The Custers and their maid
In U.S. history, few military notables have been adulated then hated like George Armstrong Custer. He rose to stellar heights during the Civil War, becoming a general at the tender age of twenty-three. His reckless cavalry charges and dashing looks made him a darling of the Union cause. His wife Elizabeth, or Libby, had jaw-dropping looks that could stop traffic. If you read the newspapers and followed the gossip, indications were anything but failure for “Autie” Custer. After the war, and before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, his career began to slide. Where did it start going wrong? It may have started with a brief stint in Texas.
After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, there was a growing concern that the war would continue in remote Texas. To make matters worse, French forces, under the puppet emperor Maximillian, had occupied Mexico while the U.S. was occupied with the Civil War. President Lincoln was deeply worried that the French would try to retake territory lost during the War with Mexico or form an alliance with the Confederacy. Grant’s able cavalry commander, General Phil Sheridan, was sent to Texas to command Union occupation forces. He invited Custer to come along.
What awaited Custer was a disgruntled body of troops that would grow to despise him with each passing day. After the war, men were anxious to get home to their families. In response, many veteran units were mustered out, but some were forced to stay on as occupation troops. Five veteran Union cavalry regiments, from the Mid-West, were selected to go to Texas. Though the war was essentially over, they were not happy. This duty was for recruits, not veterans that had fought in the war. They wanted to go home now.
Alexandria, Louisiana was the assembly point for Custer’s new command. Alexandria was devastated during the Union’s ill-fated Red River Campaign. Most of the town was sacked, abandoned and burned to the ground. The surrounding farmland was almost devoid of crops and livestock. There was little left for an occupation army except sweltering heat and mosquitoes. When Custer arrived on a comfy steamboat, a less then glowing reception awaited. Although he was from Michigan, his fellow Mid-westerners saw him as an “Eastern Dandy.” His curled, flowing hair and tailored uniforms didn’t help. Custer, his wife Libby, and their maid took up residence at a deserted house where they were supplied with fresh fruits and vegetables purchased locally. His men received nothing of the sort. Because of the lack of palatable rations, there was a strong incentive to steal food from the locals. Roving bands of soldiers scavenged the countryside and threatened the inhabitants. In a show of conciliation toward Southerners, Sheridan ordered Custer to enforce “rigid discipline among the troops, and to prevent outrages on private persons and property.” Custer’s men were in no mood to obey orders; they continued to steal.
As the thefts worsened, Custer was forced to adopt Draconian measures to keep them in line, some of which were against military law. By his orders, any man caught foraging would have his head shaved and receive twenty five lashes on his bare back. If an officer failed to report it, he would be dishonorably discharged.
On August 8, 1866, Custer was ordered to march to the Texas town of Hempstead, an isolated town in a region blanketed with towering pine trees and few good water sources. The 240 mile ride took nineteen agonizing days. Thirsty men began to desert in growing numbers while those that remained smoldered in resentment. The 2nd Wisconsin regiment, the most troublesome of Custer’s command, circulated a petition to be disbanded immediately. They even plotted to assassinate him. An Iowa regiment had complained so loudly, the Iowa legislature and governor issued an official letter of condemnation on Custer.
Upon arrival, Custer took up residence in a tent on the grounds of the nearby Groce Plantation. The plantation had once served as a Confederate prison camp. During his time there, he enjoyed hunting, family visitations and collecting stray dogs. Whenever he rode out, a herd of dogs enthusiastically followed.
Unfortunately, his men didn’t follow with the same enthusiasm. Things got even worse. They were forced to subsist on a dreadful ration of tooth-breaking hardtack and salted hog jowls. With food like that, who wouldn’t steal? Five men were flogged and had their heads shaved for livestock theft. A deserter was shot. One private wrote, “He was only twenty-five years of age, and had the usual egotism and self-importance of a young man. He was a regular army officer, and had bred in him the tyranny of the regular army. He did not distinguish between a regular soldier and a volunteer. He had no sympathy in common with the private soldiers, but regarded them simply as machines created for the special purpose of obeying his imperial will.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
In October, Custer’s command relocated to Austin. The Texas capital was going through a period of lawlessness brought on by the war’s end. Provisional Governor Andrew “Colossal Jack” Hamilton requested U.S. Troops to help enforce the law. Austin’s Blind Asylum became Custer’s new home and headquarters. The roomy asylum was also an ideal place for socializing. During a Christmas party at the asylum, Custer dressed up as Santa Claus.
Austin brought Custer close to society, but it also brought him close to the press. Alleged cruelties against his men began appearing in newspapers. When he learned of one damning article, he confronted a captain of the 1st Iowa who refused to retract it. Custer reached for a horse whip and the captain drew his sword. The fight was quickly broken up before it started. The article was not retracted.
Fortunately, Custer was ordered back east before his own men killed him. The troublesome 2nd Wisconsin was mustered out right there in Austin and sent home. Months later, Custer returned to the West to fight Indians. Trouble still followed him. He was suspended for a year after abandoning his post to visit Libby. He led a controversial cavalry attack on a Cheyenne village that killed women and children. President Ulysses S. Grant was angered when Custer gave testimony on administrative corruption to a Congressional committee. Only a glorious death at the Little Bighorn kept his torch burning for decades ahead.