As previously mentioned my interest in the American Civil War has been reawakened after reading Gettysburg: Day Three. There was any number of men that served in the battle whose biographies or autobiographies I had not read and so decided to start there. And yet I ended up reading something that while centered on a Civil War officer, it was centered on his post war career. The topic was George Armstrong Custer.
I know that there is a whole field of study centered around him, but it has never really inflamed my imagination. Years ago I read Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell and while I remember that I enjoyed it a great deal I have only a faint remembrance of the book. I knew some basic facts about his war career-he graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point, was undeniably brave, having 11 horses shot out from under him during the war, and that he served under General Sheridan in his Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Oh, and I of course knew about his most famous post war battle, Little Big Horn.
There are a large number of well regarded books on Custer and yet the one that I selected was not one that I had gone looking for. Instead of some old, hoary historian’s look at his life I selected Boots and Saddles or Life in Dakota with General Custer, written after the disaster at Little Big Horn by his wife, Elizabeth (Libby) Bacon Custer. The book was one of several that she wrote both to lift herself out of the poverty she found herself after his death but also as part of an effort to rehabilitate his image, which naturally suffered a great deal after this death and the destruction of his command.
I greatly enjoyed the book and believe that it has to be looked at in two lights. The first is that it gives a great view of what it was like to travel with the cavalry in an area such as the Dakotas. There was a huge amount of detail that I had never realized, such as they had to bring along forage for the hoses when they started out in the spring due to the paucity of grass. When traveling, but not on campaign the units carried stoves, had laundresses, and a variety of camp helpers. Custer had two servants and over 40 dogs. The only soldiers’ wives that were allowed to accompany the troops, as opposed to the officers, were limited to ones that were employed as laundress, and so the men had to wait until an opening emerged in order to marry, or at least have his wife present in camp. Libby does a very good job describing life both on the road and in camp. Describing the countryside, their isolation, the difficulties of winter travel and the limitations of their diet are all well laid out.
One of the more amusing anecdotes was that an illegal bar near Fort Lincoln was called the Dew Drop Inn. I wonder how long that name has been in use in the United States. She also uses the term ‘hop’ to describe a dance. She claimed that the Indians had a superstitious respect for the telegram and that they were in very poor physical shape because they never did any work.
She also inadvertently points out some of the government’s many flaws in dealing with Native Americans. She talks about how the government wants them to go into agriculture and then laments later that nothing grows and what little does is consumed by swarms of grasshoppers. She discusses how they know that the Indian Agents are cheating the tribes by stealing supplies but that the War Department will do nothing for the starving Indians because to do so would shame the Interior Department, which handles the supplies.
Then there is the side of the book that talks about her husband. He had perfect musical pitch and tremendous recall for music. He was the best shot, the finest horseman and the strongest man in the unit. He was tremendously intellectual and read all of the time. The men serving under him adored him and that the officers were all one big happy family. It should be noted that several were related to him including his brother Tom, the first two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Not having read very much about the man I really do not know what is true and what is not. I suspect a man that finished last at West Point and set a record for demerits, mostly for pranks, might not be the greatest scholar.
However her heartfelt love for her husband is very clear and the pride, fear, worry and concern that a military wife undergoes is also a strong undercurrent of the book. She deals with his death in just a few sentences but the strong emotion comes through. Accurate portrayal or not it is nice to know that the books not only were a literary success but that they provided for her for the rest of her life.