AN INDIAN FIGHTER’S WIDOW: Libbie Custer’s Plunge into Public Relations

INTRODUCTION: The tragedy

The loud knocking on Elizabeth Custer’s door at Fort Abraham Lincoln foretold the grim news. From a somber group of Army officers, the First Lady of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry quickly learned of the death of her husband ten days earlier at the hands of Indian warriors on the Little Bighorn River, 500 miles away in Montana Territory. Attempting to collect herself and fulfill the responsibility she knew was hers alone as the wife of the regiment’s commanding officer, a dazed Libbie wrapped herself in a shawl and set out in sweltering heat to inform other wives living on post that their husbands would not be coming home.1

It was July 6, 1876, only a few months before Alexander Bell’s new invention, the telephone, would be patented. Thanks to messengers emerging from the rugged Montana frontier, news of the tragedy would be telegraphed eastward from the Dakota Territory on the machine introduced 32 years earlier with Samuel Morse’s inaugural “What hath God Wrought” message.

HORRIFIC HEADLINES

The death of Libbie’s flamboyant husband, who in recent years had been no stranger to controversy, would generate bigger headlines than those announcing the inventions of the telephone and telegraph. On July 9, headlines on the front page of the Bismark Tribune screamed the year’s biggest story: “MASSACRED. GENERAL CUSTER AND 261 MEN THE VICTIMS. NO OFFICER OR MAN OF 5 COMPANIES LEFT TO TELL THE TALE.”

Libbie and her husband

Because neither George Armstrong Custer nor the soldiers operating under his immediate command survived to tell the then-incomprehensible story of his defeat by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, speculation began immediately. Within 24 hours, Walt Whitman mailed a poetic tribute, accompanied by his bill for $10, to the New York Tribune for “A Death Song for Custer,” and soon after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face.” 2

In his book, Cavalier in Buckskin (1988), Robert M. Utley observed newspapers were almost immediately responsible for creating “an enormous body of imaginative falsehood subsequent writers drew on uncritically,” adding:

“Within weeks after the news of the Little Bighorn electrified the nation, the groundwork had been laid for one of the most universal and enduring legends of all time. The mystery of what happened on the Custer battlefield, combined with the dazzling and controversial persona of George Armstrong Custer, kindled a fascination in the public mind destined to grow out of all proportion to the true significance of the man and the event.”3

THE ISSUE: Was history rewritten by a publicist?

Writers frequently characterize the grieving Libbie Custer as a publicist who spent her remaining 57 years perpetuating her famous husband’s image as a war hero. Just two days before her 91st birthday, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt grappled with the Great Depression, a headline in the New York Times announced her death: “Kept His Memory Alive.” Media have long alluded to Libbie’s “lifelong mission” aimed at preserving her fallen husband’s image and heroic reputation.

But some, including historian John Carroll, disagreed that Libbie set out on a mission of any kind following her husband’s death. In his introduction to General Custer’s Libbie (1973), he noted Libbie simply sent letters typical of grieving widows, and wrote memoirs “reflecting what she observed and heard, as a woman who remained in love and loyal to the boy general”4 and Civil War hero she married when she was 22.

Was Libbie so inordinately gifted and persuasive that she inhibited critical discussion for a half century, perhaps altering history as many have suggested? The purpose of this paper is to examine methods she utilized while attempting to mitigate what she perceived as negative publicity about her husband following his death, and to speculate about them and their impact.

A BACKGROUND: A pioneer among publicists

Six years after Libbie’s death in 1933, the American Council of Publication Relations was established; eighteen years later New Yorker Anne Williams Wheaton became associate press secretary to President Dwight Eisenhower, the first woman to hold such a position. Wheaton’s appointment called attention to the growing role of women in public relations—a field emerging in the early 20th century.5

Though individuals adept at spreading promotional messages have always existed, the most prolific and influential female practitioner during the 19th century may indeed have been Libbie Custer. Educated, beautiful and charming, she sweet-talked congressmen and generals on behalf of her husband during the Civil War.  Following his death, she persuaded writers to create an untarnished image of the slain hero in order to re-sell him to the American public,6 and she eventually wrote her own books lionizing him and romanticizing their lives together.

Before she died, her devotion had influenced many honors: Congress created the Custer State Park Game Sanctuary in South Dakota; an elementary school in Detroit was named after him; the Custer Battlefield Highway extended from Nebraska to Montana; and his likeness was reflected by statues at West Point, and Monroe, Mich., while another would eventually be erected near his birthplace at New Rumley, Ohio.

That Libbie was a pioneer among publicists begs little question. Custer detractors including biographer Frederic Van de Water, however, have suggested much of true historical importance was lost out of consideration for the widely-admired widow, that witnesses who could shed light on Custer’s final hours bit their tongues rather than injure her further.

During the last four decades of Libbie’s widowhood, as well as the two that followed, the Custer legend became enormously convoluted, spawning in addition to literary works an array of art, movies and songs. In contrast to hundreds of books and thousands of articles written about her husband, little has been written about Libbie.

THE LITERATURE: From bliss to battlefield

Libbie

To understand Libbie, one must know something about her marriage and the husband to whom she was inordinately devoted. “She married for love,” wrote biographer Lawrence Frost in General Custer’s Libbie. “There was nothing else to marry a soldier for.”7 Libbie and Armstrong, as she called her husband, were wed on February 8, 1864, seven months after Gettysburg, and less than a year after a promotion made him the army’s youngest-ever general.

Energetic and effervescent, Libbie was constantly near her husband during the war, as close to the action as she was permitted to be while living mostly in Washinton, D.C. Spending her honeymoon in muddy Virginia battlefields,8 Libbie became the only officer’s wife to “live in a tent on the edges of a Civil War battlefield, ride in the ranks with the soldiers, and accompany the 7th Cavalry on many of its expeditions.”9 As newspapers increasingly extolled the heroism of her husband, Libbie also enjoyed celebrity status and new social privileges. At the White House, she met President Abraham Lincoln, who took her hand and said, “So you are the wife of the general who goes into battle with a whoop and a holler!”

RESPONDING TO BAD PRESS

The widespread outpouring of sympathy following her husband’s death thirteen years later at the Little Bighorn did little to bring Libbie from her utter grief. A piece in The New York Times of July 18, 1876, less than a month after the tragedy, announced a new town in Illinois had been named Custer in honor of the gallant hero, while a week later The New York Herald proposed erection of a national Custer Monument from private contributions, and pledged the first $1,000. In Michigan, the cities of Bay City and Monroe initiated efforts to install statues honoring the war hero from the Wolverine state.10

Before her shock began to subside, however, Libbie received more distressing news. Of several allegations leveled against her husband in the press, one of the most devastating appeared in the Philadelphia Enquirer alleging his command had perished because he had disobeyed orders. She read and re-read her husband’s last letter to which he had attached a copy of his official orders from General Alfred Terry, his brigade commander. Included in the vindicating verbiage:

“It is of course impossible to give you any definite instructions … the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to impose on you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.”11

The Army general who she most admired, Phil Sheridan, also disappointed Libbie by publicly attributing Custer’s defeat to “misapprehension and superabundance of courage” while Colonel Sam Sturgis, whose son died in the battle, told the press Custer had been “a very selfish man who was insanely ambitious of glory.”12 Even more heartbreaking were the words of then-President Grant during an interview with the New York Herald: “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary—wholly unnecessary.” 13

PRAISE FOR A DEAD LION

Following adverse press reports, Libbie immediately set out “to counter such aspersions,” observed author Shirley Leckie in a 1993 article, “The Woman Behind the Myth,” published in American History Illustrated, and found “an ally in Frederick Whittaker, well-known for his popular dime novels.”14 Characterized as a “hack writer” by historian Paul Andrew Hutton in an essay published in the Custer Reader (1988), Whittaker appeared on the scene just in time to “champion the cause of the dead lion,” comparing Custer favorably to Napoleon. According to Hutton:

“The dust had barely cleared on the battlefield before Whittaker began work on his biography of Custer. He turned the book out with remarkable speed, publishing it in December 1876. The hero who emerged from the pages of Whittaker’s A Complete Life of Gen. George A. Custer was a figure of epic proportions, no less than one of the few really great men that America has produced,” and “as a soldier there is no spot on his armor.”15

Whittaker’s book, a glowing biography drawing mostly from newspaper reports as well as Custer’s own memoirs My Life on the Plains and correspondence made available by Libbie, inspired many other pro-Custer biographies. Though Libbie considered Whittaker’s book to be poorly written, it served her immediate purpose in mitigating bad press. Whittaker’s heroic image prevailed for decades until Libbie died.16

ANALYSIS: Blame and image restoration

In their paper, “Libbie’s Last Stand: Image Restoration, the Press and Public Memory,” educators Karen Miller Russell, Janice Hume and Karen Sichler, observe Libbie, at 34, with virtually no family and no longer a military wife, “was forced to forge a new life” and did it “with a pen.” The authors conclude Libbie’s “lifelong mission served not only to defend her husband but also to protect her own image,” adding “to have allowed others to pin the blame on Custer would have diminished not just him but also his widow. “17

Citing Benoit’s image restoration theory, they argue when mistakes are criticized, “our image is threatened, (and) we feel compelled to offer explanations, defense, justifications, rationalizations, apologies, or excuses for … behavior.” Though Libbie was neither a newspaper reporter nor an editor, the authors point out her voice was frequently represented in one of the aforementioned contexts on pages of newspaper and magazines, with substantial influence since “scholars have long recognized a connection between publicity and public memory.”

Libbie “situated her husband in exactly the ways modern scholars have identified as necessary for the maintenance of reputation,” the authors add. She bolstered his image by donating artifacts, positioning him as a war hero, and portraying him as a benevolent husband.

THE BLAME GAME

Libbie

Quick to defend against perceived injustices directed toward her fallen husband, Libbie frequently turned to allies for assistance. Among the most influential, General Nelson Miles had quieted detractors who attributed her husband’s rapid Civil War promotions to chance by claiming Custer’s luck was due to his good judgment in doing the right thing at the right time.19 Having himself achieved what was arguably the army’s best record as an Indian fighter, Miles had thoroughly investigated Custer’s battlefield following the fight and was convinced two ranking officers who were deployed with contingents of Custer’s regiment just three to four miles away had betrayed him and contributed to his defeat by not rushing to his aid.

Encouraged to learn of Miles’ opinions, Libbie along with her old writer-ally Frederick Whittaker persisted with “efforts to secure an official inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Custer’s death.” Whittaker, whose pro-Custer biography had made similar claims against the officers, Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen, urged a congressional investigation. 20 Ultimately, a military Court of Inquiry was convened in January, 1879, to hear the matter but to the dismay of both Libbie and Whittaker, the two officers were exonerated.

Defeated, Libbie turned her attention to a different sort of skirmish—protesting a new statute that had been erected in her husband’s honor at West Point. Upset that she had not been consulted about the project her objections were voiced repeatedly. Custer was portrayed incorrectly in terms of dress and weaponry, she protested, and the face is “that of a man 60 years old.”21

Upset further to learn of a congressional bill supporting a movement to replicate the statue in Washington, D.C., Libbie initiated a vigorous letter-writing campaign, augmented by petitions signed in both Michigan and New York. Her effort was successful and the plan died in committee.

LIBBIE’S FAVORITE WEAPON, THE PEN

Libbie became a writer by accident. The only daughter of a judge, she was born into privilege. Though her mother died when she was 12, Libbie was a well-adjusted child who excelled in school. On her 10th birthday, she wrote in a bound diary given to her by her father: “This is my birthday. I am ten years old. Father bought this book one year ago … so I begin today.”22 By the time she became valedictorian of her female seminary in Monroe, she had come to “adore” George Eliot, Tennyson and even Shakespeare.23

Following her marriage to Custer, Libbie was quick to pick up a pen to write letters that became more eloquent as she matured. To a friend in 1864, she reported that a newspaper’s representation “all is quiet along the Potomac is rubbish … something is happening all the time. One day this week, six rebs escaped from the Davis dominions across this river.”24 A letter to another friend following Lincoln’s assassination suggested a growing dislike of politics: “He (Custer) has positively declined running for Congress, and will do so on no consideration, much to my delight.”25

GOOD ADVICE FROM A BAD BIOGRAPHER

The idea to try her hand at professional writing first dawned on Libbie in early 1880 after settling her financial affairs; she had only $113 to her name and attorneys’ fees were yet to be paid. Arriving in New York City three years earlier, Libbie had taken her first-ever job following months of idleness in Monroe. In a secretarial position, she answered letters, received office visitors, arranged classes and worked on art displays.26 The pay had been meager but now Libbie believed writing might augment her income. Though recognizing flaws in Whittaker’s biography of her husband, Libbie again turned to him for advice.

“Sit down and write,” said the master of dime novels. “Use short sentences preferably. Avoid using the dash. Don’t be afraid to correct. Talk on paper as you talk viva voce and you conquer all mankind”27

WRITING ABOUT BLISS

To a friend, Frances Kingsley, Libbie later explained why she wrote. “I took up my pen to pay my small tribute to my loved one,” she said. “The actual writing was not so hard, but looking in his letters to make extracts for the appendix and preparing the few brief pages for the final chapters cost me such anguish that I will nigh never come to myself again.”

Louise Barnett in her book, Touched by Fire, observed “had Custer lived and continued to write, it is unlikely he would have enjoyed as much popularity as a writer as Libbie did.” It was only after nine years of widowhood that Libbie undertook a mission, noted Barnett:

“No letter about her husband would go unanswered. No matter concerning him would be too trivial to escape her attention.”28 Libbie then produced three books of memoirs in only five years, all depicting the frontier life she had shared with her husband:

  • Boots and Saddles. 1885, described the Dakota years leading up to the Little Bighorn.
  • Tenting on the Plains, 1887, chronicled the Custers’ post-war years in Texas before arriving in Kansas.
  • Following the Guidon, 1890, was devoted to the Custer years in Kansas.

Robert M. Utley in his book, Cavalier in Buckskin (1988), described Libbie’s books as non-controversial, “intimate portrayals of a saintly husband and an idyllic marriage, and they made their legions of readers see him as she wanted him seen.”

Acclaim for each of the books was initially widespread, though many critics today, including the Mandan Historical Society’s (North Dakota) official website, characterize them as “brilliant pieces of propaganda aimed at glorifying her dead husband’s memory.”29

FLAMES FANNED

Libbie

Libbie’s books re-kindled interest in her husband but opened old wounds. In late 1890, Libbie was upset to learn excerpts from an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine had been reprinted and widely circulated. Three years earlier author Charles King had praised Libbie’s Tenting on the Plains, but now Libbie saw the reprint of King’s earlier piece as a betrayal since he had assigned major responsibility for the Little Bighorn tragedy to her husband.”30 She rejected King’s apology–though he pointed out he’d written the article seven years earlier–and turned to her old ally Godfrey to help prepare a mitigating article.31

Meanwhile, Libbie was discovering that lecturing paid better than writing. In his biography, Custer (1957), Jay Monaghan observed Libbie was frequently called on for “readings” after new editions of her books began to appear during the 1890s. As controversy about her husband rose to new levels, Anheuser-Busch reproduced copies of a celebrated painting depicting “Custer’s Last Fight” for widespread distribution in barrooms.32 According to Monaghan, the original,

“…evidently painted with due elaboration from an illustration in Whittaker’s book, undoubtedly did much to perpetuate the Custer story, which received another fillip in January, 1892, when Libbie’s friend, Richard Watson Gilder, published in Century Magazine a lecture favorable to Custer which Godfrey had given at West Point.”33

The Glider/Godfrey article absolved Custer of irresponsibility at the expense of other officers in the engagement but revived old army jealousies, and more quibbling followed. The brother-in-law of General Terry, now deceased, responded to Century with a letter insisting Custer had disobeyed orders at the Little Bighorn.

To Libbie’s dismay, even General James Brisbin “followed the jackals by printing Custer’s official orders with an alteration implying Custer was unquestionably guilty,” observed author Monaghan.34 Libbie bolted to her husband’s defense and succeeded in discrediting antagonists including General Brisbin by having the correct and accurate version of Terry’s pre-battle orders published. But by this time, observed Monaghan, twenty-one years had passed and the recollections of all parties had faded, including those of Libbie who now added to proof of Brisbin’s falsification new allegations and dubious innuendos of arms sales by the department of the Interior to Indians preparing for war against her husband.35

BIG BATTLES OVER LITTLE

In 1908, the ever-vigilant widow objected to another article published in Century Magazine, authored by her ally Godfrey, now a retired brigadier general. The piece, “Custer’s Last Battle,” included a 32-year-old comment from Miles Moylan, an officer who like Godfrey had also served at the Little Bighorn, though detached from Custer’s doomed command. “Gentlemen, in my opinion General Custer has made the biggest mistake in his life by not taking the whole regiment in at once in the first attack,” Moylan was reportedly heard to say from a hilltop during the battle within earshot of Godfrey.

Libbie’s objections to the Godfrey article in response to this seemingly-innocuous sentence were to no avail since the magazine was already in circulation. But by the time the 45th anniversary of the Custer fight was observed at the battlefield in 1921, however, Godfrey had changed his opinion about the worth of that sentence, citing further study. At her request, Century Magazine printed and distributed 1,000 revised copies of “Custer’s Last Battle” for the event, though Libbie was not among those who attended.

50 YEARS OF WIDOWHOOD

In 1926, thousands attended a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn at the very spot where the bodies of Custer, his brothers and nephew were discovered following the fight. Libbie, who never visited the place where her husband had been overwhelmed, sat in her Park Avenue apartment in New York City and listened to a radio description.

Meeting with a magazine writer the following year, her wedding ring still on her finger, Libbie was asked about the popular bareback dresses women wore during the Roaring Twenties. The white-haired widow, hobbling on a cane and “unrecognizable as the Libbie of long before—except for the bright and sparkling blue eyes”—said, “You know, I keep my sense of the ludicrous.”36

AFTER LIBBIE

Following Libbie’s death in 1933, detractors including E.A Brininstool, perhaps influenced by heroic depictions of Custer in movies and expanding mass media, became increasingly outspoken in their condemnations. Defending Custer’s ranking officers who failed to come to his aid, Brininstool published Major Reno Vindicated in 1935. Then, four years later, Brininstools’ friend, Fred Dustin of Saignaw, Mich., wrote The Custer Tragedy, portraying Custer as “one of the most over-rated men on the stage of American life.”37

With Libbie gone, Dustin opined Reno had been maligned by the writings and sway of Libbie, alleging her “personality, charm and literary ability had a powerful influence in preventing writers from telling the cold truth.”38 In her 1993 article for American Heritage Magazine, “The Woman Behind the Myth,” author Shirley A. Leckie noted Frederic Van de Water in 1931 also believed Libbie had influenced publicity about her husband. Van de Water had written Godfrey who as a young lieutenant served under Custer with questions about inconsistencies that surfaced while researching a prospective biography.39

Because Van de Water had found Custer’s character “strange,” and was unable to “explain the aberrations and reticence that two years of reading leave still unexplained,” he sought Godfrey’s opinion about “how much of true historical importance has been omitted by those who have written of him, out of consideration for his widow.”

INHIBITING CRITICAL DISCUSSION

In her book, Elizabeth Bacon Custer: The Making of a Myth (1993), Leckie notes Van de Water was not the first to recognize the possibility that Libbie “played a role in inhibiting critical discussion of her late husband.”40 Walter Camp, a devout student of the Custer fight had expressed similar concerns after conducting exhaustive interviews with scouts and soldiers who remembered Custer, including Lieutenant Luther Hare who supervised scouts at the Little Bighorn just prior to the fatal engagement.

Believing Hare held Custer responsible “for the entire disaster,” Camp in 1925 shared his thoughts with Colonel W. A Graham, whose book, The Custer Myth (1953), remains among the leading source books for students of the battle. “Because of the great regard he (Hare) held for Mrs. Custer, he would not permit himself to be quoted to that effect,” writes Leckie.41

As propriety characteristic of the 19th century spilled over into the 20th, others may have been reluctant to offend Custer’s widow. “Because the army and the public saw Libbie as a model wife and a devoted widow, many Custer critics withheld their comments during her lifetime,”  adds Leckie. Theodore Goldin, a Seventh Cavalry veteran–albeit one whose credibility has been questioned by numerous authors–wrote in 1928 to a friend that Elizabeth Custer was a loyal, loving wife and “every man’s heart bled for her.” That alone, he suggested, was “responsible for the suppression of a lot of matters that may throw a clearer light on that campaign.”42

A NEW LOOK AT AN OLD HERO

Libbie’s efforts influenced Americans for more than a half century to view George Armstrong Custer as a hero who contributed heavily to westward expansion. Following Libbie’s death, a nation emerging from the Great Depression and increasingly critical of businessmen and corporations embraced the film depiction of Custer challenging corruption among railroads in the movie, “They Died with Their Boots On,” observes Leckie. But a decade later, Errol Flynn’s heroic, handsome and charismatic Custer “could not stem the scholarly reevaluation underway.” While Flynn provided the prevailing version of Custer for many in 1941, the next generation was convinced the insane depiction of Custer in “Little Big Man” (1964) as a “cruel megalomaniac bent on sending the Indians the way of the Buffalo” was more accurate.

As Paul Hutton observed in The Custer Reader (1988) ”The only consistency in the way Americans have viewed Custer, from decade to decade, has been a remarkable disregard for historical fact.”43

LIBBIE’S LEGACY

As a publicist, Libbie was ahead of her time. Her candor and eloquence were widely admired as they might be today. Biographer Lawrence Frost described Libbie as a press agent44 and in later life her letters to editors and thank you notes to “whoever writes an article or book, a play or a poem,” were well-received. But, unlike most press agents today, Libbie’s only client was herself.

The observations of her most recent biographer, Louise Barnett, would not have pleased Libbie:

“Certainly Libbie did devote her best energies to her husband’s memory but the power that historians have attributed to her has been greatly exaggerated. She may have succeeded in getting a statue of her husband removed from West Point because of her personal pique at being ignored by the selection committee, but this was of relatively minor consequence and hardly to the advantage of perpetuating his memory. In the far more significant matter of the court of inquiry into Major Reno’s conduct, Libbie was bitterly disappointed. The official army verdict exonerated Reno’s action on the battlefield . . . which by implication, condemned her husband’s.” 45

Leckie’s assessment of Libbie differs only slightly: “Throughout her long years of widowhood, Libbie had devoted herself to perpetuation of an idealized version of her husband’s character. Her purpose, stated over and over, had been to transform him into a boy’s hero. In that way, she had sought to inspire youth to become what she claimed he had been. She performed her self-appointed task so well that even today she remains one of her country’s little-known but most successful mythmakers.”46

More critical than Barnett, who attributes the Custer myth to a woman whose honesty had never been called into question, Leckie notes that almost sixty years after Libbie’s death much of her work has been eroded and historians have uncovered a flawed and contradictory individual beneath her attractive boy general:

“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.“47

Ultimately both Leckie and Barnett reject Libbie’s passionate but informed depiction of her husband and, by implication, consider him at fault for the Little Bighorn tragedy, a question Custer historians and scholars continue to debate.

THE GRIEVING WIDOW

Following her husband’s death, Libbie Custer clearly did not embark on a lifelong mission. Crushed and despondent during the last half of 1876 while seeking refuge in her hometown of Monroe, she sought a change of venue and moved to New York where she worked as a secretary. Her actions were typical of grieving widows who mourn the loss of a spouse, as Carroll noted.

Despite exceptional writing skills, Libbie was generally reactive rather than proactive in defending her husband in the press. Except in response to the attacks of others there is no evidence that Libbie ever submitted or was rejected in seeking publication of any manuscript, letter or document concerning the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Brutally honest and meticulous in her articulations, Libbie was persistent and persuasive in her efforts to defend her slain husband’s reputation. Other than the aforementioned words of Barnett and Leckie, there appears to be no credible challenges to her integrity, or evidence suggesting her own writings contain propaganda, disinformation or misinformation.

DEFENDING A HERO

There is little evidence that Libbie caused witnesses to withhold significant facts to change or alter the historical record. Most probably, those who would have employed hearsay or falsehoods to demean her husband while she was alive thought twice before subjecting themselves to the scrutiny of Libbie, who earlier had exposed the falsification of documents by none other than General Brisbin himself.

In “Libbie Custer’s Last Stand,” Russell et al observe “the endurance of Custer’s memory can be explained, in part, because he fits a heroic mold. ‘Heroes exhibit similar attributes: distinctive physical skills, an exemplary response to a set of challenges or a particular challenge, and admirable moral characteristics.’” Though her initiatives indeed played a role in keeping her husband’s memory alive,” most were merely responses to accusations and innuendos she believed to be false . In the same way she was swept into fame as a 22-year-old war bride, she was simply thrust into controversy as a result of the stunning death of a flamboyant and popular hero who happened to be her husband.

Like any good wife, Libbie employed every resource at her command to defend against those who would castigate her husband. Her skill sets were remarkable and she possessed all the right qualities to be liked, persuasive and memorable—tenets of successful marketing. Instead of devices available to famous people in the 21st century—including talk show appearances, blogs, tweets, email blasts, uni-casts and infomercials—Libbie was compelled to rely mostly on hand-written letters and courtesy calls.

With her husband, Libby had lived a remarkable life, frolicking on horseback near battlefields and, later, in fields far beyond railroads under construction. During their lives together and after his death she met presidents and heads of state. As a widow she was understandably vigorous and unwavering in her efforts to preserve the memory of the love of her life. She spoke up against detractors. She paid tribute. And she continued loving him. As General Miles argued while defending the Civil War record of Libbie’s soul mate, she was not necessarily lucky as much as she was gifted in her ability to do the right thing at the right time.

–Ken Berry

NOTES
1 Louise Barnett, Touched by Fire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 306.
2 Paul A. Hutton, The Custer Reader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992) 401.
3 Robert M. Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988)
4 Lawrence A. Frost, General Custer’s Libbie (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976), Forward by John M. Carroll, 9.
5 R.D. Smith, Pioneers in Public Relations, 2008. Online. http://faculty.buffalostate.edu/smithrd/PR/pioneers.htm.
6 Shirley A. Leckie, Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993)44.
7 Lawrence A. Frost, General Custer’s Libbie (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976)
8 Edgar I. Stewart, Custer’s Luck (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955)
9
10 Lawrence A. Frost, General Custer’s Libbie (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976)229.
11 Edward S. Godfrey, Custer’s Last Battle ,reprinted in The Custer Reader (Lincoln: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988)273.
12 Robert M. Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988)6.
13 Ibid.,6
14 Shirley A. Leckie, “The Woman Behind The Myth,” American History Illustrated, Sep/Oct. 1993. Online.
15 Paul A. Hutton, The Custer Reader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992) 399.
16 Lawrence A. Frost, General Custer’s Libbie (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976)
17 Russell, Karen Miller, and Janice Hume, and Karen Sichler. “Libbie Custer’s Last Stand: Image Restoration, the Press and Public Memory.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2007. Online.
18 Ibid.
19 Louise Barnett, Touched by Fire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 30.
20 Jay Monaghan, Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959) 399
21 Louise Barnett, Touched by Fire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 373.
22 Lawrence A. Frost, General Custer’s Libbie (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976)25
23 Elizabeth B. Custer, Tenting on the Plains (New York: Charles L. Webster, 1887), 251.
24 Lawrence A. Frost, General Custer’s Libbie (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976)102
25 Ibid.,153
26 Gene Smith, “Libbie Custer.” American Heritage Magazine,Dec.1993. Online.
27 Louise Barnett, Touched by Fire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 365
28 Ibid., 359
29 MANDAN Historical Society “Elizabeth Clift Bacon Custer,” Online. http://www.mandanhistory.org/biographiesak/elizabethcuster.html
30 Louise Barnett, Touched by Fire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996),
31 Ibid.
32 Jay Monaghan, Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959) 407
33 Ibid., 407
36 Gene Smith, “Libbie Custer.” American Heritage Magazine,Dec.1993. Online.
37 Shirley A. Leckie, “The Woman Behind The Myth,” American History Illustrated, Sep/Oct. 1993. Online.
38 Shirley A. Leckie, Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993)308.
39 Shirley A. Leckie, “The Woman Behind The Myth,” American History Illustrated, Sep/Oct. 1993. Online.
40 Ibid.
41 Ibid.
42 Shirley A. Leckie, Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993)303.
43 Paul A. Hutton, The Custer Reader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992) 420.
44 Russell, Karen Miller, and Janice Hume, and Karen Sichler. “Libbie Custer’s Last Stand: Image Restoration, the Press and Public Memory.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2007. Online.
45 Louise Barnett, Touched by Fire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996) 401.
46 Shirley A. Leckie, Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993)311.
47 Ibid.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Books
Barnett, Louise, Touched by Fire. Henry Holt and Company, 1996
Custer, Elizabeth B. Boots and Saddles. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1885.
Dustin, Fred. The Custer Tragedy: Events Leading up to and Following the Little Big Horn Campaign of 1876. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers. 1939.
Hutton, Paul Andrew, ed. The Custer Reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Frost, Lawrence A. General Custer’s Libbie. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976.
Graham, W.A. The Custer Myth: A sourcebook of Custeriana. New York: Bonanza Books, 1963.
Leckie, Shirley A. Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of A Myth. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993
Merington, Marguerite, ed. The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth. New York: Devon-Adair, 1950.
Monaghan, Jay. Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer. Boston: Little, Brown, 1957.
Stewart, Edgar I. Custer’s Luck. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.
Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier: Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma Western Biographies, 1988.

Online Materials
Monroe County Library System (Michigan). Custer Collection.

http://monroe.lib.mi.us/

Leckie, Shirley A. “The Woman Behind the Myth.” American History Illustrated, Sep/Oct93. Vol. 28 Issue 4, p38, 11p, 6 Black and White Photographs
(UNC onyen required)

https://auth.lib.unc.edu.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ezproxy_auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=9311100677&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Russell, Karen Miller, and Janice Hume, and Karen Sichler. “Libbie Custer’s Last Stand: Image Restoration, the Press and Public Memory.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn2007, Vol. 84 Issue 3, p582-599, 18p; (AN 28142016)
(UNC onyen required)

http://web.ebscohost.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ehost/results?vid=1&hid=7&sid=f3c33605-303c-46d8-a004-8f00007f82f7%40sessionmgr14&bquery=%28libbie+custer%27s+last+stand%29&bdata=JmRiPWFwaCZkYj1idWgmZGI9dWZoJmRiPXBzeWgmZGI9aGNoJnR5cGU9MSZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d

Russell, Karen Miller, and Janice Hume, and Karen Sichler. “Libbie Custer’s Last Stand: Image Restoration, the Press and Public Memory.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn2007, Vol. 84 Issue 3, p582-599, 18p; (AN 28142016)

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_7646/is_200710/ai_n32252868/

Smith, Gene. “Libbie Custer.” American Heritage Magazine (Maryland).Dec93

http://americanheritage.com

Little Big Horn Association (Michigan)

http://thelbha.org

Kansas State Historical Society (Kansas). Elizabeth Bacon Custer

http://kshs.org/portraits/custer_elizabeth.htm

Smith, R.D. “Pioneers in Public Relations” Updated 2008

http://faculty.buffalostate.edu/smithrd/PR/pioneers.htm

MANDAN Historical Society (North Dakota), Elizabeth Clift Bacon Custer

http://www.mandanhistory.org/biographiesak/elizabethcuster.html

The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/


3 Responses to “AN INDIAN FIGHTER’S WIDOW: Libbie Custer’s Plunge into Public Relations”

  1. A fascinating and intriguing couple: Libbie and General Custer!
    I have just finished reading a book called “Crazy Horse and Custer” by Stephen E. Ambrose, published by Pocket Books (2003). It is exceedingly well-written and I think you would appreciate it too, as it aims to show all the people as they really were, yet where apt, shows how and why they were idyllised.

    This encounter has set up in me a need to explore these personalities more.

  2. Ambrose’s book is great, I have two copies, but I felt I acquired the greatest perspective about the Custers and their relationship from Louise Barnett’s book, Touched By Fire.” It’s really, really good. –Ken

  3. Excellent. I am writing a play about our Libble.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: