Dakota Datebook

The Inaugural Ball

Friday, March 6, 2009

 

Behind every good man stands a great woman.  That’s certainly the case for George Armstrong Custer, a prominent figure in the history of Dakota Territory.  Whatever your opinion of the general, his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, played an undeniably crucial role in his professional achievements.  Like many of her peers, Libbie made it her duty to help her husband advance his career.

Shortly after their marriage in 1864, Libbie moved to Washington DC.   While her husband was in the field, Libbie kept company with powerful Republicans and their wives to ensure her husband’s name and deeds were kept at the forefront.  Her methods paid off.  Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler and Congressman Francis Kellogg included Libbie on several memorable excursions.  Shortly after moving to Washington, she received her first invitation to accompany Congressman Kellogg to a Presidential Reception.

After standing in a long, crowded line, Mrs. Custer was presented to the President.  Taking her hand, Lincoln said, “So you are the wife of the general who goes into battle with a whoop and a yell?”  “Well,” he continued, “I’m told he won’t do so anymore.”  Flattered, Libbie assured the President she hoped her husband still would, even if he was now a married man.  With a twinkle in his eye, Lincoln replied, “Then you want to be a widow, I see.”  They enjoyed a good laugh together at the silly comment before the crowd finally pushed her on.  Afterwards, she asked one of Lincoln’s secretaries to tell the President “he would have gained a vote, if soldiers’ wives were allowed one.”  Describing the event in a letter to her parents, she announced that she was “quite a Lincoln girl now.”

Libbie saw the President on several further occasions, the final time only six weeks before his assassination.  Having attended the Inauguration ceremony two days earlier, Senator Chandler escorted Libbie to the Inaugural Ball on this date in 1865.  Writing her Civil War memoirs, Libbie admitted she was thoroughly absorbed watching the President that evening.  While everyone joyfully danced and twirled, she noted Lincoln looked anything but happy.  As she later wrote, she would always remember the image of the “gentle, sorrowful man who carried out so faithfully the responsibilities of this position when society compelled him to do something so distasteful as dancing when our country was sorrowing.”

After the Civil War, Libbie Custer followed her husband to the plains of northern Dakota Territory where she lived until his death in 1876.

Written by Christina Sunwall

Sources:

Frost, Lawrence A. General Custer’s Libbie. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1976.

Merington, Marguerite, ed. The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General George Armstrong Custer and His Wife Elizabeth: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Reynolds, Arlene, ed. The Civil War Memories of Elizabeth Bacon Custer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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