Elizabeth Custer was the wife of General George Armstrong Custer. She followed him as he moved about on military assignments, and after his death she was instrumental in shaping his public memory. She also campaigned for better benefits for military widows.
Although she is strongly associated with the West through her life with Custer, Elizabeth considered Westchester County her home for almost 50 years. Her connection to Westchester was rooted in a childhood friendship with Sarah Bates, one of several Bates children with whom she had grown up in Monroe, Michigan, who eventually settled in Bronxville. Libbie Custer started coming as a frequent visitor and eventually bought the first of two homes she owned in the area.
George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Bacon Custer. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
How She Met Custer
Libbie Custer was the only daughter of a wealthy and well-respected judge in Monroe, Michigan. George Custer (1839-1876) was a young man attending West Point when he began visiting his half-sister who lived in Monroe, and he met Libbie on one of his visits. Her father did not feel a common military man and son of a smithy was right for his daughter, so he asked Libbie not to see or write to Custer.
If the country had not been entering the Civil War, George Custer’s military fate would have been very different; he graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point, but military officers were badly needed so Custer was pressed into service and he proved his value through his fearlessness. Custer soon became known for numerous daring exploits. He was featured in Harper’s Weekly, one of the most prestigious publications of the day. This kept him in the public eye and heightened his standing among residents of Monroe, which probably explains Libbie’s willingness to continue the relationship from afar, with messages traveling via a go-between, young Monroe resident Nettie Humphrey.
In September 1863 George and Libbie met again at a masquerade ball in Monroe. Afterward, Custer wrote to Judge Bacon for permission to correspond directly with his daughter. Shortly after this, Custer was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General, and Judge Bacon relented. Libbie and George corresponded for a time, and were married on February 9, 1864.
Life with Custer
When the Army reorganized after the Civil War, Custer was assigned to the Seventh Cavalry, and he was returned to his former rank of Lieutenant Colonel; his promotion to general had been intended for the war years only. The Custers did not like to be separated, so Libbie stayed at forts near where George was assigned. Libbie wrote: “It is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to one we love.”
Other officers’ wives stayed at the forts some of the time, and the Custers’ rooms, or their tent, if staying on the plains, was frequently the center of camp social life. Libbie often accompanied the cavalry for the first day of each march; then someone would escort her back to the fort where she was staying.
In 1873 Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were sent to the Northern Plains where there were several skirmishes with the Lakota in the Yellowstone area. Then in 1874 Custer broke a treaty the U.S. had signed with the Lakota in 1868 by leading an expedition into the Black Hills. Gold was discovered on the expedition and when the news got out, the Black Hills Gold Rush began. Since the 1868 treaty had signed the entire area over to the Lakota, tensions between the U.S. and the Plains tribes became more inflamed, and violence and acts of depredation on both sides were common.
Tensions continued to rise, and led to the campaign of 1876. The campaign was part of the Grant administration’s plan to round up all the remaining Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians and force them to report to their designated reservations. However, Sitting Bull, the leader of the Lakota, had called together a large gathering of Plains Indians to discuss what to do about the white men; it was this group of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians whom Custer battled at Little Bighorn.
The American plans for the maneuver involved a three-pronged attack, and though an order of attack had been carefully planned, Custer impulsively moved his group forward before the other soldiers were in place. The results were disastrous. On June 25, the Indian tribes massacred Custer’s entire group, including several Custer family members: Custer, two of his brothers, a brother-in-law and his nephew all died. When the military finally discovered what had happened, the men were quickly buried in shallow graves at the site. (Custer’s remains—what little was left of him—were eventually exhumed, and he was reburied at West Point.) News of the massacre did not reach Libbie and others at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Bismarck, North Dakota, for three weeks.
This circa 1908 view of Lawrence Park shows Elizabeth Custer’s house at right. Photo courtesy Bronxville Public Library Local History Room.
Widowed at 34
Libbie was only 34 at the time of her husband’s death. Widows at the time generally remarried, as they had few other options. Libbie returned to Monroe, Michigan, but she soon saw that her financial situation was grim. Her military widow’s pension was $30 per month, and after cashing in George’s $5,000 life insurance policy, she was left with only $4,760, as the company had deducted $240 because Custer was in a dangerous line of work. She sold one of Custer’s horses and auctioned off interest in a family farm, but she knew it wasn’t enough to last long. At first Libbie accepted cash gifts from family and friends, but she wanted a better solution.
While women of the day were not supposed to work, Libbie felt that if any place offered her better opportunity, it would be New York. In 1877 she found a part-time job as a secretary at the Society of Decorative Art, an organization that trained impoverished gentlewomen in practical arts (such as needlework) so they could earn a living. (The organization was founded by Candace Wheeler, who went on to be a partner of Louis Comfort Tiffany.) Libbie remained in her position for over five years.
In 1881 she traveled to Washington to ask for increases in military widows’ pensions. Because women weren’t supposed to talk about money, this was a difficult effort for her, but she was effective. In 1882 her pension increased to $50; by 1890 the government was paying widows $100 per month in benefits.
Elizabeth Custer and Westchester
As adults, members of the Bates family who had grown up with Libbie in Michigan had established themselves in Bronxville, which meant that Libbie became a frequent visitor. The first to arrive was Agnes Bates (Mrs. Arthur Wellington); Agnes then persuaded her older sister Sarah and her husband WilliamVan Duzer Lawrence (also from Monroe) to buy property in the area.
Cover of The Book of Words for the Westchester County HIstorical Pageant.
William Lawrence had netted good profits from a pharmaceutical company he ran in Canada, and since Sarah was eager to return to the United States, Lawrence purchased a farm near the train station where he intended to build a family home as well as a community for artists and writers. He loved the natural landscaping of the area, now known as Lawrence Park, and he had the streets laid out according to the natural flow of the land. Lawrence also brought in another fellow from Monroe, architect William A. Bates (no relation to the other Bates family) to help develop the community.
After visiting frequently, Libbie finally bought land in Lawrence Park in 1896. Her first house was at 20 Park Avenue, next door to Agnes Bates Wellington. In 1902 she built a bigger home nearby at 6 Chestnut, and named it Laurentia in honor of Sarah and William Lawrence. After living there for a few weeks, she began to rent it out for extended periods of time. If the house was rented during periods when she wanted to be in Bronxville, she took up residence at the Hotel Gramatan.
Perhaps because she traveled, often to speak about Custer, she may have considered Bronxville a quiet get-away; however, she did some entertaining there and was often invited to area socials and teas in the area. In 1909 she helped organize a four-day event to raise funds for what would become Lawrence Hospital. One of the events was a historical pageant about Westchester, for which she wrote a section of the script. The event was held on Memorial Day in a large outdoor amphitheatre built on an estate adjoining Lawrence Park. More than 300 costumed citizens, including Libbie, performed scenes depicting the early settlement of Westchester. New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes and area dignitaries joined an audience of several thousand to see what was described as the “largest production of its kind ever held in the county.” Libbie Custer eventually served as a member of the hospital board.
Her Role Defending Custer’s Honor
Shortly after Custer’s death, Libbie had been approached by a writer who wanted her to help him write a book about her husband, but after initially agreeing, Libbie realized that the best thing to do was to write the book herself. Detractors, including President Ulysses S. Grant, denounced Custer for having moved forward at Little Big Horn ahead of time, thereby causing his soldiers to be massacred. Libbie quickly rose to his defense, speaking publicly and eventually writing about her life with him. Her first book was Boots and Saddles (1885), followed by Tenting on the Plains (1887) and Following the Guidon (1890).
Mrs. Custer wrote “The Presentation of the Fatted Calf” for the Westchester County Historical Pageant.
By 1885 she began to receive book royalties. In 1886 her stepmother left her a $5,000 trust, and by 1890 her military pension had risen to $100. All these pieces together finally provided Libbie with income for a decent lifestyle.
She worked tirelessly to raise money to erect monuments in Custer’s honor. Her efforts were nationwide, but there were also a few local ways Custer was honored. There is a Custer Place in Bronxville, and before the United States entered World War I, youths in the neighborhood were encouraged to join “Custer’s Cadets.” The group drilled twice weekly, using wooden rifles, at Christ’s Church in Bronxville.
Her Final Years
Until 1930, Libbie maintained a residence in Bronxville, but during her later years she lived primarily in New York City, residing at 71 Park Avenue. She was in poor health during her final years, but on days when she was feeling well enough, the New York Times reported that she could be seen strolling along Park Avenue with an aide or going to the Cosmopolitan Club.
On May 12, 1933, a report in the New York Times cited details from Elizabeth Custer’s will, dated November 18, 1926. The article reported that the table on which Lee’s surrender was signed at Appomattox and two flags of truce, “one made of a white linen towel and the other of a white handkerchief” that were used on that occasion and had been given to George Custer by Ulysses Grant, were already in the Memorial Hall of the War Department building, and the will specified they should remain there. Today, however, these items are part of the collection on view at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. Custer’s sword and uniforms and a large oil portrait of him that adorned the wall in the living room of the Chestnut Avenue house in Bronxville are also at the Smithsonian. At least one of Libbie’s own dresses from her time in the West can be seen on occasion at the Women of the West Museum in Los Angeles.
Because Elizabeth Custer was so devoted to maintaining Custer’s image, historians avoided stirring up trouble during her lifetime. Only after her death in 1933 did historians begin to re-examine what happened at Little Bighorn. Elizabeth Custer is buried at her husband’s side at West Point.