Thursday, April 17, 2014

Libbie Does Texas


We talk about six degrees of separation or however many there are now, how close or how far removed one person is from another—in the past there were more barriers to communication yet fewer degrees of separation except the big one, race. It shouldn’t be any surprise then—in a past time—in a West that no longer exists the author of the best one-liner about Texas knew the woman who wrote the most unique book about the state. 

What may be galling to some of us, those who have an unquestioning loyalty to all things Texan, a category that doesn’t include me, is that the author of the quote and of the book were both Yankees who didn’t think much of the Lone Star State or just as likely feared it. They lived in perilous times and Texas as is so often the case was ground zero for danger. War just finished in the East leaving a million casualties and pillage on a national scale: messy work, just like the song said, “trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath were stored.” The government expected another war or two along the banks of the Rio Grande—not shying from the fight. 
In this context the book is the reasoned argument for the quick and dirty comment that preceded the later, longer work. “If I owned Hell and Texas,” is the quotation, “I would live in Hell and rent out Texas,” still one of the putdowns of all time not just in breadth, encompassing an area larger than most countries, a proud culture and way of life—funny too. The man who famously said it was Phillip Sheridan, principal Union cavalry commander during the Civil War.  The author of the book that followed three decades later and more or less explained General Sheridan’s point of view was the former Miss Elizabeth Bacon, a Yankee from Michigan, daughter of a judge, a young woman who by her own account led a completely sheltered life—until her marriage to George Custer, Sheridan’s principal lieutenant in the field. 149 years ago—that other ’65 a century before the long hot summer and race riots in American cities—100 years earlier at the close of “hostilities” in Virginia. 
Riding from Louisiana to Austin the Custers didn’t know what to expect but they knew what they’d heard of the hot and heated land bordering the Rio Grande—and even before arriving she, for one, didn’t like it. What follows is the odyssey on horseback as the U.S. Army’s rapid response force of the time, five regiments of hard-riding Union troopers fresh from whipping the Rebels and meeting on the road suddenly-liberated slaves who no longer wanted to work—not for Massah or Missy anyway—un-Reconstructed white people; insects, scorpions and gators, Elizabeth Custer did what many have done on similar perilous journeys: she kept a notebook. What Libbie Custer writes has an authentic ring because at the end of a long bloody rebellion, temperatures still high on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, riding with an occupation army, going to Austin to make sure Texans know the new facts of life she’s prepared to tell it like it is. Her husband’s orders are to camp outside the capital with 4,000 troopers and deliver the message the war is over, or not, as the Texans like. Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Libbie to her friends and family, was one of only two women to come to claim the prize, the last holdout of the Confederacy, the former Republic and its capital Austin, never beaten, never bowed, never burnedthat summer of ’65. The other female was the Custers’ black maid Eliza. If your point of reference for history is film as is true for so many of us, think “The Help,” with reveille—“Boots and Saddles”—bugled every morning at 4 a.m. 
“Then began the gathering of our ‘traps,’” she writes, “a hasty collection of a few suitable things for a Southern climate, orders about shipping the horses, a wild tearing around of the improvident, thoughtless staff—good fighters but poor providers for themselves. At dark we were on the cars, with our faces turned southward. General Sheridan knew that [my husband] needed little time to decide, so he sent for him as soon as we encamped at Arlington, after our march up from Richmond, and asked if he would like to take command of a division of cavalry on the Red River in Louisiana, and march throughout Texas, with the possibility of eventually entering Mexico.” The “real" mission, you might even say—was a secret of state. “Very wisely, General Custer kept this latter part of the understanding why he was sent South from the ‘weepy’ part of the family. He preferred transportation by steamer, rather than be floated southward by floods of feminine tears. All I knew was that Texas, having been so outside of the limit where the armies marched and fought, was unhappily aware that the war was over, and continued a career of bushwhacking and lawlessness that was only tolerated from necessity before the surrender, and must now cease. It was considered expedient to fit out two detachments of cavalry, and start them on a march through the northern and southern portions of Texas, as a means of informing that isolated State that depredations and raids might come to an end. In my mind, Texas then seemed the stepping-off place; but I was indifferent to the points of the compass, so long as I was not left behind.” So begins a definitive Western road trip of another era, two women escorted on a long hard ride into a big hard land. Tenting on the Plains by the judge’s daughter from Michigan is what Texans themselves have never produced, a “woman’s history” of a critical time in the state, pre-feminist in form, post-feminist in scope, the ultimate female empowerment story with appearances by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and freed slaves—and a rather long description of the virtues of western versus East Coast saddles. Cosseted, often pampered, yet obliged to wear clothes that would suffocate even the most straight-laced Michigan matron, riding on horseback through mossy bug-infested forest, trying to reach the Hill Country where there would be good foraging for horses and men: prepared to move anywhere quickly if there was “trouble” for Washington or what Washington considered trouble, the early going, the first days of what Libbie calls “the march” just one bayou shithole after another, Libbie determined to tough it out with Eliza who is a trooper herself—not with “the boys” but with these veterans, these menLibbie’s concern here is not really slavery, that’s not the point of the book, nor entirely is it physical hardship either, not the mosquitoes, “gnibbers” she calls them, it’s not her relationship with her husband although that’s certainly important, nor any concern that they're going to have to fight in Mexico—this book is really about is Libbie is riding well enough, is she a good enough horsewoman not to delay the column, and later, to show what a woman can do? It’s about horsemanship. And what do the Custers do after a long day on horseback? They go riding which is sometimes mid-nineteeth century coda for sex. Often Libbie and George, alone, at dusk. In an age like today when we are used to young people taking time off “to find themselves” or even more recently to found a company, to go to graduate school or volunteer for a non-profit—backpack across Europe—George Custer was sent south by Washington to end one war, in Texas, and possibly fight another in Mexico. He was 25 years old. Libbie was 23. She went for a tour yes—but it wasn’t Europe. 



This is a love story in three volumes in which Texas appears as a setting in the first book, published last, three decades after the fact, Tenting on the Plains. The second volume she wrote Boots and Saddles is the best known and last chronologically and actually ends as Libbie is informed of Little Big Horn. Early in the first book the enemy was the Confederacy but by the second half they're on the Plains opposed by the Sioux, the rule was that if there was any risk of her being taken by the Sioux while traveling she was to be killed by her husband's own men and she agreed. In between the beginning in Texas and the 7th Cavalry's end on the plains we have George and Elizabeth Custer, the junior Washington power couple du jour, two attractive, ambitious, intelligent people, devoted to each other and on the move in circles of great influence with a portfolio nothing less than securing the American West for expansion and killing whoever gets in the way. The real action in Tenting is often found among the daily interactions between the servant Eliza and her master/mistress—Eliza’s life as a “darkey,” seen by the white woman who employs her, like The Help, white women’s lives seen through the eyes of their maids? 
Early on, headed to meet the troops gathering in Louisiana, coming down the Mississippi on a riverboat they meet a recently-defeated Rebel general who is also traveling to New Orleans. This former enemy is the greatest Texan of the Confederate Army—John Hood of Fort Hood fame—who like Gen. Custer is a brilliant tactician but who may have been promoted above his ability. Now, on the steamboat, he's a man who has literally been shot to pieces, lost both an arm and a leg in service of his cause and, as George Custer will one day be, been accused of a great military mistake—a failed attack, outside Atlanta, that left the city open to be burned. Libbie Custer’s fears of the meeting of the victor and vanquished: “My husband, hearing he was on the boat, hastened to seek him out and introduce himself. Such reunions have now become common, but I confess to watching curiously every expression of those two men, as it seemed very early, in those times of excited and vehement conduct, to begin such overtures. And yet I did not forget that my husband sent messages of friendship to his classmates on the other side throughout the war.” By constitution Libbie seems less forgiving than her husband especially toward the Texans because she considers them the most dangerous component of the Rebellion: “General Custer had already taught me, even in those bitter times, that he knew his classmates fought from their convictions of right, and that, now the war was over, I must not be adding fuel to a fire that both sides should strive to smother.” John Hood—aware as a Southern gentleman that times and circumstances are now suddenly changed—and in polite company—tries a joke to break the ice with the Union officer and his lady. His camp was raided, he says, and Union soldiers took his horse and his good leg with it. “General Hood was tall, fair, dignified and soldierly. He used his crutch with difficulty, and it was an effort for him to rise when I was presented.” As an African-American reader you’re struck how much of American "history" has been a struggle for supremacy among white men—that is a feminist revisionist theory too, by the way, let's give the ladies their due—women and especially black people, nominally the cause of the action—were mere background players in a drama that took place mostly outdoors often on horseback played between white guys. 


Earlier on still a week’s ride from the capital General Sheridan suddenly appears in camp. He and his staff took a steamboat from New Orleans to Galveston and ride in, the easy route that Libbie declined to take, she wanted to be with her husband. Sheridan arrives with orders—the column is to make its way to Austin to take up winter quarters. Everyone already knew that was their destination. But there is more. As usual Libbie got the news straight from the horse’s mouth. 
“General Sheridan expressed great pleasure at the appearance of the men and horses, and heard with relief and satisfaction of the orderly manner in which they had marched through the enemy’s country, of how few horses had perished from the heat and how seldom sunstroke had occurred. He commended the General—as he knew how to do so splendidly—and placed him in command of all cavalry in the State. Our own Division then numbered four thousand men.” The stage is set for confrontation. If—once again—movies are your guide to history there’s Veracruz starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, with Hollywood extras as French lancers and smoky-voiced Denise Darcel as the mercenary countess, or Sam Pekinpah’s underrated Major Dundee with Charlton Heston and the exquisite Senta Berger. The real trip is also like a movie, larger than life. To frighten Libbie in Austin someone points out a tree that’s used for hangings, as she begins to think people are taking advantage of her credulity, then she freaks out again when she realizes the frightening claims may actually be true. “I came to think the Texas trees bore that human fruit a little too often for truth; but some of the citizens gloated over these scenes of horror, and added a lamp-post in town to the list of localities from which, in future, I must turn away my head.” This is women’s history because it was written by a woman not because it treats food and manners, or social constructs, many of her observations are critical of what she sees, but usually analytical, mostly it’s about Libbie. Attuned to the lives of local women, but not particularly empathetic, not because she wasn’t pro-woman, not because she didn’t know the conditions under which these women lived, but because they were Rebels or had been Rebels and might be Rebels again: like the Trojan Women the Texan women were now four long years without their men, an experience Libbie too will know, "abandonment"—in many cases the Rebels aren’t coming back. 
“There was a woman of whom I constantly heard, rich and refined, but living out of town on a plantation that seemed to be fit only for negroes. She rode fearlessly, and diverted her monotonous life by hunting. The planters frequently met her with game slung upon her saddle, and once she lassoed and brought in a wolf alone. Finally, this woman came to see me, but curiosity made me hardly civil for a few minutes, as I was trying to reconcile myself to the knowledge that the quiet, graceful person before me, with rich dress, jewels and a French hat, could take her gun and dogs, mount a fiery horse, and go hunting alone.” 

Apart from the goodness of her husband Elizabeth Custer has three recurring themes: horses, Negroes and dogs, in that order of importance, her own mount during this long ride to the Hill Country was “Custis Lee,” named after the son of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee—son Custis also a Confederate general whose horse it was until both animal and owner were captured three days before Appomattox.This is the kind of American History that the modern-day Negro likes to read, Libbie calls Mexicans “greasers” but basically ignores the culture except the artesania, of which she approves. Libbie likes the saddles although the Puritan in her scorns the adornment.The Sioux and Cheyenne are not described except by their actions which doesn’t seem quite fair by today’s standards, Libbie never considers the morality of George's mission, the Indians are the people her husband is here to pacify, nothing more, she isn’t PC in her descriptions because PC hadn’t been invented when she wrote the book. “The negroes in Texas and Louisiana were the worst in all the South,” she informs us. “The border States had commonly sold their most insubordinate slaves into these two distant States,” reading the comment today, unlike what the author intended, makes me proud, if Libbie is wrong here, if what she wrote is hurtful—it’s still hard to fault her. Texas is actually only the first half of Tenting on the Plains with the second part devoted to those portentous experiences of a different kind of conflict, Custer’s new orders delivered once again by Phil Sheridan to protect railroad workers who are laying track to join East to West. For me, this latter tale of Ft. Riley and the Plains is the less interesting of the book’s halves, although for purists, for people genuinely interested in life during the great rip-off we know as the Indian Wars it’s the best stuff she wrote, you’re always aware—if only in the back of your mind—how this is going to end, both for the Sioux and for George and Libbie. If you don’t want to read the story for this later and final chapter there’s also a movie, if that’s your thing, with Olivia DeHaviland as Libbie and Errol Flynn as George completed a few years after Libbie’s death, five decades after the death of the man she loved, They Died with Their Boots On. 
Despite early misgivings, Libbie pays Texas a great compliment. During the occupation after it becomes clear there will be no war, other wives come by steamboat to Galveston, the “soft way” to join their husbands on occupation duty in the Hill Country. At the writing of this book when she was already in her fifties and Col. Custer was twenty long years in his grave, Libbie notes that the wives she kept contact with described their time in Texas as a pleasant posting—quite unlike what they had been led to expect. Libbie Custer goes a step farther in praise. 

Despite the violence and the ostentation, despite the backward views and questionable practices, despite not being New Englanders, despite those showy saddles—the Texans have one incredible virtue in her eyes. Remember this is coming from a woman who struggled to master a particular skill in her own life—and is no mean praise. 

Speaking of the showy Texans she admits there’s substance as well as style:

“They ride,” she says, “perfectly.”

China Bates
bates.china@gmail.com