Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Soldier's Wife: Libbie Custer

Sandy Gratop (top left) introduces Judy Justus (center).
Libbie Custer's hat (a replica); copy of her first book,
Boots and Saddles, with Civil War memorabilia.
Olander Park, 11 November 2012 
“You eat your heart out slowly with anxiety...and to endure it is simply the hardest of all trials that come to the soldier’s wife.”   Elizabeth (Libbie) Bacon Custer, born in Monroe, Michigan in 1842, the daughter of a distinguished Judge, and the wife of General George Armstrong Custer, thus recalled her life as a “soldier’s wife.”  Libbie wrote and published (with the help of Mark Twain) several books after her husband’s death at the Battle of Little Big Horn, beginning with Boots and Saddles: Life in the Dakotas, written in the mid-1880s.  It seems a good reminder in these times, as soldiers come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, to acknowledge the burden of anxiety and terror experienced by soldiers’ spouses.

Of course it was a very different time.  Custer’s “last stand” took place in June 1876, the Seventh Cavalry's disastrous losing battle against Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne who refused to be confined to a reservation as mandated at the time. It was a massacre.

The general’s “last stand,” turned out to be Libbie's "first stand" in a  lifelong one-woman campaign to restore her husband’s glory as an American hero, a campaign she carried on until her death in 1933.  A statue in Custer’s honor now sits silently but grandly in Monroe, Michigan, Libbie’s hometown, the result of her ceaseless efforts. Thus was Custer considered a hero for almost a century after his death. 

It’s a slant on General Custer I knew nothing about, so I went to Olander Park (TOPS) on  Veteran’s Day to hear Joyce Justis, local historian and president of  the Perrysburg Historical Society, tell the story.  Organized and introduced by the indefatigable Sandy Gratop, TOPS's program director, Justis put on her bonnet (a replica of one worn by Libbie Custer) and presented a fascinating history of General Custer, his role in the Civil War, his assignments out West, and the experiences and travails of Libbie, who followed him wherever he went, from fort to fort. The extensive research, diary entries, photos and memorabilia, plus copies of Libbie's books, added to the program.
War, battlefields, and the military became Libbie Custer's milieu for the rest of her life after meeting "Autie" Custer in Washington in the midst of the Civil War.  They were married in Virginia in 1864, just before the Battle of Gettysburg; it seems she never left his side thereafter, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

She stood by him during and after his last stand, loyal to the end and beyond. She was a creative and entrepreneurial woman, fiercely determined, who supported herself by writing, speaking and traveling.  She left over $100,000 to various charities after she died, a large sum at the time.

Although history has not been as kind to General Custer as his wife, the program reminds us that history is a complicated and ever-changing discipline, revised and revisioned by the storytellers' times and environment, the kinds of questions they ask, and the perspective they bring to their subjects.  

PS For a novel take on Custer, and fun to read: Lorin Lee Cary's "The Custer Conspiracy: A Novel ( or 
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