Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

. (page 4 of 39)
Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 4 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

when everybody shouted with laughter, called
loudly from one end of the car to the other, told
stories for the whole public to hear, and sang war-
songs, with the quiet, orderly travelers of nowa-
days, who, even in the tremor of meeting or part-
ing, speak below their breath, and, ashamed of
emotion, quickly wink back to its source the pre-
historic tear.

We bade good-by to railroads at Louisville, and
the journeying south was then made by steamer.
How peculiar it seemed to us, accustomed as we
were to lake craft with deep hulls, to see for the
first time those flat-bottomed boats drawing so lit-
tle water, with several stories, and upper decks
loaded with freight. I could hardly rid myself of
the fear that, being so top-heavy, we would blow-
over. The tempests of our western lakes w r ere
then my only idea of sailing weather. Then the
long, sloping levees, the preparations for the rise
of water, the strange sensation, when the river was
high, of looking over the embankment, down
upon the earth ! It is a novel feeling to be for the
first time on a great river, with such a current as
the Mississippi flowing on above the level of the
plantations, hemmed in by an embankment on


either side. Though we saw the manner of its
construction at one point where the levee was be-
ing repaired, and found how firmly and substan-
tially the earth was fortified with stone and logs
against the river, it still seemed to me an un-
natural sort of voyaging to be above the level of
the ground ; and my tremors on the subject, and
other novel experiences, were instantly made use
of as a new and fruitful source of practical jokes.
For instance, the steamer bumped into the shore
anywhere it happened to be wooded, and an army
of negroes appeared, running over the gang-plank
like ants. Sometimes at night the pine torches,
and the resinous knots burning in iron baskets
slung over the side of the boat, made a weird and
gruesome sight, the shadows were so black, the
streams of light so intense, while the hurrying
negroes loaded on the wood, under the brutal voice
of a steamer's mate. Once a negro fell in. They
made a pretense of rescuing him, gave it up soon,
and up hurried our scamp to the upper deck to
tell me the horrible tale. He had good command
of language, and allowed no scruples to spoil a
story After that I imagined, at every night
wood-lading, some poor soul was swept down
under the boat and off into eternity. The General
was sorry for me, and sometimes, when I imagined
the calls of the crew to be the despairing wail of a


dying man, he made pilgrimages, for my sake, to
the lower deck to make sure that no one was
drowned. My imaginings were not always so re-
spected, for the occasion gave too good an oppor-
tunity for a joke, to be passed quietly by. The
scamp and my husband put their heads together
soon after this, and prepared a tale for the " old
lady," as they called me. As we were about to
make a landing, they ran to me and said, " Come,
Libbie, hurry up ! hurry up ! You'll miss the fun
if you don't scrabble." " Miss what ?" was my
very natural question, and exactly the reply they
wanted me to make. "Why, they're going to
bury a dead man when we land." I exclaimed in
horror, " Another man drowned ? how can you
speak so irreverently of death ?" With a " do you
suppose the mate cares for one nigger more or
less ?" they dragged me to the deck. There I saw
the great cable which was used to tie us up, fast-
ened to a strong spar, the two ends of which were
buried in the bank. The ground was hollowed
out underneath the centre, and the rope slipped
under to fasten it around the log. After 'I had
watched this process of securing our boat to the
shore, these irrepressibles said, solemnly, " The
sad ceremony is now ended, and no other will take
place till we tie up at the next stop." When it
dawned upon me that " tying up " was called, in



steamer vernacular, " burying a dead man," my
eyes returned to their proper place in the sockets,
breath came back, and indignation filled my soul.
Language deserts us at such moments, and I re-
sorted to force. As there was no one near, a few
well-deserved thumps were rained down on the
yellow head of the commanding officer, who bore
this merited punishment quite meekly, only sug-
gesting that the next time the avenger felt called
upon to administer such telling whacks, it might
be done with the hand on which there were no

The Ruth was accounted one of the largest and
most beautiful steamers that had ever been on the
Mississippi River, her expenses being $i,oooaday.
The decorations were sumptuous, and we enjoyed
every luxury. We ate our dinners to very good
music, which the boat furnished. We had been on
plain fare too long not to watch with eagerness
the arrival of the procession of white-coated negro
waiters, who each day came in from the pastry-
cook with some new device in cake, ices, or con-
fectionery. There was a beautiful Ruth gleaning
in a field, in the painting that filled the semicircle
over the entrance of the cabin. Ruths with
sheaves held up the branches of the chandeliers,
while the pretty gleaner looked out from the glass
of the stateroom doors. The captain being very


patient as well as polite, we pervaded every cor-
ner of the great boat. The General and his boy-
soldiers were too accustomed to activity to be
quiet in the cabin. Even that unapproachable
man at the wheel yielded to our longing eyes, and
let us into his round tower. Oh, how good he was
to me ! The General took me up there, and the
pilot made a place for us, where, with my bit of
work, I listened for hours to his stories. My hus-
band made fifty trips up and down, sometimes de-
tained when we were nearingan interesting point,
to hear the story of the crevasse. Such tales were
thrilling enough even for him, accustomed as he
then was to the most exciting scenes. The pilot
pointed out places where the river, wild with the
rush and fury of spring freshets, had burst its way
through the levees, and, sweeping over a penin-
sula, returned to the channel beyond, utterly an-
nihilating and sinking out of sight forever the
ground where happy people had lived on their
plantations. It was a sad time to take that jour-
ney, and even in the midst of our intense enjoy-
ment of the novelty of the trip, the freedom from
anxiety, and the absence of responsibility of any
kind, I recall how the General grieved over the
destruction of plantations by the breaks in the
levee. The work on these embankments was done
by assessment, I think. They were cared for as


our roads and bridges are kept in order, and when
men were absent in the war, only the negroes were
left to attend to the repairing. But the inunda-
tions then were slight, compared with many from
which the State has since suffered. In 1874 thirty
parishes were either wholly or partly overflowed
by an extraordinary rise in the river. On our trip
we saw one plantation after another submerged,
the grand old houses abandoned, and standing in
lakes of water, while the negro quarters and barns
were almost out of sight. Sometimes the cattle
huddled on a little rise of ground, helpless and
pitiful. We wished, as we used to do in that
beautiful Shenandoah Valley, that if wars must
come, the devastation of homes might be avoided.
And I usually added, with one of the totally im-
practicable suggestions conjured up by a woman,
that battles might be fought in desert places.

A Southern woman who afterward entertained
us, described, in the graphic and varied language
which is their gift, the breaking of the levee on
their own plantation. How stealthily the small
stream of water crept on and on, until their first
warning was its serpent-like progress past their
house. Then the excitement and rush of all the
household to the crevasse, the hasty gathering in
of the field -hands, and the homely devices for
stopping the break until more substantial materials


could be gathered. It was a race for life on all
sides. Each one, old or young, knew that his
safety depended on the superhuman effort of the
first hour of danger. In our safe homes we scarcely
realize what it would be to look out from our win-
dows upon, what seemed to me, a small and insuf-
ficient mound of earth stretching along the front-
age of an estate, and know that it was our only
rampart against a rushing flood, which seemed
human in its revengeful desire to engulf us.

The General was intensely interested in those
portions of the country where both naval and land
warfare had been carried on. At Island No. 10
and Fort Pillow especially, there seemed, even then,
no evidence that fighting had gone on so lately.
The luxuriant vegetation of the South had covered
the fortifications ; nature seemed hastening to
throw a mantle over soil that had so lately been
reddened with such a precious dye. The fighting
had been so desperate at 'the latter point, it is
reported the Confederate General Forrest said :
" The river was dyed with the blood of the
slaughtered for two hundred yards."

At one of our stops on the route, the Confederate
General Hood came on board, to go to a town a
short distance below, and my husband, hearing he
was on the boat, hastened' to seek him out and in-
troduce himself. Such reunions have now become



common, I am thankful to say, but I confess to
watching curiously every expression of those men,
as it seemed very early, in those times of excited
and vehement conduct, to begin such overtures.
And yet I did not forget that my husband sent
messages of friendship to his classmates on the
other side, throughout the war. As I watched this
meeting, they looked, while they grasped each
other's hand, as if they were old-time friends
happily united. After they had carried on an ani-
mated conversation for a while, my husband,
always thinking how to share his enjoyment, hur-
ried to bring me into the group. General Custer
had already taught me, even in those bitter times,
that he knew his classmates fought from their con-
victions of right, and that, now the war was over,
I must not be adding fuel to a fire that both sides
should strive to smother.

General Hood was tall, fair, dignified and sol-
dierly. He used his crutch with difficulty, and it
was an effort for him to rise when I was presented.
We three instantly resumed the war-talk that my
coming had interrupted. The men plied each
other with questions as to the situation of troops at
certain engagements, and the General fairly bom-
barded General Hood with inquiries about the
action on their side in different campaigns. At
that time nothing had been written for Northern


papers and magazines by the South. All we knew
was from the brief accounts in the Southern news-
papers that our pickets exchanged, and from papers
captured or received from Europe by way of
blockade-runners. We were greatly amused by
the comical manner in which General Hood de-
scribed his efforts to suit himself to an artificial leg,
after he had contributed his own to his beloved
cause. In his campaigns he was obliged to carry
an extra one, in case of accident to the one he
wore, which was strapped to his led horse. He
asked me to picture the surprise of the troops who
captured all the reserve horses at one time, and
found this false leg of his suspended from the
saddle. He said he had tried five, at different
times, to see which of the inventions was.lightest
and easiest to wear; " and I am obliged to confess,
Mrs. Custer, much as you may imagine it goes
against me to do so, that of the five English,
German, French, Yankee and Confederate the
Yankee leg was the best of all." When General
Custer carefully helped the maimed hero down
the cabin stairs and over the gangway, we bade
him good-by with real regret so quickly do sol-
diers make and cement a friendship when both
find the same qualities to admire in each othet.

The novelty of Mississippi travel kept even our
active, restless party interested. One of our



number played guitar accompaniments, and we
sang choruses on deck at night, forgetting that the
war-songs might grate on the ears of some of the
people about us. The captain and steamer's crew
allowed us to roam up and down the boat at will,
and when we found, by the map or crew, that we
were about to touch the bank in a hitherto un-
visited State, we were the first to run over the
gang-plank and caper up and down the soil, to add
a new State to our fast-swelling list of those in
which we had been. We rather wondered, though,
what we would do if asked questions by our
elders at home as to what we thought of Arkansas,
Mississippi and Tennessee, as we had only scam-
pered on and off the river-bank of those States
while the wooding went on. We were like chil-
dren let out of school, and everything interested us.
Even the low water was an event. The sudden
stop of our great steamer, which, large as it was,
drew but a few feet of water, made the timbers
groan and the machinery creak. Then we took
ourselves to the bow, where the captain, mate and
deck-hands were preparing for a siege, as the force
of the engines had ploughed us deep into a sand-
bar. There was wrenching, veering and strug-
gling of the huge boat ; and at last a resort to
those two spars which seem to be so uselessly at-
tached to each side of the forward deck of the


river steamers. These were swung out and
plunged into the bank, the rope and tackle put
into use, and with the aid of these stilts we were
skipped over the sand-bar into the deeper water.
It was on that journey that I first heard the
name Mr. Clemens took as his nom deplume.
The droning voice of the sailor taking soundings,
as we slowly crept through low water, called out,
" Mark twain !" and the pilot answered by steer-
ing the boat according to the story of the plumb-

The trip on a Mississippi steamer, as we knew
it, is now one of the things of the past. It was
accounted then, and before the war, our most luxu-
rious mode of travel. Every one was sociable,
and in the constant association of the long trip,
some warm friendships sprung up. We had then
our first acquaintance with Bostonians as well as
with Southerners. Of course, it was too soon for
Southern women, robbed of home, and even the
necessities of life, by the cruelty of war, to be
wholly cordial. We were more and more amazed
at the ignorance in the South concerning the
North. A young girl, otherwise intelligent, thawed
out enough to confess to me that she had really no
idea that Yankee soldiers were like their own
physically. She imagined they would be as
widely different as black from white, and a sort


of combination of gorilla and chimpanzee. Gun-
boats had but a short time before moored at the
levee that bounded her grandmother's plantation,
and the negroes ran into the house crying the ter-
rible news of the approach of the enemy. The
very thought of a Yankee was abhorrent ; but the
girl, more absorbed with curiosity than fear, slip-
ped out of the house to where a view of the walk
from the landing was to be had, and, seeing a
naval officer approaching, raced back to her grand-
mother, crying out in surprise at finding a being
like unto her own people, " Why, it's a man."

As we approached New Orleans, the plantations
grew richer. The palmetto and the orange, by
which we are " twice blessed " in its simultaneous
blossom and fruit ; the oleander, treasured in con-
servatories at home, here growing to tree size
along the country roads, all charmed us. The wide
galleries around the two stories of the houses were
a delight. The course of our boat was often near
enough the shore for us to see the family gathered
around the supper-table spread on the upper gal-
lery, which was protected from the sun by blinds
or shades of matting.

We left the steamer at New Orleans with
regret. It seems, even now, that it is rather too
bad we have grown into so hurried a race that
we cannot spare the time to travel as leisurely


or luxuriously as we then did. Even pleasure-
seekers going off for a tour, when they are
not restricted by time nor mode of journeying,
study the time-tables closely, to see by which
route the quickest passage can be made.







\ \T^ were detained, by orders, for a little time
in New Orleans, and the General was enthu-
siastic over the city. All day we strolled through
the streets, visiting the French quarter, contrasting
the foreign shop-keepers, who were never too
hurried to be polite with our brusque business-like
Northern clerk, dined in the charming French
restaurants, where we saw eating made a fine art.
The sea-food was then new to me, and I hovered
over the crabs, lobsters and shrimps, but remem-
ber how amused the General was by my quick re-
treat from a huge green live turtle, whose locomo-
tion was suspended by his being turned upon his
back. He was unconsciously bearing his own
epitaph fastened upon his shell : " I will be served
up for dinner at 5 p. M. We of course spent hours,

even matutinal hours, at the market, and the Gen-



eral drank so much coffee that the old mammy
who served him said many a " Mon Dieu !" in sur-
prise at his capacity, and volubly described in
French to her neighbors what marvels a Yankee
man could do in coffee-sipping. For years after,
when very good coffee was praised, or even Eliza's
strongly commended, his ne plus ultra was,
" Almost equal to the French market." We here
learned what artistic effects could be produced
with prosaic carrots, beets, onions and turnips.
The General looked with wonder upon the leis-
urely Creole grandee who came to order his own
dinner. After his epicurean selection, he showed
the interest and skill that a Northern man might
in the buying of a picture or a horse, when the
servant bearing the basket was entrusted with
what was to be enjoyed at night. We had never
known men that took time to market, except as
our hurried Northern fathers of families sometimes
made sudden raids upon the butcher, on the way
to business, and called off an order as they ran
for a car.

The wide-terraced Canal Street, with its throng
of leisurely promenaders, was our daily resort.
The stands of Parma violets on the street corners
perfumed the whole block, and the war seemed
not even to have cast a cloud over the first
foreign pleasure-loving people we had seen. The


General was so pleased with the picturesque cos-
tumes of the servants, that Eliza was put into a
turban at his entreaty. In vain we tried for a
glimpse of the Creole beauties. The duenna that
guarded them in their rare promenades, as they
glided by, wearing gracefully the lace mantilla,
bonnetless, and shaded by a French parasol,
whisked the pretty things out of sight, quick as
we were to discover and respectfully follow them.
The effects of General Butler's reign were still
visible in the marvelous cleanliness of the city.
We drove on the shell road, spent hours in the
horse-cars, went to the theatres, and even pene-
trated the rooms of the most exclusive milliners,
for General Custer liked the shops as much as I
did. Indeed, we had a grand play-day, and were
not in the least troubled at our detention.

General Scott was then in our hotel, about to set
out for the North. He remembered Lieutenant
Custer, who had reported to him in 1861, and was
the bearer of despatches sent by him to the front;
and he congratulated my husband on his career in
terms that, coming from such a veteran, made his
boy-heart leap for joy. General Scott was then
very infirm, and, expressing a wish to see me, with
old-time gallantry begged my husband to explain
to me that he would be compelled to claim the
privilege of sitting. But it was too much for his


etiquettical instincts, and, weak as he was, he fee-
bly drew his tall form to a half-standing position,
leaning against the lounge as I entered. Pictures
of General Scott, in my father's home, belonged
to my earliest recollections. He was a colossal
figure on a fiery steed, whose prancing fore feet
never touched the earth. The Mexican War had
hung a halo about him, and my childish explana-
tion of the clouds of dust that the artist sought to
represent was the smoke of battle, in which I sup-
posed the hero lived perpetually. And now this
decrepit, tottering man I was almost sorry to
have seen him at all, except for the praise that he
bestowed upon my husband, which, coming from
so old a soldier, I deeply appreciated.

General Sheridan had assumed command of the
Department of the Mississippi, and the Govern-
ment had hired a beautiful mansion for headquar-
ters, where he was at last living handsomely after
all his rough campaigning. When we dined with
him, we could but contrast the food prepared over
a Virginia camp-fire, with the dainty French cook-
ery of the old colored Mary, who served him after-
ward so many years. General Custer was, of
course, glad to be under his chief again, and after
dinner, while I was given over to some of the
military family to entertain, the two men, sitting
on the wide gallery, talked of what, it was then


believed, would be a campaign across the border.
I was left in complete ignorance, and did not even
know that an army of 70,000 men was being or-
ganized under General Sheridan's masterly hand.
My husband read the Eastern papers to me, and
took the liberty of reserving such articles as might
prove incendiary in his family. If our incorrigible
scamp spoke of the expected wealth he intended
to acquire from the sacking of palaces and the
spoils of churches, he was frowned upon, not only
because the General tried to teach him that there
were some subjects too sacred to be touched by
his irreverent tongue, but because he did not wish
my anxieties to be aroused by the prospect of an-
other campaign. As much of my story must be
of the hardships my husband endured, I have here
lingered a little over the holiday that our journey
and the detention in New Orleans gave him. I
hardly think any one can recall a complaint of his
in those fourteen years of tent-life ; but he was
taught, through deprivations, how to enjoy every
moment of such days as that charming journey
and city experience gave us.

The steamer chartered to take troops up the Red
River was finally ready, and we sailed the last
week in June. There were horses and Government
freight on board. The captain was well named
Greathouse, as he greeted us with hospitality and


put his little steamer at our disposal. Besides
the fact that this contract for transportation would
line his pockets well, he really seemed glad to
have us. He was a Yankee, and gave us his na-
tive State (Indiana) in copious and inexhaustible
supplies, as his contribution to the talks on deck.
Long residence in the South had not dimmed his
patriotism ; and in the rapid transits from deck to
pilot-house, of this tall Hoosier, I almost saw the
straps fastening down the trousers of Brother
Jonathan, as well as the coat-tails cut from the
American flag, so entirely did he personate in his
figure our emblematic Uncle Sam. It is customary
for the Government to defray the expenses of offi-
cers and soldiers when traveling under orders ;
but so much red-tape is involved that they often
pay their own way at the time, and the quarter-
master reimburses them at the journey's end.
The captain knew this, and thought he would
give himself the pleasure of having us as his
guests. Accordingly, he took the General one
side, and imparted this very pleasing information.
Even with the provident ones this would be a
relief; while we had come on board almost wrecked
in our finances by the theatre, the tempting flow-
ers, the fascinating restaurants, and finally, a dis-
astrous lingering one day in the beguiling shop of
Madam Olympe, the reigning milliner. The Gen-


Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 4 of 39)