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Wild Women Wednesday: Elizabeth Custer

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Wednesday: Elizabeth Custer

Elizabeth Custer

A full moon hovered over South Monroe Street and beams of light from the gigantic orb filtered through a cluster of clouds.  Twenty-two year old George Armstrong Custer stumbled through the scene helped along by a friend who steadied his walk and kept him from falling.  Both men were dressed in the uniform of the 5th Cavalry and both had been drinking.  George was drunk.  It was late and apart from the two inebriated soldiers the street was deserted.  It was the fall of 1861 and numerous leaves dropped off the massive trees lining the thoroughfare and drifted across the path the men followed.  George was making his way to his sister, Ann Reeds’s home where he had been staying while recovering from a slight illness contracted after the Battle of Bull Run.   

George carried dispatches to the Union troops holding their position against the Confederate Army lined up along Bull Run Creek near a railroad center called Manassas Junction in Virginia.  The battle ended when the Northern Army was ordered to fall back toward Washington. The retreat was marred by a downpour of rain that left George suffering with chills and fever.  In a short time he was sent back to Monroe to recuperate, George’s condition improved and he ventured out to local taverns where his friends gathered.  

Arm and arm with his school chum, an intoxicated George and his buddy staggered down the roadway, singing at the top of their lungs.  The commotion woke his sister and she raced to the front window of her house, followed closely by her husband and children, to see who was disturbing the quiet, respectable neighborhood.  George weaved back and froth over the stone street, laughing at his obvious lack of balance.  

Judge Bacon, who had been standing on his porch smoking his pipe, noticed the pair of soldiers making their way toward the Reeds.  He recognized George Custer’s tall, lanky frame and watched him wave goodbye to the friend who escorted him safely home.  Disgusted by the behavior of a prominent military figure, the Judge marched back into his own house and closed the door hard behind him. 

George was unaware that Judge Bacon had witnessed the scene.  He also had no idea that Elizabeth was gazing out of her upstairs bedroom window at the same moment.  At the time she wasn’t surprised at the sight, having seen other young men who’d had too much to drink, she consider his actions standard fair. 

The following morning Elizabeth barely remembered the spectacle George made of himself the night before.  She was preoccupied with the prospects of her own future and spent long hours in conversation with her cousin, Rebecca Richmond discussing marriage and life thereafter.  There had been many callers who were enamored of Elizabeth.  One young man, like childhood sweetheart Elliott Bates, wanted to take her for their bride.  She however, did not return his feelings.  

Convinced she might never find someone she could fall in love with, Elizabeth made a vow in her journal to become a spinster.  The idea was not pleasant to her.  “To be one (a spinster) from necessity and one from pleasure are two different things,” she wrote. 

Elizabeth’s father and stepmother were concerned about the possibility of their daughter ending up alone, but it paled in comparison to their concern that George Custer could be the one to rescue her from such a fate.  

After meeting Elizabeth on Thanksgiving Day in 1862 at Boyd’s Seminary, George had set his sites on the intelligent beauty.  He was not ignorant of her father’s high standards for her husband, nor was he a man to back down from a challenge.  After learning Judge Bacon had seen him the night he came home drunk, he couldn’t bring himself to do much more at first than stare admirably at Elizabeth from across the church they attended together.  She was intrigued.  “You look such things at me,” Elizabeth wrote George in November 1863. 

By the time George gathered up the nerve to ask Elizabeth’s permission to call on her she had learned all about the handsome Army officer from a mutual acquaintance.  George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1839.  His father, Emmanuel Custer was a blacksmith, farmer, and justice of the peace in the small Mid-western town.  His mother, Maria Ward Kirkpatrick was a homemaker.  Each had three children from spouses that had since passed away.  The pair had five more children together.  In hopes that the first son from their union would become a member of the clergy they named him after Methodist minister, George Armstrong.  George was particularly close to his younger brothers Nevin, Thomas, and Boston and his half-sister, Ann who was 14 years his senior. 

In 1851, shortly after Ann married David Reed, a businessman from Michigan, George went to live with them.  Emmanuel and Marsha were overwhelmed with the number of children they had to raise and believed George would benefit from the opportunities in Monroe where the Reeds made their home.  He excelled in school, first attending the McNeely Normal School at Hopedale, Ohio and then the Stebbins Academy in Monroe.   

After completing his studies at the Academy George accepted the job of helping to support his parent and siblings, many of who were struggling financially.  From 1854 to 1856, George taught primary school earning $26 a month for his efforts. 

His desire to go to West Point was realized in May 1857 when Ohio Representative John A. Bingham recommended him for an appointment.  George was 17 when he entered the four-year military academy.  

He struggled with what he believed to be overly strict rules as well as the hazing from upper classmen.  He received numerous demerits for the length of his yellow hair, untidy room, careless dress, playing pranks on other students, gambling, and fighting.  He frequently participated in heated debates between students from southern states who favored slavery.  George and his classmates from the north insisted slavery should not be allowed and that a war over the issue was bound to occur. 

Letters from his family and young eligible women, enamored with George’s looks and status, kept him distracted from studies and talks of war.  Using a candle to see the paper and ink, he answered their correspondence late in the evening after his instructor’s ordered lights out.  

By the summer of 1861 when George graduated from West Point, the disagreement between the states had escalated.  Rebel soldiers attacked Fort Sumter and the north united in a common front.  George was given the rank of Second Lieutenant and ordered to report for duty in Washington.  After making a brief stop in New York to purchase his officer’s uniform, consisting of saber, revolver, sash, and spurs, he arrived at his post eager to serve with the Second Cavalry.  From Washington he was ordered to travel to Centerville under cover of darkness to deliver special messages to General Irwin McDowell.   

Shortly after he arrived in Centerville he was informed that he would be helping in the fight against the Confederates at Manassas.  His particular job was to help protect a regiment preparing cannons for battle.  A surprise attack by the rebels from the rear scattered the Union Army and forced them to retreat.  George held his position and waited for orders to regroup, but outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the commanders for the North agreed to return to the capital to assess the damage and casualties and plan another charge at a later date. 

A downpour of rain soaked Union troops heading back to Washington.  For hours they slogged through mud and blowing debris.  By the time many of them reached the Potomac they were sick with colds and the flu.  George was among those who became ill and was sent to his sister’s home in Monroe to get well.

George’s superiors recognized that he was one of the few officers who did not break ranks and run.  Official reports made mention that he was a “cool-headed youngster under fire.”  A fellow lieutenant told him that he would be given credit for his controlled response. 

At the Bacon home, the Judge read the account of the First Battle of Manassas aloud.  Elizabeth and Rhoda listened intently for the names of a soldier they might know or the name of a soldier’s family with which they were acquainted.  If at the end of the newspaper article their friends and neighbors had been spared a loss the Bacons would breath a sigh of relief. 

As soon as George’s health improved he was ordered to join the other men in his company in Washington.  When he arrived he learned there was to be another attack on Manassas.  George’s regiment was now called the 5th Cavalry.

In February 1862, General George McClellan ordered the Union Army to advance into Virginia.  George got a chance to lead a charge against a Confederate picket holding a hill above the battlefield.  

George could read the apprehension on his superior’s face as to whether or not a 24-year-old lieutenant was ready for such a job.  Before anyone could raise a concern, George called the troops to attention and ordered them to follow him.  Spurring his horse, he dashed up the hill in a headlong gallop.  He did not look back, but he could hear the men following closely behind him.  The Confederates held their ground, but only for a moment.  The on rushing cavalry and George, their wild whooping, saber swinging leader, were too much for them.  The Rebels fled the scene.  With the enemy routed, the 5th Cavalry took possession of the hilltop. 

After leading his men into the first major fight with the southern forces, George took on the duty as observation officer at the 2nd Battle Bull Run.  The observations were conducted from a giant, gas-filled balloon.  His nighttime ascensions proved most helpful in determining the strength and position of the opposing army.  On the ground George accompanied General McClellan and Union troops in pursuit of the Confederates.  He managed to locate the Rebels on the banks of the Chickahominy River.  There was no bridge so George found a spot in the river that was shallow enough for his regiment to wade through to the other side.  His sharp thinking and daring earned him two citations and a promotion to Captain. 

When he returned to Monroe in November 1862, his family happily greeted him.  News of his accomplishments had reached them and they were extremely proud.  George’s war hero status made little impression on Judge Bacon.  In fact, it only made him more opposed to the idea of his daughter seeing the young officer.  He had no intentions of allowing his only child to become involved with a military man “who had no money but his pay.” Judge Bacon also did not want Elizabeth to be tied to a soldier who might become disabled.  “I do not want you to be burdened with the responsibility of caring for another to that extent,” he told her. 

In spite of the Judge’s protests, Elizabeth and George were inexorably drawn to each other.  George kept vigil outside her home waiting for a chance to speak to her every time she left the house.  He accompanied Elizabeth on various errands she ran and on visits to friends and neighbors.  George verbalized his feelings, but Elizabeth resisted because of her father.  Although her father had became friends with George through the letters they exchanged, Judge Bacon remained convinced his daughter should not marry a soldier.  

George pleaded with Elizabeth to marry him, but she turned him down.  It was an action she instantly regretted.  “I cannot tell anyone how badly I feel,” she noted in her journal.  “No one can ever know but I will write some of the deep and tender feelings I cannot suppress.  But I cannot but mourn to think I have a saddened life….  He is noble, brave, and generous and he loves, I believe with an intensity that few know of or as few ever can love.”

Unwilling to give up on the thought of a life with Elizabeth, George employed a tactic he hoped would provoke a response.  He attended a party he knew Elizabeth would not miss.  When she arrived George made sure she saw him flirting with another girl.  The performance had the desired effect.  Elizabeth and George met in the parlor of the home where the party was being held and the two sat together and talked.  He entreated Elizabeth to say she would never leave him. 

When Judge Bacon was made aware of the attention George was paying Elizabeth he was annoyed.  He forbid his daughter from having anymore to do with the decorated soldier.  The thought of being denied George’s company upset her more than she anticipated.  Elizabeth confessed in her journal that she was fonder of him than she realized.  “He is so bright I couldn’t help but like him,” she wrote.  For his part, rumor had it that George was in love with Elizabeth.  She sent him a note to let him know her father disapproved of them spending time together.  Elizabeth also wrote a note to her father apologizing for risking a “crisis in their relationship.”  “I did it all for you,” she wrote Judge Bacon.  “I like him (George) very well, and it is pleasant always to have an escort to depend on.  But I am sorry I have been with him so much, and you will never see me in the street with him again and never at the house except to say Goodbye.  I told him never to meet me, and he has the sense to understand.  But I did not promise never to see him again.  But I will not cause you anymore trouble, be sure.”

George knew he could never persuade Elizabeth to go against her father’s wishes, but he was confident that in time the Judge would change his mind about him.  The two men were able to discuss the matter briefly on December 17, 1862.  During the polite conversation George informed Judge Bacon that he would be leaving for Virginia.  

Elizabeth was sad when her father broke the news of George’s departure.  “I felt so sorry for him,” she wrote in her journal.  “I think I had something to do with his going.  I believe he liked me and felt my refusal to go with him.  I wish him success….  Tis best as it is for I never should encourage such attentions when I know that I cannot return them with the right spirit.  Good-bye to him then!  I shall miss his daily walk up and down the street for he walks and rides superbly.  He was in too much haste tho’ I admired his perseverance.” 

Elizabeth wasn’t the only one who admired George’s perseverance; the 5th Michigan Cavalry did as well.  His much talked about, steadfast qualities prompted able-bodied recruits to join the Union Army.  Cavalry soldiers wanted to serve alongside the “daring young boy with the golden locks” that had risen to the rank of Captain in a short period of time. 

In June 1863, George and the other cavalry members were on a scouting mission near the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Suddenly a force of Confederate cavalry overtook them.  The 5th Michigan Cavalry was putting up a valiant fight when additional Rebel soldiers, led by Jeb Stuart, arrived on the scene.  Sabers clanged against saber as men shouted wildly and horse reared.  Pistols cracked.  Dust and smoke rose up in clouds.  Through the noise and the gun smoke, came a shout like a bugle call.  “Come on, boys! Come on!”  It was George, swinging his saber and riding straight toward Stuart’s men.  The men spurred forward to follow the yellow hair that shone through the dust like a bright flag.  

The fighting was eventually reduced to hand to hand combat.  Custer and his troops were triumphant – capturing one hundred prisoners and a Rebel banner.  The 5th Cavalry was victorious under George’s leadership and his actions earned him a promotion.  At the age of 23 he was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Brigadier General. 

News of his promotion was well publicized.  Some applauded George’s advancement, but others like Frederick Benteen, resented him for it.  Benteen, who was patrolling the Saline River in Arkansas at the time George was fighting with Southern troops, was annoyed by the report.  

Benteen expressed his displeasure to Major General Phil Sheridan.  “The best I could do is Colonel,” he complained when the Major General asked about his Civil War career.  “I had no political influence to forward me in rank or assist me in any way whatsoever.” 

George wrote Judge Bacon about the success on the battlefield, the particulars about the change in command, and the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac.  He also included kind wishes for Judge Bacon’s wife and daughter.  George hoped Elizabeth would read the letters.  

Eventually George dared to ask the Judge if he might correspond with Elizabeth.  The two had already been secretly exchanging messages through letters a mutual friend wrote to George.  Judge Bacon gave in to George’s request noting in a letter to the officer that he believed in his sincerity.  “I have always admired you, and am now more than gratified at your well-earned reputation and high and exalted position.  The evening you left here I had a full and free interview with Libby and shall talk with her more upon this important subject which she is at full liberty to communicate with you.”  Shortly after receiving permission to write one another, Elizabeth penned the first of hundreds of letters to George. 

Before penning her first letter to George, Elizabeth jotted down her thoughts about the man she called her “beloved star” in her journal.  “Love him!  I have loved him all the time and I need no clearer index of past feelings than this old book,” she wrote.  “I have written once of his taking my hand and kissing it and how he looked and how I felt.  O’ tho he kissed me when he was here last, my lips used to the thrill after I had left him and was in bed.  Affectionate, I never saw a man more so.”  Just before George returned to his regiment he and Elizabeth promised themselves to one another and discussed the day when they would be married. 

For five months the pair courted strictly through the mail.  George was first sent to Rappahannock in eastern Virginia then on to Bristoe Station and Buckland Mills.  The 5th Michigan Cavalry was engaged in battles at Birstoe Station and Buckland Mills.  The regiment lost more than 60 men in the conflict.  Given the heated circumstances George wasn’t able to write Elizabeth as often as he would have liked, she understood and filled in the gaps with additional correspondence to him.  Although all of her letters told of her devotion to him and their future, some expressed concern for George’s well-being and apprehension about getting married too quickly.   

“You are coming, are you not, for the holidays,” Elizabeth wrote in December 1863.  “If so I might relent….  Father accuses me of trifling, says, ‘You must not keep Armstrong waiting.’  But neither you nor he can know what preparations are needed for such an Event, an Event it takes at least a year to prepare for.  After I am a soldier’s wife I will not urge you to leave your duty oftener than I can help….  Oh, what better argument can I offer than that I long to see you.  The worst about loving a soldier is that he is as likely to die as to live…and how should I feel if my soldier should die before I have gratified his heart’s desire.” 

George was forthcoming in his letters about his feelings for Elizabeth as well as his vices.  He confessed to her his “delight in playing cards and attending horse races.”  “Scarcely a pleasant day passes that the officers of this division do not assemble to witness and stake money on races between favorite horses,” George wrote.  “Even General Pleasanton sometimes lends his presence and General Kilpatrick invariably does.  Between the latter and myself frequent wagers have been laid.” 

Not only did George admit his affinity for games of chance, but for cursing as well.  “I seldom indulge in it,” he explained, “except when I am angry and then it seems to afford me so much satisfaction…” 

George was anxious to make Elizabeth his wife and asked that they be married in early February 1864.  Although she was nervous about leaving home and assuming the responsibility of being Mrs. Custer, she finally agreed.

While George was leading his regiment into battle against the Confederate Army marching towards Pennsylvania, Elizabeth was planning their wedding.  She wrote her cousin Rebecca about the upcoming nuptials and the material she wanted to use to make her gown.  As Elizabeth anticipated questions about George’s character she noted the qualities she most admired about him – stretching the truth a bit in the process.  “I do not say Armstrong is without faults.  But he never tastes liquor, nor frequents the gaming-table, and though not a professing Christian yet respects religion.” 

George Custer and Elizabeth Bacon were married on February 9, 1864 at six o’clock in the evening at Monroe’s Presbyterian Church.  The bride wore a white dress made of silk material from New York.  Her veil floated back from a bunch of orange blossoms fixed above the brow.  The trousseau consisted of a large variety of dresses and included “a waterproof cape with arm-holes, buttoned from head to foot” and an opera cloak with merino, silk-lined, that included a silk hood.” 

George wore his full-dress uniform.  Many members of their family and friends were in attendance including George’s brother Tom, whom he hadn’t seen in more than four years.  The reception was held at the Bacon home.  More than 300 people were in attendance to celebrate the nuptials.  Judge Bacon and his wife gave their daughter a Bible for a wedding present.  To George they gave their dearest possession – Elizabeth.

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Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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