The Life of Libby Custer
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The one individual who is responsible for establishing a positive image for George Armstrong Custer was this lady, Elizabeth Bacon Custer.
Born in Monroe, Michigan on April 8, 1842, Elizabeth was married to one of the most colorful military leaders in American history.
George Armstrong Custer, who was born in Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1839, met Elizabeth Bacon in 1863 while he was serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.
The two fell in love immediately despite opposition from Elizabeth’s father who was a prominent judge in Michigan and felt that Custer was below his daughter’s position in society.
Libby had attended an exclusive “finishing school” and mixed well in society. But the main reason her father was so protective was the fact that all three of Libby’s sisters and her mother had died prematurely during Libby’s childhood.
Despite Custer serving as a military commander during the War Between The States, he courted and married the woman he nicknamed “Libby”. They were married February 9, 1864. From that day on the couple was inseparable.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Libby joined her husband, living in forts and military posts, including several months in the Great Plains where the “Indian Wars” had begun.
After several months in the Midwest, Custer seriously considered running for the U.S. Congress, but his military commanders discouraged him, not wanting to lose the talented and effective leadership Custer displayed. It was then, in 1867, that he was given command of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment headquartered in Fort Riley, Kansas.
Libby and George had a relatively peaceful life. George used his spare time to improve his knowledge of military tactics he learned at West Point and during the Civil War. His commanders recognized Custer’s abilities as a tactical genius and gave him the rank of Brevet General.
Custer was devoted to his family. Two of George’s brothers enlisted in the Army in order to serve under their older brother: Tom and Boston Custer, as well as the General’s brother-in-law James Calhoun, and George’s nephew “Audie” Reed. All enlisted to serve with the General wherever he was stationed. (By the way, all five of these family members died at the Little Big Horn.)
All went well over the next few years. George and the 7th Calvary were assigned to Fort Abraham Lincoln, located just across the Missouri River from the fledgling town of Bismarck, in what is now North Dakota.The general led dozens of expeditions from there, attempting to keep a close eye on the activities of the Native American tribes in the upper Midwest. Libby went along and made a home in the wild west.
In 1874, Custer led an expedition of some 11-hundred men, 110 wagons, a thousand horses and a wide variety of people, into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. Included in the general’s expedition were scientists, surveyors, professional miners, geologists, newspaper reporters, and a professional photographer.
It was just two years later that Custer’s superiors, including President Grant, ordered him to southeastern Montana Territory on what was known as the Little Big Horn River, where thousands of Native Americans were camped, believed to be preparing for a war against white people. That expedition led to tragedy when General Custer and 220 of his 7th Cavalry were killed in that famous battle, which has become known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.
After Libby heard the news, she accompanied her husband’s body to West Point Military Academy where he was buried with military honors. It was then that she began a campaign to clear up misunderstandings and prejudices that critics voiced about her husband.
Libby began writing account of their life and of the colorful military career of her husband. Libby was 34 years old when her husband was killed. She spent the next 57 years writing and speaking throughout the country, clearing away any criticism people and historians had, regarding George Armstrong Custer.
You might ask, “What was Libby Custer’s tie Dakota Territory? The answer is that there are two connections. First of all, she lived here from 1873 to 1876, when her husband was assigned as Commandant of Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Libby describes life in Dakota Territory in her book “Boots and Saddles,”written between 1885 and 1893. That book is still in print and thousands are sold annually to those curious about the real story of General Custer.
The other connection involves this rifle. In 1928 the City of Custer, South Dakota invited Libby to travel to the Black Hills to be an honorary guest during the “Gold Discovery Days” celebration. Libby was 86 years old at the time and the long trip from New York City to the Black Hills was simply out of the questions. So she did the next best thing. She sent this hunting rifle from her husband’s large collection of rifles to the City of Custer as a gift. That rifle is now displayed at the 1881 Courthouse Museum in Custer.
Elizabeth Bacon Custer, “Libby,”died peacefully at her home in New York City on April 4, 1933, fifty-seven years after her husband was killed at Little Big Horn, just four days before her 91st birthday.
In the Moment
Interview with Gary Enright, Director, 1881 Courthouse Museum, Custer
Host: Lori Walsh