Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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over so inhospitable a land ! But what a boon to
travelers like ourselves to see, for even the brief
season, some tint besides the burnt umber and
yellow ochre of those plains. All the short exist-
ence of these flowers is condensed into the color,
tropical in richness ; not one faint waft of per-
fume floated on the air about us. But it was all
we ought to have asked, that their brilliant heads
appear out of such soil. This has served to make


me very appreciative of the rich exhalation of the
Eastern gardens. I do not dare say what the first
perfume of the honeysuckle is to me, each year
now ; nor would I infringe upon the few adjec-
tives vouchsafed the use of a conventional Eastern
woman when, as it happened this year, the orange
blossoms, white jessamine, and woodbine wafted
their sweet breaths in my face as a welcome from
one garden to which good fortune led me. I re-
member the starvation days of that odorless life,
when, seeing rare colors, we instantly expected
rich odors, but found them not, and I try to adapt
myself to the customs of the country, and not
rave ; but, like the children, keep up a mighty

Buffalo, antelope, blacktail deer, coyote, jack-
rabbits, scurried out of our way on that march,
and we could not stop to follow. I was looking
always for some new sight, and, after the relief
that I felt when each object as we neared it turned
out to be harmless, was anxious to see a drove of
wild horses. There were still herds to be found
between the Cimmaron and the Arkansas rivers.
The General told me of seeing one of the herds
on a march, spoke with great admiration and en-
thusiasm of the leader, and described him as
splendid in carriage, and bearing his head in the
proudest, loftiest manner as he led his followers.


They were not large ; they must have been the
Spanish pony of Cortez' time, as we know that the
horse is not indigenous to America. The flowing
mane and tail, the splendid arch of the neck, and
the proud head carried so loftily, give the wild
horses a larger, taller appearance than is in reality
theirs. Few ever saw the droves of wild horses
more than momentarily. They run like the wind.

After the introduction of the dromedary into
Texas, many years since, for transportation of
supplies over that vast territory, one was brought
up to Colorado. Because of the immense runs it
could make without water, it was taken into the
region frequented by the wild horses, and when
they were sighted, the dromedary was started in
pursuit. Two were run down, and found to be
nearly dead when overtaken. But the poor drom-
edary suffered so from the prickly-pear filling the
soft ball of its feet, that no farther pursuit could
ever be undertaken.

I had to be content with the General's descrip-
tion, for no wild horses came in our way. But
there was enough to satisfy any one in the way of
game. The railroad had not then driven to the
right and left the inhabitants of that vast prairie.
Our country will never again see the Plains dotted
with game of all sorts. The railroad stretches its
iron bands over these desert wastes, and scarcely


a skulking coyote, hugging the ground and sneak-
ing into gulches, can be discovered during a whole
day's journey.

As the long afternoon was waning, we were
allowed to get out and rest a little while, for we
had reached what was called the "Home Station,"
because at this place there was a woman, then the
only one along the entire route. I looked with
more admiration than I could express on this fear-
less creature, long past the venturesome time of
early youth, when some dare much for excite-
ment. She was as calm and collected as her hus-
band, whom she valued enough to endure with
him this terrible existence. How good the things
tasted that she cooked, and how different the
dooryard looked from those of the other stations !
Then she had a baby antelope, and the apertures
that served as windows had bits of white curtains,
and, altogether, I did not wonder that over the
hundreds of miles of stage-route the Home Station
was a place the men looked forward to as the
only reminder of the civilization that a good
woman establishes about her. There was an
awful sight, though, that riveted my eyes as we
prepared to go on our journey, and the officers
could not, by any subterfuge, save us from seeing
it. It was a disabled stage-coach, literally riddled
with bullets, its leather hanging in shreds, and the


woodwork cut into splinters. When there was
no further use of trying to conceal it from us, we
were told that this stage had come into the station
in that condition the day before, and the fight
that the driver and mail-carrier had been through
was desperate. There was no getting the sight
of that vehicle out of my mind during the rest of
the journey. What a friend the darkness seemed,
as it wrapped its protecting mantle about us, after
the long twilight ended, yet it was almost impos-
sible to sleep, though we knew we were compara-
tively safe till dawn. At daybreak the officers
asked us to get out, while the mules were watered
and fed, and rest ourselves, and though I had been
so long riding in a cramped position, I would
gladly have declined. Cleanliness is next to Godli-
ness, and, one of our friends said, " With a woman,
it is before Godliness," yet that was an occasion
when I would infinitely have preferred to be num-
bered with the great unwashed. However, a place
in the little stream at the foot of the gully was
pointed out, and we took our tin basin and towel
and freshened ourselves by this early toilet ; but
there was no lingering to prink, even on the part
of the pretty Diana. Our eyes were staring on
all sides, with a dread impossible to quell, and
back into the ambulance we climbed, not breath-
ing a long free breath until the last of those terri-


ble eighty miles were passed, and we beheld with
untold gratitude the roofs of the quarters at Fort

I felt that we had trespassed as much as we
ought upon the hospitality of the commanding
officer of the post, and begged to be allowed to
sleep in our ambulance while we remained in the
garrison. He consented, under protest, and our
wagon and that of Mrs. Gibbs were placed in the
space between two Government storehouses, and
a tarpaulin was stretched over the two. Eliza
prepared our simple food over a little camp-fire.
While the weather remained good, this was a very
comfortable camp for us but when, in Kansas, do
the elements continue quiet for twenty-four hours?
In the darkest hour of the blackest kind of night
the wind rose into a tempest, rushing around the
corners of the buildings, hunting out with perti-
nacity from front and rear our poor little temporary
home. The tarpaulin was lifted on high, and with
ropes and picket-pins thrashing on the canvas it
finally broke its last moorings and soared off into
space. The rain beat in the curtains of the ambu-
lance and soaked our blankets. Still, we crept
together on the farther side of our narrow bed
and, rolled up in our shawls, tried to hide our eyes
from the lightning, and our ears from the roar of
the storm as it swept between the sheltering build-


ings and made us feel as if we were camping in a

Our neighbor's dog joined his voice with the
sobs and groans of the wind, while in the short
intervals of quiet we called out, trying to get
momentary courage from speech with each other.
The curtain at the end of the ambulance jerked
itself free, and in came a deluge of rain from a
new direction. Pins, strings and four weak
hands holding their best, did no earthly good,
and I longed to break all military rule and
scream to the sentinel. Not to speak to a guard on
post is one of the early lessons instilled into every
one in military life. It required such terror of
the storm and just such a drenching as we were
getting, even to harbor a thought of this direct
disobedience of orders. Clutching the wagon-
curtains and watching the soldier, who was re-
vealed by the frequent flashes of lightning as he
tramped his solitary way, might have gone on for
some time without the necessary courage coming
to call him, but a new departure of the wind sud-
denly set us in motion, and I found that we were
spinning down the little declivity back of us, with
no knowledge of when or where we would stop.
Then I did scream, and the peculiar shrillness of
a terrified woman's voice reached the sentinel.
Blessed breaker of his country's laws ! He


answered to a higher one, which forbids him to
neglect a woman in danger, and left his beat to
run to our succor.

Our wagon was dragged back by some of the
soldiers on night duty at the guard-house, and
was newly pinioned to the earth with stronger
picket-pins and ropes, but sleep was murdered
for that night. Of course the guard reported to
the commanding officer, as is their rule, and soon
a lantern or two came zigzagging over the parade-
ground in our direction, and the officers called to
know if they could speak with us. There was no
use in arguing. Mrs. Gibbs and her boys, Diana
drenched and limp as to clothes, and I decidedly
moist, were fished out of our watery camp-beds,
and with our arms full of apparel and satchels, we
followed the officers in the dark to the dry quar-
ters, that we had tried our best to decline rather
than make trouble.

It was decided that we must proceed to Fort
Riley, as there were no quarters to offer us ; and
tent-life, as I have tried to describe it, had its
drawbacks in the rainy season. Had it not
meant for me ninety miles farther separation
from my husband, seemingly cut off from all
chance of joining him again, I would have wel-
comed the plan of going back, as Fort Harker
was at this time the most absolutely dismal and


melancholy spot I remember ever to have seen.
A terrible and unprecedented calamity had fal-
len upon the usually healthful place, for cholera
had broken out, and the soldiers were dying" by
platoons. I had been accustomed to think, in all
the vicissitudes that had crowded themselves into
these few months, whatever else we were deprived
of, we at least had a climate unsurpassed for salu-
brity, and I still think so. For some strange
reason, right out in the midst of that wide, open
plain, with no stagnant water, no imperfect drain-
age, no earthly reason, it seemed to us, this
epidemic had suddenly appeared, and in a form
so violent that a few hours of suffering ended
fatally. Nobody took dying into consideration
out there in those days ; all were well and able-
bodied, and almost everyone was young, who ven-
tured into that new country, so no lumber had
been provided to make coffins. For a time the
rudest receptacles were hammered together made
out of the hard-tack boxes. Almost immediate bur-
ial took place, as there was no ice, nor even a safe
place to keep the bodies of the unfortunate vic-
tims. It was absolutely necessary, but an awful
thought nevertheless, this scurrying under the
ground of the lately dead, perhaps only wrapped
in a coarse gray army blanket, and with the burial
service hurriedly read, for all were needed as


nurses, and time was too precious to say even the
last words, except in haste. The officers and their
families did not escape, and sorrow fell upon
every one when an attractive young woman, who
had dared everything in the way of hardships to
follow her husband, was marked by that terrible
finger which bade her go alone into the valley of
death. In the midst of this scourge, the Sisters
of Charity came. Two of them died, and after-
ward a priest, but they were replaced by others,
who remained until the pestilence had wrought its
worst ; then they gathered the orphaned children
of the soldiers together, and returned with them
to the parent house of their Order in Leavenworth.
I would gladly have these memories fade out
of my life, for the scenes at that post have no ray
of light except the heroic conduct of the men and
women, who stood their ground through the dan-
ger. I cannot pass by those memorable days in
the early history of Kansas without my tribute to
the brave officers and men who went through so
much to open the way for settlers. I lately rode
through the State, which seemed when I first saw
it a hopeless, barren waste, and found the land
under fine cultivation, the houses, barns and fences
excellently built, cattle in the meadows, and,
sometimes, several teams ploughing in one field.
I could not help wondering what the rich owners


of these estates would say, if I should step down
from the car and give them a little picture of
Kansas, with the hot, blistered earth, dry beds of
streams, and soil apparently so barren that not
even the wild-flowers would bloom, save for a
brief period after the spring rains. Then add
pestilence, Indians, and an undisciplined, muti-
nous soldiery who composed our first recruits,
and it seems strange that our officers persevered
at all. I hope the prosperous ranchman will give
them one word of thanks as he advances to great-
er wealth, since but for our brave fellows the
Kansas Pacific Railroad could not have been built;
nor could the early settlers, daring as they were,
have sowed the seed that now yields them such
rich harvests.

We had no choice about leaving Fort Harker.
There was no accommodation for us, indeed we
would have hampered the already overworked
officers and men; so we took our departure for
Fort Riley. There we found perfect quiet; the
negro troops were reduced to discipline, and every-
thing went on as if there were no such thing as
the dead and the dying that we had left a few
hours before. There was but a small garrison,
and we easily found empty quarters, that were
lent to us by the commanding officer.

Then the life of watching and waiting, and try-


ing to possess my soul in patience, began again,
and my whole day resolved itself into a mental
protest against the slowness of the hours before
the morning mail could be received. It was a
doleful time for us; but I remember no uttered
complaints as such, for we silently agreed they
would weaken our courage. If tears were shed,
they fell on the pillow, where the blessed darkness
came to absolve us from the rigid watchfulness
that we tried to keep over our feelings. My hus-
band blessed many a dark day by the cheeriest
letters. How he ever managed to write so buoyant-
ly, was a mystery when I found afterward what
he was enduring. I rarely had a letter with even
so much as a vein of discontent, during all our
separations. At that time came two that were
strangely in contrast to all the brave, encouraging
missives that had cheered my day. The accounts
of cholera met our regiment on their march into
the Department of the Platte; and the General,
in the midst of intense anxiety, with no prospect
of direct communication, assailed by false reports
of my illness, at last showed a side of his charac-
ter that was seldom visible. His suspense regard-
ing my exposure to pestilence, and his distress
over the fright and danger I had endured at the
time of the flood at Fort Hays, made his brave
spirit quail, and there were desperate words writ-


ten, which, had he not been relieved by news of
my safety, would have ended in his taking steps
to resign. Even he, whom I scarcely ever knew
to yield to discouraging circumstances, wrote that
he could not and would not endure such a life.

Our days at Fort Riley had absolutely nothing
to vary them after mail-time. I sat on the gallery
long before the time of distribution, pretending to
sew or read, but watching constantly for the door
of the office to yield up next to the most important
man in the wide world to me. The soldier whose
duty it was to bring the mail became so inflated
by the eagerness with which his steps were
watched, that it came near being the death of
him when he joined his company in the autumn,
and was lost in its monotonous ranks. He was a
ponderous, lumbering fellow in body and mind,
who had been left behind by his captain, osten-
sibly to take care of the company property, but I
soon found there was another reason, as his wits
had for some time been unsettled that is, giving
him the benefit of a doubt if he ever had any.
Addled as his brain might be, the remnant of in-
telligence was ample in my eyes if it enabled him
to make his way to our door. As he belonged to
the Seventh Cavalry, he considered that every-
thing at the post must be subservient to my wish,
when in reality I was dependent for a temporary




roof on the courtesy of the infantry officer in
command. If I even met him in our walks, he
seemed to swell to twice his size, and to feel that
some of the odor of sanctity hung around him,
whether he bore messsages from the absent
or not.

The contents of the mail-bag being divided,
over six feet of anatomical and military perfection
came stalking through the parade-ground. He
would not demean himself to hasten, and his
measured steps were in accordance with the gait
prescribed in the past by his sergeant on drilL
He appeared to throw his head back more loftily
as he perceived that my eyes followed his creep-
ing steps. He seemed to be reasoning. Did
Napoleon ever run, the Duke of Wellington ever
hasten, or General Scott quicken his gait or impair
his breathing, by undue activity, simply because
an unreasoning, impatient woman was waiting
somewhere for them to appear ? It was not at all
in accordance with his ideas of martial character
to exhibit indecorous speed. The great and re-
sponsible office of conveying the letters from the
officer to the quarters had been assigned to him,
and nothing, he determined, should interfere with
its being filled with dignity. His country looked
to him as its savior. Only a casual and conde-
scending thought was given to his comrades, who


perhaps at that time were receiving in their bodies
the arrows of Indian warriors. No matter how
eagerly I eyed the great official envelope in his
hand, which I knew well was mine, he persisted
in observing all the form and ceremony that he
had decided was suitable for its presentation. He
was especially particular to assume the " first
position of a soldier," as he drew up in front of
me. The tone with which he addressed me was
deliberate and grandiloquent. The only variation
in his regulation manners was that he allowed
himself to speak before he was spoken to. With
the flourish of his colossal arm, in a salute that
took in a wide semicircle of Kansas air, he said,
"Good morning, Mrs. Major -General George
Armstrong Custer." He was the only gleam of
fun we had in those dismal days. He was a
marked contrast to the disciplined enlisted man,
who never speaks unless first addressed by his
superiors, and who is modesty itself in demeanor
and language in the presence of the officers'
wives. The farewell salute of our mail-carrier
was funnier than his approach. He wheeled on
his military heel, and swung wide his flourishing
arm, but the " right about face " I generally lost,
for, after snatching my envelope from him, un-
awed by his formality, I fled into the house to
hide, while I laughed and cried over the contents.



^PHE first fight of the Seventh Cavalry was at
Fort Wallace. In June, 1867, a band of
three hundred Cheyennes, under Roman Nose,
attacked the stage-station near that fort, and ran
off the stock. Elated with this success, they pro-
ceeded to Fort Wallace, that poor little group of
log huts and mud cabins having apparently no
power of resistance. Only the simplest devices
could be resorted to for defense. The com-
missary stores and ammunition were partly


protected by a low wall of gunny-sacks filled
with sand. There were no logs near enough, and
no time, if there had been, to build a stockade.
But our splendid cavalry charged out as boldly as
if they were leaving behind them reserve troops
and a battery of artillery. They were met by a
counter-charge, the Indians, with lances poised
and arrows on the string, coming on swiftly in
overwhelming numbers. It was a hand-to-hand
fight. Roman Nose was about to throw his jave-
lin at one of our men, when the cavalryman, with
his left hand, gave a sabre-thrust equal to the best
that many good fencers can execute with their
sword-arm. With his Spencer rifle he wounded
the chief, and saw him fall forward on his horse.
The post had been so short of men that a dozen
negro soldiers, who had come with their wagon
from an outpost for supplies, were placed near the
garrison on picket duty. While the fight was
going on, the two officers in command found
themselves near each other on the skirmish-line,
and observed a wagon with four mules tearing
out to the line of battle. It was filled with negroes,
standing up, all firing in the direction of the Ind-
ians. The driver lashed the mules with his black-
snake, and roared at them as they ran. When the
skirmish-line was reached, the colored men leaped
out and began firing again. No one had ordered



them to leave their picket-station, but they were
determined that no soldiering should be carried
on in which their valor was not proved. The
officers saw with surprise that one of the number
ran off by himself into the most dangerous place,
and one of them remarked, " There's a gone nigger,
for a certainty ! " They saw him fall, throw up his
hands, kick his feet in the air, and then collapse-
dead to all appearances. After the fight was over,
and the Indians had withdrawn to the bluffs, the
soldiers were called together and ordered back to
the post. At that moment a negro, gun in hand,
walked up from where the one supposed to be
slain had last been seen. It was the dead restored
to life. When asked by the officer, " What in
thunder do you mean, running off at such a distance
into the face of danger, and throwing up your feet
and hands as if shot?" he replied, "Oh, Lord,
Massa, I just did dat to fool 'em. I fot deyed try
to get my scalp, thinkin' I war dead, and den I'd
jest got one of 'em."

The following official report, sent in from some
colored men stationed at Wilson's Creek, who
were attacked, and successfully drove off the Ind-
ians, will give further proof of their good service,
while at the same time it reveals a little of other
sides of the negro, when he first began to serve
Uncle Sam :



"All the boys done bully, but Corporal Johnson
he flinked. The way he flinked was, to wait,
till the boys had drove the Injuns two miles, and
then he hollered, ' Gin it to 'em ! ' and the boys
don't think that a man that would Sink that way
ought to have corporal's straps."

In order to give this effort at military composi-
tion its full effect, it w r ould be necessary to add
the official report of a cut-and-dried soldier. No
matter how trifling the duty, the stilted language,
bristling with technical pomposity, in which every
military move is reported, makes me, a non-com-
batant, question if the white man is not about as
absurd in his way as the darkey was in his.

Poor Fort Wallace ! In another attack on the
post, where several of our men were killed, there
chanced to be some engineers stopping at the
garrison, en route to New Mexico, where a Gov-
ernment survey was to be undertaken. One of
them, carrying a small camera, photographed a
sergeant lying on the battle-ground after the
enemy had retreated. The body was gashed, and
pierced by twenty-three arrows. Everything
combined to keep that little garrison in a state of
siege, and a gloomy pall hung over the beleaguered

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 37 of 39)