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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Dakota Blizzard

By Elizabeth Bacon Custer (1842–1933)

[Born in Monroe, Mich., 1842. Died in New York, N. Y., 1933. From “Boots and Saddles,” or, Life in Dakota with General Custer. 1885.]

THE GENERAL had returned completely exhausted and very ill. Without his knowledge I sent for the surgeon, who, like all of his profession in the army, came promptly. He gave me some powerful medicine to administer every hour, and forbade the general to leave his bed. It was growing dark, and we were in the midst of a Dakota blizzard. The snow was so fine that it penetrated the smallest cracks, and soon we found white lines appearing all around us, where the roof joined the walls, on the windows and under the doors. Outside the air was so thick with the whirling, tiny particles that it was almost impossible to see one’s hand held out before one. The snow was fluffy and thick, like wool, and fell so rapidly, and seemingly from all directions, that it gave me a feeling of suffocation as I stood outside. Mary was not easily discouraged, and piling a few light fagots outside the door, she tried to light a fire. The wind and the muffling snow put out every little blaze that started, however, and so, giving it up, she went into the house and found the luncheon-basket we had brought from the car, in which remained some sandwiches, and these composed our supper.

The night had almost settled down upon us when the adjutant came for orders. Knowing the scarcity of fuel and the danger to the horses from exposure to the rigor of such weather after their removal from a warm climate, the general ordered the breaking of camp. All the soldiers were directed to take their horses and go into Yankton, and ask the citizens to give them shelter in their homes, cow-sheds, and stables. In a short time the camp was nearly deserted, only the laundresses, two or three officers, and a few dismounted soldiers remaining. The towns-people, true to the unvarying western hospitality, gave everything they could to the use of the regiment; the officers found places in the hotels. The sounds of the hoofs of the hurrying horses flying by our cabin on their way to the town had hardly died out before the black night closed in and left us alone on that wide, deserted plain. The servants, Mary and Ham, did what they could to make the room below-stairs comfortable by stopping the cracks and barricading the frail door. The thirty-six hours of our imprisonment there seems now a frightful nightmare. The wind grew higher and higher, and shrieked about the little house dismally. It was built without a foundation, and was so rickety it seemed as it rocked in a great gust of wind that it surely would be unroofed or overturned. The general was too ill for me to venture to find my usual comfort from his reassuring voice. I dressed in my heaviest gown and jacket, and remained under the blankets as much as I could to keep warm. Occasionally I crept out to shake off the snow from the counterpane, for it sifted in between the roof and clapboards very rapidly. I hardly dared take the little vial in my benumbed fingers to drop the precious medicine, for fear it would fall. I realized, as the night advanced, that we were as isolated from the town, and even the camp, not a mile distant, as if we had been on an island in the river. The doctor had intended to return to us, but his serious face and impressive injunctions made me certain that he considered the life of the general dependent on the medicine being regularly given.

During the night I was startled by hearing a dull sound, as of something falling heavily. Flying down the stairs, I found the servants prying open the frozen and snow-packed door, to admit a half dozen soldiers who, becoming bewildered by the snow, had been saved by the faint light we had placed in the window. After that several came, and two were badly frozen. We were in despair of finding any way of warming them, as there was no bedding, and, of course, no fire, until I remembered the carpets which were sewed up in bundles and heaped in one corner, where the boxes were, and which we were not to use until the garrison was reached. Spreading them out, we had enough to roll up each wanderer as he came. The frozen men were in so exhausted a condition that they required immediate attention. Their sufferings were intense, and I could not forgive myself for not having something with which to revive them. The general never tasted liquor, and we were both so well always we did not even keep it for use in case of sickness.

I saw symptoms of that deadly stupor which is the sure precursor of freezing, when I fortunately remembered a bottle of alcohol which had been brought for the spirit-lamps. Mary objected to using the only means by which we could make coffee for ourselves, but the groans and exhausted and haggard faces of the men won her over, and we saw them revive under the influence of the fiery liquid. Poor fellows! They afterwards lost their feet, and some of their fingers had also to be amputated. The first soldier who had reached us unharmed, except from exhaustion, explained that they had all attempted to find their way to town, and the storm had completely overcome them. Fortunately one had clung to a bag of hard-tack, which was all they had had to eat. At last the day came, but so darkened by the snow it seemed rather a twilight. The drifts were on three sides of us like a wall. The long hours dragged themselves away, leaving the general too weak to rise, and in great need of hot, nourishing food. I grew more and more terrified at our utterly desolate condition and his continued illness, though fortunately he did not suffer. He was too ill, and I too anxious, to eat the fragments that remained in the luncheon-basket. The snow continued to come down in great swirling sheets, while the wind shook the loose window-casings and sometimes broke in the door. When night came again and the cold increased, I believed that our hours were numbered. I missed the voice of the courageous Mary, for she had sunk down in a corner exhausted for want of sleep, while Ham had been completely demoralized from the first. Occasionally I melted a little place on the frozen window-pane, and saw that the drifts were almost level with the upper windows on either side, but that the wind had swept a clear space before the door. During the night the sound of the tramping of many feet rose above the roar of the storm. A great drove of mules rushed up to the sheltered side of the house. Their brays had a sound of terror as they pushed, kicked, and crowded themselves against our little cabin. For a time they huddled together, hoping for warmth, and then despairing, they made a mad rush away, and were soon lost in the white wall of snow beyond. All night long the neigh of a distressed horse, almost human in its appeal, came to us at intervals. The door was pried open once, thinking it might be some suffering fellow-creature in distress. The strange, wild eyes of the horse peering in for help haunted me long afterwards. Occasionally a lost dog lifted up a howl of distress under our window, but before the door could be opened to admit him he had disappeared in the darkness. When the night was nearly spent I sprang again to the window with a new horror, for no one, until he hears it for himself, can realize what varied sounds animals make in the excitement of peril. A drove of hogs, squealing and grunting, were pushing against the house, and the door which had withstood so much had to be held to keep it from being broken in.

It was almost unbearable to hear the groans of the soldiers over their swollen and painful feet, and know that we could do nothing to ease them. To be in the midst of such suffering, and yet have no way of ameliorating it; to have shelter, and yet to be surrounded by dumb beasts appealing to us for help, was simply terrible. Every minute seemed a day; every hour a year. When daylight came I dropped into an exhausted slumber, and was awakened by Mary standing over our bed with a tray of hot breakfast. I asked if help had come, and finding it had not, of course, I could not understand the smoking food. She told me that feeling the necessity of the general’s eating, it had come to her in the night-watches that she would cut up the large candles she had pilfered from the cars, and try if she could cook over the many short pieces placed close together, so as to make a large flame. The result was hot coffee and some bits of the steak she had brought from town, fried with a few slices of potatoes. She could not resist telling me how much better she could have done had I not given away the alcohol to the frozen men!

The breakfast revived the general so much that he began to make light of danger in order to quiet me. The snow had ceased to fall, but for all that it still seemed that we were castaways and forgotten, hidden under the drifts that nearly surrounded us. Help was really near at hand, however, at even this darkest hour. A knock at the door, and the cheery voices of men came up to our ears. Some citizens of Yankton had at last found their way to our relief, and the officers, who neither knew the way nor how to travel over such a country, had gladly followed. They told us that they had made several attempts to get out to us, but the snow was so soft and light that they could make no headway. They floundered and sank down almost out of sight, even in the streets of the town. Of course no horse could travel, but they told me of their intense anxiety, and said that fearing I might be in need of immediate help they had dragged a cutter over the drifts, which now had a crust of ice formed from the sleet and the moisture of the damp night-air. Of course I declined to go without the general, but I was more touched than I could express by their thought of me. I made some excuse to go upstairs, where, with my head buried in the shawl-partition, I tried to smother the sobs that had been suppressed during the terrors of our desolation. Here the general found me, and though comforting me by tender words, he still reminded me that he would not like any one to know that I had lost my pluck when all the danger I had passed through was really ended.