
sarcasm, though set with jewels of wit and appar-
ent badinage, added a cut that my ears, so quick-
ened to my husband's hard position, heard and
grieved over. But he laughed off the carefully
concealed thrust. When we were at home in our
own room, if I asked him, blazing anew with
wrath at such a stab, how he kept his temper, he
replied, "Why notice it? Don't I know what I've
been through to gain my victory ? That fellow,
you must remember, has fought and lost, and



knows in his soul he'll go to the dogs if he doesn't
hold up, and, Libbie, he can't do it, and I am
sorry for him." Our brother Tom was less patient,
less forbearing, for in one of his times of pledge,
when the noble fellow had given his word not to
taste a drop for a certain season if a man he loved,
and about whom he was anxious, would do the
same, he was sneered at by a brother officer, with
gibes at his supposed or attempted superiority,
Tom leaped across the table in the tent where
they sat at dinner, and shook up his assailant in a
very emphatic way. I laugh in remembrance of
his choler, and am proud of it now. I, as " gentle-
woman," descended from a line of decorous gen-
tlemen and ladies, ought to be horrified at one
man's seizing another by the collar and pouncing
upon him, regardless of the Marquis of Queens-
bury rules. But I know that circumstances alter
cases, and in our life an occasional good shaking
was better than the slow justice of a tedious

The General would not smile, but there was a
noticeable twisting of his mustache, and he took
himself out of the way to conceal his feelings,
when I pointed my discerning finger at him and
said, " You're laughing, your own self, and you
think Tom was right, even if you don't say a word,
and look so dreadfully commandery-officery at


both of us ! " The General did not keep himself
aloof, and sometimes, in convivial scenes, when he
joined in the increasing hilarity,was so infused with
the growing artificial jovialty, and grew jollier
and jollier, that he was accused himself of being
the wildest drinker of them all. But some one
was sure to speak up and say, as the morning ap-
proached, "I have sat beside Custer the night
through, and if he's intoxicated it's over water, for
he has not tasted a drop of wine more loss to
him, I say." After a campaign, his nose was fiery
red from the summer's exposure, and some one
said, "If Custer wishes to pass for a temperance
man, he'd better take in his sign." When this was
reported to us, the General sang an old song, to
drown the spluttering of his indignant better


"Nose, nose, jolly red nose,"

to an appropriate bacchanalian tune, and I found
him smoothing caressingly this feature of his face;
telling me that people might scoff at its color, but
its stock had gone up with him. Some one once
told me that distinguished men of strong charac-
ter had almost invariably big noses. I noted that,
and counted noses when we found ourselves in an
assembly at the East with people of note, and as
my husband passed me, I was guilty of whisper-
ing that I had gone over the assembly, and noted


the number down in my memory, and that ours
out-shone and out-sized them all. After that, no
thrust at the tint so suspiciously red after a scout
disturbed him in the least. Only a short time
before the final battle, he dined in New York, at
a house where General McDowell was also a
guest. When no one else could hear, he told me,
with a warning not to talk of it, that he had some
one to keep him company, and described the bowl
of ice that stood in the midst of the untouched
semicircle of glasses before General McDowell,
and how the ice seemed just as satisfactory as any
of the rare beverages. We listened once to John
B. Gough, and the General's enthusiasm over his
earnestness and his eloquence was enhanced by
the well-known fact of his failures, and the plucky
manner in which he started anew. Everybody
cries over Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle, even if
they have never encountered drunkenness, and my
husband wept like a child because of his intense
sympathy for the weakness of the poor tempted
soul, harrowed as he was by a Xantippe.

If women in civil life were taken among men,
as army women are, in all sorts of festivities, they
would get a better idea of what strength of pur-
pose it requires to carry out a principle. At some
army posts the women go to the sutler's store
with their husbands, for billiards or amusements.


There is a separate room for the soldiers, so we
see nothing of those poor fellows who never can
stay sober. The sutler's is not only the store,
but it is the club-house for the garrison, and I
have known posts where the officers were SQ
guarded about their drinking, that women could
go among them and join in any amusement with-
out being liable to the distress that the sight of
an intoxicated man invariably gives to a sensitive
woman. If I saw drunken soldiers reeling off
after pay-day, it was the greatest possible relief to
me to know, that out of hundreds only a few were
married, as but a certain number of the laun-
dresses were allowed to a company. So no
woman's heart was going to be wrung by unsteady
steps approaching her door, and the sight of the
vacant eyes of a weak husband. ' It took away
half the sting and shock, to know that a soldier's
spree was not one that recoiled on an innocent

As I look back upon our life, I do not believe
there ever was any path so difficult as those men
on the frontier trod. Their failures, their fights,
their vacillations, all were before us, and it was
an anxious life to be watching who won and who
lost in those moral warfares. You could not sepa-
rate yourself from the interests of one another.
It was a network of friendships that became more



and more interwoven by common hardships, dep-
rivations, dangers, by isolation and the daily
sharing of joys and troubles. I am thankful for
the certainty that there is some one who scores all
our fights and all our victories ; for on His records
will be written the story of the thorny path over
which an officer walked if he reached the goal.

Women shielded in homes, supported by ex-
ample, unconscious of any temptation save the
mildest, will realize with me what it was to watch
the quivering mouth of a man who voluntarily
admitted that until he was fifty he knew he was in
hourly peril of being a drunkard. The tears blind
me as I go back in retrospection and think over
the men that warred against themselves. ,;

In one respect, there never was such a life as
ours ; it was eminently one of partings. How
natural, then, that the last act before separa-
tion be one of hospitable generosity ! How
little we had to offer ! It was often almost an
impossibility to get up a good dinner. Then
we had so many coming to us from a distance,
that our welcome could not be followed up
by any entertainment worthy of the name.
Besides, there were promotions to celebrate, an
occasional son and heir to toast, birthdays occur-
ring so often, and nothing in the world that an-
swered for an expression of hospitality and good


feeling but an old straw demijohn behind the door.
It was surprising what pertinacious lives the demi-
johns of the garrison had. The driver of the
wagon containing the few appointments of an
officer's outfit, was just as careful of the familiar
friend as one could wish servants to be with the
lares and penates of an aesthetic household. If
he was rewarded with a drink from the sacred
demijohn, after having safely preserved it over
muddy roads, where the mules jerked the prairie-
schooner out of ruts, and where, except for a pro-
tecting hand, the contents would have saturated
the wagon, he was thankful. But such was his
reverence for what he considered the most valu-
able possession of the whole wagon, virtue alone
would have been sufficient reward. When in the
regimental movings the crockery (the very
heaviest that is made) was smashed, the furniture
broken, carpets, curtains, clothes and bedding
mildewed and torn, the old demijohn neither
broke, spilled nor suffered any injury by exposure
to the elements. It was, in the opinion of our
lovers of good whisky, a " survival of the fittest."
It never came to be an old story with me, that
in this constant, familiar association with drinkings,
the General and those of his comrades who ab-
stained could continue to exercise a marvelous
self-control. I could not help constantly speaking


to my husband of what he went through ; and it
seemed to me that no liberty could be too great to
extend to men who, always keeping their heads,
were clear as to what they were about. The do-
mestic lariat of a cavalryman might well be drawn
in, if the women waiting at home were uncertain
whether the brains of their liege lords would be
muddled when absent from their influence.








FT was well we had our horses at Fort Riley for
recreation, as walking was almost out of the
question in autumn. The wind blew unceasingly
all the five years we were in Kansas, but it seemed
to do its wildest work in autumn. No one had
told us of its incessant activity, and I watched for
it to quiet down for days after our arrival, and
grew restless and dull for want of exercise, but
dared not go out. As the post was on a plateau,
the wind from the two river valleys swept over it
constantly. The flag was torn into ribbons in no
time, and the storm-flag, made smaller and used
in rainy weather, had to be raised a good deal,
while the larger and handsomer one was being
mended. We found that the other women of the
garrison, who were there when we arrived, ven-




tured out to see one another, and even crossed the
parade-ground when it was almost impossible to
keep on one's feet. It seems to date very far back,
when I recall that our dresses then measured five
yards around, and were gathered as full as could
be pressed into the waist-band. These seven
breadths of skirt flew out in advance of us, if they
did not lift themselves over our heads. My skirts
wrapped themselves around my husband's ankles,
and rendered locomotion very difficult for us both,
if we tried to take our evening stroll. He thought
out a plan, which he helped me to carry into effect,
by cutting bits of lead in small strips, and these I
sewed into the hem. Thus loaded down, we took
our constitutional about the post, and outwitted
the elements, which at first bade fair to keep us
perpetually housed.

There was very little social life in garrison that
winter. The officers were busy studying tactics,
and accustoming themselves to the new order of
affairs, so very different from their volunteer ex-
perience. Had not everything been so novel, I
should have felt disappointed in my first associa-
tion with the regular army in garrison. I did not
then consider that the few old officers and their
families were really the regular army, and so was
somewhat disheartened regarding our future asso-
ciates. As fast as our own officers arrived, a


part of the regiment that had garrisoned Fort
Riley before we came, went away ; but it soon be-
came too late in the season to send the remainder.
The post was therefore crowded. The best man-
ners with which all had made their debut wore off,
and some jangling began. Some drank too
freely and were placed under arrest, or released if
they went on pledge. Nothing was said, of
course, if they were sober enough for duty ; but
there were some hopeless cases from the first. For
instance, a new appointee made his entrance into
our parlor, when paying the visit that military eti-
quette requires, by falling in at the door, and
after recovering an upright position, proceeded to
entangle himself in his sword again, and tumble
into a chair. I happened to be alone, and was, of
course, very much frightened. In the afternoon
the officers met in one of their quarters, and drew
up resolutions that gave the new arrival the choice
of a court-martial or his resignation before night ;
and by evening he had written out the papers re-
signing his commission. Another fine-looking
man, whom the General worked long and faith-
fully to make a sober officer, had really some good
instincts. He was so glad to get into our home
circle, and was so social, telling the drollest stories
of far Western life, where he had lived formerly r
that I became greatly interested in his efforts at


reformation. He was almost the first to be court-
martialed for drunkenness on duty, and that was
always a grief to us ; but in those early days of
our regiment's history, arrest, imprisonment and
trial had to go on much of the time. The officer to
whom I refer was getting into and out of difficulty
incessantly. He repented in such a frank, regretful
sort of way, that my husband kept faith in his final
reformation long after it seemed hopeless. One day
I asked him to dinner. It was Thanksgiving, and
on those days we tried to select the officers that
talked most to us of their homes and parents. To
my dismay, our reprobate came-into the room with
very uncertain gait. The other men looked anx-
iously at him. My husband was not in the parlor.
I thought of other instances where these signs of
intoxication had passed away in a little while, and
tried to ignore his condition. He was sober
enough to see the concerned look in his comrades'
faces, and brought the tears to my eyes by walk-
ing up to me and saying, " Mrs. Custer, I'm sorry,
but I think it would be best for me to go home."
Who could help being grieved for a man so frank
and humble over his failings ? There were six
years of such vicissitudes in this unfortunate man's
life, varied by brave conduct in the Indian cam-
paigns, before the General gave him up. He vio-
lated, at last, some social law that was considered


an outrage beyond pardon, which compelled his
departure from the Seventh. That first winter
while the General was trying to enforce one fact
upon the new-comers, that the Seventh must be a
sober regiment, it was a difficult and anything
but pleasant experience.

Very few of the original appointments remained
after a few years. Some who served on to the
final battle of 1876, went through many struggles
in gaining mastery of themselves. The General
believed in them, and they were such splendid
fighters, and such fine men when there was any-
thing to occupy them, I know that my husband
appreciated with all his soul what trials they went
through, in facing the monotony of frontier life.
Indeed, he was himself enduring some hours of
torture from restlessness and inactivity. It is
hard to imagine a greater change than from the
wild excitement of the Virginia campaigns, the
final scenes of the war, to the dullness of Fort
Riley. Oh ! how I used to feel when my hus-
band's morning duties at the office were over, and
he walked the floor of our room, saying, " Libbie,
what shall I do ?" There were no books to speak
of, for the Seventh was then too new a regiment
to purchase company libraries, as we did later.

. . . My husband never cared much for
current novels, and these were almost the sole



literature of the households at that time. At
every arrival of the mail, there was absolute con-
tentment for a while. The magazines and news-
papers were eagerly read, and I used to discover
that even the advertisements were scanned. If
the General was caught at this, and accused of it,
he slid behind his paper in mock humility, peep-
ing roguishly from one side when a voice, pitched
loftily, inquired whether reading advertisements
was more profitable than talking with one's wife ?
It was hard enough, though, when the heaps of
newspapers lay on the floor all devoured, and one
so devoted to them as he was condemned to wait
the slow arrival of another mail. The Harper s
Bazar fashion-pages were not scorned in that
dearth of reading, by the men about our fireside.
We had among us a famous newspaper-reader ;
the men could not outstrip her in extracting
everything that the paper held, and the General
delighted in hunting up accounts of " rapscal-
lions " from her native State, cutting out the
paragraphs, and sending them to her by an or-
derly. But his hour of triumph was brief, for the
next mail was sure to contain an account of either
a Michigan or an Ohio villain, and the prompt-
ness with which General Custer was made aware
of the vagabondage of his fellow-citizens was
highly appreciated by all of us. He had this dis-


advantage : he was a native of Ohio, and appointed
to the Military Academy from there, and that
State claimed him, and very proud we were to
have them do so ; but Michigan was the State of
his adoption during the war, he having married
there and it being the home of his celebrated
" Michigan brigade." ... He was enabled,
by that bright woman's industry, to ascertain
what a large share of the population of those
States were adepts in crime, as no trifling account,
or even a pickpocket, was overlooked. I remem-
ber how we laughed at her one day. This friend
of ours was not in the least sensational, she was
the very incarnation of delicate refinement. All
her reading (aside from the search for Ohio and
Michigan villains in the papers) was of the lofti-
est type ; but the blood rose in wild billows over
her sweet face when her son declared his mother
such a newspaper devotee that he had caught
her reading the " personals." We knew it was a
fib ; but it proves to what lengths a person might
go from sheer desperation, when stranded on the

Fortunately, I was not called much from home,
as there were few social duties that winter, and we

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 22 of 39)