“The Kindness of Gentlemen,” by Alpha Unit

It was early 1933. Mahatma Gandhi was in prison, fasting. Beer was made legal in the United States, eight months before the final repeal of Prohibition. Diego Rivera began a controversial mural at Rockefeller Center that included a portrait of Lenin.

And in April, Elizabeth Bacon Custer died at the ripe old age of 90.

It had been her life’s mission to redeem the reputation of her husband, who had died in battle in 1876. The memory of George Armstrong Custer was not to be tarnished by the events at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

“Libbie” Custer had actually followed her husband on his military assignments. Biographers of Custer speak of how devoted they were to each other, although their relationship began under difficulty. Libbie’s father had not been that impressed with Custer; he didn’t come from a good enough family.

It was his military successes that brought her father around. After being commissioned a second lieutenant, he took part in the First Battle of Bull Run (or, First Battle of Manassas, for the Southerners). He moved up the ranks of the Army throughout his early Civil War campaigns, and after becoming brevet General (a temporary rank) Libbie Bacon’s father relented and approved of their marriage.

Toward the war’s end, Custer distinguished himself with two separate defeats of Confederate armies led by Lt. General Jubal Early. He pursued Robert E. Lee to Appomattox Court House, and was present when the Confederacy surrendered.

This was the high point of Custer’s military career. He went on to serve with distinction in the so-called Indian Wars – until June of 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory.

What happened during this battle, and why, has been studied and debated for over a hundred years. It was a defeat of the U.S. Army by Indian tribes. That was shocking enough for a lot of people. Custer’s 7th Cavalry was devastated. Custer – along with some of his male relatives – was dead.

But Libbie Custer was a part of the reason for some of the reticence about setting the record straight about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. She became her husband’s staunchest defender, becoming an author and lecturer to preserve his legacy as a great military man.

And the men who knew better let her do it.

There was plenty of information that would have shed much-needed light on the events of June 1876, much of it damning of Custer. But because she was a grieving and determined widow, men who had been there kept it to themselves. They let her go out and promulgate the image of her husband as a great military hero defending his position “to the last man.”

All along they indulged her, the way men tend to do with women. You might say they were men of their time – gentlemen who never would have publicly criticized the widow of an Army officer. But whether they were gentlemen or not, what they did took guts. And they resolved that as long as she was alive, they would remain silent.

The thing is, she outlived them. Just like a woman.

References

Elliott, Michael A. 2008. Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer. University of Chicago Press.

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15 thoughts on ““The Kindness of Gentlemen,” by Alpha Unit”

  1. That was part of the *old* social contract between the sexes, the one that women have bailed on, but that men are still responsible for. It irritates me to no end when women like Alpha tout the virtues of that old contract, with absolutely no intention of living up to their end of it.

    1. Yes, Mort. What was the women’s end of the contract? And what tells you that I have no intention of living up to my end of it?

    2. Basically, men as providers and protectors, but gaining certain privileges and deference in return. Comedian Chris Rock symbolizes it as the “big piece of chicken” that should be waiting for a man when he comes home from work. We are still expected to protect and provide–not to mention spare women’s feelings in all circumstances–but the new clause is that we have no right to expect anything in return. Alpha, sorry to include you in that if it does not apply.

      But that Custer story really irritated me. How many common soldiers had to die so these candy a***s could ensure that this highly privileged, delusional woman could continue to be undisturbed in her own private disneyland of the mind?

  2. This isn’t about and old social contract betwen the sexes. This is about people being more aware of social decency. Although I am no fan of Custer.

  3. I respectfully disagree. There is nothing socially indecent about telling people that Custer (for example) was wrong, even if his spouse, etc. might be offended. On the contrary, a good analysis of how and why he was wrong might have saved lives by discouraging others from making the same errors. But instead these senior military officers–with the lives of thousands depending upon their judgment–chose to sweep it all under the rug to spare the feelings of this delicate flower of American womanhood. Sickening. More than sickening, criminal.

    1. What you’re picking up, probably, is that I admire their intestinal fortitude. They clearly felt that they had no choice but to indulge this woman, which seems astounding by today’s standards.

      Perhaps you see it differently – that there is nothing whatsoever to admire about what they did. If so, I think I get it.

  4. I was watching a news report about the situation in Haiti. There are complaints that at the food distribution sites, men are getting all the food. At one camp, they are counteracting this by making sure women and children are attended to first.

    The ability of men to put the needs of women and children first is worthy of admiration, and this situation drives it home.

    The tolerance that those military men exhibited toward Libbie Custer is a variation on this ability. My admiration is for their forbearance, not for Mrs. Custer.

    1. I’m sorry, I just don’t see that. I see a bunch of organization men coddling a well-connected Marie Antoinette wannabe at the expense of the people they were *actually* responsible for, the men under their command. In no way should her “needs” have come first.

    2. The fact that these guys didn’t publicly correct Mrs. Custer doesn’t mean that the U.S. Army wasn’t learning anything from what happened at Little Big Horn.

      I don’t take male forbearance lightly. To me, male self-restraint is the basis of civilization. Women benefit from it all the time, but sometimes take it for granted.

      You don’t think Mrs. Custer should have benefitted from it, and maybe she shouldn’t have. But those men felt that it was their duty to put up with her.

  5. Off topic, but where are the crazy gore videos? I have not seen them for awhile.

    My favorite one was the cow meat grinder* one. Ah man, it was awesome

    1. Right here.

      They’re all over on the old site. WordPress made me get rid of them, so I put them all over on this new site I made, the “evil” site. Also you can click under the “sick and evil” category on this blog to see whatever is left here.

      There’s a whole bunch of new ones too! Yeehaw!

  6. The “power” this woman had was not something she earned or deserved. Those men gave it to her – freely.

    That’s what interests me.

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