An Interview with Elizabeth Bacon Custer
The interview below with Elizabeth Bacon Custer comes from Boots and Saddles or Life in Dakota with General Custer, 1885, reprinted 1961.
Life at Fort Abraham Lincoln
Elizabeth “Libby” Custer is the wife of Colonel George Armstrong Custer who commands the Seventh Cavalry at Fort Abraham Lincoln. The thirty-three-year-old Custer has been at the fort for almost two years.
Would you tell us something about the role of women in the West or at the fort?
A woman on the frontier is so cherished and appreciated, because she has the courage to live out there, that there is nothing that is not done for her if she be gracious and courteous. In twenty little ways the officers spoiled us: they never allowed us to wait on ourselves, to open or shut a door, to draw up our own chair, or to do any little service that they could perform for us. If we ran to the next house for a chat, with a shawl thrown over our heads, we rarely got a chance to return alone, but with this undignified head covering were formally brought back to our door! I wonder if it will seem that we were foolishly petted if I reveal that our husbands buttoned our shoes, wrapped us up if we went out, warmed our clothes before the fire, poured the water for our bath out of the heavy pitcher, and studied to do innumerable little services that a maid would have done for us in the States.
I don’t think it made us helpless, however. In our turn we watched every chance we could to anticipate their wants. We did a hundred things we would not have remembered to do had not the quickly passing time brought nearer each day those hours of separation when we would have no one to do for.
What about you specifically?
Domestic care sat very lightly on me. Nothing seemed to annoy my husband more than to find me in the kitchen. He determinedly opposed it for years and begged me to make a promise that I would never go there for more than a moment. We had such excellent servants that my presence was unnecessary most of the time, but even in the intervals when our fare was wretched he submitted uncomplainingly rather than that I should be wearied. A great portion of the time my life was so rough that he knew it taxed me to the utmost, and I never forgot to be grateful that I was spared domestic care in garrison.
What did you do for entertainment?
We found our new quarters admirable for the garrison gaiety. On Friday nights we all gathered together to dance or have private theatricals or games. During the early part of the winter, while the supply of eggs we had brought from St. Paul lasted, Mary used to give us cake, frozen custard, or some luxury of which these formed a part. This, in addition to the usual ham sandwiches. There was very little spirit of criticism, and in that climate one is always hungry.
Of course, everyone relied on cards as the unfailing amusement. Almost without exception they played well and with great enthusiasm. Everyone struggled over me, and I really worked faithfully to become an adept.
Did you have any daily problems?
The question of servants was a very serious one to those living on the borders of civilization as we did. There was never a station equal to those frozen-up regions. Should servants go out there in the fall, they were almost certain to become engaged to the soldiers and marry after the trains were taken off and no new ones could reach us. It often happened that delicate ladies had to do all kinds of menial service for a time.
We know that your husband had military duties. Could you tell us about some of the other things that went with being the commanding officer?
My husband’s duties extended over a wide range. If the laundresses had a serious difficulty, he was asked to settle it. They had many pugilists among them, and the least infringement of their rights provoked a battle in which wood and other missiles filled the air. Bandaged and bruised, they brought their wrongs to our house, where both sides had a hearing. The general had occasionally to listen and arbitrate between husband and wife, when the laundress and her soldier-husband could not agree. I was banished from the room, while he heard their story and gave them counsel. In the same way he listened to whatever complaints the soldiers made. Some of them came into our quarters on one occasion with a tin cup of coffee for the general to taste, and determine whether he agreed with them that it was too poor to drink.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council