Custers' love letters crossed Plains

03/15/2010 12:00 AM

03/15/2010 6:19 AM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

In many ways, theirs was the love story of the 19th century.

In Kansas, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer experienced the typical hardships of frontier life: a prairie fire, earthquake and cholera. But none was as bad as the separations from her husband, Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

“I am tormented with anxieties than I cannot overcome. I look out so startled, if a mounted man passes our house, fearing he is the bearer of bad tidings,” she wrote.

Libbie and George Custer faithfully and ardently wrote to each other while he was away on a campaign to western Kansas. She later published some of those letters in her book “Tenting on the Plains.”

She wrote how she wept when Custer left on those campaigns, causing them to be separated for weeks or months at a time. It would, she wrote, take several days before she could go on about regular living. All told, George and Libbie Custer were married a dozen years. She traveled with her husband whenever possible and endured the hardships of prairie and frontier military life.

The couple lived in Kansas from 1866 until 1871 and were stationed at various encampments across Kansas as the U.S. 7th Cavalry worked to protect railroad workers and frontier Kansas.

In Kansas, George Custer hunted buffalo. He also had several skirmishes with American Indians in Kansas and Nebraska. His scouts included James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.

As she stayed behind at Fort Riley, he wrote:

“I wish you were here to go buffalo hunting. I know you would enjoy it. You will be carried away with excitement. Nothing so nearly approaches a cavalry charge and pursuit as a buffalo chase.”

She wrote how one day she heard a great rumbling. Something was causing the house to rock, the bell to ring and the pictures on the wall to vibrate.

“Women and children ran to the parade-ground, all hatless, some half dressed. Everybody stared at every one else, turned pale, and gasped with fright. It was an earthquake, sufficiently serious to shake our stone quarters and overturn the light articles, while farther down the gully the great stove at the sutler’s store was tumbled over and the side of the building broken by the shock.”

Custer missed Libbie dearly when they were separated.

On May 2, 1867, he wrote:

“It never rains but it pours: I have had nine letters today. Did you ever read of a man at death’s door being restored to life, of a drowning man saved, or of a person long imprisoned in darkness given back to light and liberty. No miser with his gold ever gloated over his possessions as I do today."

When the campaign closed in July 1867, instead of remaining with his troops at Fort Wallace as ordered, Custer went AWOL to Fort Riley to be with his wife.

He was court-martialed Oct. 11, 1867, at Fort Leavenworth and suspended for one year, during which he wrote “My Life on the Plains.”

In 1868, Gen. Philip Sheridan arranged for Custer’s reinstatement for a winter campaign against the Plains Indians.

In 1873, when Custer and the 7th Cavalry were transferred to the Dakota territory, she followed.

On June 25, 1876, Custer led an attack on a Sioux and Cheyenne camp along the Little Bighorn River — the result being that Custer, two of his brothers and more than 200 men of the 7th Cavalry were killed.

Left behind was Libbie Custer, widowed at age 34. She never remarried and spent the rest of her life protecting her husband’s name and reputation.

Kansas was the setting for at least two of Elizabeth Custer’s books, “Following the Guidon,” published in 1890, and “Tenting on the Plains,” in 1893.

She died in 1933.

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