General George Custer was ordered to the Dakotas in the spring of 1873. Elizabeth Custer’s Boots and Saddles (the title comes from the bugle call for the cavalry to mount) chronicles their life from that posting until the general’s death in 1876.
A counterpoint to the purely military memoir, her account provides details about everyday garrison life at Fort Abraham Lincoln, including sketches of townspeople, Indians, camp followers, and soldiers, as well as daily routines, and special amusements. The Custers lived in the Dakotas when it was still the “Wild West” and western legends such as Buffalo Bill and Rain in the Face also stride through the pages of this book.
Elizabeth Custer arrived at the fort during a blizzard with a seriously ill husband, frostbitten soldiers stumbling into the house, and terrified animals howling outside — and coped with it all. She also traveled with Custer on scouting expeditions and visited Sioux villages:
The village was a collection of tepees of all sizes, the largest being what is called the Medicine Lodge, where the councils are held. It was formed of tanned buffalo hides, sewed together with buckskin thongs, and stretched over a collection of thirty-six poles…The poles are lashed together at the tops and radiate in a circle below. The smoke was pouring out of the opening above, and the only entrance to the tepee was a round aperture near the ground, sufficiently large to allow a person to crawl in. Around the lodge were poles from which were suspended rags; in these were tied their medicines of roots and herbs, supposed to be a charm to keep off evil spirits. The sound of music came from within; I crept tremblingly in after the general, not entirely quieted by his keeping my hand in his and whispering something to calm my fears as I sat on the buffalo robe beside him…
Compare this to her description of the General’s library:
Over his desk, claiming a perch by itself on a pair of deer antlers, was a great white owl. On the floor before the fireplace…was spread the immense skin of a grisly bear. On a wide lounge at one side of the room my husband used to throw himself down on the cover of a Mexican blanket, often with a dog for his pillow. The camp chairs had the skins of beavers and American lions thrown over them. A stand for arms in one corner held a collection of pistols, hunting knives, Winchester and Springfield rifles, shotguns and carbines, and even an old flintlock musket as a variety. From antlers above hung sabers, spurs, riding whips, gloves and caps, field glasses, the map case, and the great compass used on marches. One of the sabers was remarkably large, and when it was given to the general during the war it was accompanied by the remark that there was doubtless no other arm in the service that could wield it. (My husband was next to the strongest man while at West Point, and his life after that had only increased his power.)…Large photographs of the men my husband loved kept him company on the walls; they were of General McClellan, General Sheridan, and Mr. Lawrence Barrett. Over his desk was a picture of his wife in bridal dress…
Courage, grit, compassion, and humor…Elizabeth Custer had them all, and they are evident here. Boots and Saddles is one of the few books of military life in the 1800’s from a woman’s perspective and invaluable for that reason alone, but it is doubly important for the light it sheds on George Custer. Fun reading as well!
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