Libbie Custer: Shaping a Legacy
General George Armstrong Custer is a figure who was controversial in death, as in life. Known alternately as a hero who made the last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, or as the ill-equipped General who marched his men into a massacre, Custer’s legacy is still not completely settled. Libbie Custer, his widow, is often given the credit-or the scorn-for rehabilitating her late husband’s image. President Ulysses S. Grant put the blame of the death of 268 soldiers at Custer’s feet; in response, Custer’s 34-year-old widow would launch a speaking tour and eventually publish three books (at the encouragement of her friends Mark Twain and Henry James) defending her late husband’s honor. An examination of Libbie’s role in the shaping of that legacy provides a glimpse into the business of legacy-making and power and rhetoric in the 19th century. Before we delve into Libbie’s role in shaping her late husband’s legacy, some background on the Custers may be in order.
Elizabeth Bacon was born and raised in Monroe, Michigan in 1842. Before she reached the age of thirteen, her three siblings and mother had died. Her father was a local judge and senator who was eager for his daughter to marry a suitable husband. In 1862, the dashing Custer, a young captain on leave from the Civil War, met Libbie Bacon. He was definitely not what her father had in mind. Libbie, a young woman from a well-to-do family, had just finished seminary as valedictorian. Custer, on the other hand, came from poverty, and had graduated West Point at the bottom of his class the year before. An army wife was not the future that Daniel Bacon envisioned for his only remaining daughter.
Two years later, in 1864, Custer, now the 23-year-old“Boy General,” had enthralled the nation with his exploits on the battlefield, leading Daniel Bacon to finally relent to the young couple’s marriage. The Custers were generally inseparable, with Libbie joining “Autie” (as he was generally known) at camp and even having a special ladies uniform made for herself. When Custer was killed in battle, Libbie was not only made a widow, but destitute. To compound matters, Custer’s reputation was in tatters.
Libbie’s fight for her husband’s reputation cannot be seen in a vacuum. In the midst of her grief, months after Custer’s death, Libbie discreetly lobbied for relief for the widows of the Little Big Horn. That is to say that she wasn’t solely focused on her husband’s legacy but also on the wellbeing of her husband’s men’s families. Moreover, Libbie was not the only person who reshaped Custer’s “defeat into an epic.” No less than “America’s Poet,” Walt Whitman penned “A Death Sonnet for Custer” a day after hearing the news of Custer’s death, and it was subsequently published on July 10, 1876, just fifteen days after the tragedy occurred. John Mulvany, the Irish-American painter created a visual representation of the Custer myth, with his famous 11×21 foot painting of “Custer’s Last Rally,” which was completed in 1881, and was exhibited in numerous states.
But Whitman, Mulvany, and Libbie herself, it can be argued, were all following in Custer’s footsteps. The foppish “Boy General” with his Goldilocks haircut had long been self-aggrandizing, since at least the Civil War. Indeed, he had distinguished himself in battle at Gettysburg and the Shenandoah Campaign. And though actions are generally thought to speak louder than words, Custer made sure to add words to his actions: “He wrote glowingly of his own exploits, was photographed frequently for the public and kept his favorite portraits on the walls of his home.” To literally distinguish himself, “Custer had crafted his own blue velveteen sailor suits with lavish gold lace and red neckerchiefs.” Taking Custer’s own mythologizing of himself into context perhaps serves to explain at least part of Libbie’s motivations. Libbie was completing what her husband had started: in transforming Custer’s failure into an icon of the American West, the glory Autie had been chasing for much of his life was finally achieved by Libbie.
- Adams, Michael C.C. “Poet Whitman and General Custer.” Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23413686. Accessed 4 Aug. 2021, p.4.
- Adams, p.5