The wife of a famous soldier on campaign on the Western Plains of America
Despite a successful career during the Civil War and a meteoritic elevation in rank as the 'Boy General,’ it is the later career of George Armstrong Custer—as the charismatic commander of the 7th Cavalry at war with the Plains Indians on the Western frontier—that has most captured the public imagination. Whilst this has much to do with his final defeat at Little Big Horn, it remains the case that the history of this pivotal period of United States history could not be told without including Custer as a central figure. So we have much for which to thank Elizabeth 'Libby' Custer. As her husband's almost constant companion through this period she has not only chronicled the man, but the times, the history of its most notable events, life in the army of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, the experience of army wives and families and a plethora of anecdotes and minutiae that is invaluable to the historian—professional or amateur. This book recounts the period where Custer campaigned with some success against his adversaries, the Indian tribes. This book’s predecessor, Tenting on the Pains and its successor, Boots and Saddles, are also available as Leonaur editions in soft cover and hard back with dust jacket.
At the time of their capture a year previous, the father and one babe were killed at once. The mother and her daughters—one a girl of eighteen, another ten, and the third three years old—were bound on ponies and started on the march. The mother was allowed to carry the child still younger, but the infant’s crying angered the savages, and they dashed its little brains out against a tree before the anguished mother’s eyes. When the division of spoils and prisoners was made, the three children and the mother were separated, and assigned to different bands of the same tribe. I could not find any language to repeat what the poor mother and eldest daughter told me of their horrible sufferings during the year of their captivity. Their melancholy was most heart-rending, for even their release from captivity would not bring them back to the husband and father so dear to them, or put in the maternal arms the two little innocent infants that had been murdered.<br>
The little girl of ten, when separated from her mother, grieved and mourned so that, to stifle her sobs and prevent her repeating them, the Indians had burned the soles of her feet. She turned them up to show me the scars as I sat in the midst of this pitiful group. The girl, then nineteen years old, in the captivity which was worse than death, had lost all trace of girlhood. Had she been retained as the property of one chief her fate would have been more deplorable than any that a woman ever endures, but even this misery was intensified, for she was traded from one chief to another in the everlasting dickering that the Indians keep up. The suffering of these poor captives made a lasting impression on me. I had not been long away from a home where my parents not only shielded me from all sorrow and trouble, but guarded me from even tales of misery which would have made a spot on the sun of a most radiant girlhood.<br>
Still, this story of suffering was not considered enough by General Custer to warn me against taking any risks where Indians roamed. He came to me after that, while we were stopping a day or two at the hotel in Leavenworth, to ask me to see a distracted man with whom he had been talking. When I found that the man was almost wild with grief over the capture of his wife by Indians, and the murder of his children, I begged to be spared witnessing such a painful sight when I could do no good. The reply was that sympathy was something every one needed, and I made no further resistance. The man was as nearly a mad-man as can be. His eyes wild, frenzied, and sunken with grief, his voice weak with suffering, his tear-stained, haggard face—all told a terrible tale of what he had been and was enduring. He wildly waved his arms as he paced the floor like some caged thing, and implored General Custer to use his influence to organize an expedition to secure the release of his wife.<br>
He turned to me with trembling tones, describing the return to his desolated cabin. As he came from the field where he was at work, full of pleasure at approaching the rude hut where he had left his little ones playing about the door, he saw no sign of life, no movement of any kind; no little feet ran out to meet him, no piping voice called a welcome to him. With the darkest forebodings—for those were troublous days to the early settler—he began to run, and, near some logs, he almost fell upon the dead and mutilated body of one child. Not far off was a little shoe, and some light hair, evidently torn from the downy head of another child, and a few steps from the door the two younger children lay in pools of blood, their little heads scalped, their soft flesh still pierced with arrows.<br>
Worse by far was the further discovery that awaited him. The silence in the cabin told its awful tale, and he knew, without entering, that the mother of the little ones had met with the horrible fate which every woman in those days considered worse than death. General Custer was so moved by this story that he could not speak, and I became so unnerved that it was many a night before I could shut my eyes without seeing the little yellow heads of those innocent children clotted with blood, and their sightless blue eyes turned to heaven as if for redress. The lesson was effectual for a time, for not only was I moved to deepest pity for the bereaved man, but I became so terrified that I could not even ride out of camp with an escort without inward quakings, and every strange or unaccountable speck on the horizon meant to me a lurking foe.