Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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used the parade-ground, which our officers had
consecrated to the most formal of ceremonies,
like dress-parades and guard-mount, for a play-
ground ; turning hand-springs all over the sprout-
ing grass, and vaulting in leap-frog over the bent
back of a comrade. If it were possible for people
in the States to realize how sacred the parade-
ground of a Western post is, how hurriedly a
venturesome cow or loose horse is marshaled off,
how pompously every one performs the military
duties permitted on this little square ; how even
the color-sergeant, who marches at measured gait
to take down and furl the garrison flag, when the
evening gun announces that the sun has been, by
the royal mandate of military law, permitted tc*



set they would then understand with what per-
turbation we women witnessed the desecration
of what had been looked upon as hallowed earth.
The sacrilege of these monkey acrobats turning
somersaults over the ground, their elongated heels
vibrating in the air, while they stood upon their
heads in front of our windows, made us very in-
dignant. When one patted "juba," and a group
danced, we seemed transformed into a discon-
nected minstrel show. There was not a trace of
the well-conducted post of a short time before.

All this frivolity was but the prelude to serious
trouble. The joy with which the negroes came
into possession of a gun for the first time in their
lives, would have been ludicrous had it not been
extremely dangerous. They are eminently a race
given over to display. This was exhibited in their
attempts to make themselves marksmen in a single
day. One morning we were startled by a shot
coming from the barracks. It was followed by a
rush of men out of the doors, running wildly
to and fro, yelling with alarm. We knew that
some disaster had occurred, and it proved to be
the instant death of a too confiding negro, who
had allowed himself to be cast for the part of
William Tell's son. His accidental murderer was
a man that had held a gun in his hand that week
for the first time.


They had no sort of idea how to care for their
health. The ration of a soldier is so large that a
man who can eat it all in a day is renowned as a
glutton. I think but few instances ever occur
where the entire ration is consumed by one man.
It is not expected, and, fortunately, with all the
economy of the Government, the supply has never
been cut down ; but the surplus is sold and a com-
pany fund established. By this means, the meagre
fare is increased by buying vegetables, if it hap-
pen to be a land where they can be obtained.
The negroes, for the first time in possession of all
the coffee, pork, sugar and hard-tack they wanted,
ate inordinately. There was no one to compel
them to cleanliness. If a soldier in a white regi-
ment is very untidy the men become indignant,
and as the voluminous regulations provide direc-
tions only for the scrubbing of the quarters and
not of the men, they sometimes take the affair
into their own hands, and, finding from their cap-
tain that they will not be interfered with, the un-
tidy one is taken on a compulsory journey to the
creek and " ducked " until the soldiers consider
him endurable. The negroes at that time had no
idea of encountering the chill of cold water on
their tropical skins, and suffered the consequences
very soon. Pestilence broke out among them.
Small-pox, black measles and other contagious dis-


eases raged, while the soldier's enemy, scurvy,
took possession. We were within a stone's-throw
of the barracks. Of course the illest among them
were quarantined in hospital-tents outside the gar-
rison ; but to look over to the infested barracks
and realize what lurked behind the walls, was,
to say the least, uncomfortable for those of us
who were near enough to breathe almost the
same air.

Added to this, we felt that, with so much indis-
criminate firing, a shot might at any time enter
our windows. One evening a few women were
walking outside the garrison. Our limits were not
so circumscribed, at that time, as they were in al-
most all the places where I was stationed afterward.
A sentinel always walked a beat in front of a small
arsenal outside of the post, and, overcome with
the grandeur of carrying a gun and wearing a
uniform, he sought to impress his soldierly quali-
ties on anyone approaching by a stentorian " Who
comes thar ? " It was entirely unnecessary, as it
was light enough to see the fluttering skirts of
women, for the winds kept our drapery in con-
stant motion. Almost instantly after his chal-
lenge, the flash of his gun and the whiz of a
bullet past us made us aware that our lives were
spared only because of his inaccurate aim. Of
course that ended our evening walks, and it was


a great deprivation, as the monotony of a garrison
becomes almost unbearable.

There was one person who profited by the
presence of the negro troops. Our Eliza was
such a belle, that she would have them elevated
into too exalted a sphere to wait on us, had she
not been accustomed to constant adulation from
the officers' body-servants from the time, as she ex-
pressed it, when she " entered the service." Still,
it was a distraction, of which she availed herself
in our new post, to receive new beaux, tire of them,
quarrel and discard them for fresh victims. They
waited on her assiduously, and I suspect they
dined daily in our kitchen, as long as their brief
season of favor lasted. They even sought to
curry favor with Eliza by gifts to me, snaring
quail, imprisoning them in cages made of cracker-
boxes, or bringing dandelion greens or wild-
flowers as they appeared in the dells. For all
these gifts I was duly grateful, but I was very
much afraid of a negro soldier, nevertheless.

At last our perplexities and frights reached a
climax. One night we heard the measured tramp
of feet over the gravel in the road in front of our
quarters, and they halted almost opposite our
windows, where we could hear the voices. No
loud " Halt, who comes there ! " rang out on the
air, for the sentinel was enjoined to silence. Be-


ing frightened, I called to Eliza. To Diana and to
me she was worth a corporal's guard, and could not
be equaled as a defender, solacer and general mana-
ger of our dangerous situations indeed, of all our
affairs. Eliza ran up-stairs in response to my cry,
and we watched with terror what went on. It
soon was discovered to be a mutiny. The men
growled and swore, and we could see by their
threatening movements that they were in a state
of exasperation. They demanded the command-
ing officer, and as he did not appear, they clenched
their fists, and looked at the house as if they
would tear it down, or at least break in the doors.
It seemed a desperate situation to us, for the
quarters were double, and our gallery had no
division from the neighbors. If doors and windows
were to be demolished, there would be little hope
for ours. I knew of no way by which we could
ask help, as most of the soldiers were colored, and
we felt sure that the plan, whatever it was, must
include them all.

At last Eliza realized how terrified I was, and
gave up the absorbing watch she was keeping, for
her whole soul was in the wrongs, real or fancied,
of her race. Too often had she comforted me in
my fears to forget me now, and an explanation
was given of this alarming outbreak.

The men had for some time been demanding


the entire ration, and were especially clamorous
for all the sugar that was issued. Very naturally,
the captain had withheld the supernumerary sup-
plies, in order to make company savings for the
purpose of buying vegetables. A mutiny over
sugar may seem a small affair, but it assumes
threatening proportions w r hen a mob of menacing,
furious men tramp up and down in front of one's
house, and there is no safe place of refuge, nor
any one to whom appeal can be made. Eliza
kept up a continuous comforting and reassuring,
but when I reminded her that our door had no
locks, or, rather, no keys, for it was not the cus-
tom to lock army quarters, she said, " La, Miss
Libbie, they won't tech you ; you dun wrote too
many letters for 'em, and they'se got too many
good vittels in your kitchen ever to 'sturb
you." Strong excitement is held to be the
means of bringing out the truth, and here were
the facts revealed that they had been bountifully
fed at our expense. I had forgotten how much
ink I had used in trying to put down their very
words in love-letters, or family epistles to the
Southern plantation. The infuriated men had to
quiet down, for no response came from the com-
manding officer. They found out, I suppose from
the investigations of one acting as spy, and going
to the rear of the quarters, that he had disap-


peared. To our intense relief, they straggled off
until their growling and muttering was lost in the
barracks, where they fortunately went to bed.
No steps were taken to punish them, and at any
imaginary wrong, they might feel, from the suc-
cess of this first attempt at insurrection, that it
was safe to repeat the experiment. We women
had little expectation but that the summer would
be one of carousal and open rebellion against mili-
tary rule. The commanding officer, though very
retiring, was so courteous and kindly to all the
women left in the garrison, that it was difficult to
be angry with him for his failure to control the
troops. Indeed, his was a hard position to fill,
with a lot of undisciplined, ignorant, ungoverned
creatures, who had never been curbed, except by
the punishment of plantation life.

Meanwhile my letters, on which I wrote every
day, even if there was no opportunity to send
them, made mention of our frights and uncertain-
ties. Each mail carried out letters from the
women to the expedition, narrating their fears.
We had not the slightest idea that there was a
remedy. I looked upon the summer as the price I
was to pay for the privilege of being so far on the
frontier, so much nearer the expedition than the
families of officers who had gone East. With all
my tremors and misgivings, I had no idea of re-


treating to safe surroundings, as I should then
lose my hope of eventually going out to the
regiment. It took a long time for our letters to
reach the expedition, and a correspondingly long
time for replies ; but the descriptions of the night
of the mutiny brought the officers together in
council, and the best disciplinarian of our regiment
was immediately despatched to our relief. I knew
but little of General Gibbs at that time ; my hus-
band had served with him during the war, and
valued his soldierly ability and sincere friendship.
He had been terribly wounded in the Indian wars
before the Civil War, and was really unfit for hard
service, but too soldierly to be willing to remain
at the rear. In a week after his arrival at our
post, there was a marked difference in the state of
affairs. Out of the seemingly hopeless material,
General Gibbs made soldiers w r ho were used as
guards over Government property through the
worst of the Indian country, and whose courage
was put to the test by frequent attacks, where
they had to defend themselves as well as the sup-
plies. The opinion of soldier and citizen alike
underwent a change, regarding negroes as soldiers,
on certain duty to which they were fitted. A
ranchman, after praising their fighting, before the
season was ended said, " And plague on my cats
if they don't like it."


We soon found that we had reached a country
where the weather could show more remarkable
and sudden phases in a given time than any por-
tion of the United States. The cultivation of the
ground, planting of trees, and such causes, have
materially modified some, of the extraordinary
exhibitions that we witnessed when Kansas was
supposed to be the great American desert. With
all the surprises that the elements furnished, there
was one that we would gladly have been spared.
One quiet day I heard a great rumbling in the
direction of the plateau where we had ridden so
much, as if many prairie-schooners, heavily laden,
were being spirited away by the stampede of
mules. Next, our house began to rock, the bell to
ring, and the pictures to vibrate on the wall. The
mystery was solved when we ran to the gallery,
and found the garrison rushing out of barracks
and quarters. Women and children ran to the
parade-ground, all hatless, some half-dressed.
Everybody stared at every one else, turned pale,
and gasped with fright. It was an earthquake,
sufficiently serious to shake our stone quarters and
overturn the lighter articles, while farther down
the gulley the great stove at the sutler's store was
tumbled over and the side of the building broken
in by the shock. There was a deep fissure in the
side of the bank, and the waters of the Big Blue


were so agitated that the bed of the river twelve
feet deep was plainly visible.

The usual session of the " Did-you-evers " took
place, and resolutions were drawn up not com-
mitted to paper, however giving the opinion of
women on Kansas as a place of residence. We
had gone through prairie-fire, pestilence, mutiny,
a river freshet, and finally, an earthquake: enough
exciting events to have been scattered through a
life-time were crowded into a few weeks. Yet in
these conclaves, when we sought sympathy and
courage from one another, there w^as never a sug-
gestion of returning to a well-regulated climate.





T HAVE made selections from General Ouster's
letters, which will give something of an idea
of what the daily life on the march really was.
Of the many long letters that came to me, in spite
of the hundred drawbacks that attended a West-
ern mail, I have only attempted to cull ' those por-
tions pertaining to the chase, the march, and the
camp life after the tents were pitched for the night.
General Custer, knowing that his official reports
would give the military side, wrote comparatively
little in his home letters on that subject.

''CHAPMAN'S CREEK, March 27, 1867.
"We left the bridge at Fort Riley at 2 : 20, I
having to wait for my led horses. We passed
through Junction City without difficulty, the dogs
behaving admirably. We arrived here at 5 : 20,
our wagons reaching camp a few moments after-
ward. I wish you could have seen the three of



us eating our dinner of ham, chicken, pickles and
coffee. We all agreed that we had never tasted
more delicious ham and such biscuit ! I know
you would have been glad to see me eat. One of
our officers says he never saw such an amount of
mess stuff as you have put up for me. We have
a splendid camp, and have found very nice roads
nearly all the way. We are in our tent, and en-
joying a pleasant fire from our Sibley stove. Four
of the dogs, fatigued by the first day's march, are
snoring round the fire ; they had to begin their
campaigning by swimming the creek. The dogs
do splendidly. The old hound Rover took his
place alongside the table at dinner, as naturally
as if he had been accustomed to it all his life."

"ABILENE CREEK, March 28, 1867.
"Your letter by Sergeant Dalton came about
5 o'clock this afternoon. I need not say how
glad I was when I saw him coming toward me,
as I instinctively read " Letter from somebody " on
his countenance. We left our camp at Chapman's
at 8:30 this morning ; the artillery and infantry
left earlier. We passed the infantry about five
miles out. Wasn't I glad I was not a doughboy,*
as I saw the poor fellows trudging along under
their heavy burdens, while the gay, frolicking
cavalry-man rode by, carelessly smoking his pipe,
and casting a look of pity upon his more unfort-
unate comrades of the infantry. As usual, I
placed my tent up-stream, beyond all the others.
We have a very pleasant camp along the west

* A " doughboy " is a small, round doughnut served to sailors on
shipboard, generally with hash. Early in the Civil War the term
was applied to the large globular brass buttons of the infantry
uniform, from which it passed, by a natural transition, to the infan-
trymen themselves.


bank of the creek ; good water, good ground, and
sufficient wood to make us very comfortable.
Two of us came in advance with several orderlies.
I rode Custis Lee. As soon as I fixed upon our head-
quarters, I unsaddled Lee and turned him loose
to graze. I passed the time in carrying drift and
dry wood for our camp and tent fire, as we knew
wood would be in high demand when the troops
reached the ground. We collected an abundant
supply. Custis Lee, every few moments, as if to
assist in the digestion of the prairie grass he was
mating, would vary the monotony by lying down
and taking a fresh though not hot roll. Finally
he got too near the high bank, or declivity, which
descends to the edge of the creek, and rolled over
the crest, sliding down to the foot, a distance of
several yards ; but doing himself no injury what-
ever, as he found his way back and went to grazing

" I wish you could look into my tent at this
moment. One of the officers has just taken his
second apple and bid us good-night. My tent-
mate has wound his watch, and is carefully piling
up his garments near the head of his bed, prepara-
tory to retiring. I am seated at the camp-desk,
writing by candle-light. The cook's tent is but a
few steps in the rear of mine. It contains an
Irishman, a Dutchman and an Englishman, all
feeling good and trying to talk at the same
time. As I can hear every word' they say,
it is sometimes laughable. All the camp
are asleep, and I am alone no, not alone, for,
casting your eyes to the side of the tent,
you behold three sleepers, weary and travel-
worn, as their snoring and heavy breathing be-
token. They are stretched calmly upon the lowly
ouch of your humble correspondent. Near them,


and on the tent fly used to wrap my bedding, are
two other sleepers, evidently overcome by fatigue.
Their appearance is more youthful, though none
the less striking, than that of the ones first de-
scribed. The names of the latter are Rover,
Sharp and Lu. Rover, being the patriarch of
the group, of course selects his position near the
pillow ; Lu, being somewhat diffident, accepts a
place nearer the foot ; while Sharp, to show him-
self worthy of his name, has crowded in between
the two, knowing it to be the warmest spot he
could find. Rattler and Fanny, being young and
unassuming, have graciously accepted a more
humble abiding-place on the folded tent-fly, near
the head of the bed. I have no doubt, however,
that they were induced to adopt this course, not so
much from modesty as owing to the fact that
nearly all the available space in the bed was taken
by their elders. I do not think they have stirred for
the last four hours. This morning I w r as taking a
nap, Rover, Lu and Sharp being alongside of
me on the narrow bed, Rattler and Fanny near
me, all of us asleep, when General S - called.
He laughed heartily at the sight ; but I assure
you they are great company to me, and are as
completely domiciled in the tent, as if " to the
manner born." Our dinner to-day was very good
indeed ; but I could tell that Eliza had not been
within several miles of my cook-fire, leastwise the
coffee did not show it. The cook says he put in a
great deal, but that the coffee was burnt too much,
or not enough. But, really, he does remarkably
well for a soldier. We have for dinner apple-frit-
ters, tomatoes, fried eggs, broiled ham, cold bis-
cuit and coffee. For breakfast we are to have
fried onions, baked potatoes, fried eggs, mutton
chops, apple-fritters, and some warm bread. This



full bill of fare will not continue long ; for it is
owing only to your abundant providing of sup-

"After dinner I told the cook I was very much
pleased with everything except the coffee, which
was not quite strong enough. I suppose Eliza
will laugh at what I next said, because she knows
how I insist upon her giving me a dish I like,
over and over again, till I tire of it. I told the
cook that, as I liked the apple-fritters so much, he
might give them to me at every meal, until
further orders. They are not exactly apple-frit-
ters, but he slices the apples, dips them in batter,
and fries them. Try it. He is very neat thus
far ; the plates come upon the table perfectly

" There is a tavern (the Pioneer Hotel) about
a mile from here. Three of the officers asked and
received permission to be absent long enough to
get something to eat. If you could see the tavern,
which does not compare in outward appearance
with any log hut about Riley, you would infer
that the bachelors' mess was running quite low, to
render such a change necessary.

" I think I am going to see you soon. Don't
think of ' Fox river ;' it is not in our geography."*

CREEK, March 29, 1867. 9 p. M.
" My tent-mate has retired, thus leaving me alone
to write to you. My bed is occupied as described
in my last-night's letter, with a slight change in
names. We left camp this morning at 8, and
reached our present one at 12. Solomon's

* The allusion to Fox River has the same significance as that old
saying, which General Custer frequently quoted, " Never cross a
bridge till you come to it."


Creek at this point is twelve feet deep, and re-
quired a pontoon bridge, the laying of which
delayed us a half-hour or more. The troops had
all crossed safely, and part of the wagon-train,
when the ice from above broke loose and, float-
ing down against the bridge, carried it away,
sinking some of the boats of the pontoon and
sweeping others irrevocably down-stream, thus

verifying General S 's prediction, and enabling

him to say " I told you so" that the boats would
be carried back to St Louis. We have enough
left, however, to answer all purposes.

" Just as we were moving out of our camp this
morning, w r e started a jack-rabbit. Sharp, Rover
and the pups saw it. Lu did not, and away we
went, I on Phil Sheridan. Sharp gained on and
almost caught it ; but with doubling and running
up-hill the advantage was in jack's favor. We
chased it nearly a mile, but did not catch it. Old
Rover, with the stick-to-it-iveness of a fox-hound
when once on a trail, was in for making a day's
work of it if necessary, but I had to call him off
and rejoin the column.

" Our mess is doing very well. The apple
fritters were continued in our next, as requested ;
also fried onions, and I ate one raw. ' Make hay
while the sun shines,' is my motto about onions.
I forgot in my last to say that I expected to hear
from Eliza that ' she knew how to make fritters
that way ; they made 'em so in Virginny," etc., but
tell her I do not believe it.

"The bachelors fare badly as regards messing.
One of the officers dropped in about dinner-time
to see Captain Hamilton and Lieutenant Hale.
They were cooking their own dinners, which con-
sisted of nothing but tomatoes in a can in which
the cooking was going on. I do not know whether


Captain Hamilton's distinguished grandfather,
Alexander Hamilton, was ever reduced to the
hardship of partaking of a one - course dinner
cooked in a can, but I am sure he could not have
endured it more uncomplainingly.

" Every officer has spoken to-day of having
nearly frozen last night. Several of them tell of be-
ing awakened by the cold at i o'clock, and of not
having slept after that ; but I was comfortable
and slept reasonably well."

" SALINE, March 30, 1867.

" We rose at 5 o'clock this morning, marched at
6 145 and reached camp about i p. M. The roads
were worse than usual to-day ; but we expected
this, as we were crossing over what is called " Ten-
mile bottom," a very low and wet strip of land.
The dogs are not the slightest trouble, following
me through trains, troops and everywhere, and
the moment I get off my horse are all around me.
They are great company for me."

"i turn both Custis Lee and the mare loose
on the prairie as soon as we go into camp, and
they do not attempt to leave. I found a horse-

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 28 of 39)