From the Army of the Potomac to the Plains Indian War
Elizabeth 'Libby' Custer must be commended for her literary efforts. She was certainly responsible for expanding and embellishing the Custer legend, but nevertheless she also left several works which undoubtedly contribute massively to our understanding of life in the U. S Army on the Western Frontier and, irrespective of the insights she has provided into the character and activities of her famous husband, has also given posterity an invaluable view of the life of an 'army wife' in mid-nineteenth century America. Her book, Boots and Saddles, (also published by Leonaur), is justifiably well regarded since it includes the military debacle for which George Armstrong Custer is fated to be principally remembered. This book is every bit as fascinating. The story begins with an overview of Custer's Civil war career before moving on to their lives together in the immediate post war period. She and Custer move inexorably towards his destiny as an Indian Wars commander and the book concludes as the renowned 7th Cavalry fight their first engagement against Roman Nose and his Cheyenne warriors at Fort Wallace in June 1867. Available in soft cover and hard back with dust jacket for collectors.
The anger and hatred of these troops toward one especial officer culminated in their peremptory demand that he should resign. They drew up a paper, and signed their names. He had not a friend, and sought the commanding officer for protection. This was too pronounced a case of mutiny to be treated with any but the promptest, severest measures, and all who had put their names to the document were placed under arrest. The paper was in reality but a small part of the incessant persecution, which included threats of all kinds against the life of the hated man; but it was written proof that his statements regarding his danger were true.<br>
All but one of those that were implicated apologized, and were restored to duty. A sergeant held out, and refused to acknowledge himself in the wrong. A court-martial tried him and he was sentenced to death. Those who had been associated in the rebellion against their officer were thoroughly frightened, and seriously grieved at the fate to which their comrade had been consigned by their uncontrollable rage, and began to speak among themselves of the wife and children at home. The wife was unconscious that the heartbreaking revelations were on their way; that the saddest of woman’s sorrows, widowhood, was hers to endure, and that her children must bear a tainted name. It came to be whispered about that the doomed man wore on his heart a curl of baby’s hair, that had been cut from his child’s head when he went out to serve his imperilled country.<br>
Finally, the wretched, conscience-stricken soldiers sued for pardon for their condemned companion, and the very man against whom the enmity had been cherished, and who owed his life to an accident, busied himself in collecting the name of every man in the command, begging clemency for the imperilled sergeant. Six days passed, and there was increased misery among the men, who felt themselves responsible for their comrade’s life. The prayer for pardon, with its long roll of names, had been met by the General with the reply that the matter would be considered.<br>
The men now prepared for vengeance. They lay around the camp-fires, or grouped themselves in tents, saying that the commanding officer would not dare to execute the sentence of the court-martial, while messages of this kind reached my husband in cowardly, roundabout ways, and threats and menaces seemed to fill the air. The preparation for the sergeant’s execution was ordered, and directions given that a deserter, tried by court-martial and condemned, should be shot on the same day. This man, a vagabond and criminal before his enlistment, had deserted three or four times, and his sentence drew little pity from his comrades. At last dawned in the lovely valley that dreadful day, which I recall now with a shudder.<br>
It was impossible to keep me from knowing that an execution was to occur. There was no place to send me. The subterfuges by which my husband had kept me from knowing the tragic or the sorrowful in our military life heretofore, were of no avail now. Fortunately, I knew nothing of the petition for pardon; nothing, thank God! of the wife at her home, or of the curl of baby’s hair that was rising and falling over the throbbing, agonized heart of the condemned father. And how the capacity we may have for embracing the sorrows of the whole world disappears when our selfish terrors concentrate on the safety of our own loved ones!<br>
The sergeant’s life was precious as a life; but the threats, the ominous and quiet watching, the malignant, revengeful faces of the troops about us, told me plainly that another day might darken my life forever, and I was consumed by my own torturing suspense. Rumours of the proposed murder of my husband reached me through the kitchen, the orderlies about our quarters, and at last through the staff. They had fallen into the fashion of my husband, and spared me anything that was agitating or alarming; but this was a time, they felt, when all possible measures should be taken to protect the General, and they implored me to induce him to take precautions for his safety. My pleading was of no avail. He had ordered the staff to follow him unarmed to the execution. They begged him to wear his side-arms, or at least permit them the privilege, in order that they might defend him; but he resolutely refused. How trivial seem all attempts to describe the agonies of mind that filled that black hour when the General and his staff rode from our lawn toward the dreaded field!<br>
Eliza, ever thoughtful of me, hovered round the bed, where I had buried my head in the pillows to deaden the sound of the expected volley. With terms of endearment and soothing, she sought to assure me that nothing would happen to the General. “Nothin’ ever does, you know, Miss Libbie,” she said, her voice full of the mother in us all when we seek to console. And yet that woman knew all the plans for the General’s death, all the venom in the hearts of those who surrounded us, and she felt no hope for his safety.