Review: Elizabeth Bacon Custer And The Making Of A Myth

Review: Elizabeth Bacon Custer And The Making Of A Myth

A look at Shirley Leckie's take on George Custer's wife Libbie

Was Elizabeth Bacon “Libbie” Custer a reliable narrator about herself and her husband?  Not really, Shirley A. Leckie claims in this book.

 “But while her life was interesting, rich, and rewarding, it was also based on the perpetuation of an idealized version of the past.  If one values the ability of individuals to live honestly and confront the truth, then one finds little to celebrate in the Widow Custer’s achievements.”  She writes.

After this she hastens to add: “ We know enough about Elizabeth, however, to understand that she would not have evaluated herself in these terms.”  Then after explaining why (Libbie’s sense of duty to family, which in this case applied to her husband) Leckie closes with: “In light of what she valued most highly –her life as a wife and later widow- Elizabeth had been faithful to her ideals.”

This, to me, illustrates the major problem of what makes this promising work a so-so read in my opinion: Leckie does not take any definitive stance one way or another about matters pertaining to the book’s subject.   Instead, the arguments zig and zag like, well, French Creek does in the park in South Dakota that bears the name of Libbie’s husband George.

Not that the book lacks for interesting material about the life of Libbie Custer, especially in the part before she met George.  But the muddled logic makes the text feel flat, not fresh, and exceedingly dry and clinical.   It does not grip the imagination like, say, Jeffrey Wert’s biography of George Custer does.

There are also some points I took with the proverbial grain of salt.  Leckie claims Libbie altered letters from her husband that appeared in her book Following The Guidon.  Leckie offers as proof that Libbie supposedly left out a part where George talked about the number of Indians killed at the battle of Washita.  She also blandly subscribes to the beliefs that Custer was a bad Civil War general, deserted his command to come see her after hearing rumors a brother officer fancied Libbie, and later had an Indian girlfriend after the Washita.  Sorry, but unless I can see this “altered” letter for myself I’m taking it under advisement, and I’ve long disagreed  with the three negative opinions listed above about Custer.  In fact, allow me to put in a word about the "brother officer" incident: Leckie swallows Frederick Benteen's claim Captain Thomas Weir fancied Libbie and that when at Fort Harker during his ride to her George Custer even "tackled Weir at Harker making him beg for his life on his knees" over it.  Leckie even claims another officer of the Seventh, Edward Mathey, supposedly confirms Benteen's version.  However, I believe both men's story is questionable, given how they were no favorite of George Custer and George no favorite of them, a fact Leckie fails to acknowledge, implying instead that Mathey was somehow a detached, impartial observer, when in reality Custer apparently thought so little of the man he was banished to command the Seventh's pack train at the Battle of Little Bighorn. 

“This work sets the standard for all future research about the Custers,” says a laudatory quote about the book.  I myself feel it falls far short of that mark despite the author’s good intentions when tackling the life of a fascinating person, because half of it is a mere rehash of the "George Custer the villain" image that became wildly popular once his beloved wife died and no longer could influence how he was viewed by his country.