General George Custer loved his dogs, and he had many of them. Throughout much of his military career, a good number of his dogs accompanied him everywhere. He had so many dogs (40-80) that even if he set out with fifteen or twenty of them, there were still plenty of dogs to stay home with his wife Libby.
Custer’s First Dog After the Civil War
While George Custer likely had dogs before his time at West Point and during his Civil War service, the first documented dog that belonged to the Custers was one named Byron, an English Greyhound that he acquired while he and Libby were stationed in Hempstead, Texas. Soon after this, the general became enamored of the hunting dogs that Texas planters were using, and his friends began giving him a dog or two from their packs. These were Scottish Staghounds, known today as Scottish Deerhounds.
By the time they moved from Hempstead, Texas to Austin, the Custers had acquired 23 dogs. Ginnie, a setter who was a particular favorite of Libby’s, gave birth to a new litter shortly after the move. Two or three of the puppies were very weak at birth, and Libby wrote that George himself walked the floor during the night, trying to save the puppies.
The Dogs Moved When the Custers Did
The only time General Custer willingly parted with any of his dogs was when the Custers were assigned to a new station. At that point, he had to consider the length of the journey to the new location and go through the pack to decide which dogs were strong enough to accompany them. Older dogs were placed with families near the home they were leaving.
In 1866, George and Libby were traveling by horseback to Fort Riley, Kansas for their next assignment. Libby wrote in Tenting on the Plains, her book on that era of their lives, of the fun they had riding across the open prairies with the dogs running along with them:
“The dogs would be aroused from the deepest sleep at the very sight of our riding costumes, and by the time we were well into them [the clothing] and whip in hand, they [the dogs] leaped and sprang about the room, tore out on the gallery, and tumbled over one another and the furniture in racing back, and such a din of barking and joyful whining as the set up-the noisier the better for my husband.”
Custer Loved Hunting with the Dogs
During the 1880s, hunting or “coursing,” as it was called, had become very popular with the military officers on the Great Plains. They hunted antelope and buffalo, usually with success.
Some of these hunts took place while they were moving locations so Libby would be along when the men and dogs left to hunt. The dogs also wandered on their own, and Libby wrote that one nighttime encounter by the dogs with a polecat was the only time she and the general ever shooed the dogs away from them.
Permanent Staff Person Added for Animal Care
Private John Burkman took over the responsibilities of animal care for the Custers in 1870. Custer had always had someone assigned to help with the dogs and the horses, but Burkman’s assignment was unusual because he stayed for a number of years, remaining with the family until Custer was killed in 1876.
Some of Burkman’s stories about Custer live on because author Glendolin Damon Wagner set them down in print in a book called Old Neutriment.
The responsibility of making certain the dogs got daily exercise fell to Burkman. He described linking the dogs together in pairs. Burkman then mounted his horse, and the dogs ran alongside them. As Burkman told Wagner: “They was a purty sight, so slick nd slim, eighty of ‘em canterin’ along.”
In the fall of 1875, General Custer was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakotas. He and Libby had gone home to Michigan for a brief leave, taking some of the dogs with them. As they returned, the train on which they were riding became stranded in the snow. They might never have made it out if it hadn’t been for George’s brother, Tom, who served in the same cavalry. Tom knew which train the Custers were to arrive on, so he set out with a horse and sleigh, traveling until he found them.
Three of the dogs had accompanied the Custers to Michigan, and they too were rescued. They all made the trip home comfortably. The dogs were placed in the sleigh near Libby in order to provide warmth.
Battle of Little Big Horn
On May 17, 1776 Custer left Fort Abraham Lincoln for what would be the last time. As was her custom, Libby rode along with him for the first day’s ride. She would stay with Custer for one night and then she would return to the Fort. That trip, Custer wanted her to take the dogs back with her, and with that, Burkman noted that he realized that this expedition was more serious than some.
The next day as Libby prepared to depart, Burkman helped ready the dogs to return with her. However, several of them were too excited to cooperate. They wanted to stay with the general, and ultimately, he didn’t have the heart to send them back.
For a time, the 7th Cavalry moved about as usual—covering the planned-for distance and then setting up camp at night, on their way to what they knew would be a confrontation with the Native Americans. On June 12, 1876 Custer included the following information in a letter to Libby:
“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.”
The night before Custer planned for the men to leave for Big Horn, John Burkman drew overnight guard duty. Burkman had intended to go with the group the next day, but when Custer realized he had been up all night, he ordered him to stay at the camp site and hold the dogs to prevent them from following their master into battle.
That was the last time Burkman saw General Custer.
The fate of the dogs on that trip was not recorded.
The Whereabouts of One Dog
Cardigan was an over-sized dog that was a family favorite. Libby described him as considering himself a lap dog, always trying to scramble up into her lap—inevitably, one leg hung behind as there just wasn’t enough lap room for the big dog.
Libby ultimately gave Cardigan to one of Custer’s good friends, a clergyman in Michigan. (After Custer’s death, Libby’s future was uncertain, so she likely distributed the dogs at that time.)
In her book, Boots and Saddles, she wrote: “…when the poor dog died, his new master honored him by having his body set up by the taxidermists, and a place was given him in one of the public buildings in Minneapolis.”
To read more about animals during the Civil War, read about veterinary care during that time: Some Heroes Had Hooves.