Libbie Custer

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She led a life of the most markedly and most strikingly self-contradictory nature. On the one hand, she was quintessentially the professional widow, forcing it to become a very touchy matter for any military writer or officer to criticize Custer for having insanely launched an attack without taking the most elementary precautions or making even an attempt at reconnaissance. To say or write such put one in the position of standing against bereaved Libbie.

On the other hand, she was forceful and strong and making her way unassisted at a time when there were very few assertive women such as she, proud to sit with a group of women writers and artists at an Onteora, New York, summer colony and say, “Why, we are all working women; not a lady among us.” A very shrewd investor, increasingly prosperous, she traveled widely, went to England, Germany, Egypt, Turkey, China, and Japan, and spent winters in Daytona Beach. There was never another man.

Years passed, and decades rolled over the writer-lecturer-investor who was at one and the same time the late brevet major general’s wife ready to help with the pension problems of the widows and children of the men who had fallen with her husband at the Little Bighorn. In 1910 she went back to Monroe to see President Taft dedicate an equestrian statue of her husband. (An earlier one had been erected at West Point, where he was buried, but she declared it a failure, and in the face of her attitude it was taken down and dismantled.) In practically every saloon in the country drinkers saw the famous, and famously fanciful, representation of the Last Stand, and people who had never heard of Generals Miles and Crook knew, or thought they knew, all about Custer.

In 1926, fifty years on, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was commemorated on its site, thousands attending. She listened to a radio description, for never in her life would she visit where her husband and his men had been overwhelmed. A year later, meeting with a magazine writer, her tendril curls worn in the manner of the 188Os, her wedding ring on her finger, she said when asked about the Roaring Twenties bareback dresses of women and what her interviewer termed other extremes of youth: “You know, I keep my sense of the ludicrous.” Hobbling on a cane, whitehaired, tiny, unrecognizable as the Libbie of long before save for the bright and sparkling blue eyes, she asked in her old humorous manner, “It’s really rather suspicious of me to be living on Park Avenue, don’t you think?”

She died in 1933—four days short of her ninety-first birthday. “Heaven would not be Heaven till we are joined together,” Custer wrote her in Civil War times while speaking of the possibility of his death in action. “Autie lies in such a lovely spot,” she had said of his grave at West Point, and there fifty-seven years after the Little Bighorn she went to join him, the old lady put with her young hero, a military band playing “Carry Owen” as she went to his side.