Marguerite Merington, author of "The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth," was a friend of the widowed Mrs. Custer during the final decades of the latter's life. It was at Elizabeth Custer's urging that she began to assemble the Custer's letters to one another for a book. It was a task that lasted many year's after Mrs. Custer's death in April 1933; Merington completed the book in 1950.
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The difficulty lay with many of the letters. While the general's letters were largely written on Army stationary, many others by his wife were not, and it took time to recopy the letters and decipher them. Merington said that while the task was overwhelming, she felt she needed to complete the task as a final act of friendship to Mrs. Custer.
The book's main drawback may be the suspicion that Merington may have edited some letters to be more favorable to the Custers. There's no way to know if that happened though, and this is a fascinating read none-the-less.
Included are letters received from friends, other soldiers, parents and other relatives, but the book is mostly drawn from the love letters of a soldier and his wife to one another.
George, whom Libby and his family referred to by his nickname of Autie, and Libby were married in 1864. The prior year, Autie had been promoted to brigadier-general at age 23, and the promotion made "the boy general," as the press called him, acceptable to Judge Daniel Bacon of Monroe, Mich., Libby's father.
Autie had been born in New Rumley, Ohio, one of five children born to Emmanuel and Maria Custer (who both also had children from previous marriages). To say the least, Autie was used to striving for attention in a large family.
By contrast, Libby was one of four children born to Judge Bacon --- her two sisters and a brother died in their youth from the awful diseases that attacked children of the time. Libby was therefore raised as an only child, perhaps a bit spoiled and always a lady with a mind of her own.
Autie had been sent to Monroe to live with his step-sister Lydia in his youth. Monroe was home to Libby, and the two saw each other on occassion over the following years, though it can be said that Custer came from "the wrong side of the tracks" in the eyes of Libby's father.
Slap a "star" on a soldier's shoulder and suddenly you're on "the right side of the tracks." It didn't matter anymore that the Bacons were Presbyterians and Republicans, or that the Custers were Methodists and Democrats, in a war-torn world, the union of love united the two families.
In February 1864, before hundreds of people overflowing from the church into the streets, Autie and Libby were married. The judge said of his new son-in-law, "everywhere, without exception, he made a most favorable impression."
The couple did a honeymoon tour of cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland and Rochester before Autie was forced to return to his military duties as commanding officer of the Michigan Brigade of cavalry.
The couple's correspondence kicked into high gear with his departure. Libby wrote her parents, "Imagine my grief when I learned on Thursday he was to start at dawn, with 300 men, to ascertain the rebel force at Ely's ford..."
She would write her husband, as military wives before and since have also done upon the departure of loved ones, "My own darling Boy - Yesterday after you went I watched you admiringly as you rode along, then went up to my room to cry."
Libby wrote her parents, "I will not attempt to tell you how lonely I am. It was a far worse trial than I anticipated to part from my husband. And yet I am prouder by far to be his wife than to be Mrs. Lincoln or a queen."
In fact, Libby had gotten to meet with President and Mrs. Lincoln at the White House in April 1864, and wrote her parents, "At mention of my name, he (Lincoln) took my hand again very cordially and said, 'So this is the young woman whose husband goes into a charge with a whoop and a shout. Well, I'm told he won't do so any more.' I replied that I hoped he would. 'Oh,' said the prince of jokers, 'then you want to be a widow, I see.' He laughed and I did likewise."
Meanwhile, Autie was writing Libby almost every day, with lines that probably melted her heart, saying, "Neither tongue nor pen can express the intensity of my love."
Autie also let Libby know that death might one day befall him, but he would love her forever. He wrote, "Need I repeat to my darling that while living she is my all, and if Destiny wills me to die, wills that my country needs my death, my last prayer will be for her, my last breath will speak her name and that Heaven will not be Heaven till we are joined together."
The war also suffered Libby many falsehoods. Reports of her husband's death during the Civil War were many (though he survived the war, having been shot in the thigh once being his only wound, he lost many a horse shot beneath him leading charges).
One occasion of such a false report was described by Ohio Congressman Bingham, the man who remained a family friend years after nominating Autie for admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N. Y.
Bingham wrote in his memoirs of hearing the reports that Autie had been killed in the Battle of the Wilderness. He rushed over the Secretary of War Stanton's office and asked if the news were true. He writes, "'Killed? No,' thundered Stanton. 'He was hemmed in on all sides by the enemy - cut his way through with his sword - and covered himself with glory!"
Bingham then writes, "I went at once to see Mrs. Custer. I found her pale and trembling. She had heard newsboys under her window crying 'Custer killed. All about Custer being killed.' She was waiting for some word, and, seeing me, feared the worst. But when I told her, she broke down completely from relief and joy."
Libby would start accompanying Custer in the field soon after, often at his headquarters near the front lines. It was a pattern she would continue for their 12 years of marriage.
After the war, Libby followed Autie west, where he was to be field commander of the 7th Cavalry in 1866. She would rough it out with him at outposts from Kansas to Kentucky to North Dakota over the next 10 years.
From 1871-73, the 7th Cavalry went on a hunt to crush the Ku Klux Klan in the south. Three companies were assigned to Kentucky, with the Custers living in Elizabethtown.
Autie went to Elizabthtown first. He seems to have fit in well, having been brought up in the modest circumstances of his family (his father being a farmer and blacksmith). He wrote Libbie, "The climate is poor and healthful, the citizens so far have been cordial, no one churlish or unfriendly."
Libby wasn't quite as taken with Elizabthtown when she arrived, writing her sister-in-law, "Imagine yourself your grandmother to get an idea of this place. Everything is old, particularly the women... The most active inhabitant of the place is a pig."
The Custers made many trips to parties and social events in Louisville, which they enjoyed better, it seems.
Finally, in 1873, the 7th Cavalry was reunited and sent west to fight Indians.
When the fateful last campaign was launched in May/June 1876, the Custers continued to write each other daily (following Custer's death, his wife continued to receive some of his letters, due to the circumstances of the day).
Libby had many premonitions before he left Fort Lincoln for destiny. She had awakened screaming from a nightmare of a Sioux warrior riding along waving a bloody scalp of Custer's long, yellow curls. Custer had his hair cropped very short, as a result, before leaving the fort.
Libby seems to have known what was to come, as she wrote Autie in June, "I cannot but feel the greatest apprehensions for you on this dangerous scout. Oh, Autie, if you return without bad news the worst of the summer will be over."
Custer tried to calm Libby's fears in his final letter to her, dated June 22 (which reached her after she had learned of his death), 1876, saying, "My Darling - I have but a few moments to write as we start at twelve, and I have my hands full with preparations for the scout. Do not be anxious about me. You would be surprised how closely I obey your instructions about keeping with the column. I hope to have a good report to send you by the next mail."
Three days later, on a hilltop in Montana, Autie closed his eyes for the last time, struck down by two bullets. Seven companies survived, entrenched on a bluff a few miles away, but with Custer were more than 200 of his men, all killed, including two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law. Libby had just lost five members of her family in a single event.
Back at Fort Lincoln, near Bismark, N. D., Libby was having a social gathering at the fort. If legends are true, at approximately the same time her husband was dying, she fainted in her living room in front of her guests.
A soldier seldom has much money, and Custer left Libby with little. Her Army pension was pitiful, a $5000 insurance policy inadequate, and suddenly she was no longer part of the Army with her husband's death, so she lost her home as well.
Libby was a fighter, though. At a time when women were supposed to be meek, she wasn't. She would defend her husband's good name for the next 57 years of her life --- writing articles and four books; giving lectures; writing presidents and congressmen if needed for help. These activities allowed her to make a comfortable living as she settled in New York City for her final years.
Custer's body was buried at Little Bighorn in Montana upon his death in battle there. A year later a burial team went to the battlefield to retrieve the body, which was then buried at the military academy at West Point in 1877. Libby would be buried beside her husband at West Point in 1933, reunited in death with the man she loved all her life.
On the web:
"Custer's Fall" by David Humphreys Miller: http://www.epinions.com/content_349631581828
"Cavalier In Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier" by Robert Utley: http://www.epinions.com/content_64511708804
The story of General Custer's younger brother, who was awarded the Medal of Honor twice, is fascinating reading --- "Tom Custer: Ride To Glory" by Carl F. Day: http://www.epinions.com/content_238532333188
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