Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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devised all sorts of trumpery expedients to vary
our life. There was usually a wild game of romps
before the day was ended. We had the strangest


neighbors. A family lived on each floor, but the
walls were not thick, as the Government had
wasted no material in putting up our plain quar-
ters. We must have set their nerves on edge, I
suppose, for while we tore up stairs and down,
using the furniture for temporary barricades
against each other, the dogs barking and racing
around, glad to join in the fracas, the din was

The neighbors not belonging to our regiment,
I am thankful to say, having come from a circle
where the husband brings the wife to terms by
brute force in giving a minute description of the
sounds that issued from our quarters, accounted
for the melee to those of the garrison they could
get to listen, by saying that the commanding
officer was beating his wife. While I was inclined
to resent such accusations, they struck the Gene-
ral very differently. He thought it was intensely
funny, and the gossip passed literally in at one
ear and out at the other, though it dwelt with him
long enough to suggest something about the good
discipline a man might have if the Virginia law,
never repealed, were now in vogue. I felt sure it
would fare badly with me ; for though the dimen-
sions of the stick with which a man is permitted
to beat his wife are limited to the size of the hus-
band's finger, my husband's hands, though in good


proportion, had fingers the bones of which were
unusually large. These strange fingers were not
noticeable until one took hold of them ; but if
they were carefully studied, with the old English
law of Virginia in mind, there well might be a
family mutiny. I tried to beg off from further
visits to certain families of this stamp, but never
succeeded ; the General insisted on my going
everywhere. One of the women asked me one
day if I rose early : Not knowing why she asked,
I replied that I feared it was often 9 o'clock
before we awoke, whereupon she answered, in an
affected voice, that "she never rose early, it was
so plebeian."

It was very discouraging, this first encounter
with what I supposed would be my life-long asso-
ciates. There were many political appointments
in the army then. Each State was entitled to its
quota, and they were frequently given for favor-
itism, regardless of soldierly qualities. There
were also a good many non-commissioned officers,
who, having done good service during the war,
were given commissions in the new regiments.
For several years it was difficult to arrange every-
thing so satisfactorily in social life that no one's
feelings would be hurt. The unvarying rule,
which my husband considered should not be vio-
lated by any who truly desired harmony, was to


visit every one in our circle, and exclude no one
from invitations to our house, unless for positively
disgraceful conduct.

We heard, from other posts, of the most amusing
and sometimes the most uncomfortable of expe-
riences. If I knew any one to whom this incident
occurred, I should not venture to make use of it
as an example of the embarrassing situations in
the new order of affairs in the reorganized army.
The story is true ; but the names, if I ever knew
them, have long since faded out of memory.
One of the Irish laundresses at a Western post
was evidently infatuated with army life, as she
was the widow of a volunteer officer doubtless
some old soldier of the regular army, who held a
commission in one of the regiments during the
war and the woman drew the pension of a
major's widow. Money, therefore, could not
have been the inducement that brought her back
to a frontier post. At one time she left her fasci-
nating clothes-line and went into the family of an
officer, to cook, but was obliged to leave from
illness. Her place was filled satisfactorily, and
when she recovered and came back to the officer's
wife, she was told that the present cook was en-
tirely satisfactory, but she might yet find a place,
as another officer's wife (whose husband had been
an enlisted man, and had lately been appointed



an officer in the regular regiment stationed there)
needed a cook. It seems that this officer's wife
also had been a laundress at one time, and the
woman applying for work squared herself off in
an independent manner, placed her arms akimbo,
and announced her platform : " Mrs. Blank, I
ken work for a leddy, but I can't go there ; there

was a time when Mrs. and I had our toobs

side by side."

How often, in that first winter, I thought of my
father's unstinted praise of the regular army, as
he had known it at Sackett's Harbor and at De-
troit, in Michigan's early days. I could not but
wonder what he would think, to be let down in
the midst of us. He used to say, in reference to
my future, " Daughter, marrying into the army,
you will be poor always ; but I count it infinitely
preferable to riches with inferior society. It con-
soles me to think you will be always associated
with people of refinement." Meanwhile, the Gen-
eral was never done begging me to be silent
about any new evidences of vulgarity. There
were several high-bred women at Fort Riley ; but
they were so discreet I never knew but that they
had been accustomed to such associations, until
after the queer lot had departed and we dared to
speak confidentially to one another.

Soon after the officers began to arrive in the


autumn, an enlisted man, whom the General had
known about in the regular army, reported
for duty. He had re-enlisted in the Seventh,
hoping ultimately for a commission. He was,
soldierly in appearance, from his long experience
in military life, and excellently well versed in
tactics and regimental discipline. On this account
he was made sergeant-major, the highest non-
commissioned officer of a regiment ; and, at his
request, the General made application almost at
once for his appointment as a lieutenant in the
Seventh Cavalry. The application was granted,
and the sergeant-major went to Washington to
be examined. The examining board was com-
posed of old and experienced officers, who were
reported to be opposed to the appointment of en-
listed men. At any rate, the applicant was asked
a collection of questions that were seemingly un-
answerable. I only remember one, "What does a
regiment of cavalry weigh ? " Considering the
differences in the size of officers, men and horses,
it would seem as if a correct answer were im-
possible. The sergeant-major failed, and returned
to our post with the hopelessness before him of
five years of association with men in the ranks ;
for there is no escaping the whole term of enlist-
ment, unless it is found that a man is under age.
But the General did not give up. He encouraged


the disappointed man to hope, and when he was
ordered before the board himself, he went to the
Secretary of War and made personal application
for the appointment. Washington was then full
of men and their friends, clamoring for the vacan-
cies in the new regiments ; but General Custer
was rarely in Washington, and was guarded in
not making too many appeals, so he obtained
the promise, and soon afterward the sergeant-
major replaced the chevrons with shoulder-straps.
Then ensued one of those awkward situations, that
seem doubly so in a life where there is such marked
distinction in the social standing of an officer and
a private ; and some of the Seventh Cavalry made
the situation still more embarrassing by conspicu-
ous avoidance of the new lieutenant, carefully
ignoring bim except where official relations ex-
isted. This seemed doubly severe, as they knew
of nothing in the man's conduct, past or present,
to justify them in such behavior. He had borne
himself with dignity as sergeant-major, living very
much to himself, and performing every duty punc-
tiliously. Shortly before, he had been an officer like
themselves in the volunteer service, and this social
ostracism, solely on account of a few months of ser-
vice as an enlisted man, was absurd. They went
back to his early service as a soldier, determined
to show him that he was not "to the manner born."


The single men had established a mess, and each
bachelor officer who came was promptly called
upon and duly invited to join them at table. There
was literally no other place to be fed. There were
no cooks to be had in that unsettled land, and if
there had been servants to hire, the exorbitant
wages would have consumed a lieutenant's pay.
There were enough officers in the bachelors' mess
to carry the day against the late sergeant-major.
My husband was much disturbed by this discour-
teous conduct ; but it did not belong to the prov-
ince of the commanding officer, and he was careful
to keep the line of demarkation between social
and official affairs distinct. Yet it did not take
long for him to think a way out of the dilemma,
He came to me to ask if I would be willing tc
have him in our family temporarily, and, of course,
it ended in the invitation being given. In the
evening, when our quarters filled up with the
bachelor officers, they found the lieutenant whom
they had snubbed, established as one of the com-
manding officer's family. He remained as one of
us until the officers formed another mess as their
number increased, and the new lieutenant was in-
vited to join them. This was not the end of Gen-
eral Custer's marked regard for him, and as long
as he lived he showed his unswerving friendship,
and, in ways that the officer never knew, kept up


his disinterested loyalty, making- me sure, as
years advanced, that he was worthy of the old
adage, " Once a friend, always a friend." Until
he was certain that there was duplicity and in-
gratitude, or that worst of sins, concealed enmity,
he kept faith and friendships intact. At that time
there was every reason in the world for an officer
whose own footing was uncertain, and who owed
everything to my husband, to remain true to him.
Many of the officers were learning to ride, as
they had either served in the infantry during the
war, or were appointed from civil life, and came
from all sorts of vocations. It would seem that
hardly half of the number then knew how to sit
or even to mount a horse, and the grand and lofty
tumbling that winter kept us in a constant state
of merriment. It was too bad to look on and
laugh ; but for the life of me I could not resist
every chance I had to watch them clambering up
their horse's side, tying themselves hopelessly in
their sabres, and contorting their heels so wildly
that the restive animal got the benefit of a spur in
unexpected places, as likely in his neck as in his
flank. One officer, who came to us from the
merchant marine, used to insist upon saying to
his brother officers, when off duty and experiment-
ing with his steed, " If you don't think I am a
sailor, see me shin up this horse's foreleg."


Some grew hot and wrathy if laughed at, and
that increased our fun. Others were good-natured,
even coming into the midst of us and deliberately
narrating the number of times the horse had either
slipped from under them, turned them off over
his head, or wiped them off by running against a
fence or tree-trunk. Occasionally somebody tried
to hide the fact that he had been thrown, and then
there was high carnival over the misfortune. The
ancient rule, that had existed as far back as the
oldest officer could remember, was, that a basket
of champagne was the forfeit of a first fall. Many
hampers were emptied that winter ; but as there
were so many to share the treat (and I am inclined
to think, also, it was native champagne, from
St. Louis), I don't remember any uproarious
results, except the natural wild spirits of fun-lov-
ing people. After the secret was out and the for-
feit paid, there was much more courage among
the officers in letting the mishaps be known. They
did not take their nags off into gulleys where
they were hidden from the post, and have it out
alone, but tumbled off in sight of the galleries of
our quarters, and made nothing of a whole after-
noon of voluntary mounting and decidedly invol-
untary dismounting. One of the great six-footers
among us told me his beast had tossed him off
half a dozen times in one ride, but he ended by


conquering. He daily fought a battle with his
horse, and, in describing the efforts to unseat him,
said that at last the animal jumped into the creek.
How I admired his pluck and the gleam in his
eye; and what a glimpse that determination to
master gave of his successful future ! for he won
in resisting temptation, and conquered in making
himself a soldier, and his life, though short, was
a triumph.

I am obliged to confess that to this day I owe
a basket of champagne, for I belonged to those
that went off the horse against their will and then
concealed the fact. My husband and one of his
staff were riding with me one day, and asked me
to go on in advance, as they wanted to talk over
something that was not of interest to me. I for-
got to keep watch of my fiery steed, and when he
took one of those mad jumps from one side of
the road to the other, at some imaginary obstacle,
not being on guard I lost balance, and found my-
self hanging to the saddle. There was nothing
left for me but an ignominious slide, and I landed
in the dust. The General found Phil trotting
riderless toward him, was terribly frightened,
and rode furiously toward where I was. To save
him needless alarm, I called out, " All right !"
from my lowly position, and was really quite un-
harmed, save my crushed spirits. No one can


serve in the cavalry and not feel humiliated by a
fall. I began to implore the two not to tell, and
in their relief at my escape from serious hurt they
promised. But for weeks they made my life a
burden to me, by direct and indirect allusions to
the accident when a group of us were together.
They brought little All Right, the then famous
Japanese acrobat, into every conversation, and
the General was constantly wondering, in a seem-
ingly innocent manner, " how an old campaigner
could be unseated, under any circumstances." It
would have been better to confess and pay the
penalty, than to live thus under the sword of
Damocles. Still, I should have deprived my
husband of a world of amusement, and every
joke counted in those dull days, even when one
was himself the victim.

The Board in Washington then examining the
officers of the new regiments, called old and new
alike ; but in the General's case, as in that of most
of the officers who had seen service before the war,
or were West Point graduates, it was but a form,
and he was soon back in our post.

He began then a fashion that he always kept up
afterward, of having regular openings of his trunk
for my benefit. I was as interested in the contents
as any child. First putting me under promise to
remain in one spot without " peeking," as the chil-


dren say, he took out from the trunk in our room
article after article for me. They comprised every-
thing a woman could wear, from gowns to stock-
ings, with ribbons and hats. If all the gowns he
brought were not made, he had dress-materials and
stored-up recollections of the new modes of trim-
ming. He enjoyed jokes on himself, and gave us
all a laughable description of his discovering in
the city some fashion that he had especially liked,
when, turning in the crowded street, he followed
at a respectful distance the woman wearing it, in
order to commit to memory the especial style.
Very naturally, he also took in the gait and fig-
ure of the stylish wearer, even after he had fixed
the cut of her gown in his mind, that he might
eventually transfer it to me. Ah, how we torment-
ed him when he described his discomfiture, and
the sudden termination of his walk, when a tu/n
in the street revealed the face of a negress !

I shall have to ask that a thought be given to
our surroundings, to make clear what an immense
pleasure a trunk-full of finery was at that time.
There were no shops nearer than Leavenworth,
and our faces were set westward, so there seemed
to be no prospect of getting such an outfit for
years. There was no one in that far country to
prevent the screams of delight with which each
gift was received, and it is impossible to describe


how jubilant the donor was over the success of his
purchases. Brother Tom made a time always, be-
cause his name was left out, but he noted carefully
if the General's valise held a new supply of neck-
ties, gloves, etc., and by night he had usually
surreptitiously transferred the entire contents to
his own room. The first notification would be his
appearance next morning at the breakfast-table,
wearing his brother's new things, his face perfectly
solemn and innocent, as if nothing peculiar was
going on. This sort of game never grew old, and
it seemed to give them much more amusement
than if the purchases were formally presented.
My husband confided to me that, knowing Tom
would take all he could lay his hands on, he had
bought twice as many as he needed. The truth
is, it was only for the boyish fun they got out of
it, for he always shared everything he had with
his brother.

At some point in the journey East, the General
had fallen into conversation with an officer who,
in his exuberance of spirits at his appointment to
the Seventh, had volunteered every detail about
himself. He was coming from his examination at
Washington, and was full of excitement over the
new regiment. He had not the slightest idea who
my husband was, only that he was also an officer,
but in the course of conversation brought his name



up, giving all the accounts he had heard of him
from both enemies and friends, and his own im-
pressions of how he should like him. The Gene-
ral's love of mischief, and curiosity to hear himself
so freely discussed, led the unsuspecting man to
ramble on and on, incited by an occasional query
or reflection, regarding the character of the Lieu-
tenant-colonel of the Seventh. The first knowl-
edge the Lieutenant had with whom he had been
talking, was disclosed to him when he came to pay
the customary call, on the return of the command-
ing officer at Fort Riley. His face was a study ;
perplexity and embarrassment reddened his com-
plexion almost to a purple, and he moved about
uneasily in his chair, abashed to think he had
allowed himself to speak so freely of a man to
that person's very face. My husband left him but
a moment in this awkward predicament, and then
laughed out a long roll of merriment, grasping the
man's hand, and assured him that he must re-
member his very freely expressed views were the
opinions of others, and not his own. It was a
great relief to the Lieutenant, when he reached
his quarters, to find that he had escaped some dire
fate, either long imprisonment or slow torture ;
for at that time the volunteer officers had a deeply
fixed terror of the stern, unflinching seventy of
regular officers. Again, he became confidential,


and told the bachelor mess. This was too good a
chance to lose ; they felt that some more fun could
still be extracted, and immediately planned a sham
trial. The good-natured man said his stupidity
merited it, and asked for counsel. The case was
spun out as long as it could be made to last. We
women were admitted as audience, and all the
grave dignity of his mock affair was a novelty.

The court used our parlor as a Hall of Justice.
The counsel for the prisoner was as earnest in his
defense as if great punishment was to be averted
by his eloquence. In the daytime he prepared
arguments, while at the same time the prose-
cuting attorney wrinkled his brows over the most
convincing assaults on the poor man, who, he
vehemently asserted, ought not to go at large,
laden with such unpardonable crime. The judge
addressed the jury, and that solemn body of men
disappeared into our room, perching on the
trunks, the bed, the few chairs, to seriously dis-
cuss the ominous " guilty " or " not guilty." The
manner of the grave and dignified judge, as he
finally addressed the prisoner, admonishing him
as to his future, sorrowfully announcing the de-
cision of the jury as guilty, and condemning him
to the penalty of paying a basket of champagne,
was worthy of the chief executor of an Eastern


We almost regretted that some one else would
not, by some harmless misdemeanor, put himself
within the reach of such a court. This affair gave
us the first idea of the clever men among us, for
all tried to acquit themselves at their best, even
in the burlesque trial.

Little by little, it came out what varied lives
our officers had led heretofore. Some frankly
spoke of the past, as they became acquainted,
while others, making an effort to ignore their pre-
vious history, were found out by the letters that
came into the post every mail, or by some one
arriving who had known them in their other life.
The best bred among them one descended from
a Revolutionary colonel, and Governor of a State,
the other from Alexander Hamilton were the
simplest and most unaffected in manner. The
boaster and would-be aristocrat of our number
had the misfortune to come face-to-face with a
townsman, who effectually silenced further refer-
ence to his gorgeous past. There were men who
had studied law ; there was one who had been a
stump speaker in Montana politics, and at last a
judge in her courts ; another who had been a sea-
captain, and was distinguished from a second of
his name in the regiment, by being called always
thereafter " Salt Smith," while the younger was
" Fresh Smith," or, by those who were fond of


him, " Smithie." There was also a Member of
Congress, who, having returned to his State after
the war, had found his place taken and himself
quite crowded out. When this officer reported
for duty, I could not believe my eyes. But a few
months before, in Texas, he had been such a bit-
ter enemy of my husband's, that, with all the cau-
tion observed to keep official matters out of my
life, it could not be hidden from me. The Gen-
eral, when this officer arrived, called me into our
room and explained, that, finding him without
employment in Washington when he went before
the Board, he could not turn away from his appeal
for a commission in the service, and had applied,
without knowing he would be sent to our regi-
ment. "And now, Libbie, you would not hurt
my feelings by showing animosity and dislike to
a man whose hair is already gray !" There was
no resisting this appeal, and no disguising my
appreciation of the manner in which he treated
his enemies, so his words brought me out on the
gallery with extended hand of welcome, though I
would sooner have taken hold of a tarantula. I
never felt a moment's regret, and he never forgot
the kindness, or that he owed his prosperity, his
whole future, in fact, to the General, and he won
my regard by his unswerving fidelity to him from
that hour to this.


There were some lieutenants fresh from West
Point, and some clerks, too, who had tried to turn
themselves into merchants, and groaned over the
wretched hours they had spent, since the close of
the war, in measuring tape. We had several Irish
officers reckless riders, jovial companions. One
had served in the Papal army, and had foreign
medals. There was an Italian who had a long,
strange career to draw upon for our amusement, and
numbered, among his experiences, imprisonment
for plotting the life of his king. There were two
officers who had served in the Mexican War, and
the ears of the subalterns were always opened to
their stories of those days when, as lieutenants,
they followed General Scott in his march over the
old Cortez highway, to his victories and con-
quests. There was a Prussian among the officers,
who, though expressing his approval of the justice
and courtesy that the commanding officer showed
in his charge of the garrison, used to infuriate the
others by making invidious distinctions regarding
foreign service and our own. We had an edu-
cated Indian as an officer. He belonged to the

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 23 of 39)