As families gather for the holidays, consider the marital dedication espoused by an unlikely couple: George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Elizabeth "Libbie" Custer.
In the portrait of popular memory, the flamboyant "Boy General" is often synonymous with hubris and disaster. In his lifetime, however, Custer's name was garlanded with gallantry. It was to the long-haired blond Custer that a grateful Gen. Philip Sheridan gifted the table at which Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox - an event Custer observed firsthand.
Born to a wealthy judge in Monroe, Mich., Libbie initially snubbed the young West Point cadet's advances. Her father did not deem Custer, the son of a smithy, an eligible suitor for his daughter. The daring that Custer displayed at Bull Run and Gettysburg - which generated national headlines - assuaged the reluctant judge's doubts.
With Custer dispatched west immediately after the Civil War, the newlyweds shuffled among Army encampments from Kentucky to Texas. While many officers' wives remained at well-garrisoned forts, Libbie considered herself "the only officer's wife who always followed the regiment." She often accompanied her husband on the first day of each march - before another officer escorted her safely back.
Despite the dangers of camp life in hostile territory - scorpions, cholera, mutiny - Libbie believed "it is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to one we love," as she recounted in Boots and Saddles, her memoir on frontier life. Custer himself was nearly court-martialed for not being at his post while cavorting with Libbie.
For a well-heeled Midwesterner reared in Victorian values, Libbie discovered the "wild jolly free life is perfectly fascinating. . . . We dress as we like and live with no approach to style."
"When a woman has come out of danger, she is too utterly a coward by nature not to dread enduring the same thing again; but it is something to know that she is equal to it," she wrote in a letter. "Even though she may tremble and grow faint in anticipation, having once been through it, she can count on rising to the situation when the hour actually comes."
The Custers' marriage, while tense at times, displayed an unyielding affection. While many of their friends noted Libbie's flirtatiousness and Custer's womanizing, the couple's dedication to each other was never questioned - correspondence between the two is risqué enough to make a sexting millennial blush.
Libbie last saw her husband as he marched out of Fort Lincoln with the Seventh Cavalry in May 1876, with the regimental band playing "The Girl I Left Behind Me." Perhaps Libbie recognized the irony - she was one who was hardly left behind.
Widowed at 34, with meager support from her husband's Army pension - the Custers had not been frugal - Libbie found it difficult to make ends meet. Perhaps worse than dire financial straits was the simmering criticism of her husband for the Little Bighorn massacre, beginning with Custer's denunciation by President Ulysses S. Grant.
Libbie dedicated the rest of her life to defending and memorializing Custer. Three published works - Boots and Saddles (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1890) - extolled Custer's virtues, including his "honor of womankind," "deference of the aged," and a reverence for religion "so broad that everyone's beliefs was sacred to him." Libbie died a few days short of her 91st birthday while lobbying Congress for a museum at Little Bighorn.
Custer's "old troop boots," as Libbie called them, had been purchased from a Philadelphia boot-maker for $40. They found their way to the Kansas Museum of History after Libbie's death, having, as she wrote, "traversed a great deal of the Western frontier, from near the Mexican border to the Viscinity of the Canadian frontier."