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CUSTER, ELIZABETH BACON

CUSTER, ELIZABETH BACON (1842–1933). Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the only surviving child of Judge Daniel and Eleanor Sophia (Page) Bacon, was born at Monroe, Michigan, on April 8, 1842. At twenty Libbie, as she was called, graduated as valedictorian from the Young Ladies' Seminary and Collegiate Institute in Monroe. Shortly after, she met Capt. George Armstrong Custer. His meteoric rise to brigadier general before Gettysburg, where he emerged as a national hero, overcame her father's objections to their courtship. They were married on February 9, 1864.

From the beginning, Libbie's charm and attractiveness helped advance her husband's military career. She socialized with powerful Republican congressmen and senators, thereby countering their suspicions that Custer had ties to the Democrats. Moreover, her husband's superior, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, admired Libbie so greatly that he gave her the table on which Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had written the terms of surrender accepted by Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.

After the Civil War Sheridan, anticipating military action against Mexico, ordered Custer, now major general of volunteers, to march a cavalry division from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Hempstead, Texas. Elizabeth accompanied the troops in August 1865 and later wrote of her hardships in her second book, Tenting on the Plains, published in 1887. Her early response to Texas was mixed. She found homes, even of the well-to-do, often poorly constructed. Moreover, many Texans struck her as violent and trigger-happy men who threatened both the federal troops and their local supporters. She was appalled that, despite a Union victory, some Texans were still trading slaves late in 1865.

Many planter aristocrats, however, welcomed the Custers warmly. Leonard Groce and his family, of Liendo Plantation on Clear Creek, nursed Libbie when she fell ill with malaria. After Custer became chief of cavalry in Texas, the couple moved to Austin, where they resided at the Asylum for the Blind. They continued associating with wealthy planters, who introduced them to the pleasures of breeding hunting dogs. Overall, whatever her criticism of the state, Libbie saw great economic potential in Texas and tried unsuccessfully to interest her father in investing in Texas land. After Custer became lieutenant colonel of the Seventh Cavalry in 1866, Elizabeth's prized Texas serapes decorated their quarters at forts Riley, Leavenworth, and Lincoln.

Following her husband's death at the Little Bighorn, on June 25, 1876, Elizabeth learned that Grant, now president, had charged Custer with disobeying orders and held him responsible for the destruction of his battalion of 221 men by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Throughout her fifty-seven years of widowhood, Mrs. Custer worked untiringly to defend her husband's reputation and transform him into a hero for boys. She influenced a number of writers, including Frederick Whittaker, Gen. Edward S. Godfrey, Gen. Nelson Miles, and Frederick Dellenbaugh. In addition, Elizabeth published two other books, Boots and Saddles (1885) and Following the Guidon (1890). In all her works, her husband emerged as an exemplary son, brother, husband, and conscientious commanding officer.

Since army men and the public alike saw Elizabeth as a model wife and devoted widow, many Custer critics withheld their comments during her lifetime. Elizabeth survived, however, until April 4, 1933. A year later, Frederic Van de Water published The Glory-Hunter, and the reappraisal of Custer's character and career began. By then much of the historical record had been irretrievably lost.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

John M. Carroll, ed., Custer in Texas: An Interrupted Narrative (New York: Sol Lewis-Liveright, 1975). Elizabeth B. Custer Collection, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana. Elizabeth B. Custer Manuscript Collection, Western Americana Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Lawrence A. Frost, General Custer's Libbie (Seattle: Superior, 1976). Shirley A. Leckie, Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

Shirley A. Leckie

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Shirley A. Leckie, "CUSTER, ELIZABETH BACON," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcuqt), accessed August 21, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.