Winning Libbie's love was one of Custer's most difficult fights
THE CUSTERS: A LOVE STORY
source: Mary Trotter Kion , Suite 101 website
George Armstrong Custer spent his very early years in a happy family, not unlike the mixture that many modern-day families have evolved into. As it was termed, there were Ma’s kids, Pa’s kids, and Ma and Pa’s kids. George’s father’s first wife had died, leaving him with three motherless children. Only a few months after the death of his first wife, the senior Mr. Custer married a widow who had three children of her own. The product of this new marriage was first George, born on December 5, 1839, followed by three younger brothers.
George’s father was not a wealthy man—except perhaps in children. In their hometown of New Rumley, Ohio Mr. Custer, of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, was a down to earth, hard working farmer and blacksmith.
Though the Custer household was overflowing with stepbrothers and sisters, as well as natural siblings, George grew up considering them all “Custers.” This feeling of family seems to have been felt by other members of this family as well. In 1849, George left his home in New Rumley to go and live with his older, and newly married stepsister, Lydia Reed who had been like a second mother to him. Having moved to Monroe, Michigan with her husband, Lydia missed her girlhood home filled with noisy and active children.
In Monroe George encountered two new aspects of life. The first was class distinction. The Custers and Reeds were not considered members of higher society. As one retired Army officer with aristocratic pretensions stated, “Of course we did not associate with them,” meaning the Custers and Reeds. And from another of the upper crust: “They [the Reeds and Custers] were quite ordinary people, no intellectual interest, very little schooling.”
The second aspect George Custer encountered was—love. At the time, the sparkling, dark-haired, ten-year-old girl, two years his junior, was first noticed as she swung on her front gate. It is recorded that she called out to George, saying, “Hi, you Custer boy!” grinned at him then ran into her house. And young George was smitten by little Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon.
Elizabeth Bacon was the daughter, and only child, of widower Judge Daniel S. Bacon, a man “of imposing position, power, and wealth." Miss Bacon was far above this son of a blacksmith’s social standing. Sad though this fact may be, it didn’t deter George Custer one little bit.
George talked the judge into letting him do odd jobs for him where he could hang around the Bacon’s back yard, waiting for a site of Libbie. But this was as far as he got. George was not received in the Bacon home, the finest house in Monroe, Michigan.
After two years of this, George went home to New Rumley where he remained for another two years. But he returned to Monroe to attend Alfred Stebins’ Young Men’s Academy for two years, graduating at age sixteen. Surprising as it may seem by Custer’s later scholastic record at the military academy, that of graduating last in his class, he left school in Monroe as a top scholar.
George’s class standing was so good that he returned to Ohio and immediately became a schoolteacher, while boarding in the home of a wealthy farmer. It seems that somewhere along the way the socially out of reach Libbie Bacon was forgotten, if only temporary. While teaching in Ohio he fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Mary Holland.
Of this young love Custer often penned his emotions. One such writing expressed the extent of their shared affection quite clearly. George wrote, “You occupy the first place in my affections, and the only place as far as love is concerned.” His flowery expressions continue as he speaks of marriage, then concludes with, “But I will talk with you about it when I see you next at the trundle-bed. Farewell, my only Love, until we meet again—From your true and faithful Lover, Bachelor Boy.”
While George Custer was wooing Mary Holland he got the idea of enrolling at West Point. He wanted Mary to marry him before he became a cadet but she did not want to be a soldier’s wife. Evidently Mary’s father, also, did not want her to become a soldier’s wife. Mr. Holland well knew that cadets could not be married and played a major, though discreet, role in getting George an appointment to West Point. For George, at nearly seventeen years of age, it was another romance detoured by social standing—or lack there of.
In July of 1857, George Armstrong Custer, who had no sympathy for the underdog but possessed a great interest in and an admiration for the rich and powerful, was on his way to West Point. This school of all schools, for the times, was the outstanding engineering school in the country. And an officer’s commission would automatically make George Custer a gentleman. He would we a welcome guest at higher social functions. But for the next four years, while attending West Point, Custer’s love life took a downshift as far as associating with proper young ladies. After graduation, and joining the Army of the Potomac, he only had the rare opportunity for intimate encounters and these were with prostitutes.
By the fall of 1861 George Armstrong Custer was a handsome and dashing young military officer of bachelor standing when he returned to Michigan on sick leave. His illness was of short duration and soon he was expounding at parties and church function on how the war was fought. And he found himself the center of attention of the eligible young ladies of Monroe. That his heart was still of the wooing nature is certain as he proposed marriage to at least one young lady and possibly more that remains unrecorded.
But the young ladies were not his only companions at this time. After escorting this beauty or that lovely lady home George reveled in drinking sprees with his boyhood cronies until his vacation came to an end. But he would soon return to Monroe with more war stories to relate of his adventures as General McClellan’s aide.
In February of 1862, while in Monroe for a Thanksgiving furlough, attending a party held at the local girls’ finishing school, the dashing and talkative Custer, now a Captain, was introduced to Miss Elizabeth Bacon, daughter of Judge Daniel Bacon. Libbie Bacon was the prettiest girl at the party and George, for once, was speechless. Libbie, normally as outgoing as Custer could only utter “I believe your promotion has been very rapid?” Custer answered with, “I have been very fortunate,” and that was about all either could manage—at least for the moment.
They glanced at each other on the street the next day, then in church on Sunday it is said that Custer couldn’t keep his eyes off Libbie.
Libby Bacon’s 1862 graduation picture shows a lovely young woman with long hair, dark and curling, that falls in ringlets over her shoulder. Her ivory skin sets off this dark hair while a later full-length photograph illustrates her ample bosom and a very thin waist. She was twenty-one years old and tried to look mature, but her eyes sparkled with life and the vitality of youth. She was a superb horsewoman in spite of having to ride sidesaddle, and she was highly intelligent. But she was smart enough to hide this intelligence and the extreme bravery she possessed. But these two talents would serve her well in the future. They would make her a survivor.
Now the future for Libbie Bacon was to find a husband, or to allow one to find her and for him to be acceptable to herself, her family, and her social standing. It is certain that, at this time, Libbie already knew which eligible young man she would allow to find her, that is until something occurred that Libbie later called, “that terrible day.”
Through the early days of the American Civil War, while the North assaulted the South and the South, in turn, assaulted the North, George Armstrong Custer continued his assault on Libbie Bacon.
Though Custer received no serious wound in the North-South conflict, he was not so fortunate in his battle for love. In October of 1861, while on leave in Monroe, Michigan, Custer received a self-inflicted wound. Fortunately, it was not a mortal wound but it did considerable damage to his pride. It also created a major set back in his battle tactics to capture Libbie’s heart. The weapon of choice may have been somewhere between 80 and 100 proof—perhaps a little more or a little less. Whichever the case, the ‘shot’ was effective.
To put it bluntly, George Armstrong Custer got blind staggering drunk. But he, at least, had enough wits about him to attempt to navigate towards his sister Lydia’s house where he was staying. However, a better battle plan would have been not to retreat homeward down Monroe Street where the honorable Judge Daniel Bacon lived—with his lovely daughter Libbie.
And, like in the adventure novels George devoured as a youngster, as he came “reeling, staggering, vomiting, falling on his ear, etc.” to quote Evan Connell in Son of the Morning Star, of course Libbie was at home, gazing toward the street from an upstairs window. Her father was similarly occupied from the downstairs.
But perhaps the incident was for the better of his future. Whether because he awoke from his stupor to find his sister on her knees beside his bed in serious prayer, or that he realized he just didn’t have the stomach for such a liquid assault Custer never again took a drink of alcohol. Not even wine with dinner passed his lips.
Ever after, when asked what he would like to drink he, as usual, made a show of his answer which was “Aldernay.” Of course this would bring about the usual question of what is Aldernay? Thus giving Custer an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge by explaining that it was a breed of cattle named for an island in the English Channel. His unusual answer meant that he’d have a glass of milk.
While Custer was dispensing with one gentlemanly custom he also discharged others—gambling and swearing. The first took several years to defeat, the second never entirely done away with.
Though his drunken display surely appalled Libbie at the time, it seems to not have entirely ruined their relationship. They continued to correspond, in secret, until such a time as Custer managed to convince Libbie’s father that he, George, was not so bad a character after all. At last Libbie and George were allowed to communicate—with out the secrecy.
Soon after, Libbie was able to write to her cousin Rebecca Richmond saying, “I am going to Detroit to have my dresses made, and my underclothes made on the machine. I am sending to New York for my silks. . . .” Libbie Bacon was speaking, of course, of her wedding dress and other garments she would require as she became Mrs. George Custer on February 9, 1864, at the First Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Michigan.
Leave a note and flowers near Elizabeth Custer's grave at the West Point Military Academy : click here