Custer and Michigan: A mutual love affair

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News

It’s hard to find a public figure in American history more divisive than the dashing Civil War hero and Plains Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer. To some, he was a romantic Western hero, to others a reckless glory hound, and by the late 20th century Custer was portrayed as wantonly slaughtering Native Americans in movies such as “Little Big Man.”

But in the 19th century, Detroiters loved him. He and his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer – “Libbie” – were devoted to Monroe and Detroit.

On a personal level Custer was friendly, boyish, loved hunting and the outdoors. He and his wife had lifelong friends in Detroit. One of his closest friends was a former Detroit mayor, Kirkland C. Barker.

In addition, many devoted soldiers from the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that served under Custer during the Civil War lived in and around Detroit. Custer came to Detroit in June of 1866 to help organize his former brigade into a veterans’ association. When in the city, Custer frequently visited his soldiers, especially men who had been wounded, and Libbie continued relations with Michigan veterans long after Custer’s death.

When he died at the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, the people of Monroe and Detroit saw no controversy, only tragedy.

“Custer is dead. How like a death knell the words fall upon our hearts,” wrote the Detroit Free Press on July 11, 1876. “Custer the brave soldier, the chivalrous gentleman, the kind and sympathizing friend, is no more. ...”

From Ohio to Michigan

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio on Dec. 5, 1839, the son of a blacksmith. He was named George Armstrong after a minister in the area, his parents hoping he might make a career in religion. His friends and family called him Armstrong, or by his nickname, “Autie.”

Custer had three younger brothers and a sister. It was a rough and tumble existence; Armstrong’s brothers and his father, who was described as childish himself, constantly teased and played practical jokes on each other well into adulthood. His mother died when they were children, so Custer’s half-sister Lydia Ann, who was 14 years older, became his surrogate mother. They were very close; Lydia Ann dispensed authority and friendship, but not discipline – no one could discipline Armstrong Custer.

When she married David Reed and moved to Monroe, she encouraged her father to send Custer to Monroe for the good schools that the farming town of New Rumley did not have. So, Armstrong came to live at the Reeds’ home in Monroe at the age of 14. He returned home to Ohio in the summers.

With other boys at the New Dublin School, he played pranks and fished along the River Raisin. In Monroe he met his future wife, Libbie Bacon, who lived nearby on Main Street. When 10 years old she shouted at him while swinging from the front yard gate, “Hello, Custer boy!” – then, embarrassed, ran into her house.

West Point’s worst cadet

At school, Custer took very little seriously and barely graduated from Normal (teacher’s) School. He immediately applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. With the influence of friends, at age 17 Custer was admitted as a cadet in the class of 1862.

Here he began his infamous academic record, racking up more demerits than anyone else in his class and coming within a hair’s breadth of being expelled. He had trouble concentrating on anything that didn’t interest him, and when he did check out books from the library they were romantic novels of dashing cavaliers, flashing swords and beautiful damsels. However, outside of the classroom, when it came to horsemanship and cavalry training, none could touch him.

Several times he might have been kicked out of West Point, but with the Civil War looming, every young officer was needed. On June 24, 1861, George Armstrong Custer graduated last in his class, 34th in a ceremonial line of 34 cadets at graduation.

He returned to Detroit in 1861 a second lieutenant and met with Michigan Gov. Austin Blair at the Michigan Exchange Hotel for approval to join the Michigan Cavalry as an officer. Detroit historian Silas Farmer noted that Blair was “distrustful of Custer’s flowing, blond hair and otherwise effeminate appearance,” but eventually signed his approval.

A crowd estimated at 15,000 to 25,000 assembled for the unveiling of a Custer monument in Monroe on June 4, 1910. President William Howard Taft attended along with Libbie Custer, then 68.

The Civil War and the Boy General

Things began slowly for Custer and his classmates since cavalry was not used in the Union Army at the war’s beginning. However, he very quickly distinguished himself with his superb battlefield analysis, fearlessness and leadership. By the end of the war, Custer had become the youngest major general (at age 23) in the Union Army and a nationally popular superstar known as the “Boy General.”

Earlier, Custer had worked as a staff officer for several generals, eventually being elevated to the rank of captain for top-ranking Gen. George B. McClellan. He was very good at anticipating what information McClellan needed know and where to get it. He reported concisely and accurately and in battle he remained calm. McClellan wrote of Custer:

“In these days Custer was simply a reckless, gallant boy, undeterred by fatigue, unconscious of fear; but his head was always clear in danger and he always brought me clear and intelligible reports of what he saw when under the heaviest fire. I became much attached to him.”

But McClellan was relieved of duty and so was his staff, including Custer. He quietly returned to Detroit and Monroe to await a new assignment. The dashing young captain was the envy of Monroe in 1863.

At a Thanksgiving party held at local school called Boyd’s Seminary, Elizabeth Bacon and Custer were formally introduced. He was smitten by her, even though several of Monroe’s young men competed for her attentions. Libbie was the Belle of Monroe: slim, beautiful, stylish. She spoke French, was intelligent and quick witted. Custer was in love.

He set out to conquer this beauty, which would prove to be difficult as Libbie’s father, Judge Daniel S. Bacon, was among Monroe’s leading citizens, while Custer’s father was a mere blacksmith.

Custer and Libbie Bacon were married on Feb. 9, 1864 in the First Presbyterian Church of Monroe. After the wedding, Libbie followed Custer and his troops to the front lines, as many officers' wives did at that time.

He was relentless. Whenever Libbie left home Custer lurked nearby. It was reported that he walked or rode up and down the street past her home 40 times a day.

Vowing to marry Libbie, Custer returned to his unit. He came back at a good moment: changes in command placed more importance on the use of cavalry. Custer now reported to Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. Over and over, Custer distinguished himself as an attacking, fearless leader. While some considered Custer reckless, many scholars claim military planning was always the basis of every Custer "dash" as he scouted battlefields and carefully gauged weaknesses. Pleasonton was so impressed with Custer’s leadership in combat he jumped him four ranks, from captain to brigadier general.

His soldiers at first were put off by his flamboyant dress that included a velveteen jacket, ornamented with two rows of brass buttons, gold braid spangles on the sleeves, and matching trousers with gold stripes. He wore dramatic Philadelphia style boots that came up to his knees. On each shoulder was a silver star and on his head a low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat. The final touch was a scarlet neckerchief and his famous blond hair in long ringlets.

He even had his own personal pennant: red and blue with crossed white sabers, carried everywhere behind him by an orderly. After a few exhilarating wins, suddenly red neckerchiefs sprouted up among the Third Battalion, as his units developed identity and real spirit.

Custer’s famous charge

It was at Gettysburg that Custer earned national attention as he beat back Jeb Stuart’s cavalry – the “Invincibles” – from attacking Union forces from the rear and probably saving the day for the Union and Gen. Meade. Custer’s method was to gallop in front with saber drawn, leading the First Michigan Cavalry with a cheer, “Come on, you Wolverines!” The 600 Michigan men crashed into 3,000 Confederate cavalry at full speed.

One observer said, “So violent and sudden was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them.”

Custer’s charge at Gettysburg was repeated over and over in other battles. Alongside him was his brother Tom, a captain and an aide to his brother, who won two Medals of Honor in the war.

Now a general, Custer returned to Monroe for a two-week visit after being wounded in the leg:

“Quite a number of young ladies and gentlemen of Monroe had a fancy dress ball at Humphrey House, on Monday evening last, in honor of Gen. Geo. A. Custer, who has been visiting his family and friends here for a few days past.” – Monroe Monitor, Sept. 30, 1863

Libbie’s father was warming up to Custer, who was now known across the country. The judge gave his consent and Custer and Libbie were married on Feb. 9, 1864, in First Presbyterian Church of Monroe. After the wedding, Libbie left Monroe and followed Custer and his troops to the front lines, as many officers’ wives did at that time. She refused to be separated from “her Autie.”

In the fall of 1864 500 of Custer’s saber-swinging Wolverines charged Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early’s infantry brigade and captured 700 prisoners, 52 officers, 2 artillery caissons, and seven battle flags. Custer continued to triumph under the critical patronage of Gen. Phil Sheridan, who promoted Custer and protected him throughout Custer’s career.

At the famous Appomattox Courthouse meeting of Grant and Lee, Sheridan paid $20 for the small table used to sign the surrender documents which ended the war. He gave the table to Libbie Custer with a note: “I respectfully present to you the small writing table on which the conditions for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia were written by Lt. General Grant — and permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.”

Cheered and jeered on U.S. tour

At the end of the Civil War Custer had become every bit as popular as Ulysses S. Grant. In September of 1866 he and Libbie returned to Detroit and Monroe on a “Circle Tour” instigated by President Andrew Johnson. With Grant, Secretary of War William Seward, Admiral David Farragut and other Union military celebrities, the tour promoted the new National Unity Party and a controversial policy of reconciliation with the defeated South.

Riding city to city on the train, Libbie noted that Grant was frequently drunk, while crowds called for him and then Custer to appear at the train stops. While jeered, heckled and threatened in some cities by political gangs like the Pug Uglies, the National Unity train was well received in Detroit. Twenty thousand Detroiters crowded to see them as the procession of carriages left the Michigan Central train depot on the riverfront and proceeded up First to Jefferson and onto Woodward through the throngs.

“… Our great city with its teaming thousands, busy marts of trade, loyal and devoted citizens, has accorded to President Johnson a reception well-fitting so distinguished a patriot. He has received an ovation of which he may well feel proud.” – Detroit Free Press, Sept. 5, 1866

Custer was encouraged to run for U.S. Congress, which he declined. His experiences on the Circle Tour with menacing mobs and even gunfire showed him what to expect if he went into politics.

Assigned to Kansas

In 1860s Detroit the idea of the Wild West was growing popular. One 1862 show in Hamtramck featured a Captain Mosely chasing wild buffalo around a track and demonstrating how Indians killed buffalo with a lance. As the newspaper reported:

“[The buffalo] were not dangerously wild, in fact they might be considered exceedingly tame, inasmuch as they all followed in the footsteps of a motherly old cow…” – Detroit Free Press, Oct. 2, 1862

A year after the war’s end, to Custer’s relief, he was assigned to the Great Plains to prevent Sioux, Cheyenne and Lakota tribes from raiding railroad track crews and attacking settlers. On July 28, 1866, he was given the rank of lieutenant colonel and assigned to lead the newly formed U.S. Seventh Cavalry Regiment, headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas. In the fall of 1866, following the disastrous Circle Tour, he and Libbie were relieved to board a train for Kansas and an unknown future.

For all the serial fiction, dime novels, movies and television dramas of soldiers fighting Indians, actually very little fighting went on. Based on the memoirs of men who served out west, including Custer’s own writing and Libbie’s still readable books, men and their wives did a variety of activities to keep busy: baseball, gardening, band concerts, amateur theater, dances, picnics, horse races and, of course for some, the liquor bottle. (Custer and Libbie did not drink liquor.) Custer had a blacksmith make a pair of dumbbells and worked out regularly.

Custer was a good writer and a regular contributor to a New York-based men’s outdoor magazine called “Turf, Field and Farm.” He wrote under the nom de plume ‘Nomad’ about the frontier life, his interactions with Indians, and especially about hunting, which he loved.

Going on a buffalo hunt “Out West” became a national obsession. Men even hunted from moving train cars. This mania terrified Libbie, especially when men began a fusillade of firing at anything moving, as she described in one of her books: “It was the greatest wonder that more people were not killed, as the wild rush for the windows, and the reckless discharge of rifles and pistols, put every passenger’s life in jeopardy … In the struggle to twist round for a good aim out of the narrow window, the barrel of the rifle … passed dangerously near the ear of any scared woman who had the temerity to travel in those tempestuous days.”

Custer and Libbie held elaborate hunting parties, inviting guests from across the country, many of them celebrities of the day such as circus owner P.T. Barnum. Hunters from overseas, such as wealthy aristocrats from Russia and Britain, were eager to spend a few nights tenting on the plains of Nebraska or Kansas and experiencing the dangerous sport of hunting buffalo.

Custer’s excursions were more like Hollywood African safaris, with 75 hunters, special trained horses, stag hounds, large tents, crated china plates and crystal, a uniformed band and, of course, the “medicine chest” with whiskey.

Detroiters join a buffalo hunt

In October 1869 Custer invited nine friends from Detroit to come out west, led by Kirkland C. Barker, a former Detroit mayor (1864-65) and self-made millionaire who owned one of the largest cigar and tobacco companies in the city. When in Detroit the Custers stayed with Barker and his wife, who owned a beautiful Victorian home on Grosse Ile that still stands today. Custer sailed on Barker’s yacht on the Detroit River.

Barker was an avid hunter and president of the Audubon Club of Detroit (a hunting organization, not to be confused with the bird-loving Audubon Association, which came later). Custer maintained a close relationship with the club, sending trophies of his hunting to be mounted on the Detroit club’s walls:

“The largest of the four elks I killed measured 15 hands high, eleven feet from point of the nose to hind heels. His antlers are the handsomest I ever saw. I [shipped] him to our mutual friend the Hon. K.C. Barker, president of the Audubon Club, Detroit, to be mounted and set up in the rooms of the latter.” -- G.A. Custer, “Turf, Farm and Field,” October 1873.

The Custers returned the hospitality, inviting Barker and other Detroiters to Kansas. The Detroiters arrived by train and spent a night with the Custers at a cowboy hotel in Kansas. The easterners’ reception by cowboy locals was described by Libbie: “The frontiersmen had then, as now, a great ‘despise’ as they put it for the tenderfoot. … One of the [Detroit] men had insisted in wearing a ‘stove pipe hat’ from the East, which to say the least was inappropriate, and attracted as much attention as if he had worn a French bonnet.”

One of the men from Detroit, Jefferson Wiley, wrote of their adventures for the Detroit Post: “Now it was off with the city and on with the hunting gear for we have eighteen miles to go…. Out we go, each of the party carrying two revolvers, soldiers following with carbines; wagons accompanying to bring back buffalo meat and two ambulances ominously suggestive of the danger ahead. … The summit is reached, and there are the buffalo about thirty in number a quarter of a mile distant…. But what immense fellows they are! … with the grace of an elephant and the beauty of a hippopotamus!

“And now, charge! … Keep a firm seat. But hear that ringing cry on the right! That is General Custer. How his voice rings out in the clear prairie air! And at what a speed he dashes on! … Let the buffalo run. Now press him hard. Ride up to him … Out with your pistol … One shot just behind the foreshoulder … Give him another shot, turn your horse quick. He’s pawing the ground … The contest is ended.”

They would kill nearly 30 buffalo, saving the tongues (much loved) and certain cuts and leaving the carcasses for the wolves.

However, Wiley was quick to admit the danger of inexperienced riders firing pistols on galloping horses in close range. One man shot his own horse, another shot his own hand, another found a bullet hole in the collar of his coat from a stray shot, wounded buffaloes gored three horses and one man in the leg, and poor K.C. Barker was thrown from his undersized horse and nearly trampled to death.

The end of Custer

Of course, Custer met his death at the Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876. Actually nearly the entire Custer family died at Little Big Horn: Custer’s brothers Tom and Boston, Custer’s brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and Custer’s 18-year-old nephew, George Armstrong Reed.

That night a rider galloped back to Fort Lincoln through a fierce storm to inform Libbie that five of the regiment’s 12 companies were wiped out: 268 killed. In turn, Libbie, as the wife of the lieutenant colonel, walked to each residence to inform the other wives that their husbands would not return.

Libbie with her sister-in-law Margaret and the other widows sold what they could and packed up what they cherished. Crowds lined the railroad tracks and threw garlands of mourning flowers as they pulled out for the long ride back east.

“Mrs. Custer is completely prostrated by her terrible bereavement and her condition is regarded as very critical. The other ladies, while well-nigh heartbroken under the great grief, are physically less affected. All express themselves as more than grateful for the extreme gentleness and delicacy with which they have been received and cared for along their entire journey.” – Detroit Free Press, Aug. 6, 1876

Libbie went back to Monroe, where she stayed in the home of her former school principal, Erasmus Boyd. Secluded, she spoke to no one. The house was surrounded by reporters from across the country who slipped notes and requests under the doors and even threw stones at the windows to get her to come out.

Almost immediately controversy rose up about the battle and her husband: Ulysses Grant, now U.S. president, blamed Custer squarely for the fiasco. Some military leaders whose sons had been killed also blamed him. Fellow officers who hated Custer flamed the stories of Custer’s showboat vanity.

Libbie remained a widow and wrote and lectured around the world to uphold the reputation of Custer as a hero, an image that remained for nearly half a century, mostly due to her efforts. She explained that she wanted his version of courage, leadership and patriotism to remain and inspire American boys.

On June 4, 1910, she was present with President William Howard Taft at the unveiling of the equestrian bronze sculpture of Custer in Monroe, titled “Sighting the Enemy” by Edward Clark Potter. In the 100 years since, it has been moved three times and now stands at the southwest corner of Elm Avenue and North Monroe Street near the River Raisin.

Libbie lived to be 90 and died in New York City in 1933. As she wrote nearly 30 years after the Civil War:

“Not long ago I was in a small town in Michigan with some of my husband’s old soldiers … I shook hands with a long line of bronzed heroes, now tillers of the soil. Their praise of their ‘Boy General’ made my grateful tears flow, and many of their eyes moistened as they held my hand and spoke of war-times. After all had filed by they began to return one by one and ask to bring their wives and children.

“One soldier with already silvering hair said quaintly, ‘We have often seen you riding around with our General in war-days,’ and added with a most flattering ignoring of time’s treatment of me, ‘You look just the same, though you was a young gal then.’”

CUSTER SITES IN MONROE

Monroe County Museum on Main Street — The museum is located where Judge Bacon and Libbie’s childhood home once stood, later to be relocated. The museum houses an extensive collection of Custer’s items and receives visitors from around the world. www.monroecountymuseum.com/

First Presbyterian Church — Feb. 9, 1864, marked the wedding of Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Bacon. While the church has undergone several renovations since then, it still welcomes worshipers at 108 Washington. http://monroefirst.org/

Emanuel Custer’s House — Custer’s father Emanuel moved to Monroe later in life. The house stands today at the corner of Cass and Third. With the exception of the added siding, it is much as it was in the last century.

The Bacon House — This is the house where young Libbie first playfully cried out to her future soldier husband. Originally located where the museum stands today, it was relocated to 126 South Monroe.

Woodland Cemetery — This tiny cemetery is located at the south end of Jerome Street and is said to be a history of old Monroe. Markers indicate the location of the Custer family plots, including Gen. Custer's parents, sister Margaret, brother Boston, and nephew Harry "Autie" Reed. (Custer and Libbie are buried at West Point.) Near the entrance to the cemetery are the burial places of Libbie's parents.

Acknowledgements

A special thank you to Charmaine Wawrzyniec of the Monroe County Library System for her help on the images from the Monroe Library’s collection.

For further reading:

“Cavalier in Buckskin,” by Robert M. Utley, Univ of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

“Nomad: George A. Custer in Turf, Field and Farm,” edited by Brian W. Dippie, University of Texas Press, 1980.

“Son of Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn,” by Evan S. Connell, North Point Press, 1984.

“Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth,” by Shirley A. Leckie, Univ of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Bill Loomis is the author of three books, “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” “Detroit Food” and “On This Day in Detroit History.” Read more of his writing on Facebook