Shortly after graduating from a Presbyterian college in Monroe, Elizabeth Bacon met the dashing young Captain Custer, who immediately began a vigorous campaign for her hand. Initially, Elizabeth’s father disapproved of Custer’s courtship, but he changed his mind when Custer won a battlefield appointment to brigadier general and national fame for his fearless tactics fighting for the Union in the Civil War. The couple married on February 9, 1864.
Elizabeth Custer immediately became a strong advocate for her husband. Though she was inexperienced in political and military affairs, she was able to charm important men in Washington, D.C., who used their influence to advance Custer’s career. After the Civil War ended, Custer reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Elizabeth supported her husband’s desire to continue his ascent of the military ladder, and she agreed with his decision to accept duty in the only active remaining conflict: the Plains Indian Wars in the West.
Whatever romantic images Elizabeth might have had of life in the West quickly faded as she faced the grim reality of making a home in a series of isolated western forts. She was alone for weeks or months at a time, contemplating the very real dangers her husband was facing out on the Plains. Nonetheless, Elizabeth continued to support her husband’s Western career right up until the dark day when she heard that her worst fears had been realized: Custer had been killed in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876.
When she learned that President Ulysses Grant and others blamed Custer for the massacre at Little Bighorn, Elizabeth was outraged. Determined to redeem his good name, she gave the writer Frederick Whittaker access to her husband’s papers. Six months after the disaster at Little Bighorn, Whittaker published a hagiographic biography that absolved Custer of blame and laid the foundation for his future legend.
Elizabeth herself then turned to writing, eventually publishing three books that portrayed Custer not only as an honest and dedicated Cavalry officer, but as a loving husband and devoted family man. Her books also defended the justice of the Indian wars in general. In Elizabeth’s version of history, the American soldiers suffered frontier privations in order to protect innocent Anglo settlers, and Native American braves were vicious killers who exploited their wives. Custer, her books claimed, had been a selfless martyr to the cause of American westward expansion.
Reluctant to criticize Custer while his celebrated widow lived, dissenters from Elizabeth’s biased view of her husband had to hold their tongues for a very long time. By the time she died in 1933, nearly 60 years after Little Bighorn, most of Custer’s contemporary critics were gone. Others soon appeared, though, and a year after her death, Frederic Van de Water published Glory Hunter, a revisionist portrait that painted Custer as a vain and foolish egoist. Since then, Custer’s critics have dominated, but Elizabeth’s dedication to her husband’s memory continues to win him supporters to this day.