Skip to main content

The Past Reveals Itself

July 2024
1min read

In June of 1970, in an article entitled “The Past Springs Out of a Picture,” we ran a photograph (above) identified as “General George Armstrong Custer … with his wife, a maid, and their baby.” We were quickly reminded by our readers that Custer never had a child. What, then, was the baby doing there?

Now, more than five years later, we are astonished to learn that the baby had every reason to be there, for the languid young officer was indeed its father.

Robert M. Utley, the western historian, has finally cleared up the mystery. “The fact is,” writes Utley,
these people are not George and Elizabeth Custer but Albert and Jennie Barnitz. The black maid holds baby Bertha, who was born in this building (the officers’ quarters at Fort Leavenworth) on March 26, 1870, and the Barnitzes left Fort Leavenworth for retirement on June 21, 1870, which establishes the time frame within which this picture was taken. I have a snapshot of these same four people on the same front porch; Barnitz indeed did resemble Custer, in his nose and his head full of curly blond hair. Note, too, that Barnitz wears the single row of buttons of a captain rather than the double rowthat Custer, as a lieutenant colonel, would have worn.

Barnitz was an energetic officer who served throughout the Civil War with the and Ohio Cavalry. Afterward he obtained a Regular Army commission as captain of G Troop, 7th Cavalry, under his famous look-alike. He fought in the Cheyenne Indian wars of 1867-68 and was severely wounded at the Battle of the Washita. Invalided out of the service, he went on to lead a lively civilian life as a public speaker and traveller, and though he finally did die of his wounds, it was not until 1912. Robert Utley is currently editing his diaries and letters.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.