The unfortunate first encounter of a beautiful, talented and well-bred young lady from Monroe, Mich., and her future husband was when this inebriated young man passed by her home while carousing with a friend. George Armstrong Custer’s embarrassment, upon learning the woman who was to become the love of his life had seen him in this condition, led him to take the pledge of abstinence.
As with other fathers whose daughters wished to marry men in a military uniform, Judge Daniel Bacon was reluctant to give Elizabeth, known as “Libbie,” away to a West Point graduate serving in the Union army.
However, when the army accelerated Custer’s rank from captain to brigadier general in June 1863 for his performance on the battlefield and appointed him commander of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, Bacon relented and gave Libbie permission to marry “Autie” Custer in 1864.
The love of this young couple (he 23, and she 21) was such that Libbie traveled with George whenever possible throughout the remainder of the Civil War, and during post-war military assignments in isolated Western frontier posts. His desire to keep Libbie close was a natural reaction when she confessed during their honeymoon spent at West Point that cadets escorted the attractive and vivacious bride alone down Lovers’ Walk, and a “Methuselah” professor had kissed her.
As Shirley A. Leckie wrote in “The Civil War Partnership of Elizabeth and George A. Custer (Bleser and Gordon, “Military Commanders and Their Wives”), the ambitious Autie learned to rely on Libbie’s wise judgment, which “offset his tendency to act impulsively.” Yet, Libbie soon experienced the trauma of a military officer’s wife during wartime, when Custer conducted an isolated cavalry raid into Confederate territory, and was fortunate to make it back alive.
Libbie was delighted to learn sketch artist Alfred Waud’s drawing of Custer leading his men on the dangerous raid to Charlottesville, Va., appeared on the front page of Harper’s Weekly and enhanced her spouse’s fame. After Custer received congratulations on the floor of the House of Representatives (with Libbie in the balcony) and met President Abraham Lincoln, Libbie wrote to her parents, “I find it very agreeable to be the wife of a man so generally known and respected.”
Not satisfied to bask in Autie’s reflected glory, Libbie socialized with Republican politicians and their wives at dinner parties. These powerful members of the Washington circuit welcomed the attention of a charming and beautiful young woman.
During Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s “Overland Campaign” into the Wilderness area of Virginia in 1864, a rumor circulated that George Armstrong Custer had been killed. Libbie was overcome with grief until word arrived that the report had been in error.
Libbie experienced loneliness when Autie was away campaigning with the army. Nonetheless, she informed her parents, “I am prouder far to be his wife than I would be to be Mrs. Lincoln or a queen.”
When Grant defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army in April 1865 and the Civil War came to an end, the surrender took place at Appomattox Court House, Va.
Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who attended the ceremony, purchased the table upon which Grant wrote out the surrender terms and later presented it to Libbie. Sheridan explained “there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.”
When assigned out West following the war, Custer’s reckless and immature behavior strained their marriage. Despite these problems, following his death in a battle with Sioux Indians at the Little Big Horn River in present-day Montana in 1876, Libbie defended her husband’s reputation and spent the next 57 years as a widow memorializing his deeds.
During this period, Libbie published books describing Custer as “a devoted family man and exemplary commander.” Not unlike Sallie Pickett, who embellished her husband George’s reputation as a Confederate general following his death, Libbie ensured that George Armstrong Custer would be remembered by future generations as an American hero both during and after the Civil War.
Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer died at age 90 in 1933. Author Leckie quotes Frederic Van de Water, who wrote, “The love his wife bore him and he bore her may be George Armstrong Custer’s most intrinsically sound fame.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point