Still Standing is a fantasy that has been living in Don Solenberger’s mind for many years, yearning to be told. Don’s mother homesteaded on the Dakota plains and often retold the story of a wagon rolling into town with its passengers suffering from arrow wounds. Don worked for the Connecticut Life Insurance Company, who had as an early president, Jacob Greene, the best man at the wedding of George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Bacon. He has had a lifelong fascination with Civil War history. He was intrigued by the life of Custer’s widow, who outlived her husband by 54 years. She became a woman entrepreneur, mostly retelling her husband’s exploits in books and worldwide lecture tours. Her devotion prompted the thought, “What might have happened to two ambitious lovers had the Battle of the Little Big Horn not separated them?”
Targeted Age Group:: 16+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was always interested in history and American politics. I worked for the insurance company once headed by Jacob Green, the best man at the Custer wedding. This book combines all my interests.
The boys stooped low and ran away from the River Raisin towards the farmhouse and barn. They didn’t stop until they found shelter in the barn and closed the barn door behind them. Autie pointed toward an empty horse stall and the boys took refuge together behind a second closed door. “You’ll be safe here for now,” Autie said in a hushed voice. All three collapsed into the hay.
“Where are you headed?” Tom ventured.
The Negro boy was still hesitant to speak, but he weighed the facts. These boys had helped him, and he didn’t have anywhere else to turn.
“Canada,” he said. “Freedom. Can’t be far now. I be runnin’ fo’ weeks.”
Sam gasped for breath. He was both scared and excited.
Autie decided to take charge.
“Take it easy. You are safe for now. I’m George Armstrong Custer. This is my brother, Thomas. They call me Autie. They call him Tom. What do they call you.”
“Sam.” His one-syllable name was about all he could manage at the moment.
“Sam, you are indeed close to Canada. Why, if you can swim you are home free.”
“Can’t swim,” Sam admitted.
“We can swim,” Tom piped in. Autie shushed his younger brother. “That won’t help him now, will it, Tom?”
“Where are you running from?” Autie asked.
“That’s horse country.” Tom said with excitement. “Can you ride?”
“Fo’ sure!” Sam said. Sam gained energy and confidence with the opportunity to speak with authority on a topic that clearly interested his newfound friends.
“Work horses mostly, but since I small, Master has me ride the ﬁne horses now and ag’in. I keeps them in shape.”
Autie looked at the slave boy with a peculiar envy. Up until now, he had not given slavery much thought. His father and friends often discussed slavery around the Custer dinner table and at farmers’ meetings, but they seemed to be mostly concerned with farming economics, not the hearts and souls of the enslaved laborers. Autie was face to face with a slave for the ﬁrst time, a boy near his own age…and this slave had access to the ﬁnest horses!
He shook off his irrational envy and returned to the problem at hand.
“Shouldn’t we tell Pap and Ma?” Tom asked.
“Perhaps, perhaps not—at least not yet! Tom, remember that prank we are planning to play on Bos tomorrow?” Tom nodded. “Well, it might work even better with Sam’s help!”
Autie told the boys his plan, working out the details as he went.
Sam would spend the night in the barn. Both Autie and Tom would take some extra food from the dinner table to avoid being noticed.
“See that horse there?” Autie pointed to one of the six in the stalls on the other end of the barn. “That horse’s name is King. He belongs to John Stanford, a rich man, lives on a big farm north of here along the Detroit River. He’s expecting us to return his horse by tomorrow night with new shoes. ”
“It’s my turn to ride the horse home,” Tom reminded him.
“When we go to pull that prank on Boz tomorrow, let’s use Mr. Stanford’s horse.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort.” The sound of their father’s voice paralyzed them. They looked up at their father’s face looking down over the wall of the stall at the three of them. For once, Autie was speechless.
“What’s going on here,” Emanuel Custer demanded.
Accustomed to obeying orders, Sam was the only one who could speak.
“I Sam, sir. I wants to go North.”
“Where did you run from?”
Emanuel Custer had the same reaction as his younger son.
“That’s horse country. How are my boys planning to help you?”
“Don’t know ’xactly, sir. We jus’ talkin’.”
“Armstrong, tell me what is going on.”
Autie breathed deeply to muster his courage. He rose to his feet in respect for his father.
“Father, we came across Sam by the river. He was hiding in the bushes along the orchard. There were boats coming near enough to see us, so we ducked low and ran for the barn. Other than that, sir, we don’t know much more.”
Emanuel turned to Sam. “How about you ﬁll in the details.”
Sam was practiced at telling his story. He’d told it a dozen times in the last few weeks as he moved from one safe house in the Underground Railroad to another.
“Well, sir,” he started, “a whiles back, some slaves run for freedom. They gets away. That makes all the masters plenty sore, grumblin’ ’bout losing their ’vestments. Houseboy hears Master plannin’ to sell soon as harvest work be over. He wants bes’ dollar to buy new slaves over the winter and get ’em ready for spring plantin’.”
Autie listened. Sam sounded like any number of farmers talking shop with his father. But they were talking about ﬁring and hiring. Sam was talking about buying and selling and it was Sam who was being bought and sold.
Sam continued his story. “Master wants rid of us before we gets thinkin’ ’bout runnin’. But, sir, he too late. We already thinkin’ ’bout runnin’. Off we goes that very night. They be ten of us. We runs together the ﬁrst few nights, but gets torn apart one way or ’nother. I stays in barns, houses, sheds, caves. Last few days I stays in a fancy house not far from here. Jes’ Mama, my sister, Myra, and me. Mama and Myra stays in the house. I stays in the barn.
“Last night I hear a ruckus. Men bangin’ on the door of the house. They sound angry. I watch from the barn. When one starts my way, I takes off out the back door. I runs to the water. It plenty dark. Can’t swim, but I wades along the edge, hidin’ my trail ’jes likes the others teaches me. Cum sunrise, I see boats on the water. I think bes’ to hide ’til dark. I spends most of the day hidin’ in the bushes. That’s when yo’ boys ﬁnds me.”
Emanuel looked the boy over. He guessed he was about twelve years old with a small, sturdy build and clearly no stranger to hard work. His skin was as dark as any he had ever seen. His eyes were as bright as lanterns in the shadows of the barn. His clothes were a bit ragged and appeared to be getting a tad small, but he was clean. The last people to keep him had taken good care of him, he thought. Emanuel saw that he carried nothing with him.
“You must be hungry.”
“Yessir,” Sam answered softly.
+ + +
Emanuel Custer quickly assessed the situation he was facing with his sons, Tom and Autie, and a runaway slave boy named Sam.
Emanuel turned to Tom, “Tom, you run and ask your mother for some bread and meat. If she wants to know why, tell her I’m working hard and I am hungry.”
Tom lost no time. He ran out of the barn, stopping only to swing the doors shut and headed straight for the Custer kitchen. Emanuel Custer continued his plan.
“Sam,” he said. “You stay here with my son, Armstrong. But I don’t want you staying here all night. It won’t be safe for you to move around until it gets a bit darker. When it gets to be supper time and everyone is home sitting at their dinner tables—then you can come into the house.” He stopped and thought for a few seconds. “In fact, Autie, wait a bit longer until your brother, Boston, goes to bed. He’s too young to know about this. I will come get you when it is safe.”
Then he turned to Sam. “You’ll be safe in our home.”
“Why is that, Pap?” Autie interjected. “Seems to me like the barn would be safer.”
“It would be except for one thing,” his father explained. “We’re Democrats living in Whig territory. I can guess which house in Monroe kept Sam. You can be sure it was a Whig house. They protect runaway Negroes. Most people know it, but nobody talks.”
Emanuel continued. “They don’t talk because this isn’t our battle, Autie. We don’t hold to slavery. But there’s plenty of Democrats that do and we are Democrats. They’ll be sure to help if some Southerner happens along and wants a hand ﬁnding a runaway. If anyone comes looking for Sam, they are bound to be Democrats. The Whigs will make excuses. If they are running for office, they might pretend to help so as not to appear to be breaking any laws. But they won’t take looking for Negroes seriously. If any search party stops here you can be sure that they will be Democrats and they won’t hesitate to check the barn, with or without my permission, but they’ll take the word of a fellow Democrat that there are no runaways in our house.”
Autie had just started thinking about politics. He’d spent many a night lying in bed, listening to his father and his friends argue the pet peeves of the prairie farmers at the kitchen table. But the things they talked about had not seemed real. He still thought like a child. There was right and there was wrong and not much in between.
“Father, this is wrong. Sam can’t hurt anyone.”
“That’s not what this is about, son. Sam may not want to hurt anyone. But Sam doesn’t have a say. He is a slave boy. He will do as he is told. He’ll do it as a boy and he’ll do it as a man. He’ll do it until one day he is tired of doing it. Pushed hard enough there’s no telling what he’ll do when he grows to be a man. That’s just the way it is.”
Sam sat quietly in the hay, listening awkwardly to the discussion about his future.
“This does not seem right,” Autie muttered.
“Autie, you listen to me.” Emanuel said sternly. “This isn’t our battle. We will not send Sam back into slavery, but all we can do is set him in the right direction. You and Tom keep quiet about this. Keep Boston in the dark. He would be sure to babble.”
With that Emanuel left the barn. He passed Tom on his way back to the barn with the provisions. “Is your mother in the kitchen?” he asked. Tom said “Yes, Pap, she didn’t ask any questions.”
“Thomas, I’ve told Armstrong my plan. You listen to him. Keep quiet. Follow Armstrong’s lead. I’ll go talk to your mother.”
The two continued in opposite directions. Tom looked into the sky. It was late in the afternoon, but there was still plenty of daylight left. He thought for a moment about the chores that were going undone, about the tools he and Autie had left in the ﬁelds. Normally, such carelessness would not go unpunished, but Father had said to follow Autie’s lead. That’s what he set out to do.
Autie, Tom, and Sam huddled in an empty horse stall. The walls of the stall gave them a sense of protection. For now, this was their world. Four wooden walls, a pile of straw, a loaf of bread and slab of meat.
The boys quickly became friends. Sam told them all about life on a Kentucky horse plantation. Tom and Autie listened wide-eyed. While they wouldn’t want to be slaves, the thought of being around the ﬁnest horses in the world was beyond their imagination. For the next few hours, nothing separated the boys. They were equal—just boys sharing adventures.
As the hot summer air began to stir with the evening breezes, Emanuel Custer appeared again at the barn door carrying a large straw hat.
“It’s suppertime, boys. I’ve talked to your mother. She is prepared to help. She fed Boston early and put him to bed. He went kicking and screaming but he is asleep now. Autie you take Sam with you and head for the house. Don’t run but don’t dawdle. Sam, you go with Autie. Wear this hat low on your head. If anyone passing near sees you, they’ll think it’s just Autie and Tom coming in from the ﬁelds. Thomas, you and I are going to wait here a few minutes. We will walk across the farmyard together.”
The plan went well. Soon the three boys were sitting at the kitchen table with Mother and Father Custer and brother Nevin.
When learning of their unexpected guest, Maria Custer had put extra effort into the farmhouse dinner. All ate ravenously. Sam was unaccustomed to eating at the same table with white people but the hours together in the barn had almost made him forget his position. At ﬁrst, he sat stiffly at the table, his hands in his lap, his head hanging low, not sure how to behave. But with an elbow or two from his new best friends he soon was eating and chattering as if he’d been an honored guest at their table many times. Emanuel and his wife left the table and went together into the family parlor. Together, the boys cleared the table and cleaned the kitchen. Autie and Tom were impressed with Sam’s ability to know just what needed to be done. Then Mother Custer took the boys upstairs.
“First, Sam, you need some new britches. Here are two pairs Autie has outgrown. Try them on.
“Autie and Tom, you sleep in your room like always. We’ve laid some blankets out on the ﬂoor in the corner of our room for Sam. Your father thinks our bedroom will be safest place for Sam tonight.”
+ + +
The night passed peacefully, but the household woke before dawn to the clopping sound of an unusual number of horses on the nearby road. Emanuel stood on the farmhouse porch and saw two teams of men riding back and forth in opposite directions, up and down the road, drifting into the neighboring ﬁelds.
“Autie, run to the barn and get a horse ready. I’m going to ride out and see what they are looking for.”
“Pap, you know what they are looking for.”
“Hush, Autie, we’ll let them tell us what they know. It pays to be quiet and listen sometimes,” his father rebuked him.
Autie ran to the barn, and saddled one of the workhorses. He took a second saddle and threw it across the back of a second horse. “I’m going with him,” he thought.
Emanuel Custer looked at Autie with a hint of pride as he saw him leading two horses from the barn. His oldest son was growing up.
Emanuel called into the house.
“Maria, Autie and I are riding out to the road to see what’s going on. Keep the children in the house. All the children,” he added.
It was a short ride to the road, just a hundred yards or so.
“Hello, Emanuel,” one rider greeted him by name. “Are you coming to help?”
“That depends on what the job is. What’s the trouble, boys?”
“We’re looking for runaways. Some Southern fellows rode into Monroe yesterday afternoon on the trail of fugitive slaves. A boy was spotted near here yesterday morning. We’re giving our Southern friends a hand. Mind if we check your barn?”
Emanuel turned to Autie. “Son, you just saddled the horses. Did you notice anyone hiding in the barn.”
“Nothing but horses, cows and chickens in the barn, Pap.”
“Well, Emanuel, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll send a couple of men to check the nooks and crannies. These blackies have been running for weeks and know how to hide.”
“Be my guest, check the house, too, if you like.” Autie felt a chill, but quickly found that his father’s judgment was right.
“No need to disturb the ladies and children.”
He shouted orders to a couple of men.
“Check the Custer barn, fellows, and ride back behind the apple trees.”
Autie saw heavy chains dangling from the rider’s saddle horn. Autie’s heart was in his throat. “He’d known Sam for less than a day but he didn’t want to see him hauled away in chains.”
He watched as his Father mounted the spare horse and chatted with the lead horseman.
Emanuel knew all of the men. Autie had seen several of them at the Custer kitchen table late at night, arguing politics. Autie admired his father’s easy way with people, especially how he could befriend anyone, stand ﬁrm for his own ideas, and part friends. Autie glanced nervously now and then toward the farmhouse but noticed that each time he did his father made an effort to draw him into the discussion.
“Why, Autie, here, will be ﬁnished with school in another year or two.”
“I’ll be! What are you planning on doing after that, young fellow?”
The two men talked with ease and soon the riders returned from the Custer farmyard.
“No sign of any runaways,” they reported.
“Time to move on. You two like to ride with us?” he asked Emanuel and Autie.
“Sorry, we have to shoe some horses for Monroe’s ﬁnest today.”
Both men laughed and the search party rode off.
Emanuel and Autie watched for a few minutes. Emanuel did not break his gaze at the men disappearing from view. At last he spoke. “We have to get Sam on his way as soon as possible. Let’s ride around the edge of our property to make sure there are no stragglers—and then get back to the house.”
About the Author:
Don Solenberger is a retired businessman with a love of history and the American Civil War.
Judith Gotwald, a Philadelphia writer and graphic designer, helped Don tell his story.
Author Home Page Link
Links to Purchase eBooks
Link To Buy Still Standing: Surviving Custer’s Last Battle – Part 1 On Amazon
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