by Joan Dillon
History has not been kind to General George Armstrong Custer. Yet, this often-vilified cavalry officer and Indian fighter who met his Waterloo at the Little Big Horn River in Montana in 1876, evidently had some redeeming qualities. He was devoted to his wife Elizabeth (Libbie) Bacon Custer, who defied her parents to marry him and then followed him to army camps and forts across the western plains. He was also a dog lover and often traveled with a pack of several breeds including Greyhounds. While stationed in Kentucky between assignments in Kansas and the Dakotas, Custer wrote a series of articles for Galaxy magazine entitled “My Life on the Plains.” These were later compiled into a book from which the following excerpts were taken.
“I had several fine English greyhounds, whose speed I was anxious to test with that of the antelope, said to be — which I believe — the fleetest of animals. I was mounted on a fine large thoroughbred horse. Taking with me but one man, the chief bugler, and calling my dogs around me, I galloped ahead of the column as soon as it was daylight, for the purpose of having a chase after some antelope which could be seen grazing nearly two miles distant…. That such a course was rashly imprudent I am ready to admit. A stirring gallop of a few minutes brought me near enough to the antelope, of which there were a dozen or more, to enable the dogs to catch sight of them. Then the chase began, the antelope running in a direction which took us away from the command. By availing myself of the turns in the course, I was able to keep well in view of the exciting chase until it was evident that the antelope were in no danger of being caught by the dogs, which latter had become blown from want of proper exercise.”
Custer then sighted his first wild buffalo and was determined to kill it. He pursued it relentlessly and soon outdistanced his greyhounds. When he came alongside for the kill, however, the buffalo attempted to gore his horse, which veered to avoid the attack. This caused Custer’s revolver to misfire and he killed his horse instead of the buffalo. Luckily for Custer, the buffalo didn’t stick around. Two of his greyhounds overtook him at this point and Custer describes their reaction as follows:
“Their mute glances first at the dead steed, then at me, seemed to inquire the cause of this strange condition of affairs. Their instinct appeared to tell them that we were in misfortune. While I was deliberating what to do, the dogs became uneasy, whined piteously, and seemed eager to leave the spot. In this desire I sympathized with them, but whither should I go? I observed that their eyes were generally turned in one paricular direction; this I accepted as my cue, and with one parting look at my horse, and grasping a revolver in each hand, I set out on my uncertain journey.”
Following a tour of duty in Kentucky, Custer was again assigned to the West — this time to the Dakotas. It was from Fort Lincoln in June of 1876 that he left his wife behind and headed to Montana and his date with destiny. Libbie Custer was then thirty-four years old and would survive her husband by fifty-two years. To supplement her army pension, she lectured and wrote magazine articles and books about her experiences on the frontier with her husband.
In Tenting on the Plains, Libbie provides several entertaining tales about Byron, a greyhound who was jealous of her and who disliked sharing Custer’s affections.
“We had a superb greyhound called Byron, that was devoted to the General, and after a successful chase it was rewarded with many a demonstration of affection. He was the most lordly dog, I think, I ever saw, powerful, with deep chest, and carrying his head in a royal way. When he started for a run, with his nostrils distended and his delicate ears laid back on his noble head, each bound sent him flying through the air. He hardly touched the elastic cushions of his feet to earth, before he again was spread out like a dark, straight thread. This gathering and leaping must be seen, to realize how marvelous is the rapidity and how the motion seems flying, almost, as the ground is scorned except at a sort of spring bound. He trotted back to the General, if he happened to be in advance, with the rabbit in his mouth, and, holding back his proud head, delivered the game only to his chief. The tribute that a woman pays to beauty in any form, I gave to Byron, but I never cared much for him.”
“As soon as the General tossed himself on the bed, Byron walked to him and was invited to share the luxury…. Byron answered this invitation by licking his host’s hand, and turning in the most scornful manner on me, as I uttered a mild protest regarding his muddy paws…. Such an exasperating brute, and such a tormenting master, were best left alone. But I was tired, and wanted to lie down, so I told Eliza that if she would stand there, I would try the broom, a woman’s weapon, on his royal highness. Byron wouldn’t budge, and growled even at me. Then I quite meekly took what little place was left, the General’s sense of mischief, and his peculiar fondness for not interfering in a fight, now coming in to keep him silent. The dog rolled over, and shammed sleep, but soon planting his feet against my back, which was turned in high dudgeon, he pushed and pushed, seemingly without premeditation, his dreadful eyes shut, until I was nearly shoved off. I was conquered, and rose afraid of the dog and momentarily irritated at my defeat and his tyranny…. ”
“One day we heard shout upon shout from many a soldier’s throat in camp. The headquarters guard and officers’ servants, even the officers themselves, joined in the hallooing, and we ran out to see what could be the matter. It was our lordly Byron. Stately and superb as he usually was, he had another side to his character, and now he was racing up from camp, a huge piece of meat in his jaws, which he had stolen from the camp-kettle where it was boiling for the soldiers’ dinner. His retreat was accompanied with every sort of missile — sticks, boots and rocks — but this dog, that made himself into a ‘greased streak of lightning,’ as a woman described him, bounded on, untouched by the flying hail of the soldiers’ wrath. The General did not dare to shout and dance in sight of the men, over what he thought so cunning in this hateful dog, as he was not protected by the friendly walls of our tent; but he chuckled and his eyes danced, for the brute dropped the hot meat when he had looked about to discover how close his pursuers were, and then, seeing the enemy nearing him, picked it up and distanced them all.”
Some of Custer’s letters to Libbie also mention greyhounds. The following is from a letter penned on July 19, 1873:
“Regarding the dogs, I find myself more warmly attached to Tuck than to any other I have ever owned… She comes to me almost every evening when I am siting in my large camp-chair…. First she lays her head on my knee, as if to ask if I am too much engaged to notice her. A pat of encouragement and her fore-feet are thrown lightly across my lap; a few moments in this posture and she lifts her hind-feet from the ground, and, great, overgrown dog that she is, quietly and gently disposes of herself on my lap, and at times will cuddle down and sleep there for an hour at a time until I become so tired of my charge that I am compelled to transfer her to mother earth; and even then she resembles a well-cared for and half-spoiled child, who can never be induced to retire until it has been fondled to sleep in its mother’s arms…. Tuck will sleep so soundly in my lap that I can transfer her gently to the ground and she will continue her slumber…. As I write she is lying at my feet. She makes up with no other person.”
Another letter dated July 15, 1874 also mentions Tuck.
“As I write, the dogs surround me; Cardigan sleeping on the edge of my bed; Tuck at the head, and Blucher nearby.”
Tuck was also with Custer as he traveled toward his date with destiny. One of the last letters that Libbie received, written on June 12, 1876, states:
“Tuck regularly comes when I am writing and lays her head on the desk, rooting up my hand with her long nose until I consent to stop and notice her. She and Swift, Lady and Kaiser sleep in my tent.”
What happened to Custer’s greyhounds? One report has them sent back the night before the battle to the supply train with one very lucky soldier. Another has them in the care of an orderly by the name of Kelly who later settled in Dodge City, Kansas with some of Custer’s hounds. Did Tuck mourn her lost master? We would like to think so.
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