Libbie Custer

Sep 14, 2018

On May 18th, 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry rode west from Fort Abraham Lincoln for a summer campaign against the Lakotas, with the regimental band playing the stirring military song: “Garry Owen.”         

Custer’s wife, Elizabeth (“Libbie),” and many soldiers’ wives stood along the road to watch them go. The “sad-faced wives” waved a courageous farewell, smiling bravely “to keep the ones they loved from knowing the anguish of their breaking hearts.” It was hard to keep from despairing when the musicians played the plaintive tune: “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” That became prophecy, for Custer, and the soldiers who rode with him the following month on June 25th would die at the Little Big Horn.

Libbie Custer had known the risks since the first year of their married life, in 1864, when Custer continually charged into battle during the Civil War. Protected countless times by “Custer luck,” her husband was untouched by enemy bullets.

Still, Libbie dreaded having her husband ride westward that day in 1876. She became permeated with a premonition of disaster she had never known before.

On Sunday, June 25th, the wives gathered with Libbie in the parlor of her large house, to find comfort in singing hymns. When they sang: “Even though a cross it be, Nearer, my God, to Thee,” they felt indescribable yearning for the absent husbands. The words of the hymn arose like sobs from their hearts.

The deathly news came 10 days later, on July 5th, via the steamboat, “Far West.”  And on this date in 1922 the Bismarck Tribune published an account of how Libbie heard of Custer’s ruin.  In the early morning, July 6, Captain William McCaskey, the fort’s commander, accompanied by Surgeon J.V.D. Middleton, and Lieutenant Charles Gurley, knocked on the Custer House’s back-door, then asked Maria, the housemaid, to summon Mrs. Custer, her sister-in-law Margaret Calhoun, and niece Emma Reed to the parlor.

Libbie asked: “Is there any news?”         

“With a choked voice,” Captain McCaskey said: ‘Yes, there is news, but bad news.’ Mrs. Custer clung to him for support ... when the words were uttered – ‘Custer and all his men are killed,’ she screamed and fell. Words cannot picture the distress of that household, or the gloom that came upon that frontier fort.”

Libbie’s life was shattered. She never re-married, always working and writing to restore Custer’s tarnished reputation, living as ‘Custer’s widow’ almost to age 91.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.

Sources:

“Breaking of News of Massacre of Custer Heart-Rending, Says Writer,” Bismarck Tribune, September 14, 1922, p. 16, mistakenly cited Stephen A. Baker as bearer of sad tidings.

“Who Broke the News: Charles Gurley Tells Who First Broke the News of Custer,” Bismarck Tribune, January 3, 1896, p. 2.

“Grant Marsh Tells of His Part in Custer Expedition,” Bismarck Tribune, January 23, 1906, p. 1.

Paul A. Hutton, “Libbie Custer: ‘A Wounded Thing Must Hide,’” Wild West, June 2012, on historynet.com, accessed on July 7, 2018.

Elizabeth B. Custer, “Boots and Saddles:” Or Life in Dakota with General Custer (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1885), p. 261-269.

T.J. Stiles, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), p. 180, 400.