Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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Six Nations, and his father was a Scotchman, but
there was no Scotch about him, except that he was
loyal to his trusts and a brave soldier, for he
looked like any wild man of the Plains ; and one of
his family said to him, laughingly, " Dress you up



in a blanket, and you couldn't be told from a
Cheyenne or Arrapahoe." There was a French-
man to add to the nationalities we represented,
and in our heterogeneous collection one company
might have its three officers with parentage from
three of the four corners of the earth.

The immense amount of rank these new lieuten-
ants and captains carried was amusing, for those
who had served in the war still held their titles
when addressed unofficially, and it was to all ap-
pearances a regiment made up of generals, colo-
nels and majors. Occasionally, an officer who had
served in the regular army many years before the
war arrogantly lorded it over the young lieuten-
ants. One especially, who saw nothing good in
the service as it now was, constantly referred to
" how it was done in the old First." Having a
young fellow appointed from civil life as his lieu-
tenant, who knew nothing of army tactics or eti-
quette, he found a good subject over whom to
tyrannize. He gave this lad to understand that,
whenever the captain made his appearance, he
must jump up, offer him a chair, and stand atten-
tion. It was, in fact, a servile life he was mapping
out for his subordinate. If the lad asserted him-
self in the slightest way, the captain straightened
up that Prussian back-bone, tapped his shoulder-
strap, and grandiloquently observed, " Remem-



her the goolf " [gulf], meaning the great chasm
that intervened between a shoulder-strap with two
bars and one with none. Even one knowing lit-
tle of military life, is aware that the "goolf" be-
tween a captain and a second lieutenant is not one
of great magnitude. At last the youth began to see
that he was being* imposed upon, and that other
captains did not so hold themselves toward their
inferiors in rank, and he confidentially laid the
case before a new arrival who had seen service, ask-
ing him how much of a stand he might make for
his self-respect, without infringing on military
rules. The reply was, "When next he tries that
game on you, tell him to go to h with his
gulf." The young fellow, not lacking in spirit,
returned to his captain well primed for the en-
counter, and when next the gulf was mentioned,
he stretched up his six feet of admirable physique,
and advised the captain to take the journey " with
his gulf," that had been previously suggested by
his friend.

This same young fellow was a hot - headed
youth, though a splendid soldier, and had a knack
of getting into little altercations with his brother-
officers. On one occasion, at our house during a
garrison hop he and another officer had some dis-
pute about dancing with a young lady, and retired
to the coat-room, too courteous to enter into a


discussion in the presence of women. It occurred
to them, as words grew hotter and insufficient for
the gravity of the occasion, that it would be
well to interview the commanding officer, fearing
that they might be placed in arrest. One of them
descended to the dancing-room, called the Gen-
eral one side, told the story, and asked permission
to pound his antagonist, whom he considered the
aggressor. The General, knowing well how it
was himself, having, at West Point, been known
as the cadet who said, " Stand back, boys, and
let's have a fair fight ! " gave his permission. The
door of the coat-room closed on the contestants
for the fair lady's favor, and they had it out alone.
It must not, from this incident, be inferred that
our officers belonged to a class whose idea of jus-
tice was " knocking down and dragging out," but,
in the newness of our regiment, there seemed to
be occasions when there was no recourse for im-
positions or wrongs, except in the natural way.
The mettle of all was being tested, with a large
number of men turned suddenly from a free life
into the narrow limits of a garrison. Where
everybody's elbow knocked his neighbor's, and no
one could wholly escape the closest sort of inter-
course, it was the most natural consequence that
some jarring and grating went on.

None of us know how much the good-nature that


we possess is due to the fact that we can take
refuge in our homes or in flight, sometimes, from
people who rasp and rub us up the wrong way.

Our regiment was then a medley of incongruous
elements, and might well have discouraged a less
persevering man, in the attempt to mold such
material into an harmonious whole. From the
first, the effort was to establish among the better
men, who had ambition, the proper esprit de corps
regarding their regiment. The General thought
over carefully the future of this new organization,
and worked constantly from the first days to
make it the best cavalry regiment in the service.
He assured me, when occasionally I mourned the
inharmonious feeling that early began to crop out,
that I must neither look for fidelity nor friendship,
in its best sense, until the whole of them had been
in a fight together ; that it was on the battle-field,
when all faced death together, where the truest
affection was formed among soldiers. I could not
help noting, that first year, the change from the
devotion of my husband's Division of cavalry in
the Army of the Potomac, to these new officers,
who, as yet, had no affection for him, nor even for
their regiment. He often asked me to have pa-
tience, not to judge too quickly of those who were
to be our companions, doubtless for years to come,
and reminded me that, as yet, he had done nothing


to win their regard or command their respect ; he
had come among officers and men as an organizer,
a disciplinarian, and it was perfectly natural they
should chafe under restraints they had never
known before. It was a hard place for my hus-
band to fill, and a most thankless task, to bring
that motley crowd into military subjection. The
mischief-makers attempted to report unpleasant
criticisms, and it was difficult to keep in subjec-
tion the jealousy that existed between West Point
graduates, volunteer officers, and civil appointees.
Of course a furtive watch was kept on the
graduates of the Military Academy for any
evidences of assumed superiority on their part, or
for the slightest dereliction of duty. The volun-
teer, no matter how splendid a record he had made
during the war, was excessively sensitive regard-
ing the fact that he was not a graduated officer.
My husband persistently fought against any line
of demarkation between graduates and non-
graduates. He argued personally, and wrote for
publication, that the war had proved the volunteer
officers did just as good service as, and certainly
were not one whit less brave than, West Pointers.
I remember how every little slip of a West Pointer
was caught at by the others. One morning a
group of men were gathered about the flag-staff at
guard-mount, making the official report as officer


of the day and officer of the guard, when a West
Pointer joined them in the irreproachable uniform
of a lieutenant, walking as few save graduates
ever do walk. He gravely saluted, but, instead
of reporting for duty, spoke out of the fullness of
his heart, " Gentlemen, it's a boy." Of course, not a
man among them was insensible to the honor of
being the father of a first son and heir, and all
suspended military observances belonging to the
morning duties, and genuinely rejoiced with the
new-made parent ; but still they gloated over the
fact that there had been, even in such a moment
of excitement, this lapse of military dignity in one
who was considered a cut-and-dried soldier.

An embarrassing position for General Custer
was, that he had under him officers much older
than himself. He was then but twenty-seven
years of age, and the people who studied to make
trouble (and how rarely are they absent from
any community ?) used this fact as a means of
stirring up dissension. How thankful I was that
nothing could draw him into difficulty from that
question, for he either refused to listen, or heard
only to forget. One day he was deeply moved
by the Major of our regiment, General Alfred
Gibbs, who had commanded the brigade of regu-
lar cavalry in the Army of the Potomac during
the war, and whose soul was so broad and his


heart so big that he was above everything petty
or mean. My husband called me into our room
and shut the door, in order to tell me, quietly, that
some gossip had endeavored to spread a report
that General Gibbs was galled by his position, and
unwilling to submit to the authority of so young
a man. On hearing this, he came straightway to
General Custer ah, what worlds of trouble we
would be saved if there were courage to inquire
into slander ! and in the most earnest, frank
manner assured him that he had never expressed
such sentiments, and that their years of service
together during the war had established an abid-
ing regard for his soldierly ability, that made it a
pleasure to be in his regiment. This, from an
officer who had served with distinction in the
Mexican War, as well as done gallant service
in an Indian campaign before the Civil War,
was a most grateful compliment to my hus-
band. General Gibbs was a famous disciplinarian,
and he had also the quaintest manner of fetching
every one to the etiquettical standard he knew
to be necessary. He was witty, and greatly given
to joking, and yet perfectly unswerving in the
performance of the most insignificant duty. We
have exhausted ourselves with laughter as he de-
scribed, by contortions of feature and really
extraordinary facial gymnastics, his efforts to


dislodge a venturesome and unmilitary fly, that
had perched on his nose when he was conducting
a dress-parade. To lift his hand and brush off
the intruder, with a long line of soldiers facing
him, was an example he would scarcely like them
to follow ; and yet the tantalizing tickling of
those fly-legs, slowly traveling over his moist and
heated face, was almost too exasperating to en-
dure. If General Gibbs felt the necessity of
reminding any one of carelessness in dress, it was
managed in so clever a manner that it gave no
lasting offense. My husband, absorbed in the
drilling, discipline and organization of the regi-
ment, sometimes overlooked the necessity for
social obligations, and immediately came under
the General's witty criticisms. If a strange officer
visited our post, and any one neglected to call, as is
considered obligatory, it was remarked upon by
our etiquettical mentor. If the officers were care-
less in dress, or wore semi - military clothes,
something quite natural in young fellows who
wanted to load on everything that glittered,
our General Etiquette made mention of it. One
wore an English forage-cap with a lot of gilt
braid on top, instead of the plain visored cap of
the regulations. The way he came to know that
this innovation must be suppressed, was by a re-
quest from General Gibbs to purchase it for his


band-master. He himself was so strictly military
that he could well afford to hold the others up to
the mark. His coats were marvelous fits, and
he tightly buckled in his increasing rotundity
with a superb belt and clasp that had belonged
to his grandfather, a Wolcott in the Revolution-
ary War.

Most women know with what obstinate deter-
mination and adoring fondness a man clings to
some shabby article of wearing apparel. There
was in our family an ancient dressing-gown, not
the jaunty smoking-jacket that I fortunately
learned afterward to make, but a long, clumsy,
quilted monstrosity that I had laboriously cobbled
out with very ignorant fingers. My husband
simply worshipped it. The garment appeared
on one of his birthdays, and I was praised be-
yond my deserts for having .put in shape such a
success, and he could hardly slide out of his
uniform, when he came from the office, quickly
enough to enable him to jump into this soft,
loose, abomination. If he had vanity, which it
is claimed is lodged somewhere in every human
breast, it was spasmodic, for he not only knew
that he looked like a fright, but his family told
him this fact, with repeated variations of derision.
When at last it became not even respectable, it
was so ragged I attempted to hide it, but this



did no earthly good. The beloved possession was
ferreted out, and he gaily danced up and down in
triumph before his discomfited wife, all the rags
and tags flaunting out as he moved. In vain
General Gibbs asked me why I allowed such a
disgraceful "old man's garment" about. The
truth was, there was not half the discipline in our
family that there might have been had we been
citizens. A woman cannot be expected to keep
a man up to the mark in every little detail, and
surely she may be excused if she do a little
spoiling when, after months of separation she is
returned to the one for whom her heart has been
wrung with anxiety. No sooner are you to-
gether than there comes the ever present terror
of being divided again.

General Gibbs won at last in suppressing the
old dressing-gown, for he begged General Custer
to picture to himself the appearance of his entire
regiment clad in long-tailed, ragged gowns
modeled after that of their commanding officer !
In dozens of ways General Gibbs kept us up to the
mark socially. He never drew distinctions be-
tween the old army and the new, as some were
wont to do, and his influence in shaping our regi-
ment in social as well as military affairs was felt
in a marked manner, and we came to regard him
as an authority and to value his suggestions.









COON after my husband returned from Wash-
ington, he found that Ristori was advertised
in St. Louis, and as he had been delighted with
her acting when in the East, he insisted upon my
going there, though it was a j'ourney of several
hundred miles. The young officers urged, and
the pretty Diana looked volumes of entreaty at
me, so at last I consented to go, as we need be
absent but a few days. At that time the dreaded
campaign looked far off, and I was trying to
cheat myself into the belief that there might pos-
sibly be none at all.

Ristori, heard under any circumstances, was an
event in a life ; but to listen to her as we did, the
only treat of the kind in our winter, and feeling



almost certain it was the last of such privileges
for years to come, was an occasion never to be

I do not know whether Diana collected her
senses enough to know, at any one time, that she
was listening to the most gifted woman in
histrionic art. A civilian lover had appeared on
the scene, and between our young officers, already
far advanced in the dazed and enraptured state,
and the new addition to her retinue, she was never
many moments without "airy nothings" poured
into her ear. The citizen and the officers
glowered on each other, and sought in vain to
monopolize the inamorata. Even when the
thoughtless girl put a military cap on the head of
the civilian, and told him that an improvement in
his appearance was instantly visible, he still re-
mained and held his ground valiantly. Finally
the most desperate of them called me to one side,
and implored my championship. He com-
plained bitterly that he never began to say what
trembled on his tongue, but one of those interfer-
ing fellows appeared and interrupted him, and
now, as the time was passing, there remained but
one chance before we went home, where he would
again be among a dozen other men who were sure
to get in his way. He said he had thought over
every plan, and if I would engage the interfering


ones for a half hour, he would take Diana
to the hotel cupola, ostensibly to see the view
and if, after they were up there, she saw anything
but him, it would not be his fault, for say his say
he must. No one could resist such a piteous ap-
peal, so I engaged the supernumerary men in
conversation as best I could, talking against time
and eyeing the door as anxiously as they did. I
knew, when the pair returned, that the pent-up
avowal had found utterance ; but the coquetting
lass had left him in such a state of uncertainty
that even " fleeing to the house-top" had not se-
cured his future. So it went on, suspense
and agitation increasing in the perturbed hearts,
but the dallying of this coy and skillful strate-
gist, wise beyond her years in some ways,
seemed to prove that she believed what is often
said, that a man is more blissful in uncertainty
than in possession.

Our table was rarely without guests at that
time. A great many of the strangers came with
letters of introduction to us, and the General
superintended the arrangements for buffalo-hunts,
if they were to be in the vicinity of our post.
Among the distinguished visitors was Prince
Ourosoff, nephew of the Emperor of Russia. He
was but a lad, and only knew that if he came
west far enough, he was very likely to find what


the atlas put down as the " Great American
Desert." None of us could tell him much more
of the Sahara of America than of his own step-
pes in Russia. As the years have advanced, the
maps have shifted that imaginary desert from
side to side. The pioneer does such wonders in
cultivating what was then supposed to be a barren
waste, that we bid fair in time not to have any
Sahara at all. I hardly wonder now at the sur-
prise this royal scion expressed, at finding himself
among men and women who kept up the ameni-
ties of refined life, even when living in that sub-
terranean home which our Government provided
for its defenders the dug-out. It seems strange
enough, that those of us who lived the rough life
of Kansas's early days, did not entirely adopt the
careless, unconventional existence of the pioneer ;
but military discipline is something not easily set

Almost our first excursionists were such a suc-
cess that we wished they might be duplicated in
those who flocked out there in after years. Several
of the party were old travelers, willing to under-
go hardships and encounter dangers, to see the
country before it was overrun with tourists. They
were our guests, and the manner in which they
beguiled our time made their departure a real
regret. They called themselves " Gideon's Band."


The youngest of the party, a McCook from the
fighting- Ohio family, was " Old Gid," while the
oldest of all answered when they called " Young
Gid." As they were witty, clever, conversant by
actual experience with most things that we only
read of in the papers, we found them a godsend.
When such people thanked us for what simple
hospitality we could offer, it almost came as a
surprise, for we felt ourselves their debtors. After
having written to this point in my narrative of
our gay visit from Gideon's Band, a letter in re-
sponse to one that I had sent to Mr. Charles
G. Leland arrived from London. I asked him
about his poem, and after twenty years, in
which we never saw him, he recalls with enthusi-
asm his short stay with us. I have only eliminated
some descriptions that he gives, in the extract of
the private letter sent then from Fort Riley
descriptions of the wife of the commanding officer
and the pretty Diana. Women being in the
minority, it was natural that we were never un-
dervalued. Grateful as I am that he should
so highly appreciate officers' wives, and much
as I prize what he says regarding " the influ-
ences that made a man, and kept him what he
was," I must reserve for Mr. Leland's correspond-
ent of twenty years back, and for myself, his
opinion of frontier women.




" LONDON, W., June 14, 1887.
" DEAR MRS. CUSTER : It is a thousand times
more likely that you should forget me than that
I should ever forget you, though it were at an in-
terval of twice twenty years ; the more so since I
have read your admirable book, which has re-
vived in me the memory of one of the strangest
incidents and some of the most agreeable impres-
sions of a somewhat varied and eventful life. I
was with a party of gentlemen who had gone out
to what was then the most advanced surveyor's
camp for the Pacific Railway, in western Kansas.
On returning, we found ourselves one evening
about a mile from Fort Riley, where we were to
be the guests of yourself and your husband. We
had been all day in a so-called ambulance or
wagon. The one that I shared with my friend,
J. R. G. Hassard, of the New York Tribune, was
driven by a very intelligent and amusing frontiers-
man, deeply experienced in Indian and Mexican
life, named Brigham. Brigham thought, by mis-
take, that we had all gone to Fort Riley by some
other conveyance, and he was thirty or forty yards
in advance, driving on rapidly. We, encumbered
with blankets, packs and arms, had no mind to
walk when we could 'waggon.' One man
whistled, and all roared aloud. Then one dis-
charged his rifle. But the wind was blowing
away from Brigham towards us, and he heard
nothing. The devil put an idea in my head,
for which I have had many a regret since then.
Infandum regina jubes renovare dolor em. 'Thou,
my queen, dost command me to revive a
wretched sorrow.' For it occurred that I could
send a rifle-ball so near to Brigham's head that he
could hear the whistle, and that this would very


naturally cause him stop. If I could only know
all, I would sooner have aimed between my own

" ' Give me a gun/ I said to Colonel Lam-

" ' You won't shoot at him !' said the Colonel.

"'If you'll insure the mules,' I replied, 'I will
insure the driver.'

" I took aim and fired. The ambulance was cov-
ered, and I did not know that Mr. Hassard, the
best fellow in the world nemini secundus was
sitting inside and talking to Brigham. The
bullet passed between their faces, which were
a foot apart less rather than more.

" ' What is that ? ' cried Hassard.

" ' Injuns/' 1 replied Brigham, who knew by many
an experience how wagons were Apached, Co-
manchied, or otherwise aboriginated.

" 'Lay down flat !'

" He drove desperately till he thought he was
out of shot, and then put out his head to give the
Indians a taunting war-whoop. I shall never for-
get the appearance of that sun-burned face, with
gold ear-rings and a vast sombrero ! What was
his amazement at seeing only friends ! I did not
know what Brigham's state of mind might be tow-
ard me, but I remembered that he gloried in his
familiarity with Spanish, so I said to him in the
Castile-soap dialect, ' I fired that shot ; is it to be
hand or knife between us ? ' It is to his credit
that he at once shook my hand, and said ' La
mano/' He drove on in grim silence, and then
said, ' I've driven for twelve years on this frontier,
but I never heard, before, of anybody trying to
stop one by shooting the driver.'

" Another silence, broken by the following re-
mark : ' I wish to God there was a gulch any


where between here and the fort ! I'd upset this
party into it d n quick.'

" But I had a great fear. It was of General Cus-
ter and what he would have to say to me, for
recklessly imperiling the life of one of his drivers,
to say nothing of what might have happened to a
valuable team of mules and the wagon. It was
with perturbed feelings and, ay de mi! with an
evil conscience that I approached him. He had
been informed of the incident, but was neither
angry nor vindictive. All he did was to utter a
hearty laugh and say, ' I never heard before of
such an original way of ringing a bell to call a

" In a letter written about this time to a friend, I
find the following :

" * We had not for many days seen a lady. In-
deed, the only woman I had met for more than a
week was a poor, sad soul, who, with her two child-

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 24 of 39)