Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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the Red River in Louisiana, and march throughout
Texas, with the possibility of eventually entering
Mexico. Our Government was just then thinking
it was high time the French knew that if there
was any invasion of Mexico, with an idea of a
complete " gobbling up " of that country, the one
to do the seizure, and gather in the spoils was
Brother Jonathan. Very wisely, General Custer
kept this latter part of the understanding why he
was sent South from the " weepy " part of his
family. He preferred transportation by steamer,
rather than to be floated southward by floods of
feminine tears. All I knew was, that Texas, hav-
ing been so outside of the limit where the armies
marched and fought, was unhappily unaware that
the war was over, and continued a career of bush-
whacking and lawlessness that was only tolerated
from necessity before the surrender, and must
now cease. It was considered expedient to fit out


two detachments of cavalry, and start them on a
march through the northern and southern portions
of Texas, as a means of informing that isolated
State that depredations and raids might come to
an end. In my mind, Texas then seemed the
stepping-off place; but I was indifferent to the
points of the compass, so long as I was not left

The train in which we set out was crowded
with a joyous, rollicking, irrepressible throng of
discharged officers and soldiers, going home to
make their swords into ploughshares. Every-
body talked with everybody, and all spoke at once.
The Babel was unceasing night and day; there
was not a vein that was not bursting with joy.
The swift blood rushed into the heart and out
again laden with one glad thought. "The war is
over ! " At the stations, soldiers tumbled out and
rushed into some woman's waiting arms, while
bands tooted excited welcomes, no one instrument
according with another, because of throats over-
charged already with bursting notes of patriotism
that would not be set music. The customary train
of street gamins, who imitate all parades and
promptly copy the pomp of the circus and other
processions, stepped off in a mimic march, follow-
ing the conquering heroes as they were lost to
our sight down the street, going home.


Sometimes the voices of the hilarious crowd at
the station were stilled, and a hush of reverent
silence preceded the careful lifting from the car
of a stretcher bearing a form broken and bleeding
from wounds, willingly borne, that the home to
which he was coming might be unharmed.
Tender women received and hovered lovingly
over the precious freight, strong arms carried him
away ; and we contrasted the devoted care, the
love that would teach new ways to heal, with the
condition of the poor fellows we had left in the
crowded Washington hospitals, attended only by
strangers. Some of the broken-to-pieces soldiers
were on our train, so deftly mended that they
stumped their way down the platform, and began
their one-legged tramp through life, amidst the loud
huzzas that a maimed hero then received. They
even joked about their misfortunes. I remember
one undaunted fellow, with the fresh color of
buoyant youth beginning again to dye his cheek,
even after the amputation of a leg, which so
depletes the system. He said some grave words
of wisdom to me in such a roguish way, and fol-
lowed up his counsel by adding, " You ought to
heed such advice from a man with one foot in the

We missed all the home-coming, all the glorifi-
cation awarded to the hero. General Custer said


no word of regret. He had accepted the offer for
further active service, and gratefully thanked his
chief for giving him the opportunity. I, however,
should have liked to have him get some of the
celebrations that our country was then showering
on its defenders. I missed the bonfires, the pro-
cessions, the public meeting of distinguished citi-
zens, who eloquently thanked the veterans, the
editorials that lauded each townsman's deed, the
poetry in the corner of the newspaper that was
dedicated to a hero, the overflow of a woman's
heart singing praise to her military idol. But the
cannon were fired, the drums beat, the music
sounded for all but us. Offices of trust were
offered at once to men coming home to private
life, and towns and cities felt themselves honored
because some one of their number had gone out
and made himself so glorious a name that his very
home became celebrated. He was made the
mayor, or the Congressman, and given a home
which it would have taken him many years of
hard work to earn. Song, story and history have
long recounted what a hero is to a woman. Imagi-
nation pictured to my eye troops of beautiful
women gathering around each gallant soldier on
his return. The adoring eyes spoke admiration,
while the tongue subtly wove, in many a sentence,
its meed of praise. The General and his staff of



boys, loving and reverencing women, missed what
men wisely count the sweetest of adulation. One
w r eather-beaten slip of a girl had to do all their
banqueting, cannonading, bonfiring, brass-band-
ing, and general hallelujahs all the way to Texas,
and yes, even after we got there ; for the South-
ern women, true to their idea of patriotism, turned
their pretty faces away from our handsome fel-
lows, and resisted, for a long time, even the mildest

The drawing-room car was then unthought of
in the minds of those who plan new luxuries, as
our race demand more ease and elegance. There
was a ladies' car, to which no men unaccompanied
by women were admitted. It was never so full as
the other coaches, and was much cleaner and bet-
ter ventilated.

This was at first a damper to the enjoyment of
a military family, who lost no opportunity of being
together, for it compelled the men to remain in
the other cars. The scamp among us devised a
plan to outwit the brakemen ; he borrowed my
bag just before we were obliged to change cars,
and after waiting till the General and I were safely
seated, boldly walked up and demanded entrance,
on the plea that he had a lady inside. This scheme
worked so well that the others took up the cue,
and my cloak, bag, umbrella, lunch-basket, and


parcel of books and papers were distributed among-
the rest before we stopped, and were used to ob-
tain entrance into the better car. Even our faith-
ful servant, Eliza, was unexpectedly overwhelmed
with urgent offers of assistance; for she always
went with us, and sat by the door. This plan was
a great success, in so far as it kept our party to-
gether, but it proved disastrous to me, as the
scamp forgot my bag at some station, and I was
minus all those hundred and one articles that seem
indispensable to a traveler's comfort. In that plight
I had to journey until, in some merciful detention,,
we had an hour in which to seek out a shop, and
hastily make the necessary purchases.

At one of our stops for dinner we all made the
usual rush for the dining-hall, as in the confusion
of over-laden trains at that excited time it was
necessary to hurry, and, besides, as there were de-
lays and irregularities in traveling, on account of
the home-coming of the troops, we never knew
how long it might be before the next eating-house
was reached. The General insisted upon Eliza's
going right with us, as no other table was provided.
The proprietor, already rendered indifferent to
people's comfort by his extraordinary gains, said
there was no table for servants. Eliza, the best-
bred of maids, begged to go back dinnerless into
the car, but the General insisted on her sitting-



down between us at the crowded table. A posi-
tion so unusual, and to her so totally out of place,
made her appetite waver, and it vanished entirely
when the proprietor came, and told the General
that no colored folks could be allowed at his table.
My husband quietly replied that he had been ob-
liged to give the woman that place, as the house
had provided no other. The determined man still
stood threateningly over us, demanding her remov-
al, and Eliza uneasily and nervously tried to go.
I trembled, and the fork failed to carry the food,
owing to a very wobbly arm. The General firmly
refused, the staff rose about us, and all along the
table up sprang men we had supposed to be citi-
zens, as they were in the dress of civilians.
" General, stand your ground; we'll back you; the
woman shall have food." How little we realize in
these piping times of peace, how great a flame a
little fire kindled in those agitating days. The
proprietor slunk back to his desk; the General and
his hungry staff went on eating as calmly as ever ;
Eliza hung her embarrassed head, and her mistress
idly twirled her useless fork while the proprietor
made $1.50 clear gain on two women that were too
frightened to swallow a mouthful. I spread a sand-
wich for Eliza, while the General, mindful of the
returning hunger of the terrified woman, and per-
fectly indifferent as to making himself ridiculous


with parcels, marched by the infuriated but subdued
bully, with either a whole pie or some such modest
capture in his hand. We had put some hours of
travel between ourselves and the " twenty-minutes-
for-dinner " place which came so near being a
battle-ground, before Eliza could eat what we
had brought for her.

I wonder if any one is waiting for me to say
that this incident happened south of the Mason
and Dixon line. It did not. It was in Ohio ; I
don't remember the place. After all, the memory
over which one complains, when he finds how
little he can recall, has its advantages. It hope-
lessly buries the names of persons and places,
when one starts to tell tales out of school. It is
like extracting the fangs from a rattlesnake ; the
reptile, like the story, may be very disagreeable,
but I can only hope that a tale unadorned with
names or places is as harmless as a snake w r ith its
poison withdrawn.

I must stop a moment and give our Eliza, OR
whom this battle was waged, a little space in this
story, for she occupied no small part in the events
of the six years after ; and when she left us and
took an upward step in life by marrying a colored
lawyer, I could not reconcile myself to the loss ;
and though she has lived through all the grandeur
of a union with a man " who gets a heap of



money for his speeches in politics, and brass bands
to meet him at the stations, Miss Libbie," she came
to my little home not long since with tears of joy
illuminating the bright bronze of her expressive
face. It reminded me so of the first time I knew
that the negro race regarded shades of color as a
distinctive feature, a beauty or a blemish, as it
might be. Eliza stood in front of a bronze
medallion of my husband when it was first sent
from the artist's in 1865, and amused him hugely,
by saying, in that partnership manner she had in
our affairs, " Why, Ginnel, it's jest my color."
After that, I noticed that she referred to her race
according to the deepness of tint, telling me, with
scorn, of one of her numerous suitors : " Why, Miss
Libbie, he needent think to shine up to me ; he's
nothing but a black African." I am thus intro-
ducing Eliza, color and all, that she may not seem
the vague character of other days ; and whoever
chances to meet her will find in her a good war
historian, a modest chronicler of a really self-
denying and courageous life. It was rather a
surprise to me that she was not an old woman
when I saw her again this autumn, after so many
years, but she is not yet fifty. I imagine she did
so much mothering in those days when she com-
forted me in my loneliness, and quieted me in
my frights, that I counted her old even then.


Eliza requests that she be permitted to make
her little bow to the reader, and repeat a wish of
hers that I take great pains in quoting her, and
not represent her as saying, " like field-hands,
whar and thar" She says her people in Virginia,
whom she reverences and loves, always taught
her not to say "them words; and if they should
see what I have told you they'd feel bad to think
I forgot." If whar and thar appear occasion-
ally in my efforts to transfer her literally to these
pages, it is only a lapsus lingua on her part.
Besides, she has lived North so long now, there
is not that distinctive dialect peculiar to the
Southern servant. In her excitement, narrating
our scenes of danger or pleasure or merriment,
she occasionally drops into expressions that
belonged to her early life. It is the fault of her
historian if these phrases get into print. To me
they are charming, for they are Eliza in undress
uniform Eliza without her company manners.

She describes her leaving the old plantation dur-
ing war times. " I jined the Ginnel at Amosville,
Rappahannock County, in August, 1863. Every-
body was excited over freedom, and I wanted to
see how it was. Everybody keeps asking me why
I left. I can't see why they can't recollect what
war was for, and that we was all bound to try
and see for ourselves how it was. After the


'Mancipation, everybody was a standin' up for
liberty, and I wasent goin' to stay home when
everybody else was a-goin'. The day I came,
into camp, there was a good many other darkies
from all about our place. We was a standin'
round waitin' when I first seed the Ginnel.

" He and Captain Lyon cum up to me, and the
Ginnel says, ' Well, what's your name ! ' I told
him Eliza ; and he says, looking me all over fust,
' Well, Eliza, would you like to cum and live with
me ? ' I waited a minute, Miss Libbie. I looked
him all over, too, and finally I sez, 'I reckon I
would.' So the bargain was fixed up. But, oh,
how awful lonesome I was at fust, and I was
afraid of everything in the shape of war. I used
to wish myself back on the old plantation with
my mother. I was mighty glad when you cum,
Miss Libbie. Why, sometimes I never sot eyes
on a woman for weeks at a time."

Eliza's story of her war life is too long for these
pages ; but in spite of her confession of being so
" 'fraid," she was a marvel of courage. She was cap-
tured by the enemy, escaped, and found her way
back after sunset to the General's camp. She had
strange and narrow escapes. She says, quaintly:
" Well, Miss Libbie, I set in to see the war, begin-
ning and end. There was many niggers that cut
into the cities and huddled up thar, and laid around


and saw hard times ; but I went to see the end r
and I stuck it out. I allus thought this, that I
didn't set down to wait to have 'em all free me.
I helped to free myself. I was all ready to step to
the front whenever I was called upon, even if I
didn't shoulder the musket. Well, I went to the
end, and there's many folks says that a woman
can't follow the army without throwing themselves
away, but I know better. I went in, and I cum out
with the respect of the men and the officers."

Eliza often cooked under fire, and only lately
one of the General's staff, recounting war days, de-
scribed her as she was preparing the General's din-
ner in the field. A shell would burst near her; she
would turn her head in anger at being disturbed,
unconscious that she was observed, begin to growl
to herself about being obliged to move, but take
up her kettle and frying-pan, march farther away,
make a new fire, and begin cooking as unper-
turbed as if it were an ordinary disturbance in-
stead of a sky filled with bits of falling shell. I
do not repeat that polite fiction of having been on
the spot, as neither the artist nor I had Eliza's grit
or pluck ; but we arranged the camp-kettle, and
Eliza fell into the exact expression, as she volubly
began telling the tale of " how mad those busting
shells used to make her." It is an excellent like-
ness, even though Eliza objects to the bandanna,



which she has abandoned in her new position ;
and I must not forget that I found her one day
turning her head critically from side to side look-
ing at her picture ; and, out of regard to her, will
mention that her nose, of which she is very proud,
is, she fears, a touch too flat in the sketch. She
speaks of her dress as " completely whittled out
with bullets," but she would like me to mention
that " she don't wear them rags now."

When Eliza reached New York this past
autumn, she told me, when I asked her to choose
where she would go, as my time was to be entirely
given to her, that she wanted first to go to the
Fifth Avenue Hotel and see if it looked just the
same as it did " when you was a bride, Miss
Libbie, and the Ginnel took you and me there on
leave of. absence." We went through the halls
and drawing-rooms, narrowly watched by the
major-domo, who stands guard over tramps, but
fortified by my voice, she "oh'd" and "ah'd"
over its grandeur to her heart's content. One day
I left her in Madison Square, to go on a business
errand, and cautioned her not to stray away.
When I returned, I asked anxiously, "Did any
one speak to you, Eliza ?" " JSforybody, Miss
Libbie," as nonchalant and as complacent as if it
were her idea of New York hospitality. Then she
begged me to go round the Square, "to hunt a



lady from Avenue A, who see'd you pass with
me, Miss Libbie, and said she knowed you was a
lady, though I reckon she couldn't 'count for me
and you bein' together." We found the Avenue
A lady, and I was presented, and to her satisfac-
tion admired the baby that had been brought over
to that blessed breathing-place of our city.
F The Elevated railroad was a surprise to Eliza.
She " didn't believe it would be so high." At that
celebrated curve on the Sixth Avenue line, where
Monsieur de Lesseps even exclaimed, " Mon Dieu !
but the Americans are a brave people," the poor
frightened woman clung to me and whispered,
" Miss Libbie, couldn't we get down any way ?
Miss Libbie, I'se seed enough. I can tell the folks at
home all about it now. Oh, I never did 'spect to
be so near heaven till I went up for good."

At the Brooklyn Bridge she demurred. She is
so intelligent that I wanted to have her see the
shipping, the wharves, the harbor, and the Statue
of Liberty; but nothing kept her from flight save
her desire to tell her townspeople that she had
seen the place where the crank jumped off. The
policeman, in answer to my inquiry, commanded
us in martial tones to stay still till he said the word ;
and when the wagon crossing passed the spot, and
the maintainer of the peace said " Now ! " Eliza
shivered, and whispered, "Now, let's go home, Miss


Libbie. I dun took the cullud part of the town fo'
I come ; the white folks hain't seen what I has,
and they'll be took when I tell 'em ; " and off she
toddled, for Eliza is not the slender woman I once
knew her.

Her description of the Wild West exhibition was
most droll. I sent her down because we had lived
through so many of the scenes depicted, and I felt
sure that nothing" would recall so vividly the life on
the frontier as that most realistic and faithful rep-
resentation of a western life that has ceased to be,
with advancing civilization. She went to Mr.
Cody's tent after the exhibition, to present my
card of introduction, for he had served as General
Ouster's scout after Eliza left us, and she was,
therefore, unknown to him except by hearsay.
They had twenty subjects in common ; for Eliza,
in her way, was as deserving of praise as was the
courageous Cody. She was delighted with all
she saw, and on her return, her description of it,
mingled with imitations of the voices of the haw-
kers and the performers, was so incoherent that it
presented only a confused jumble to my ears. The
buffalo were a surprise, a wonderful revival to her
of those hunting-days when our plains were dark-
ened by the herds. "When the buffalo cum in, I
was ready to leap up and holler, Miss Libbie ;
it 'minded me of ole times. They made me


think of the fifteen the Ginnel fust struck in Kansas.
He jest pushed down his ole hat, and and went
after 'em linkety-clink. Well, Miss Libbie, when
Mr. Cody come up, I see at once his back and hips
was built precisely like the Ginnel, and when I
come on to his tent, I jest said to him : ' Mr. Buf-
falo Bill, when you cum up to the stand and
wheeled round, I said to myself, " Well, if he ain't
the 'spress image of Ginnel Custer in battle, I never
seed any one that was." I jest wish he'd come to
my town and give a show ! He could have the
hull fair-ground there. My! he could raise money
so fast t' wouldn't take him long to pay for a church.
And the shootin' and ridin' ! why, Miss Libbie,
when I seed one of them ponies brought out, I
know'd he was one of the hatefullest, sulkiest ponies
that ever lived. He was a-prancin' and curvin',
and he just stretched his ole neck and throwed the
men as fast as ever they got on."

After we had strolled through the streets for
many days, Eliza always amusing me by her droll
comments, she said to me one day: "Miss Libbie,
you don't take notice, when me and you's walking
on a-lookin' into shop-windows, and a-gazin' at
the new things I never see before, how the folks
does stare at us. But I see 'em a-gazin', and
I can see 'em a-ponderin' and sayin' to theirsel's,
'Well, I do declar'! that's a lady, there ain't no


manner of doubt. She's one of the bong tong ;
but whatever she's a-doin' with that old scrub
nigger, I can't make out.' ' I can hardly express
what a recreation and delight it was to go about
with this humorous woman and listen to her com-
ments, her unique criticisms, her grateful delight,
when she turned on the street to say: "Oh, what
a good time me and you is having, Miss Libbie,
and how I will 'stonish them people at home ! ""
The best of it all was the manner in which she
brought back our past, and the hundred small events
we recalled, which were made more vivid by the
imitation of voice, walk, gesture, she gave in
speaking of those we followed in the old march-
ing days.

On this journey to Texas some accident hap-
pened to our engine, and detained us all night. We
campaigners, accustomed to all sorts of unexpected
inconveniences, had learned not to mind discom-
forts. Each officer sank out of sight into his
great-coat collar, and slept on by the hour, while I
slumbered till morning, curled up in a heap, thank-
ful to have the luxury of one seat to myself. We
rather gloried over the citizens who tramped up
and down the aisle, groaning and becoming more
emphatic in their language as the night advanced,
indulging in the belief that the women were too-
sound asleep to hear them. I wakened enough to



hear one old man say, fretfully, and with many ad-
jectives : "Just see how those army folks sleep;
they can tumble down anywhere, while I am so
lame and sore, from the cramped-up place I am in,
I can't even doze." As morning came we noticed
our scamp at the other end of the car, with his legs
stretched comfortably on the seat turned over in
front of him. All this unusual luxury he accounted
for afterward, by telling us the trick that his inge-
nuity had suggested to obtain more room. " You
see," the wag said, "two old codgers sat down in
front of my pal and me, late last night, and went
on counting up their gains in the rise of corn, owing
to the war, which, to say the least, was harrowing
to us poor devils who had fought the battles that
had made them rich and left us without a ' red.'
I concluded, if that was all they had done for their
country, two of its brave defenders had more of a
right to the seat than they had. I just turned

to H and began solemnly to talk about what

store I set by my old army coat, then on the seat
they occupied ; said I couldn't give it up, though I
had been obliged to cover a comrade who had died
of small-pox, I not being afraid of contagion, having
had varioloid. Well, I got that far when the eyes
of the old galoots started out of their heads, and
they vamoosed the ranche, I can tell you, and I
saw them peering through the window at the end


of the next car, the horror still in their faces." The
General exploded with merriment. How strange
it seems, to contrast those noisy, boisterous times,

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 3 of 39)