Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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As the stage-stations were one after another at-
tacked, burned, the men murdered and the stock


driven off, for a distance of three hundred miles,
the difficulty of sending mail became almost in-
surmountable. Denver lay out there at the foot of
the mountains, as isolated as if it had been a lone
island in the Pacific Ocean. Whenever a coach
went out with the mail, a second one was filled
with soldiers and led the advance. The Seventh
Cavalry endeavored to fortify some of the deserted
stage-stations ; but the only means of defense
consisted in burrowing under-ground. After the
holes were dug, barely large enough for four men
standing, and a barrel of water and a week's pro-
vision, it was covered over with logs and turf,
leaving an aperture for firing. Where the men
had warning, they could " stand off " many Ind-
ians, and save the horses in another dug-out

After a journey along the infested route, where
one of our officers was detailed to post a corporal
and four men at the stations when the stage com-
pany endeavored to reinstate themselves, he de-
cided to go on into Denver for a few days. The
detention then was threatening to be prolonged,
and at the stage company's headquarters the
greatest opposition was encountered before our
officer could induce them to send out a coach.
Fortunately, as it afterward proved, three soldiers
who had orders to return to their troop, accom-


panied him. The stage company opposed every
move, and warned him that he left at his own risk.
But there was no other alternative, as he was due
and needed at Fort Wallace. At one of the
stage-stations nearest Denver a woman still en-
deavored to brave it out ; but her nerve deserted
her at last, and she implored our officer to take
her as far as he went on her way into the States.
Her husband, trying to protect the company's in-
terests, elected to remain, but begged that his wife
might be taken away from the deadly peril of their
surroundings. Our officer frankly said there was
very little chance that the stage would ever reach
Fort Wallace. She replied that she had been
frightened half to death all summer, and was sure
to be murdered if she remained, and might as
well die in the stage, as there was no chance for
her at the station.

Every revolution of the wheels brought them
into greater danger. The three soldiers on the
top of the stage kept a lookout on every side,
while the officer inside sat with rifle in hand, look-
ing from the door on either side the trail. Even
with all this vigilance, the attack, when it came,
was a surprise. The Indians had hidden in a
wash-out near the road. Their first shot fatally
wounded one of the soldiers, who, dropping his
gun, fell over the coach railing, and with dying


energy, half swung himself into the door of the
stage, gasping out a message to his mother. Our
officer replied that he would listen to the parting
words later, helped the man to get upon the seat,
and, without a preliminary, pushed the woman
down into the deep body of the coach, bidding
her, as she valued the small hope of life, not to
let herself be seen. As has been said before,
those familiar with Indian warfare know well with
what redoubled ferocity the savage fights, if he
finds that a white woman is likely to fall into his
hands. It is well known, also, that the squaws
are ignored if the chiefs have a white woman in
their power, and it brings a more fearful agony to
her lot, for when the warriors are absent from the
village, the squaws, wild with jealousy, heap
cruelty and exhausting labor upon the helpless
victim. All this the frontier woman knew, as we
all did, and it needed no second command to
keep her imperiled head on the floor of the coach.
The instant the dying soldier had dropped his
gun, the driver ah, what cool heads those stage-
drivers had ! seized the weapon, thrusting his lines
between his agile and muscular knees, inciting his
mules, and every shot had a deadly aim. The
soldiers fired one volley, and then leaped to the
ground as the officer sprang from the stage door,
and following beside the vehicle, continued to


fire as they walked. The first two shots from the
roof of the coach had killed two Indians hidden
in the hole made by the wash-out. By that
means our men got what they term the " morale"
on them, and though they pursued, it was at a
greater distance than it would have been had not
two of their number fallen at the beginning of
the attack.

This running fire continued for five miles, when,
fortunately for the little band, one of the stage-
stations, where a few men had been posted on
our officer's trip out, was reached at last. Here a
halt was made, as the Indians congregated on a
bluff where they could watch safely. The coach
was a wreck. The large lamps on either side of
the driver's seat were shattered completely, and
there were six bullet-holes between the roof and
the wooden body of the coach. When the door
of the stage was opened, and the crouching wo-
man lifted her face from the floor and was helped
out, she was so unmoved, so calm, the officer and
soldiers were astonished at her nerve. She looked
about, and said, " But I don't see any Indians yet."
The officer told her that if she would take the
trouble to look over on the bluff, she would find
them on dress parade. Then she told him about
her experience in the stage. The dying soldier
had breathed his last soon after he fell into the


coach, and all the five miles his dead body kept
slipping from the seat on to the prostrate
woman. In vain she pushed it one side ; the vio-
lence with which the vehicle rocked from side to
side, as the driver urged his animals to their ut-
most speed, made it impossible for her to protect
herself from contact with the heavy corpse, that
rolled about with the plunging of the coach. All
this, repeated without agitation, with no word of
fear for the remaining portion of the journey,
which, happily, was safely finished, drew from our
officer, almost dumb with amazement at the forti-
tude displayed, a speech that would rarely be set
down by the novelist who imagines conversations,
but which is just what is likely to be said in real
life " By Jove, you deserve a chromo ! "

One troop of the Seventh Cavalry was left to
garrison Fort Wallace, while the remainder of the
regiment was scouting. The post was then about
as ' dreary as any spot on earth. There were
no trees ; only the arid plain surrounded it, and
the sirocco winds drove the sands of that deso-
late desert into the dug-outs that served for the
habitation of officers and men. The supplies
were of the worst description. It was impossible
to get vegetables of any kind, and there was,
therefore, no preventing the soldier's scourge,
scurvy, which the heat aggravated, inflaming the


already burning flesh. Even the medical supplies
were limited. None of the posts at that time
were provided with decent food that is, none
beyond the railroad. I remember how much
troubled my husband was over this subject, when
I joined him at Fort Hays. The bacon issued to
the soldiers was not only rancid, but was sup-
plied by dishonest contractors, who slipped in
any foreign substance they could, to make the
weight come up to the required amount ; and
thus the soldiers were cheated out of the quantity
due them, as well as imposed upon in the quality
of their rations. It was the privilege of the enlist-
ed men to make their complaints to the com-
manding officer, and some of them sent to ask
the General to come to the company street and
allow them to prove to him what frauds were
being practiced. I went with him, and saw a flat
stone, the size of the slices of bacon as they were
packed together, sandwiched between the layers.
My husband was justly incensed, but could
promise no immediate redress. The route of travel
was so dangerous that it was necessary to detail
a larger number of men to guard any train of
supplies that attempted to reach those distant
posts. The soldiers felt, and justly too, that it
was an outrage that preparations for the arrival
of so large a number of troops had not been per-


fected in the spring, before the whole country
was in a state of siege. The supplies provided
for the consumption of those troops operating in
the field or stationed at the posts had been sent
out during the war. It was then 1867, and they
had lain in the poor, ill-protected adobe or dug-
out storehouse all the intervening time more
than two years. At Forts Wallace and Hays there
were no storehouses, and the flour and bacon
were only protected by tarpaulins. Both became
rancid and moldy, and were at the mercy of the
rats and mice. A larger quantity of supplies
was forwarded to that portion of the country the
last year of the war than was needed for the
volunteer troops sent out there, and consequently
our Seventh Cavalry, scouting day and night
all through that eventful summer, were com-
pelled to subsist on the food already on hand.
It was the most mistaken economy to persist in
issuing such rations, when it is so well known that
a well-filled stomach is a strong background for
a courageous heart. The desertions were unceas-
ing. The nearer the troops approached the mount-
ains, the more the men took themselves off to
the mines.

In April of that year no deaths had occurred
at Fort Wallace, but by November there were
sixty mounds outside the garrison, covering the


brave hearts of soldiers who had either succumbed
to illness or been shot by Indians. It was a fear-
ful mortality for a garrison of fewer than two
hundred souls. If the soldiers, hungry for fresh
meat, went out to shoot buffalo, the half of them
mounted guard, to protect those who literally
took their lives in their hands, to provide a few
meals of wholesome food for themselves and their
comrades. At one company post on the South
Platte, a troop of our Seventh Cavalry was sta-
tioned. In the mining excitement that ran so high
in 1866 and 1867, the captain woke one morning
to find that his first-sergeant and forty out of sixty
men that composed the garrison, had decamped,
with horses and equipments, for the mines. This
left the handful of men in imminent peril from
Indian assaults. The wily foe lies hidden for days
outside the garrison, protected by a heap of stones
or a sage-bush, and informs himself, as no other
spy on earth ever can, just how many souls the
little group of tents or the quarters represent. In
this dire strait a dauntless Sergeant Andrews
offered to go in search of the missing men. He
had established his reputation as a marksman in
the regiment, and soldiers used to say that
" such shooting as Andrews did, got the bulge on
everybody." He was seemingly fearless. The
captain consented to his departure, but demurred


to his going alone. The sergeant believed he
could only succeed if he went into the mining-
camp unaccompanied, and so the officer permitted
him to go. He arrested and brought away nine,
traveling two hundred miles with them to Fort
Wallace. There was no guard-house at the post,
and the commanding officer had to exercise his
ingenuity to secure these deserters. A large hole
was dug in the middle of the parade-ground and
covered with logs and earth, leaving a square
aperture in the centre. The ladder by which they
descended was removed by the guard when all
were in, and the Bastile could hardly be more se-
cure than this ingenious prison.

Two separate attacks were made by three hun-
dred Dog-soldiers (Cheyennes) to capture Fort
Wallace that summer. During the first fight, the
prisoners in their pit heard the firing, and knew that
all the troops were outside the post engaged with
the Indians. Knowing their helplessness, their
torture of mind can be imagined. If the enemy
succeeded in entering the garrison, their fate was
sealed. The attacks were so sudden that there
was no opportunity to release these men. The
officers knew well enough, that, facing a common
foe, they might count on unquestionable unity of
action from the deserters. Some clemency was
to be expected from a military court that would


eventually try them, but all the world knows the
savage cry is " No quarter." In an attack on a
post, there is only a wild stampede at the sound
of the " General " from the trumpet. There is a
rush for weapons, and every one dashes outside the
garrison to the skirmish-line. In such a race, every
soldier elects to be his own captain till the field is
reached. I have seen the troops pour out of a
garrison, at an unexpected attack, in an incredibly
short time. No one stands upon the order of his
going, or cares whose gun or whose horse he
seizes on the way. Once the skirmish-line is
formed, the soldierly qualities assert themselves,
and complete order is resumed. It is only neces-
sary to be in the midst of such excitement, to
realize how readily prisoners out of sight would
be forgotten.

After the fight was over, and the Indians were
driven off, the poor fellows sent to ask if they could
speak with the commanding officer, and when he
came to their prison for the interview, they said,
" For God's sake, do anything in future with us
that you see fit condemn us to any kind of pun-
ishment, put balls and chains on all of us but
whatever you do, in case of another attack, let us
out of this hole and give us a gun !" I have known
a generous-minded commanding officer to release
every prisoner in the guard-house and set aside


their sentences forever, after they have shown
their courage and presence of mind in defending
a post from Indians, or other perils, such as fire
and storms.

The brave sergeant who had filled the pit with
his captures, asked to follow a deserter who had
escaped to a settlement on the Saline River. He
found the man, arrested him, and brought him
away unaided . When they reached the railway at
Ellsworth, the man made a plea of hunger, and
the sergeant took him to an eating-house. While
standing at the counter, he took the cover from a
red-pepper box and, furtively watching his chance,
threw the contents into the sergeant's eyes, com-
pletely blinding him. The sergeant was then ac-
counted second only to Wild Bill as a shot, and
not a whit less cool. Though groaning with
agony, he lost none of his self-possession. Listen-
ing for the foot-fall as the deserter started for the
door, he fired in the direction, and the man fell

Our regiment was now passing through its worst
days. Constant scouting over the sun-baked,
cactus-bedded Plains, by men who were as yet un-
acclimated, and learning by the severest lessons to
inure themselves to hardships, made terrible havoc
in the ranks. The horses, also fresh to this sort of
service, grew gaunt, and dragged their miserably


fed bodies over the blistering trail. Here and
there along the line a trooper walked beside his
beast, wetting, when he could, the flesh that was
raw from the almost inevitable sore that the
saddle causes, especially when the rider is a novice
in horsemanship.

Insubordination among the men was the certain
consequence of the half-starved, discouraged state
they were in. One good fight would have put
heart into them to some extent, for the hopeless-
ness of following such a will-o'-the-wisp as the
Indians were that year, made them think their
scouting did no good and might as well be dis-
continued. Some of the officers were poor
disciplinarians, either from inexperience or be-
cause they lacked the gift of control over others,
which seems left out of certain temperaments.
Alas ! some had no control over themselves ; and
no one could expect obedience in such a case. In
its early days the Seventh Cavalry was not the
temperate regiment it afterward became. Some of
the soldiers in the ranks had been officers during
the war, and they were learning the lesson, that
hard summer, of receiving orders instead of issu-
ing them. There were a good many men who
had served in the Confederate army, and had not
a ray of patriotism in enlisting ; it was merely a
question of subsistence to them in their beggared


condition. There were troopers who had entered
the service from a romantic love of adventure,
with little idea of what stuff a man must be made
if he is hourly in peril, or, what taxes the nerve still
more, continually called upon to endure privation.

The mines were evidently the great object that
induced the soldier to enlist that year. The
Eastern papers had wild accounts of the enormous
yield in the Rocky Mountains, and free transporta-
tion by Government could be gained by enlisting,
At that time, when the railroad was incomplete,
and travel almost given up, on account of danger ta
the stages ; when the telegraph, which now reaches
the destination of the rogue with its warning, far
in advance of him, had not even been projected
over the Plains it was the easiest sort of escape
for a man, for when once he reached the mines he
was lost for years, and perhaps died undis-

Recruits of the kind sent to us would, even
under favorable circumstances, be difficult material
from which to evolve soldierly men ; and consid-
ering their terrible hardships, it was no wonder
the regiment was nearly decimated. In enlisting,
the recruit rarely realizes the trial that awaits him,
of surrendering his independence. We hear and
know so much in this country of freedom, that
even a tramp appreciates it. If a man is reason-


it Library

ably subordinate, it is still very hard to become
accustomed to the infinitesimal observances that I
have so often been told are " absolutely necessary
to good order and military discipline." To a
looker-on like me, it seemed very much like re-
ducing men to machines. The men made so
much trouble on the campaign and we knew of it
by the many letters that came into garrison in one
mail, as well as by personal observation, when in
the regiment that I did not find much sympathy
in my heart for them. In one night, while I was at
Fort Hays, forty men deserted, and in so bold
and deliberate a manner, taking arms, ammuni-
tion, horses and quantities of food, that the officers
were roused to action, for it looked as if not
enough men would be left to protect the fort. A
conspiracy was formed among the men, by which
a third of the whole command planned to desert
at one time. Had not their plotting been dis-
covered, there would not have been a safe hour
for those who remained, as the Indians lay in wait
constantly. My husband, in writing of that
wholesale desertion in the early months of the
regiment's history, makes some excuse for them
even under circumstances that would seem to
have put all tribulation and patience out of mind.
After weary marches, the regiment found
itself nearing Fort Wallace with a sense of


relief, feeling that they might halt and recruit in
that miserable but comparatively safe post. They
were met by the news of the ravages of the
cholera. No time could be worse for the soldiers
to encounter it. The long, trying campaign, even
extending into the Department of the Platte, had
fatigued and disheartened the command. Ex-
haustion and semi-starvation made the men an
easy prey. The climate, though so hot in sum-
mer, had heretofore been in their favor, as the air
was pure, and, in ordinary weather, bracing. But
with cholera, even the high altitude was no pro-
tection. No one could account for the appear-
ance of the pestilence ; never before or since had
it been known in so elevated a part of our country.
There were those who attributed the scourge to
the upturning of the earth in the building of the
Kansas Pacific Railroad ; but the engineers had
not even been able to prospect as far as Wallace,
on account of the Indians. An infantry regiment,
on its march to New Mexico, halted at Fort Wal-
lace, and even in their brief stay the men were
stricken down, and, with inefficient nurses, no
comforts, not even wholesome food, it was a won-
der that there was enough of the regiment left for
an organization. The wife of one of the officers,
staying temporarily in a dug-out, fell a victim,
and died in the wretched underground habitation


in which an Eastern farmer would refuse to shel-
ter his stock.

It was a hard fate for our Seventh Cavalry men.
Their camp, outside the garrison, had no protec-
tion from the remorseless sun, and the poor fel-
lows rolled on the hot earth in their small tents,
without a cup of cold water or a morsel of decent
food. The surgeons fought day and night to stay
the spread of the disease, but everything was
against them. The exhausted soldiers, disheart-
ened by long, hard, unsuccessful marching, had
little desire to live when once seized with the
awful disease.

With the celerity with which evil news travels,
much of what I have written came back to us.
Though the mails were so uncertain, and travel
was almost discontinued, still the story of the ill-
ness and desperate condition of our regiment
reached us, and many a garbled and exaggerated
tale came with the true ones. Day after day I
sat on the gallery of the quarters in which we
were temporarily established, watching for the
first sign of the cavalryman who brought our
mail. Doubtless he thought himself a winged
Mercury. In reality, no snail ever crept so slowly.
When he began his walk toward me, measuring
his regulation steps with military precision, a
world of fretful impatience possessed me. I


-vished with all my soul I was, for the moment,
any one but the wife of his commanding officer,
that I might pick up my skirts and fly over the
grass, and snatch the parcel from his hand.
When he finally reached the gallery, and swung-
himself into position to salute, my heart thumped
like the infantry drum. Day after day came the
same pompous, maddening words : " I have the
honor to report there are no letters for Mrs. Major-
General George Armstrong Ouster." Not caring-
at last whether the man saw the flush of disap-
pointment, the choking breath, and the rising
tears, I fled in the midst of his slow announce-
ment, to plunge my wretched head into my pillow,
hoping the sound of the sobs would not reach
Eliza, who was generally hovering near to pro-
pose something that would comfort me in my dis-

She knew work was my panacea, and made an
injured mouth over the rent in her apron, which,
in her desires to keep me occupied, she was not
above tearing on purpose. With complaining
tones she said, "Miss Libbie, aint you goin' to do
no sewin' for me at all ? Tears like every darkey
in garrison has mo' does than I has" forgetting
in her zeal, the abbreviation of her words, about
which her " ole miss" had warned her. Sewing,
reading, painting, any occupation that had be-



gulled the hours, lost its power as those letterless
days came and went. I was even afraid to show
my face at the door when the mail-man was due,
for I began to despair about hearing at all. After
days of such gloom, my leaden heart one morning
quickened its beats at an unusual sound the clank
of a sabre on our gallery and with it the quick,
springing steps of feet, unlike the quiet infantry
around us. The door, behind which I paced un-
easily, opened, and with a flood of sunshine that
poured in, came a vision far brighter than even the
brilliant Kansas sun. There before me, blithe and
buoyant, stood my husband ! In an instant, every
moment of the preceding months was obliterated.
What had I to ask more ? What did earth hold
for us greater than what we then had ? The Gen-
eral, as usual when happy and excited, talked so
rapidly that the words jumbled themselves into
hopeless tangles, but my ears were keen enough
to extract from the medley the fact that I was to
return at once with him.

Eliza, half crying, scolding as she did when
overjoyed, vibrated between kitchen and parlor,
and finally fell to cooking, as a safety-valve
for her overcharged spirits. The General ordered
everything she had in the house, determined,
for once in that summer of deprivations, to have,
as the soldiers term it, one "good, square meal."

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 38 of 39)