Story available at BillingsGazette.com
Published on Thursday, June 22, 2006.
Last modified on 6/22/2006 at 12:05 am
Garryowen museum director raising money to keep items together
Elizabeth Bacon Custer never threw away a scrap of paper. Not things as mundane as bank deposit slips or invitations to military balls at the frontier forts where her husband was stationed. Or her 1864 wedding card and that of her husband, George Armstrong Custer, bound together with a tiny satin ribbon.
She saved pencil sketches drawn during her teenage years at Monroe, Mich., when she had aspirations of becoming an artist, and hundreds of letters of condolence written to her after Custer's death at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.
"You will not think hard of me for not attending to the duty sooner, for if ever a man owed duty and faithfulness, I do to the widow of man who from the beginning to the end was to me the best friend I ever had," wrote Capt. Miles Moylan, a 7th Cavalry officer who survived because Custer divided his command before riding to his death. Moylan was in charge of the detail that hastily buried Custer and 209 of his men two days later.
"I cannot write of what I saw on the 27 of June when we went over to the field and buried the dead -- it is unnecessary for me to say who the noble men who were true to him to the last. They were the men of his own blood lying close around him."
Besides her husband, Libbie lost her adored brother-in-law, Capt. Tom Custer; a civilian brother-in-law, Boston Custer; nephew Autie Reed; and Custer's brother-in-law,
Lt. James Calhoun. She had been the core of the close-knit Custer family.
"From that time, the life went out of the hearts of the 'women who weep,' and God asked them to walk on alone in the shadow," the 34-year-old widow wrote in one of her books, "Boots and Saddles," published in 1885.
She lived in the long shadow of her dead husband for the next 58 years and hoarded every piece of paper that she received, including the handwritten manuscript for "Boots and Saddles" and manuscripts of her other books and publications.
When she died in New York City in 1933, "Libbie" was a few days shy of her 92nd birthday. A lifetime of correspondence, photographs, stereoscope views, manuscripts, diaries, notes, invitations and receipts went to the Custer family, where they stayed for the next 32 years. Libbie's papers then were purchased by a collector, who apparently stored them in cardboard boxes in a garage for decades before reselling them.
This year, the collection was purchased by Chris Kortlander, a dealer in historic documents and founder of the private, nonprofit Custer Battlefield Museum at Garryowen.
Kortlander, owner of Garryowen, said he mortgaged his town and his businesses to come up with the "substantial six-figure" price for the collection. The note comes due this fall, he said, and if he can't raise the money to cover it, "assets will have to be sold."
Before that happens, he hopes raise millions of dollars necessary to secure the collection, level Garryowen and build a new 56,000-square-foot Elizabeth Custer Library & Museum of Frontier Women of the West.
One hitch in the process may be a federal investigation involving previous artifact transactions. Federal officers raided the museum a year ago, but refuse to release information on what they were looking for or why. Kortlander said he believes the motivation was to eliminate competition for a museum the National Park Service wants to build in the Garryowen area. No charges have been brought.
As part of the fundraising effort, the museum is sponsoring "General Custer's Libbie," a one-woman show starring Erin Moots, at The Alberta Bair Theater on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"I wanted to try to get this collection anchored in Montana and get it off the market," Kortlander said. "This belongs in Montana. It's really a labor of love. I go out and encumber myself financially to get the job done."
It's a fascinating collection of between 6,000 and 6,500 documents that cover most of Libbie's life, from her experience as a Civil War bride to her international travels as a famous widow representing the United States government at ceremonial events in Africa, Europe, India, China and Japan. There are original photos by world-renowned photographers and travel diaries and travelogues that were never published. The collection also includes drafts of letters she sent to others, including first lady Julia Grant.
The collection had never been organized or labeled, so Kortlander's first task was to get it into some kind of order. He filled more than 70 three-ring binders and still has material in boxes.
Libbie spent her widowhood defending her husband's legacy, silencing most of his critics while she lived, and managing to outlive most of them.
Some of her writings were sentimental tributes to her husband. Examples that Kortlander has read are insightful.
When a friend named Annie asked Custer why in the early days of the Civil War he had worn his hair long, and sported a black velvet braided jacket and a red necktie, Libbie recorded his answer:
"I was but a boy, just from West Point and I felt young and insignificant. There were men in my brigade old enough to be my father. I wished them to know and recognize me at once from any part of the battlefield. I chose a uniform that would catch their attention and individualize me."
"The boy general's" flamboyant attire drew both admiration and contempt. Custer was just 23 when he was made a brevet general in 1863. When the army reorganized after the Civil War, he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel.
Libbie added her own description of her husband -- a portrayal that no doubt galled his detractors.
"The general's face was not that of a thoughtless, impulsive man," she wrote. "It was a somewhat warm, but eager, countenance of a man who had faced extraordinary responsibility in extreme youth. His eyes penetrating, his broad, massive brow was that of a thinker, not of one who would rush into battle simply for the glory of it."
The Custers were a well-matched and devoted pair. Libbie followed him everywhere, from Civil War camps to frontier assignments in Texas, Kansas and finally, Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D., where in the predawn hours of July 6, 1876, she received news of her husband's death. Once she had been told, Libbie put on her shawl and accompanied officers assigned to notify the other widows.
She wrote often of happier times. She told of another conversation with her friend Annie. Annie had remembered Custer resting in a hammock under a tent somewhere on the Kansas plains. Libbie was at his side.
"Annie," he said, "I am the happiest man on earth. I envy no one. With my wife and the Seventh Cavalry, the proudest command in the world, I would not change places with a king."
Annie later told Custer about a frightening dream. In that nightmare, Annie saw an Indian shoot Custer in the head.
Libbie said her husband replied, "Annie, I cannot die until my time. If by a bullet in the head, why not?"
Custer died of a bullet to the temple and another to the left breast. He was 36 years old.
Kortlander can be reached at www.custerlibrary.org.
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