Boots and Saddles/Chapter 1

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 1

BOOTS AND SADDLES.


CHAPTER I.

CHANGE OF STATION.

General Custer graduated at West Point just in time to take part in the battle of Bull Run. He served with his regiment—the 5th Cavalry—for a time, but eventually was appointed aide-de-camp to General McClellan. He came to his sister's home in my native town, Monroe, Michigan, during the winter of 1863, and there I first met him. In the spring he returned to the army in Virginia, and was promoted that summer, at the age of twenty-three, from captain to brigadier-general. During the following autnmn he came to Monroe to recover from a flesh-wound, which, though not serious, disabled him somewhat. At that time we became engaged. When his twenty days' leave of absence had expired he went back to duty, and did not return until a few days before our marriage, in February, 1864.

We had no sooner reached Washington on our wedding-journey than telegrams came, following one another in quick succeesion, asking him to give up the rest of his leave of absence, and hasten without an hour’s delay to the front. I begged so hard not to be left behind that I finally prevailed. The result was that I found myself in a few hours on the extreme wing of the Army of the Potomac, in an isolated Virginia farm-house, finishing my honeymoon alone. I had so besought him to allow me to come that I did not dare own to myself the desolation and fright I felt. In the preparation for the hurried raid which my husband had been ordered to make he had sent to cavalry head-quarters to provide for my safety, and troops were in reality near, although I could not see them.

The general’s old colored servant, Eliza, comforted me, and the Southern family in the house took pity upon my anxiety. It was a sudden plunge into a life of vicissitude and danger, and I hardly remember the time during the twelve years that followed when I was not in fear of some immediate peril, or in dread of some danger that threatened. After the raid was ended, we spent some delightful weeks together, and when the regular spring campaign began I returned to Washington, where I remained until the surrender and the close of the war.

After that we went to Texas for a year, my husband still acting as major-general in command of Volunteers. In 1866 we returned to Michigan, and the autumn of the same year found us in Kansas, where the general assumed charge of the 7th (Regular) Cavalry, to which he had been assigned, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Regular Army We remained in Kansas five years, during which time I was the only officer’s wife who always followed the regiment. We were then ordered, with the regiment, to Kentucky, After being stationed in Elizabethtown for two years, we went to Dakota in the spring of 1873.

When orders came for the 7th Cavalry to go into the field again, General Custer was delighted. The regiment was stationed in various parts of the South, on the very disagreeable duty of breaking up illicit distilleries and suppressing the Ku-klux. Fortunately for us, being in Kentucky, we knew very little of this service. It seemed an unsoldierly life, and it was certainly uncongenial; for a true cavalryman feels that a life in the saddle on the free open plain is his legitimate existence

Not an hour elapsed after the official document announcing our change of station had arrived before our house was torn up. In the confusion I managed to retire to a corner with an atlas, and surreptitiously look up the territory to which we were going. I hardly liked to own that I had forgotten its location. When my finger traced our route from Kentucky almost up to the border of the British Possessions, it seemed as if we were going to Lapland.

From the first days of our marriage, General Custer celebrated every order to move with wild demonstrations of joy. His exuberance of spirits always found expression in some boyish pranks, before he could set to work seriously to prepare for duty. As soon as the officer announcing the order to move had disappeared, all sorts of wild hilarity began. I had learned to take up a safe position on top of the table; that is, if I had not already been forcibly placed there as a spectator. The most disastrous result of the proceedings was possibly a broken chair, which the master of ceremonies would crash, and, perhaps, throw into the kitchen by way of informing the cook that good news had come. We had so few household effects that it was something of a loss when we chanced to be in a country where they could not be replaced. I can see Eliza's woolly head now, as she thrust it through the door to reprimand her master, and say, "Chairs don't grow on trees in these yere parts, gen'l." As for me, I was tossed about the room, and all sorts of jokes were played upon me before the frolic was ended. After such participation in the celebration, I was almost too tired with the laughter and fun to begin packing.

I know that it would surprise a well-regulated mover to see what short work it was for us to prepare for our journeys. We began by having a supply of gunny-sacks and hay brought in from the stables. The saddler appeared, and all our old traps that had been taken around with us so many years were once more tied and sewed up. The kitchen utensils were plunged into barrels, generally left uncovered in the hurry; rolls of bedding encased in waterproof cloth or canvas were strapped and roped, and the few pictures and books were crowded into chests and boxes. When these possessions were loaded upon the wagon, at the last moment there always appeared the cook's bedding to surmount the motley pile. Her property was invariably tied up in a flaming quilt representing souvenirs of her friends' dresses. She followed that last instalment with anxious eyes, and, true to her early training, grasped her red bandanna, containing a few last things, while the satchel she scorned to use hung empty on her arm.

In all this confusion no one was cross. We rushed and gasped through the one day given us for preparation, and I had only time to he glad with my husband that he was going back to the life of activity that he so loved. His enforced idleness made it seem to him that he was cumbering the earth, and he rejoiced to feel that he was again to have the chance to live up to his idea of a soldier. Had I dared to stop in that hurried day and think of myself all the courage would have gone out of me. This removal to Dakota meant to my husband a reunion with his regiment and summer campaigns against Indians; to me it meant months of loneliness, anxiety, and terror. Fortunately there was too much to do to leave leisure for thought.

Steamers were ready for us at Memphis, and we went thither by rail to embark. When the regiment was gathered together, after a separation of two years, there were hearty greetings, and exchanges of troublons or droll experiences; and thankful once more to be reunited, we entered again, heart and soul, into the minutest detail of one another’s lives. We went into camp for a few days on the outskirts of Memphis, and exchanged hospitalities with the citizens. The bachelors found an elysium in the society of many very pretty girls, and love-making went on either in luxurious parlors or in the open air as they rode in the warm spring weather to and from our camp. Three steamers were at last loaded and we went on to Cairo, where we found the trains prepared to take us into Dakota.

The regiment was never up to its maximum of twelve hundred men, but there may have been eight or nine hundred soldiers and as many horses. The property of the companies—saddles, equipments, arms, ammunition, and forage—together with the personal luggage of the officers, made the trains very heavy, and we travelled slowly. We were a week or more on the route. Our days were varied by the long stops necessary to water the horses, and occasionally to take them out of the cars for exercise. My husband and I always went on these occasions to loose the dogs and have a frolic and a little visit with our own horses. The youth and gamins of the village gathered about us as if we had been some travelling show. While on the journey one of our family had a birthday. This was always a day of frolic and fun, and even when we were on the extreme frontier, presents were sent for into the States, and we had a little dinner and a birthday cake. This birthday that came during the journey, though so inopportune, did not leave utterly without resources the minds of those whose ingenuity was quickened by affection. The train was delayed that day for an unusually long time: our colored cook. Mary, in despair because we ate so little in the "twenty-minutes-for-refreshments" places, determined on an impromptu feast. She slyly took a basket and filled it at the shops in the village street. She had already made friends with a woman who had a little cabin tucked in between the rails and the embankment, and there the never absent "eureka" coffee-pot was produced and most delicious coffee dripped. Returning to the car stove, which she had discovered was filled with a deep bed of coals, she broiled us a steak and baked some potatoes. The general and I were made to sit down opposite each other in one of the compartments. A board was brought, covered with a clean towel, and we did table-legs to this impromptu table. We did not dare move, and scarcely ventured to giggle, for fear we should overturn the laden board in our laps. For dessert, a large plate of macaroons, which were an especial weakness of mine, was brought out as a surprise. Mary told me, with great glee, how she had seen the general prowling in the bakers' shops to buy them, and described the train of small boys who followed him when he came back with his brown paper parcel. "Miss Libbie," she said, "they thought a sure enough gen'l always went on horseback and carried his sword in his hand."

We were so hungry we scarcely realized that we were anything but the embodiment of picturesque grace. No one could be otherwise than awkward in trying to eat food on such an uncertain base, while Mary had taken the last scrap of dignity away from the general's appearance by enveloping him in a kitchen towel as a substitute for a napkin. With their usual independence and indifference to ceremony, troops of curious citizens stalked through the car to stare at my husband. We went on eating calmly, unconscious that they thought the picture hardly in keeping with their preconceived ideas of a commanding officer. When we thanked Mary for our feast, her face beamed and shone with a combination of joy at our delight and heat from the stove. When she lifted up our frugal board and set us free, we had a long stroll, talking over other birthdays and those yet to come, until the train was ready to start.