Boots and Saddles: Life in Dakota with General Custer (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

In 1885, Elizabeth ("Libbie") Custer published her memoir about her marriage to General George Armstrong Custer, the most controversial military officer of the nineteenth century. Set at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, Boots and Saddles offers a singular historical view of the frontier West and the Plains Wars. Women who followed the army endured both boredom and danger, and Boots and Saddles could have aptly been subtitled "Elite Homemaking in the Far West."
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Boots and Saddles: Life in Dakota with General Custer (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

In 1885, Elizabeth ("Libbie") Custer published her memoir about her marriage to General George Armstrong Custer, the most controversial military officer of the nineteenth century. Set at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, Boots and Saddles offers a singular historical view of the frontier West and the Plains Wars. Women who followed the army endured both boredom and danger, and Boots and Saddles could have aptly been subtitled "Elite Homemaking in the Far West."
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Introduction

In 1885, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the beautiful and charming widow of George Armstrong Custer, the most controversial military officer of the nineteenth century, published her memoir of the last three years of their married life at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Officers' wives were often first-hand observers of military action in the West, and their memoirs comprise an important source of history of the Plains Wars. Boots and Saddles, the first of three memoirs Libbie Custer wrote about her life with Armstrong Custer, offers a singular historical view of the frontier West and the Plains Wars, as well as insight into the personality of the volatile general and the nature of the Custers' marriage.

Born on April 8, 1842, in Monroe, Michigan, Elizabeth ("Libbie") Bacon grew up in comfort, though her young life was marked by tragedy. Her three siblings, one brother and two sisters, died in childhood, leaving Libbie an only child by the time she was seven years old. When she was twelve, Libbie's mother died. Her father, a respected judge and businessman, moved to a hotel and Libbie was sent to a nearby boarding school, which she attended until graduating as valedictorian in 1862. At about this time, she met young George Armstrong Custer, known as Armstrong or Autie to friends and family. Born in Ohio, Custer had moved to Monroe in his teens to live with his sister Lydia Reed. After a brief time as a schoolteacher, Custer received an appointment to West Point Military Academy. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army in 1861 as the Civil War broke out. Though his family had not socialized with the Bacons, by early 1863, during a return to Monroe for a visit, he began to court Elizabeth Bacon. The handsome war hero with a reputation for daring in battle did not appeal to Daniel Bacon as a suitor for his daughter. Autie had been seen drinking to excess, and had been known to pursue at least one other young woman. Custer, however, won Libbie's heart, and finally, after promising to abstain from alcohol (a promise he kept) he won her father's permission to court her. Libbie married Armstrong on February 9, 1864. She was twenty-one, and he, recently promoted to brigadier general (brevet), was twenty-four.

During the Civil War, Elizabeth Custer entered into her lifelong habit of going with Armstrong wherever his orders sent him. He was assigned to Texas, then Kansas, where he led his troops during an important campaign against the Cheyenne and Kiowa Indians. He was court-martialed in 1867 on several charges that stemmed from an abrupt and unauthorized return to Fort Riley, where, he had heard, Libbie was possibly spending too much time with a junior officer. His court-martial resulted in one year of suspension without pay.

In 1873, after three busy years of campaigning against Indians in Kansas and two quiet years of Reconstruction duty in Kentucky, Custer was delighted to be assigned to a new post in northern Dakota Territory. Fort Lincoln was located on the Missouri River, a few miles south and across the river from the small city of Bismarck where the Northern Pacific Railroad paused before heading west across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. With family also stationed at the post (including Autie's brother Tom and sister Margaret Calhoun), the Custers happily established housekeeping with servants and approximately forty hunting dogs in a roomy, comfortable house set on a rise above the parade ground. The post was not stockaded, so they had an open view of the river from the broad porch. The infantry was stationed about one-half mile north.

Boots and Saddles might have been subtitled "Elite Homemaking in the Far West," for Libbie Custer and other women who followed their officer husbands to distant posts had servants (often off-duty enlisted men called "strikers"), fine horses, and military escorts when they walked or rode horseback outside of the fort boundaries. At most western posts when the troops were not engaged in military affairs, couples and single officers attended "hops" and balls, hunts, picnics, card parties, or masquerades several times a week. Libbie Custer usually enjoyed the companionship of a young single woman, usually a hometown friend or relative who might visit for several months at a time. These young women kept Libbie company, but also served to draw young officers to the Custer household and into General Custer's social debt.

Women who followed the army endured both boredom and danger. They had no particular duties because soldiers and servants took care of household needs including childcare, no social life outside of the post, and no economic role at all. They had to be at liberty to move to another post or to give up their home to a newly arrived senior officer's family on very short notice. Boredom was broken by intense periods of worry when the regiment was on a campaign, and periods of great danger when hostile Native Americans attacked the post. On those occasions women were ordered to their houses and, if possible, one officer was given the difficult job of protecting the women. During attacks on the post, many women were hysterical with fear, not just of Native Americans, but of the officer who had orders to shoot the women rather than let them be taken captive. Images of torture, painful death, forced marriages to Native American men, confirmed their views that western Native American tribes had to be brought under military control while at the same time assuring the women's dependence on their husbands. Gender roles, fragile and easily reconstructed among the non-military pioneer women who worked in farm fields, built houses, and marketed butter and eggs in order to assure the survival of the family, never flexed among the women who followed the regiment. When Libbie Custer rode horseback with her husband and the Seventh Cavalry on the journey to Fort Lincoln, she challenged the notion of fragile womanhood as she proudly claimed to be the only officer's wife who traveled by horse rather than the usual steamboat journey. However, her femininity was restored by episodes when she encountered snakes, Native Americans, and dangerous weather and had to submit to the protection of her husband.

Officers' wives had no official position according to Army regulations. Women created their own closed society in western military posts, bonding across rank and class to aid a woman in childbirth, or to organize some brief and irregular schooling for the post's children. Otherwise, social and official duties overlapped and rank prevailed among the wives as among the officers and enlisted men. Each woman had to make her own decisions about whether to live at the post, travel with her husband, or return to her parents' home to see to her children's education.

Elizabeth Custer decided to make Armstrong's career her own and carefully crafted her role as the wife of an ambitious commanding officer. Her choice was easily justified in light of the nineteenth-century concept of True Womanhood, which applauded subordinate and pious women though her self-subordination was often contrived. Libbie shared Armstrong's love of adventure and, without children to care for, she was available to support his career through social networks, attend to his personal and social needs, and foster his goal of military (and, perhaps, political) glory. Her beauty, charm, and social grace won friends for the general. And yet, she was not simply the general's shadow. She had a vital, public role they both understood to be mutually beneficial. After his death, she was well positioned to improve her meager income and preserve his memory as a fallen hero.

Modern readers will think George Armstrong Custer emotionally immature. His sentimental and strong attachment to his mother, which might be read as part of a nineteenth-century code of honor (which appears to be Elizabeth's intent), reveals a man with little control over his emotions. Libbie understood that her physical presence was necessary for him to maintain emotional balance, but she also had personal reasons to remain near him. Custer, like his brother Tom, was easily attracted to women and he wrote to Libby during his periodic travels to St. Louis, Chicago, and New York about the women with whom he socialized in her absence. It was also rumored among the western regiments that he had an affair with a captive Cheyenne woman who may have borne him a child. Libbie, in turn, needed to have Autie affirm his love for her. Libbie Custer's biographer, Shirley Leckie, notes that Armstrong's letters ceased to mention other women during their time at Fort Lincoln, which perhaps underscores Libbie's comment that their years at Lincoln were the happiest of their marriage.

Like many nineteenth-century middle-class Americans, the Custers held views on peoples of color that were contradictory. They depended on their African American servants for their daily needs of food, clothing, and housecleaning, but also relied on them for advice and support. In Boots and Saddles, Libbie briefly mentions "the general's old colored servant, Eliza." Eliza Brown Denison, a former slave who was in her late twenties during the war, was an important part of their family from 1864 to 1869. Years later, Eliza ventured to New York where she visited the widowed Libbie and they reminisced about old times. Libbie enjoyed her visit and was not at all concerned about being seen walking the streets of New York with an African American woman. Mary Adams and Ham accompanied the Custers to Fort Lincoln where Mary and her sister Maria Adams (Dutrieuille) served the Custers, their kin, and guests. Both Eliza and Mary occasionally accompanied Custer on field campaigns. The servants' labor freed Elizabeth to spend all of her time with Autie and to accompany him whenever it pleased him. Despite the apparent intimacy between the couple and their black servants, the ties were easily severed if the servants displeased them. When Eliza went on a "spree" in Kansas, Libbie quickly dismissed her without despairing over Eliza's years of devotion and service.

Elizabeth Custer's view of Indians was somewhat more complicated. In Boots and Saddles she describes Indians as treacherous, savage, and uncivilized. She did not distinguish among the many tribes they encountered, though not all western tribes were at war with the United States. Though she notes Armstrong's respect for "reservation Indians," she retained a deep-seated fear of all Native Americans. She did not have the control over Native Americans that she had over her household servants and could not distance herself from them at will. However, Shirley Leckie reveals that later in life, Elizabeth came to understand that Native Americans had respected her husband as a great warrior. She thought it appropriate that Lakota (Sioux) Indians were often included in ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of the battle. Though she was re-thinking her ideas about Native Americans as she wrote her memoirs, it served her purposes to portray Native Americans as a constantly present danger to soldiers and settlers in the West. This dichotomy of good and evil, civilized and savage allowed her to portray herself as overcome by fear and completely dependent on Autie whenever she encountered Native Americans, while enhancing his honor and masculinity. It also allowed her to justify General Custer's often questionable decisions as necessary to the progress of civilization in the American West.

After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Libbie and the other widows had to quickly pack their household goods and move to another home. Libbie returned to Monroe, Michigan, for a few months. Then she moved to New York City, which became her home for the rest of her life. Saddled by more than $13,000 in debts incurred by Autie who had invested badly and gambled frequently, and with a pension of only $30 a month (raised to $50 in 1882) from the Army, she went to work as a corresponding secretary for the Society of Decorative Arts until 1882. There she formed a network of friends and supporters who introduced her to famous and powerful people. In the last decades of her life, her friends included Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Andrew Carnegie, and the suffragist Anna Howard Shaw. She also maintained contact with old friends from the Civil War and the West and often relived her western life by sleeping in a tent on summer nights.

At the urging of her only remaining close family member, cousin Rebecca Richmond, Elizabeth wrote Boots and Saddles in order to make her own version of Armstrong's career and final battle known to the public. Boots and Saddles brought a combination of personal memories with great historical value and her carefully cultivated story of Armstrong's career to a public thirsty for knowledge of the West. Published by Harper & Brothers, the memoir was well reviewed and enjoyed good sales though Libbie realized little income from it. But she continued writing, producing articles and two more books which boosted her income while shaping and protecting General Custer's reputation. She later toured as a speaker on military life in the West with Custer. Witnesses spoke of how she was transformed and energized when she spoke of her "dear Bo" and their life in the Army.

Elizabeth Custer focused much of her energy, however, on securing a suitable memorial for General Custer. Using her charm, the respect she had earned from Army officers and enlisted men, and American public sentiment that considered Custer a hero, Elizabeth quietly oversaw the commission of a statue of Custer on horseback, which she unveiled in Monroe on June 4, 1910. It was also respect for her that delayed the writing of histories of the Plains Wars that were critical of General Custer. Retired officers and historians had much to say about Custer's rash decision on June 25, 1876, to fight more than 2,000 Cheyenne and Lakota (Sioux) warriors without sufficient troops or support, but were reluctant to do so while Elizabeth was alive. Elizabeth outlived all of the officers who had personal knowledge of the events that led to the disastrous battle. When she died in 1933, just days short of her ninety-first birthday with the memory of a grand adventure with her dashing husband, she had dominated the writing of western history in a manner which made her one of the most powerful women of the nineteenth century.

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