Battle of Little Bighorn: 24 – At Home With the Custers

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"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

Though the winter of 1874-75 was long and cold ,George and Libbie Custer managed to stay warm and cozy in their home at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakotas.

The Custer Home, Ft. Abraham Lincoln

Immense snowdrifts piled up while the temperature often reached below –45 degrees. But the fireplaces in the Custer home roared with warmth. Custer’s rank provided him with the services of a cavalry private whose only responsibility was to keep the fires burning.

Libbie Custer

Libbie Custer arrived at the fort in 1873. Of her arrival, she writes: “Our quarters were lighted, and as we approached, the regimental band played ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ followed by the general’s favorite ‘Garryowen.’ “

Even before the arrival of the Custers, this garrison had experienced harassment by Indians. The depredations had begun before the post was even completed. The arrival, in 1873, of several hundred men to the fort did not end these attacks, either, as there were three attacks that year by Indians.

Lt. Col. Custer

Fort Abraham Lincoln was considered the finest Army post on the plains where it was constructed on a flat plain below Fort McKeen in present-day North Dakota. The fort’s stables were large enough to house 600 cavalry horses. The Custer house, built in 1874, after a fire destroyed the original one, was a 10-room mansion, including eight closets, pantry, kitchen, and cellar. The Custer home did double duty as a church whenever a minister visited. Its spaciousness served well for parties and receptions and “The Custer House was always open and entertaining seemed to rank for priority with Indian fighting.”

As to the military accommodations, according to Libbie Custer:

Fort Lincoln was built with quarters for six companies. The barracks for the soldiers were on the side of the parade ground nearest the river, while seven detached houses for officers faced the river opposite. On the left of the parade ground was the long granary and the little military prison, called the ‘guard house.’

Mrs. Custer goes on to explain that there were also quarters for the laundresses that were easily detected by the swinging clotheslines, and were commonly called “Suds Row.” There were also log huts for the Indian scouts and their families, as well as a level plane for parades and drills. Accommodating officers and enlisted alike were a sutler’s store with a billiard room, a barbershop, and later a photographer’s establishment.

In spite of these simple accommodations, the fort was far from being the civilized world that Mrs. Custer and other military wives from the east had previously been accustomed to.

Lt. Thomas Custer

At least the Custers had family stationed with them. Custer’s younger brother Captain Thomas Custer, holding two Congressional Medals of Honor, was serving under his brother’s command.

At Fort Lincoln, also, was Lieutenant James Calhoun, brother-in-law to Lt. Col. George Custer and Lt. Thomas Custer, as well as younger brother Boston.

Boston Custer

Kid brother Boston Custer had joined his older brothers, George and Thomas. The expedition into the Black Hills had been the boy’s first wilderness trip.

Harry Armstrong Reed

Nephew, Harry Armstrong Reed joined the extended Custer family in the Dakotas sometime prior to July 29, 1876.