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Elizabeth Bacon Custer was, in many ways, a very lucky woman. But, if you had asked her if she felt lucky at various points in her life – such as when she narrowly avoided being swept away in a Kansan flash flood, or while she endured an arduous march from Virginia to Texas – she might have laughed heartily at the idea (Leckie, 99, 73-77).

Nevertheless, her life as an Army wife was one that uniquely suited her hopes and her disposition and offered her opportunities not frequently enjoyed by many middle-class 19th-century women. In these ways, despite the difficulties she faced, Elizabeth (Libbie) was a lucky woman. 

A Devoted Wife

 

As many of you probably know, Libbie was married to the infamous General George Armstrong Custer. In addition to his service during the Civil War, George (or Autie as Libbie called him) achieved fame from his actions during the Battle of Little Bighorn.

luckyWhen the news reached Libbie that her beloved Autie had perished in that battle, she was grief stricken (Leckie, 190-191, 199). Despite the tumultuous nature of their marriage, which I briefly mentioned in a previous post, she was truly devoted to Autie.

They loved each other fiercely and Libby reveled in Autie’s fame (Leckie, 58-59, 158). Regardless of his many failings, she remained loyal to him, perhaps even to a fault (Leckie, 86).

After his death, Libbie dedicated the rest of her life to preserving Autie’s memory and to transforming his image from a flawed person into a faultless hero (Leckie, 305-306, 311).

With such intense focus on her husband and his career, both during his life and in his death, it is tempting to think that Libbie might have lost herself in her role as a wife. However, as the author Shirley A. Leckie shows in her biography of Libbie, quite the reverse was true.

Through her role as an Army wife, Libbie achieved the adventurous life that suited her personality. 

 

A Loyal Army Wife

 

luckyWhen Libby was still blossoming into a young woman, she dreamed large dreams for herself.

In a time when many middle-class women were offered few opportunities apart from embracing the domestic roles of a wife and mother, Libbie dreamed of one day being a published author (Leckie, 12).

As an attractive woman, she enjoyed the attention of men but realized that she would find a strictly domestic life “confining” (Leckie, 28). Marriage to Autie in 1864 and life as an Army wife provided a happy alternative to her other options (Leckie, 37).

This is not to say that her life was a bed of roses. Indeed, as an Army wife, Libbie suffered through her fair share of difficulties. She pined for Autie and feared for his safety while he was on campaign during the Indian Wars (Leckie, 94-96, 135-136, 166).

She weathered difficulties on her own, including a prairie fire that came frighteningly close to Fort Riley and a cold winter at Fort Leavenworth without enough fuel (Leckie, 95, 114). On top of the embarrassment of Autie’s court martial in 1867, through which Libbie never wavered in her support of him, Libbie also suffered the humiliation of Autie’s rumored affairs (Leckie, 106, 117, 127).

How she remained stubbornly loyal to Autie in the face of such disrespect – assuming she was aware of his alleged infidelity – is beyond me, but yet her devotion endured. 

 

Fulfilling Ambitions 

 

Perhaps Libbie’s devotion was due to not only the deep love she felt for Autie, but also to the pride she took in making his career and ambitions her own and in recognizing the benefits of her role (Leckie, 58).

As an Army wife, she found her ambitions for a life beyond domesticity satisfied in making “her husband’s career vicariously hers” (Leckie, 58). In 1873, she caught a glimpse of the life she could have led had she married another man.

A lawyer who had vied for her attentions was happily married when Libbie happened to see him again. She wrote to Autie that this lawyer’s domestic life would have bored her, saying that she had ““escaped”” ““a humdrum life”” in exchange for the ““great ambition I have for you and how I bask daily in the sunshine of your glory”” (Leckie, 159).

 

Beyond Autie’s fame, Libby enjoyed the opportunities and attention that came with her role as an Army wife.

 

Instead of remaining in her hometown, Army life gave her the chance to travel. Despite the hardships that came with marching from Virginia to Texas, Libbie’s father appreciated that traveling with the Army was a more appealing option for his daughter than cooking or cleaning (Leckie, 73).

These travels taught Libbie self-confidence through surviving hardships and dangers (Leckie, 155).

This self-confidence proved useful when Libbie had opportunities to meet public figures, such as when she accompanied Autie on President Johnson’s train in 1866, or when she danced and traveled with the grand duke of Russia during his visit to the United States (Leckie, 87-88, 134-135).

Additionally, Libbie enjoyed the attention she received as Autie’s wife and as an attractive woman, with one senator going so far as to call her ““one of America’s model wives”” (Leckie, 103, 121, 123, 127).  

luckyMoreover, Libbie knew that she and her fellow Army wives were ““making history”” (Leckie, 164). While counseling a soon to be Army wife on the hardships and benefits of life with the military, Libbie told this young woman that the drawbacks of Army life were hardly noteworthy if the wife loved her husband (Leckie, 164).

She viewed the Army’s work of opening the West as important, as was the wives’ work of ““keeping the home fires burning”” (Leckie, 164). Concluding her advice to this woman,

Libbie summarized: ““Yes, my dear,”…“we are the pioneer army women, and we’re proud of it”” (Leckie, 164).  

Finally, Libbie’s role as an Army wife gave her the chance to become a published author. After Autie’s death, Libbie wrote books about her life as an Army wife and about Autie. In these books, she described Autie as an ideal man, covering over his many flaws (Leckie, 239, 249-250).

Her idealization has largely been undone by historians now, but the point still stands that her role as a military spouse allowed her to fulfill her youthful dreams of being an author (Leckie, 311). 

 

Lucky to be a Military Spouse

 

Just as Libbie enjoyed unique opportunities because of being a military spouse, I too enjoy many things about life with the Army. The opportunities to travel and explore new places, the friends I have met along the way, and the deep bond my husband and I share from weathering challenges together have all deeply enriched my life.

This is not to discount the hardships of Army life or to take away from the suffering that some endure because of life with the military. But for just a moment, it is helpful to pause and reflect on how lucky I feel to be a military spouse and how grateful I am to be part of the inspiring community of other military spouses.

Libbie’s own gratitude for military life and her keen awareness of her place in history inspires me to find joy despite trials, and to “hunt the good stuff.” 

 

*For more from Anna, visit her M:M Author Page.

 

Leckie, Shirley A. Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

 

 

Author

  • Anna Fitzpatrick Layer

    Anna Fitzpatrick Layer is an Army wife, a mother of two young children, and a historian. Anna met the love of her life, Jacob, while studying history at Cedarville University. Life took her and Jacob in different directions after graduation, during which period Anna obtained an MA in History from Villanova University. During grad school, she and Jacob reconnected and began dating again – even though he was deployed to the Middle East at the time! She and Jacob married in 2016, at which point Anna joined Jacob at Fort Riley, Kansas. In addition to Fort Riley, they have been stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Fort Cavazos, Texas; Fort Meade, Maryland; and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Anna truly loves the adventure of military life and the chance it provides to explore new places! She has found great joy in getting to know other military spouses and in forging friendships by sharing the blessings and trials of military life. In addition to being an Army wife, Anna worked as an online history teacher for several years before becoming a mother. Now, she and Jacob have a three year old little girl, a 6 month old baby boy, and a Golden Retriever who thinks she’s the firstborn child. Anna continues to pursue her passion for history by researching the American Revolution and the Civil War and by collecting (and trying to find the time to read) as many history books as her patient husband will happily move. Besides her love of history, Anna also enjoys playing the harp, baking way too many sweets, studying the Bible, cuddling her Golden Retriever, knitting, and most of all spending time with her family.

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Supporting Our Military Children

Supporting Our Military Children

One thing that has been most important to me, as a military spouse, is figuring out how to best do this life while supporting our children with the changes and difficulties. When my children were very small, there were many times that my husband was away, and I had to parent my children alone.

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