In Tenting on the Plains, originally published in 1887, Elizabeth Custer chronicles the journey with her legendary husband, General George A. Custer, from the time of his leaving the Army of the Potomac in 1865, through Texas, New Orleans, and to the western frontier.
The General’s first post-war assignment was to stabilize Texas.
General Custer not only had his own Division to organize and discipline, but was constantly occupied in trying to establish some sort of harmony between the Confederate soldiers, the citizens, and his command. The blood of everyone was at boiling-point then. The [Confederate] soldiers … came home obliged to begin the world again. The negroes of the Red River country were … all desperate characters in the border States… it certainly was difficult to make them conform to the new state of affairs. The master, unaccustomed to freedom, still treated the negro as a slave. The colored man, inflated with freedom and reveling in idleness, would not accept common directions in labor.
Much of Tenting on the Plains is about the daily routine of military life of the era.
The very ants in Texas, though not poisonous, were provided with such sharp nippers that they made me jump from my chair with a bound, if, after going out of sight in the neck or sleeves of my dress, they attempted to cut their way out. They clipped one’s flesh with sharp little cuts that were not pleasant, especially when there remained a doubt as to whether it might be a scorpion. We had to guard our linen carefully, for they cut it up with ugly little slits that were hard to mend.
Still, there was plenty of action, particularly out West.
In one of these ravines, six hundred savages in full wardress were in ambush, awaiting the train of supplies, and sprang out from their hiding-place with horrible yells as our detachment of less than fifty men approached. Neither officer lost his head at a sight that was then new to him. Their courage was inborn. They directed the troops to form a circle about the wagons … Not a soldier flinched, nor did a teamster lose control of his mules… This running fight lasted for three hours…
General Custer’s myth is created, and then magnified, by his wife in the three books she wrote about their life together (Tenting is the first in chronological order, although it was the second of the three to be published). Her descriptions of the daily rigors of travel, survival, and the people encountered, have become classic historical literature – and in this case, enlivened by the perceptive eye and mind of a woman who, in her own right, became a heroine of the time.
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