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