Miller Russell on Libbie Custer
At the time of her death, Libbie Custer was best known for preserving the memory of someone else’s life. Her husband General George Custer was the commanding officer during the Little Big Horn tragedy, a battle during which Custer’s entire unit was killed, including Custer. Because of the controversial nature of the event, many people had reservations about Custer and mixed feelings about him as a general and his decision making. Because of this, his widow Libbie dedicated the remainder of her life acting as the ultimate PR representative.
Although PR was not a career at the time of Custer’s death, Libbie Custer, unbeknownst to her, was actually using several of the tactics that have since been proven to work when trying to restore and/or preserve someone’s image.
Custer’s memory lives on, in part, because he fits the mold of a hero. Heroes always have similar qualities; distinctive physical skills, grit, leadership, all things that General Custer did possess. Also Custer embodies “popular virtues” in American society such as sacrifice and bravery. Because of this it is easy for us to “have a stake in preserving or giving a boost,” to someone like Custer, whose been branded as a hero. It is relatively easy already to see how Custer would stick in people’s minds, so what effect did his wife actually have on his image after his death?
Although Libbie did experience some hard times following her husband’s death she managed to “transform her domestic role as a widow… into a publically sanctioned profession.” She began writing, and this writing picked up speed because she was not alone in her situation or in her messages. She had an audience before long, and this is when she began her campaign to restore and maintain her husband’s image.
According to one biographer one of the deterrents to negative talk against General Custer at first was the presence of such a young widow who was speaking out on his behalf. But although she was in fact difficult to speak up against when it came to Custer, she still adopted intelligent and well thought out tactics to maintain their name.
One tactic was to provide historical agencies and news organizations with heroic artifacts from Custer, such as paintings and strategic photographs. She also romanticized one of the worst losses in the history of the army at the time, making the massacre out to be manly and heroic rather than simply a tragic example of a bad decision. In her novels she depicted a much softer side of George Custer, making him out to be overtly kind and gentle to animals and helpless people alike. A Christian Science Monitor article spoke of a time Custer led his entire cavalry around a birds nest to avoid harming it.
It got to be that Libbie’s story was so endearing and she was so likeable that the mere fact that he was married to her boosted his reputation. People had to assume that only an extraordinary man could win over the affection of such an amazing woman.
Libbie was ever careful, in her husband’s death, to frame him in the right way all the time. On the battlefield he was experienced, brave and hard, at home he was gentle and loving. There needed to be a tender side to complement his toughness or he wouldn’t be nearly as heroic or loved. Libbie knew this even long before recent studies could show that many of her tactics and techniques were truly the correct ones. In the end, as a devoted wife, Libbie Custer did as much for her husband’s lasting reputation as he did.
– Jim Wilkinson