Editor’s note: Most of the information in this piece comes from T.J. Stiles’ outstanding new Custer biography, “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.”
We think of the Victorian Age — which corresponded with the height of the epoch of the Frontier Partisans — as a period of sexual repression. Sex was strictly for procreation and women were expected to be asexual creatures who must “lie back and think of England.”
That’s a caricature, and mostly bunk. Nothing demonstrates that more plainly than the heated correspondence between General George Armstrong Custer and his wife Elizabeth Bacon Custer. The young couple married on February 9, 1864, in the midst of the darkest days of the Civil War. She was a society girl from Michigan, he was the Boy General, whose flamboyant long hair, broad-brimmed hat and stellar combat record as a cavalry commander had enthralled a nation.
Libbie encamped with the Army of the Potomac or boarded in Washington, D.C. so as to be near to her Armstrong. The couple was most ardent in their physical attraction. Custer took every opportunity to snatch leave for a night with his beautiful young wife. And their letters reflected that ardor; they were often the Victorian equivalent of “sexting.” And this was by no means one-sided. Far from the prudish stereotype of the Victorian woman, Libbie delighted in creative euphemism and double-entendre. She wrote of “a soft place upon Somebody’s carpet,” and of her desire to “sit Tomboy” (as in astride) for a “ride.” They were fond of asking for “just one.” Shocking!
Custer wrote her, “Oh, I do want one so badly. I know where I would kiss somebody if I was with her tonight.”
Libbie’s letters to her husband during the Civil War were so hot that he actually admonished her to tone it down. Not because he didn’t like it or it was “unladylike,” but out of security concerns. His admonishment came after his dispatches were captured by Confederate raiders. The thought of his wife’s intimate banter being read — and guffawed at — by Confederate intelligence officers would have been mortifying.
For, as with much else in the Victorian Age, public appearances were everything. One could not run the risk of his wife being seen to be other than respectable.
The steamy correspondence continued after the war. Some of it revealed a tendency on both parts to play with fire. Custer was a celebrity, a rock star, and he loved the nightlife of Manhattan, his favorite city. With Libbie back in Monroe, Michigan, he wrote her that he was “nearly starved for a ride… (but) I cannot without great expense and much danger enjoy the luxury of a such a ride as that I refer to. I never did enjoy riding strange horses.” I’m sure Libbie was glad to hear it…
For her part, Libbie had a magnetic effect on men, and she was not averse to flirting — which Victorian women elevated to an art form. And in a move that is hard to understand or explain, she brought a very attractive lady friend with her when the Custers were deployed to Kansas. She said that she and Custer devoted “most of our attention … to the selection of a pretty girl… A pretty girl … it was held by both of us, would do more toward furnishing and beautifying our army quarters than any amount of speechless bric-abrac.”
The transition from decorated Civil War general to Indian Wars lieutenant colonel in a severely downsized army was hard on Custer. Myth has made him into a Man of the West, but it really ain’t so. The Custers loved society and the theatre and the urban lifestyle. Armstrong, an avid sportsman, did enjoy hunting on the plains, but the slogging nature of Indian campaigns was frustrating. So was the quality of his troops. He’d gone from leading highly motivated, elite Michigan volunteer cavalrymen to commanding social dregs and immigrants looking for a paycheck in dirty, wearing inconclusive pursuit of highly mobile Indian raiders who avoided coming to grips in the kind of battle in which Custer excelled.
And, by 1867, his passionate marriage was in trouble. As Stiles notes, the reasons are unclear. Letters from the period that are available to historians hint at infidelities on Armstrong’s part. The situation drove Custer nearly frantic. He was surly with his fellow officers, brutally harsh on his men, and sick of fruitless pursuit of his elusive foe. At this point, he valued his wife far more than his military career — and so he threw his career away.
Custer abandoned his command and rode a couple of government horses nearly to death to get back to Fort Riley, Kansas, to see Libbie. Whatever had strained their marriage for the past year was washed away in what Libbie described as “one perfect day,” a day spent, no doubt, in a soft place on Somebody’s carpet and “sitting Tomboy.”
Custer was court-martialed and suspended from the service for a year without pay. It could have been worse. He still had friends and fans in high places — like his old Civil War commander General Phil Sheridan. Apparently, Libbie was worth it all.
As it turned out, Custer was recalled for a winter campaign in 1868, a campaign in which he attacked Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village on the Washita River. It was an inglorious victory, attacking a sleeping winter camp, but it put Custer back in the good graces of the Army command. And, while he and Libbie had reconciled, Custer was not above taking a teenaged Cheyenne girl named Monaseetah as a concubine, disguising the relationship by making her an assistant to his camp keeper. He may have shared her with his brother Tom, who was a badass soldier twice awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action. (Tom would die at his brother’s side at the Little Big Horn).
Cheyenne oral history holds that Monaseetah bore Custer a child. This is unlikely. Libbie never got pregnant and most biographers of Custer believe that treatment for gonorrhea while he was at West Point left him sterile. The child may have been Tom’s.
Such “relationships” were not uncommon on the frontier, and the army and its officers tended to turn a blind eye as long as some level of discretion was exercised. And slaking his lust on a captive woman seemingly did not dampen Custer’s ardor for Libbie. During the campaigns against the Sioux in the early 1870s, he continued to write her almost obsessively — once sending her what might be considered the 19th Century equivalent of a dick pic:
“Good morning my Rosebud. John has been making constant and earnest inquiries for his bunkey for a long time, and this morning he seems more persistent than ever, probably due to the fact that he knows he is homeward bound.”
Libbie Custer would outlive her husband by many, many decades. After his death at the Little Big Horn in 1876, she would write several bestselling books about their life on the wild frontier. Armstrong obviously remained a powerful physical presence in her life. Her descriptions of him are almost sensual. She never remarried.
The lusty Custers were not a Victorian Age anomaly. The era was sexually repressed in the sense that it was regarded as essential that this powerful force must be regulated. And some elements of society were, indeed, extremely leery of sex and urged its suppression. (The more severe repressiveness is countered by a voluminous outpouring of Victorian pornography. Google it if you’re interested). But broadly speaking, within the confines of loving marriage, it was not only possible in the Victorian age, but desirable that men and women enjoy each other.
And that George Armstrong and Elizabeth Bacon Custer surely did.