Mrs. Custer's Army Life
THE experiences of a woman in rough-and-ready campaigning must necessarily be interesting. There is a novelty in her position and in her view of men’s affairs which is unfailing, and to this is added the attraction of admiration for her pluck. Mrs. Custer’s parents objected to her marriage because of the hardships of barrack-life to which she would be exposed, but in their wildest fears they could not have anticipated the tenth part of what it fell to her duty to endure. Her husband was a campaigner of a thousand, and in following him she had to meet with as much as an officer’s wife could be subjected to by circumstances. Her story 1 is divided into two periods. The war being over, General Custer was dispatched without delay to the Southwest, partly to aid in the pacification of the country, and partly with a view to the contingency of an invasion of Mexico, in case there should be need of maintaining the Monroe doctrine by force of arms. The latter plan was, fortunately, not required to be put in execution. Enough remained in the task of restoring order in Texas to exercise the tact and discretion of the young general and the endurance of his wife. Her narrative is largely one of camp incidents and the discomforts of the marches in Texas. Her description of the journey south, and of the look of the country and the temper of its inhabitants, is a lively account of the unsettled condition of affairs on the close of hostilities; but the main story does not begin until the command advanced into the Texas wilderness. Throughout the volume much attention is given to the personnel of the company immediately about her: the servants, the relatives of the general, the friends among the officers, are the leading characters, and the horses and dogs are given a hardly inferior place; in fact, we have here a history of General Custer’s family, as that word is used in army parlance. The pests of the country, the snakes, tarantulas, scorpions, alligators, mosquitoes, ants, and other live annoyances, naturally fill a large space to her womanly eyes, and are the occasion of many anecdotes. Among the ravages of the ants is one which we believe is unparalleled. It occurred when the general was ill with breakbone fever, and was unwillingly reduced to takinglarge quantities of quinine. As he became convalescent, it was noticed that the enormous ration of pills disappeared mysteriously, not at all to his sorrow. He pleaded entire ignorance, and on watch being set it was discovered that the ants had taken a liking for the round white balls, and when night came would climb the table and laboriously carry off the pills, as many as thirty at one raid. This is only a bagatelle among the troubles which the numerous pests of the region brought about, and which are detailed most feelingly. Such things were by no means the real hardships through which the young wife went with endless perseverance and courage, and for which the few amusements were not to be reckoned as compensations. Life on horseback and in the open air, nevertheless, has such invigoration in it that one can endure almost any measure of discomfort so long as one does not break down entirely ; and Mrs. Custer transfers to her pages the attraction of such existence and its vitality. The family, moreover, was a merry one ; the taste for practical jokes which flourishes in such circumstances was indulged to the utmost; there was a great deal of pure fun and high animal spirits ; and by including all this in the tale, and never losing the sense of comradely which belongs to camping-life, the narrative is enlivened and made real. But there was little regret at leaving Texas, it would seem, except for the separation the move caused when the general’s staff was disbanded.
The second scene of the volume is in the plains of the Northwest, and its adventures are with the buffalo and the Indian. In this portion a near view is had of barrack-life, and Mrs. Custer writes with much sympathy for the temptations which it offers, especially with respect to drunkenness. Her husband was a teetotaler, and this quickened her perception of what a man who did not drink or was trying to reform had to meet at the hands of his companions. But barrack-life is at the best dull, and the interest here is rather in the expeditions of General Custer into the Indian country, with his letters to her, and in her journeys to join him. The humors of the plains, the weaknesses which come out so markedly in the confined life of small groups of men, the negro occupation of the fort, comical incidents, horses, dogs, hunts, all that goes to make up life in a frontier garrison, are portrayed with great detail; the picture is as complete as could be wished. It is too fragmentary and disconnected to have justice done it without liberal extracts. On the march the adventures were often stirring, and there was frequently peril from floods and accidents and Indian ambushes, while there were also much privation and exposure in that unsettled and weather-beaten country. Mrs. Custer was at one time in the exceedingly unenviable position of a woman in an Indian fight, whom the officer in command had promised her husband to shoot in case there were danger of her falling into the hands of the savages ; and though the attack was beaten off, it was quite possible that the officer would have been called upon to do his work, as he said he would have done it without hesitation. But this and other such matters can be left to the reader’s perusal. He will find the narrative full and vivid, if somewhat rambling and diffuse. The very defects of the volume show how much trivialities count for in the frontier life, and emphasize the dreariness of it; and one is brought very close to the lot both of the settlers and the soldiers by the extended view of the hard conditions of existence at that time on the vast border of Western emigration.
What gives peculiar interest to these reminiscences, beyond their value as a record of observations of a life difficult to reach through books, is the personality of the popular hero who is the centre of all that goes on. General Custer’s character has been often described, and here he is seen in his family life without a veil. Frank, brave and humane, quick-witted and self-controlled, he was the beau-ideal, to use the old phrase, of a soldier; he was born and trained to his career, and he had great qualities for its successful conduct. Here he is shown not so much in the field as in the tent; not assailing the enemy with his perfect courage and wild dash of assault, but living with his familiar friends, taking his sportsman’s pleasure in the hunt, indulging his affection for his horses and his innumerable dogs, and, when occasion came, doing his duty with the quiet firmness of the hero. He was in those year’s, the ten years after the war, still in his early manhood, with much of boyish spirit; though he had won his way so rapidly to rank and distinction, he remained young, and the geniality and freedom and warm attachment that made him popular, as much as his ability, were striking qualities of his nature. It was a test of his metal that, being so youthful and open, he had to bear honors and duties beyond his years ; and he endured the test like gold. We find here in his unrestrained and thoroughly natural letters, usually about common things of the day, a passage in which he speaks of himself. He writes from his camp among the Indians to his wife in 1867 : —
“ I have so much to be thankful for in my life, God grant I may always prove as deserving as I am grateful to him for what he has given me. In years long numbered with the past, when I was verging upon manhood, my every thought was ambitious — not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great. I desired to link my name with acts and men, and in such a manner as to be a mark of honor, not only to the present but future generations. My connection with the war may have gained this distinction ; but my course during the last five or six years has not been directed by ambition so much as by patriotism, and I now find myself, at twentyseven, with contentment and happiness bordering my path. My ambition has been turned into an entirely new channel. Where I was once eager to acquire worldly honors and distinctions I am now content to try and modestly wear what I have, and feel grateful for them when they come; but my desire now is to make of myself a man worthy of the blessings heaped upon me.”
These are simple, true words ; and read in connection with this view of his circumstances on the frontier and of his nature as it shows itself in daily life, they bear the stamp of the finest manhood. The tribute that has been paid to his gallantry may well be paid to the man himself in all the compass of his character. His companionship was what made life in the camp dear to his wife, and one does not wonder, although feeling admiration for her devotion, that she chose to endure so much for his sake.
- Tenting on the Plains; or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas. By ELIZABETH B. CUSTER. New York : Charles L. Webster & Co. 1887.↩