Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Great Love Affair of the American West

If I've done the math correctly, today is the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, sometimes called Custer's Last Stand. Almost 20 years ago, I did a lot of research on the Custers, which finally resulted in the novel Libbie, now long out of print but available in used editions. Someday I hope to put it on Kindle and Smashwords. I didn't and still don't understand the military analysis of the battle--countless historians have dickered and written about it and theories abound--but I think I know enough to judge that Custer rushed in where angels fear to tread. And  he took a lot of good men with him, including his own younger brother and brother-in-law.
I was more interested in Libbie, the general's wife. I read her three books, the books of Lawrence Frost (her apologist or whatever), and some books about Custer, including one titled Custer Victorious about his service in the Civil War, when he was known for bold--and foolhardy--risks and harsh discipline to his soldiers. But I was writing about  his marriage and trying to tell the story from Libbie's point of view. It remains a puzzle to me. Shirley Leckie's excellent biography, Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth, had not yet been pubilshed, but I've since read it and recommend it highly.
Libbie was obviously infatuated with "Autie," as she called him, but to my mind he would have been hard to live with. Knowing she was afraid of his big dogs, he'd encourage them to get on the bed with her; on wild rides across the prairie, he's spook her horse until it ran away  with her. He was almost obviously unfaithful as accounts of his trips east to testify to the Senate suggest, and she once wrote of going to an Indian reservation and seeing a blond, blue-eyed infant whose mother kept eying her oddly. Libbie, who was raised quietly in a typical 18th-century genteel fashion, defied her father to marry Autie and remained loyal to him through all this. No doubt there were some high moments of passion in their relationship, but I don't think I'd have stayed with a man whose constant hijinx got so out of hand. Is that a "liberated" 21st-century point of view? Was it that as an 18th-century wife she thought she had no alternative? I can't quite believe that, because her account of hearing the news that he was dead is one of the most poignant things I've ever read. She took her shawl from its peg on the wall and went to comfort the other wives, as was her duty as the general's wife. (He had not earned the rank of general but was field-promoted or breveted.) I think she really loved him, in spite of all.
And then there's the matter of her 38 years, give or take, as a widow, when she devoted herself to making a hero of Autie. One supposes she actually believed that he was--or maybe she had to believe that to justify herself and her decisions. Maybe she couldn't face the fact that he disobeyed orders and didn't wait for support but went rushing in. History, perhaps out of deference to Libbie, put off unmasking the hero for many years.
We'll never know, but it's a fascinating bit of history. And on this anniversary I think not of Autie, rushing off to glory, but of Libbie, waiting at the fort. Frederic Remington did a painting of the 7th Cavalry's departure which is almost ghostly, showing the troops marching off into clouds--prophetic? It will break your heart if you, like me, have a soft spot for Libbie.

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