Custer, Elizabeth Bacon

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CUSTER, Elizabeth Bacon

Born 8 April 1842, Monroe, Michigan; died 4 April 1933, NewYork, New York

Also wrote under: Elizabeth B. Custer

Daughter of Daniel S. and Sophia Page Bacon; married GeorgeArmstrong Custer, 1864 (died 1876)

In 1863 Elizabeth Bacon Custer met Captain George Armstrong Custer, then visiting Monroe on leave from Civil War duty. Overcoming paternal opposition to Custer's involvement with a soldier, they courted by mail and married. Custer accompanied her husband to the Virginia front, where he became a major general. His postwar military career took Custer to posts in Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, and Dakota Territory, where she learned of his fatal "last stand."

Although Custer's life extended 57 years beyond her husband's she kept her marriage vows, fulfilling what she believed were her "responsibilities" as "the widow of a national hero" by writing and lecturing. She wrote to perpetuate her husband's memory, scrupulously avoiding army political disputes by focusing on the domestic aspects of frontier cavalry life. Her first book, Boots and Saddles (1885), describes her life in Dakota with General Custer from 1873 to 1876. Custer emphasizes the closeness within and among army couples as both result of and defense against wilderness isolation. Although she tried to appear "plucky," Custer expresses her overwhelming fear of the Native Americans and often gives thanks that, as a woman, she was not required to be brave. Women were, however, required to wait; Custer compellingly presents the shared anxiety of wives left at Fort Lincoln while husbands fought and died at Little Big Horn.

The enthusiastic reception of her first book led Custer to write her reminiscences of earlier campaigns. In Tenting on the Plains (1887), Custer describes her experiences following General Custer in Kansas and Texas from 1865 to 1867. Insects, illness, and scorpions dominate Custer's recollections of the march to Texas, and her Kansas memories include prairie fire, flood, and cholera. Racism pervades her accounts of blacks in Reconstruction Texas, Mexican mule drivers, and American Indians; class bias colors her portraits of those who attained officers' positions through war service rather than West Point. She alludes to postwar dissension in the ranks, but ends her book before the court-martial and suspension that interrupted her husband's career.

In Following the Guidon (1890), Custer picks up the story when her husband returned to duty in Kansas in 1868 to join the campaign culminating in the Battle of Washita. Custer vividly recalls her fearful visits with captured Native Americans and tribal peace council delegates, while glorifying her husband's honest treatment of those he helped defeat. She also explains how constantly menacing rattlesnakes and Native Americans impair enjoyment of recreational hunting, riding, and horse and mule racing. Her posthumously published letters to husband and family reveal the pampered, pious, and principled aspects of her personality.

Custer's works provide important insights into one woman's attempt to redefine "lady" to fit the regimen of cavalry life. The closeness she depicts among army wives balances the traditional emphasis on military male bonding. While marred by prejudice, self-deprecation, and repetition, and intentionally incomplete by avoidance of controversy, Custer's writings are lively and lucid accounts of an unusual female life style.

Other Works:

General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, June 25, 1876 (1897). The Boy General: Story of the Life of Major-General George A. Custer (edited by M. E. Burt, 1901). The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth (edited by M. Merington, 1950).


Frost, L. A., General Custer's Libbie (1976). Stewart, J. R., introduction to Elizabeth B. Custer's Boots and Saddles (1961 ed.).

Reference Works:

American Women (1897).

Other reference:

Collier's (29 Jan. 1927). Harper's (Jan. 1891). Nation (30 April 1885). NYT (11 May 1888, 5 April 1933). Winner's (30 June 1935).


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