Elizabeth Bacon Custer
|Elizabeth Bacon Custer|
George and Elizabeth 'Libbie' Custer
April 8, 1842
Monroe, Michigan, United States
|Died||April 4, 1933
New York City
|Notable work(s)||Boots and Saddles, Tenting on the Plains, Following the Guidon|
Elizabeth Bacon Custer (April 8, 1842 – April 4, 1933) was the wife of General George Armstrong Custer. She spent most of their marriage in relatively close proximity to him despite his numerous military campaigns as a commanding officer in the United States Cavalry. After his death, she became an outspoken advocate for her husband's legacy through her popular books and lectures. Largely as a result of her endless campaigning on his behalf, Custer's iconic portrayal as the gallant fallen hero amid the glory of 'Custer's Last Stand' was a canon of American history for almost a century after his death.
Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon was born in Monroe, Michigan, in 1842, the daughter of a wealthy and influential judge. Tragedy marked much of her childhood, with her three siblings and mother all dying before Elizabeth's thirteenth year. As the only one of the judge's children that would live to adulthood, her father doted on her. Elizabeth was both beautiful and intelligent, graduating from a girls' seminary in June 1862 at the head of her class. Her father hoped she would make a good marriage with a man from her own elevated social status, and she rejected several suitors.
She met her future husband in fall 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War. Custer later wrote that he fell deeply in love as of their first formal meeting. She eventually returned these feelings, but her father refused to allow Custer into the Bacon home or to permit her to meet Custer outside of it, much less get married, as Custer proposed in the final week of 1862. Custer was from a poor, undistinguished family, and the Judge hoped Libbie would have better than the life of an army wife. After Custer, just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (where he played a significant role), was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General, Judge Bacon finally relented and they were married on February 9, 1864.
Married life as Mrs. Custer
Libbie and George had a loving but tumultuous relationship. Both were stubborn, opinionated, and ambitious. Their private correspondences were filled with sexually charged double entendres. Despite hardships, they were utterly devoted to each other. She followed him to every assignment, even during the latter days of the Civil War. The depth of their relationship has been the subject of considerable interest in books and film.
Unlike many, Libbie was one of the only wives to follow their husbands wherever the army took them. She refused to be left behind, and joined Custer at the expense of the comfortable lifestyle to which she'd become accustomed as the child of a judge.
"...we gave ourselves the privilege of a swift gallop... ...I never noticed the surroundings until I found we were almost in the midst of an Indian village, quite hidden under the bluff. My heart literally stood still. I watched the general furtively. He was as usual perfectly unmoved, and yet he well knew that this was the country where it was hardly considered that the Indian was overburdened with hospitality. ...
The next day the general thought I might rather not go with him than run the risk of such frights; but I well knew there was something far worse than fears for my own personal safety. It is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to one we love. You eat your heart slowly out with such anxiety, and to endure such suspense is simply the hardest of all trials that come to the soldier's wife."
— Elizabeth 'Libbie' Custer, from her first book Boots and Saddles, on her life and adventures with her husband.
After the war, he reverted from his wartime rank of general to his Regular Army rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was assigned to a series of dreary and unsatisfying assignments in Texas, Kansas, and the Dakota Territory. Life on the frontier outposts was difficult and Custer's career was plagued by problems including a court martial (brought about by his leaving the field to be with Libbie).
The 1876 campaign against the Sioux seemed like a chance for glory to George Armstrong Custer. The couple's final home together was at Fort Abraham Lincoln near what is now Bismark, North Dakota. From there Libbie's husband led the Seventh Cavalry in pursuit of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne who refused to be confined to the reservation system.
Widowed defender of Custer's legacy
After her husband's column was wiped out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876, many in the press, Army, and government criticized Custer for blundering into a massacre. President Ulysses S. Grant publicly blamed Custer for the disaster. Fearing that her husband was to be made a scapegoat by history, Libbie launched a one-woman campaign to rehabilitate her husband's image. She began writing articles and making speaking engagements praising the glory of what she presented as her "martyred" husband. Her three books—Boots and Saddles (1885), Tenting on the Plains—(1887), and Following the Guidon (1890) aimed at glorifying her dead husband's memory. Though generally considered to be largely factually accurate, they were clearly slanted in Custer's favor.
Her efforts were successful. The image of a steely Custer leading his men against overwhelming odds only to be wiped out while defending their position to the last man became as much a part of American lore as the Alamo. Libbie remained utterly devoted to her husband and never remarried. Despite having spent her life traveling extensively throughout the United States (including winters in Florida) and the world, Elizabeth Custer never visited the valley of Little Big Horn. She was said to treasure a letter from President Theodore Roosevelt who stated that her husband was "one of my heroes."
After an initial period of distress dealing with her late husband's debts, Mrs. Custer spent her over half-century of widowhood in financial comfort attained as the result of her literary career and lecture tours, leaving an estate of over $100,000. She died in New York City, four days before her 91st birthday, on April 4, 1933, and was buried next to her husband at West Point. A few years before her death she told a writer that her greatest disappointment was that she never had a son to bear her husband's honored name.
Portrayals in movies and television
Libbie was portrayed by actress Olivia de Havilland in the 1941 film They Died with their Boots On, by Mary Ure in the 1967 film Custer of the West, by Blythe Danner in the 1977 television movie The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer, and by Rosanna Arquette in the 1991 television mini-series Son of the Morning Star.
Notes and references
- Wert, Jeffry D. (1996). Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 62–65. ISBN 0-684-81043-3.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (1996). Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 65–68. ISBN 0-684-81043-3.
- Custer, Elizabeth (1913). Boots and Saddles. New York and London: Harper and Brothers. pp. 76–78.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (1996). Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 357. ISBN 0-684-81043-3.
- Barnett, Louise (1996). Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc. p. 355. ISBN 0-8050-3720-9.
- Donovan, James M.; Donovan, Jim (2008). A terrible glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn-- the last great battle of the American West. New York: Little, Brown and Co. ISBN 978-0-316-15578-6.
- Works by Elizabeth B. Custer at Project Gutenberg
- Custer Writes of Secret Engagement to Libbie, Original Letter Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- Boots and Saddles by Libbie Custer (archive link)
- Western Women's Autobiographies Database: Elizabeth Bacon Custer(archive link)
- Custer Battlefield Museum, Garryowen, Montana – Home of the Elizabeth Bacon Custer Manuscript Archive
- Kansas State Historical Society: Elizabeth Bacon Custer