Cecily Marie Lefort

Cecily Marie Lefort

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Cecily Marie Lefort was born in Ireland in 1903. A skilled yachtswoman she lived in France until the country was invaded by the German Army in May 1940.

Soon after arriving in England Lefort joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). On 16th June, 1943, she was given the code name "Alice" and sent to occupied France with Noor Inayat Khan and Diana Rowden. After she arrived she joined the Jockey Network led by Francis Cammaerts.

By the autumn of 1943, Francis Cammaerts had established a network of small independent groups up and down the left bank of the Rhone Valley. He developed a secure system where although he knew how to get in touch with members of the group, they had no idea where he was living and could only leave messages for him in letter boxes (somebody with whom one could leave a message to be collected later by another person giving the right password).

In September 1943 Lefort was arrested while visiting the house of a corn-merchant at Montélimar. She was tortured by the Gestapo but the system Cammaerts had set up enabled the Jockey Network to survive. Cecily Marie Lefort died of starvation or was executed at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in early 1945.

Cecily Jordan Farrar

Cecily Jordan Farrar was one of the earliest women settlers of colonial Jamestown, Virginia. She arrived in the colony as a child in 1610 and was established as one of the few female ancient planters by 1620. After her husband Samuel Jordan died in 1623, Cecily obtained oversight of his 450-acre plantation, Jordan’s Journey. In the Jamestown Muster of 1624/25, she is one of fewer than 10 women who are mentioned as a head of household, and the only woman listed as sharing the head of household with a man she was not married to. In the year of Samuel Jordan's death, she also set off the first breach of promise lawsuit in English North America when she chose the marriage proposal of William Farrar, who was bonded to help settle her estate, over that of Greville Pooley, who claimed his proposal had already been accepted. In 1625, Cecily prevailed when Pooley withdrew his claim. Afterwards, she married William Farrar.


When Germany invades France in 1940, Cecily Lefort can’t imagine how the aristocratic comforts of life as a French doctor’s wife are about to disappear. A return to native England eventually leads Cecily back to France, this time as a secret agent. Cecily is one of 13 female Special Operations Executive (SOE) spies who do not survive to tell their story.

But a 100-year old family-owned photograph of Cecily inspires author E.M. (Elizabeth) Sloan to travel to Paris and investigate the story of Cecily’s life–and death. The intuitive conversation between Elizabeth and Cecily–based on war documents, letters, and interviews–spins an international web of intrigue that captures the raw emotions of love and war.

When Germany invades France in 1940, Cecily Lefort can’t imagine how the aristocratic comforts of life as a French doctor’s wife are about to disappear. A return to native England eventually leads Cecily back to France, this time as a secret agent. Cecily is one of 13 female Special Operations Executive (SOE) spies who do not survive to tell their story.

But a 100-year old family-owned photograph of Cecily inspires author E.M. (Elizabeth) Sloan to travel to Paris and investigate the story of Cecily’s life–and death. The intuitive conversation between Elizabeth and Cecily–based on war documents, letters, and interviews–spins an international web of intrigue that captures the raw emotions of love and war.

Buy the Book

About E.M. Sloan

E.M. (Elizabeth) Sloan’s historical nonfiction book, When Songbirds Returned to Paris, is the culmination of more than a dozen years of research involving international travel and correspondence. As part of this process, she achieved an MFA in creative writing from the University of Idaho. Sloan’s undergraduate degree (some 40 years ago) came from the University of Iowa. The time between these degrees was filled with various art and graphic design careers, including Better Homes & Garden publishing, Sloan’s own graphic design business, and numerous covers for poetry collections. Her essays “The Scent of Tarweed,” and “Spirit Dog” were both published in Idaho magazine.

In combination with her writing, Sloan also creates one-of-a-kind bookarts and other mixed media works. Her work titled “Our M(Others), Ourselves” was included in a juried BSU exhibit. The creation threads through a 1976 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves with 17 pages of original narrative imposed throughout the book “to explore the progressions of the ‘family’ and parenting in the last century.”

Sloan is also one of 260 international artists with three book art works in the international traveling collection named Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.


“With an innovative narrative structure and lively cast of characters, Elizabeth Sloan’s When Songbirds Returned to Paris weaves a powerful family history set against the backdrop of world war. Sloan’s impressive research reminds us that with enough digging, remarkable, true stories can rise from the dead.”Buddy Levy, author of Geronimo, Conquistador and River of Darkness

“Your manuscript arrived and I read it in a gulp. Always wanted to know more about Cecily, and here it all is. You weave the story gracefully between revelations of your research and the story itself.”Curtis Harnack, Executive Director of Yaddo Artists Retreat 1971-87 and author of We Have All Gone Away

Discussion Questions

1. What other books about the women and men who served as secret agents in Europe during WWII do you recommend? Does Cecily’s story enrich your knowledge of their operations?

2. In what ways does the author’s process of discovery about the life of Cecily Lefort inspire you to research your own family stories?

3. Does the author’s technique of using dialogue between herself and Cecily successfully serve to “report” the events of her life?

4. Of the following historical periods covered in Songbirds, do any of these leave you wanting to know more about that period: the late 1800’s the early 1900s through WWI or events leading up to and including WWII?

5. Songbirds is a blend of genres braiding history, biography, and memoir. Are there other structures you identify in this formula of creative nonfiction?

6. Does this blend, as noted above, succeed in drawing upon multiple perspectives to tell this story? Do you think one genre is stronger than another?

7. As a memoir, does the author provide authentic weight for her journey through history­—both world and family—to validate her “insertion” into Cecily’s life?

8. The author imagines many conversations between herself and her subject. Clearly, these conversations did not take place. Why does the author choose this rhetorical device and what is gained by using it?

9. Cecily sometimes “corrects” Lizzie’s interpretation. Does this make Lizzie an unreliable narrator? Or, is it a successful way of moving the story along?

10. The author becomes sensitive for Cecily’s feelings, as their conversation (relationship) develops and truths are revealed. Do you think this might compromise Lizzie’s ability to be objective?

11. Empathy. The world today, yesterday, tomorrow…might only survive with empathy. How can we inspire greater understanding toward each other?

12. What question do you think the author might wish (or dread!) to be asked, but that probably has not been addressed?


Q&A with E.M. Sloan
Based on questions from reading audiences

Q: Do I think of myself as a family historian, or an author?

A: My intention was to make When Songbirds Returned to Paris larger than “just my story” as a family history. That was part of the early challenge, to discover enough information about WWII and the whole Resistance movement to reach a larger audience. When I didn’t have enough information about Cecily, I delved into other Holocaust stories, such as Corrie Ten Boom’s The Attic, and Genevieve de Gaulle’s The Dawn of Hope. The first big break into Cecily’s story came when Jimmy Close sent the copy of Mission Improbable to me from England. That book tells about 15 SOE agents, each in a named chapter. Reading Cecily’s chapter as “The Doctor’s Wife” was the anchor I needed to understand how “real” the history was.

Q: How did I come to the conversation motif?

A: It took about ten years of trying to find a unique way to tell Cecily’s story, without it being “just” another historical chronology or family history. And I had two stories to tell: The story of Cecily’s life, and the story of me uncovering Cecily’s life. I had to figure out how to braid the two stories. I tried alternating chapters between Cecily’s voice and mine, and a chronological thread, but neither one spoke to me as a reader in a way that was different than so many other biographies and memoirs about the Holocaust. And I knew the story’s foundation also needed much more depth and layering than just the WWII portion. I had to understand what influenced Cecily’s choices. I had to have a decade of research that related to the whole of Cecily’s life in order for me to at last feel confident that I had earned the right to get into Cecily’s head, and heart to listen to her, and to speak for her.

Q: How has writing this book influenced my emotional life?

A: I have found peace for Cecily. There were months, even years, during that 12-year period of research, when I was consumed by thoughts about concentration camps almost 24/7. Literally all my waking hours—from taking a shower, appreciating the warm water and soap, to picking up dog pooh in my yard, trying to imagine the humiliation at every level that was inflicted on the prisoners—for months on end.

Early on in the research process, I met a Jewish woman at a writers’ retreat whose mother had been one of the kinder-transport children. I mentioned how obsessed I was with thoughts about life in the concentration camps. She sighed and said, with some humor, that she often stood at the school fence waiting for her children to come out and thought, “I’m sure I’m the only person here thinking about concentration camps right now.” I still have moments that are loaded with such thoughts, but mostly now when I’m reading another novel or memoir about the Holocaust. So I’ve found peace for myself, as well.

I also thought that the only thing Cecily wanted in her life was to be reunited with Alix. Once I understood, and accepted, that their marriage was troubled, and then learned that Alix asked for a divorce and married Janine, I really struggled with my loyalties. I wanted to only stick up for Cecily, but I had to be open to understanding the truth about her marital relationship. I came to embrace Janine and the daughters she and Alix had. I had to see this as something positive that came out of….I don’t want to say Cecily’s death, but I had to accept the reality that Cecily died, and that love and life came about as a result of these facts.

I believe that I also offered a sense of peace to Janine Lefort when I started collecting the stories about Cecily’s life. I think it gave her permission to no longer feel responsible as the keeper of the story about this mysterious woman who had been her husband’s first wife. In a similar way I provided relief for Sigrun, the vision seeker in Iceland. She said that her intense dreams about Cecily decreased immensely once she and I began sharing information and I took over the role of historian and documenter of Cecily and Alix’s life.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A collection of essays is my immediate project. I have a couple manuscripts tucked away in boxes that I’d like to cull a few stand-alone chapters and revise as essays. (Both were typed pre-computer, so rewriting will be word by word.) One is an anthology on breastfeeding. I wrote it back around 1995 when, as an older first time mother, I couldn’t find a book that soothed the frustration I had with breastfeeding. I kept a journal of my more than two-year experience (I finally embraced it), and interviewed a few dozen women ranging in age from twenty-somethings up to eighty-year old grandmothers. The history of social times is fascinating, and with the subject still, amazingly, a topic of controversy, it’s a timeless story that could be brought out as a complete book as well. And, it has a great title.

The other manuscript is a memoir titled Heading Toward Home. This holds a couple animal influenced chapters that are intense and lovely that I want to include in my collection. Another essay will be about the process of writing Songbirds, including new information that has come to light. And, finally (or not) one will be on the now sadly “popular” theme of Alzheimer’s. My generation is dealing with this on all fronts, and I have a dear friend, once my fiancé, who is suffering in the depths of this disease.

I have a couple published essays to include, and I think that I also probably won’t be able to resist writing something about the state of our environment. Oh, and there’s the request from a journal editor to write about dating in the decade of my 60s.

The Sufi Spy Who Fought The Fascists in Nazi-Occupied Paris

Noor climbed into Frank Rymills’s Lysander around 10 p.m. on the night of June 16. She shared the cramped passenger section of the Lysander with Cecily Lefort. They hadn’t seen each other since their initial training at Wanborough Manor. After that, they had separated—​Noor to learn about her Mark II radio, Lefort to be trained as a courier, messengers who traveled from circuit to circuit, acquiring intelligence about the Germans and passing it on to other cells or to radio operators to transmit to London. Noor was wearing a green oilskin coat. She would need it. Lysanders got chilly. The sky was clear the moon was bright. That and a map and a compass were the only way Rymills could find his way. Noor was in good hands. In his first ten months ferrying agents to France, Rymills had flown sixty-​five operations without a break, twice the usual number. He never lost anyone, going in or coming out.

Rymills was twenty-​three years old. Tall, with fair hair and a casual manner, he was flying Lysanders almost accidentally. When he joined the RAF in 1939, he was assigned to massive Halifax bombers—​forty feet longer than Lysanders, 34,000 pounds heavier, and with enough room for seven crew members and an arsenal of machine guns, four forward and four aft. Lysan­ders made Rymills laugh, especially after almost slamming into one while landing his Halifax. From high up in the Halifax, the Lysander looked like a scale model a boy scout had glued together from matchsticks and balsa wood. It moved about as slowly as a model, too, and could barely get out of Rymills’s way as he hurtled down the runway.

Soon after that incident, Charles Pickard, the commander of a squadron of Lysanders, spotted Rymills in the crew room. Most likely, Rymills’s cocker spaniel, Henry, was with him. Henry accompanied his master wherever he was allowed, and often where he wasn’t. Pickard and Rymills relaxed over drinks while Pickard slowly brought their banter around to the real reason for his sudden interest in Rymills. Would he like to fly a real plane, one that required a real pilot? In a Lysander, you can sense the air currents around you half a mile up and land in a field in the middle of nowhere guided only by two or three men standing on the damp ground, holding a flashlight in one hand and a revolver in the other. And you almost flew on cloth: other than the cockpit and the hot areas around the engine, a Lysander’s wooden frame was covered with specially treated cotton. With all that cloth, Lysanders were one step up from flying a laundry basket. Even better was that the pilot’s seat was the highest of any plane in the air force. Getting there was like climbing the rigging on a square-​rigged ship: you slipped your feet into toeholds here and there, swung from a series of struts, and when you reached the summit, squirmed your way into the pilot’s seat. By winding a wheel next to your right leg, you cranked the seat so high that you could actually see over the nose of the engine. That oversized bomber which Rymills was flying, Pickard persisted, was essentially a tube made of steel and aluminum, and its crew, like studious accountants, calculated, every minute, the plane’s allowable speed depending on the amount of gas left in its tanks. Flying a Halifax wasn’t flying, not Lysander-​flying.

Pickard, over six feet tall, was a great leader. When he looked you in the eye, it was difficult to look the other way. Knowing a good argument when he heard one, Rymills signed up with him before the night was up.

An officer who regularly prepared SOE agents for their secret flights said they had “a wonderful sense of humor and cheerfulness.” There was no false bravado. “On the contrary, it was real wit that came through. No written word can recapture the warmth of the atmosphere. Whenever . . . ​a feeling of dread pervaded, someone in the small group would rally the spirits of the others. They had, too, an extraordinary humility and a religious faith which was exemplified in the way they prepared themselves for their missions, such as making their confessions to a priest who would come to the station especially for this purpose.”

The “reception committees” who were waiting in France for these flights had a slightly different reaction. They were not alone. They had comrades. The Nazis had not extinguished freedom. Beyond the occupation was a land of honor and dignity, a land very different from the Nazis’ Greater Reich with its stiff-​armed salutes to a false and very deluded messiah. The clatter of an approaching Lysander, said a résistante who greeted these planes, was “proof in ourselves and in the fraternity of combat . . . ​Those who haven’t known it have missed something. Not the crushing occupation, but this refusal by everyone to be defeated [by] creating the victory. This breathes liberty.”

When Rymills landed his Lysander near Angers in France, Noor and Cecily Lefort were handed bicycles. Pedaling about seven miles to the village of Ettriche, they then boarded a train for the two-​hundred-​mile-​long trip to Paris. Lefort continued on to the Rhone Valley to join the circuit to which she had been assigned. Noor remained in Paris to meet the contacts that would take her to a cell being established in Le Mans, about 130 miles southwest of Paris.

Noor was no longer “Noor.” To anyone in the SOE or the Resistance, she was “Madeleine.” To everyone else—​ordinary citizens and the Germans—​she was “Jeanne Marie Regnier.” Before leaving England, Noor had practiced writing these names so they would flow from her pen as automatically as “Noor” had since she was a little girl.

Some of Jeanne Marie’s cover story overlapped with Noor’s life. The rest was fiction, a pastiche of real towns and dates and imaginary lineages and careers. Jeanne Marie was born on April 25, 1918 in Blois, a small town along the Loire. Her father, a philosophy professor at Princeton, had been killed fighting in the Great War her mother, an American, had moved to France in the 1920s. She fled to the United States just before the Nazis arrived. Like Noor, Jeanne Marie had studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. Unlike Noor, she had never written poetry or children’s stories, or composed music, or fled to England as Paris was falling. Jeanne Marie was a less interesting version of Noor, shorn of her artistry and imagination. Hopefully, she was so bland a concoction that no one would think twice about her. Her story was the one Noor would tell everyone who was not in the SOE or the Resistance from the moment she landed in France. “Never,” the SOE had told Noor, “come out of character. By this we mean not only from the clothes point of view, but from the mental.” Noor had to bury herself in Jeanne Marie. Bury herself, and forget herself.

The orders given to “Madeleine”—​Noor’s other code name—​were more exciting than the story invented for Jeanne Marie. As the radio operator for a cell named “Cinema,” Madeleine would, if possible, transmit messages to London around 9:05 a.m. on Sundays, 2:10 p.m. on Wednesdays, and 5:10 pm on Fridays. In turn, London would broadcast to Noor every day at 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. (Around the middle of August, this seems to have changed to 3 p.m daily.) When she landed in France, the head of Noor’s reception committee would tell her how to find the agent who ran her cell, a Frenchman named Emile-​Henri Garry. If Noor had to find Garry on her own, she would proceed to his apartment on the eighth floor of 40 Rue Erlanger in the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris. He had two telephone numbers—​AUTeil 62.35 and VAUgiras 86.55. Noor would sever contact with her reception committee as soon as possible. After that, she would try not to contact anyone who was not in her cell.

Noor and Garry had never met. Passwords were crucial for their first encounter. Noor’s was “Je viens de la part de votre ami Antoine pour des nouvelles au sujet de la Societé en Batiment” (“I come on behalf of your friend, Antoine, for news of the building company”) Garry’s reply was “L’affaire est en cours” (“The business is underway”). Unless Garry told Noor otherwise, she could only send messages that she got directly from him. If Garry “disappeared,” Noor should wait for further instructions from England. And as Noor had been told throughout her SOE training, she had to “be extremely careful with the filing” of her messages.

Noor’s orders covered numerous possibilities. If the Germans were looking for her as she was settling into Paris, she might have to stay in her flat for as long as six weeks, opening her door only to visitors who asked, “Puis je voir Jeanne Marie, la fille d’Ora” (“Can I see Jeanne Marie, Ora’s daughter?”). She would answer with “Vous voulez dire Babs” (“You mean Babs”). If she couldn’t transmit her address to London, she would mail a postcard to an address in neutral Portugal that the SOE had given her. The postcard would have her current address in Paris. She’d sign it “Madeleine.” And if she had to escape to Spain, she should mail a postcard to the address in Portugal that she’d been using, write “quatre” and “Madeleine” somewhere in her message, and head for the British consulate in Barcelona. Once there, she’d identify herself as “Inayat Khan.”

Noor couldn’t contact relatives, friends, teachers—​anyone—​she had known before the war. She always had to look purposeful (“Do something during the day,” the SOE told her. “Don’t hang about”). If she ran into old friends and they called her “Noor,” she couldn’t respond. Noor also had to learn her way around this new Paris. This wasn’t the city she had left three years ago. It was rife, according to Maurice Buckmaster, “with denunciations. You never knew if the young lady at the grocer’s who smiled so sweetly as she detached the coupon from your ration book was about to inform the security police of her suspicion as soon as your back was turned. A knock on the door in the evening set your heart thumping.” German soldiers were everywhere, often wandering around the Arc de Triomphe, pistols on their right hips, daggers sometimes on their left. Military bands played marching tunes on street corners. Posters appealed to Frenchmen to join Hitler’s battle against Communism—​“If You Want France to Live, Fight in the Waffen-​SS Against Bolshevism.” Tobacco rations were cut by a third, taxes on bikes shot up forty percent, and food rations were slashed to the lowest in Europe—​175 to 350 grams of bread a day, 50 grams of cheese a week, 120 grams of meat a month. Different Métro stations were closed every week to keep Parisians jumpy and offguard. On the subway itself, Parisians pulled away from Germans who were riding it, lowering their gaze to deprive the occupiers of what a Frenchman called “the joy of an exchange of glances.”

Most taxis and cars had disappeared—​only Nazis, black marketers, collaborators, and doctors (who were needed in medical emergencies, and there were many of them during the war) could afford gasoline. Everyone else got about on bikes, horse-​drawn carts, and gazogenes (charcoal-​fired autos that barely hit twenty-​four miles an hour in top gear). One résistante said the city “now resembled Shanghai, with its thoroughfares thick with bicycles, tandems, and bicycle-​taxis whose drivers, like Chinese coolies, got out of the way of the fast, powerful enemy cars with an enigmatic expression on the faces of their drivers.” The mostly empty, comparatively quiet streets were disorienting at first. Once you got accustomed to them, you learned to use them: the quiet helped you hear if someone was behind you.

The unrelenting surveillance made everyone claustrophobic, especially the closer you got to Avenue Foch, Europe’s most elegant boulevard, which the Nazis had turned into their own personal playground.

The unrelenting surveillance made everyone claustrophobic, especially the closer you got to Avenue Foch, Europe’s most elegant boulevard, which the Nazis had turned into their own personal playground. Adolf Eichmann was planning the Final Solution at 31 Avenue Foch the German police had their headquarters at 74 Avenue Foch and the Gestapo had commandeered 19, 82, 84, and 86 Avenue Foch to house its men, torture prisoners, and plot how to tighten its grip on an unexpectedly querulous population. Shuttered mansions were scattered among these citadels of terror: Pierre Wertheimer, a Jewish partner in the prestigious house of Chanel, had abandoned 55 Avenue Foch for New York Alfred Lindon, a Jewish diamond merchant, had fled 75 Avenue Foch for London. Baron Edmond de Rothschild had deserted 19 Avenue Foch. The broad avenue had been named after Ferdinand Foch, the French marshal who accepted Germany’s surrender in 1918. Furious that the Versailles Treaty hadn’t weakened Germany so much it could never threaten France again, Foch called it “an armistice for twenty years.” He was off by sixty-​eight days.

Before Noor left England, she had asked the SOE to mail a letter to her brother. Vilayat’s twenty-​seventh birthday was on June 19, two days after Noor landed in France. As close as they were, Noor knew she could not leave the country without making sure he would receive a birthday message from her. “I was so disappointed not to have been with you on your birthday,” she wrote. “It is more than your birthday, anyway. . . . ​[It] is a day we shall never forget and never regret.” On June 19 three years earlier, Noor, Vilayat, and their sister and mother had been on an ancient Belgian freighter—​decrepit and bug-​infested—​sailing from Le Verdon to Falmouth. “And now,” Noor continued,

you will be in your uniform—​I am longing to see you. When will that be, I wonder? I expect you are frightfully busy at present. I feel so awfully proud of you. I guess I will be quite conceited, soon.

Til we meet again, brother dear. Such a lot of things we shall have to tell each other. Good luck to you and tally ho!

Military strategists like to say their plans are brilliant until they try them out. When Noor scrambled out of Frank Rymills’s Lysander, she didn’t know that the week before, a member of her reception committee—​Henri Déricourt, who for months had been welcoming Lysanders and slipping agents in and out of France—​had started feeding information about the SOE to the Germans. Or that in April the Germans had begun whittling away at Prosper, the SOE’s largest and most powerful network in France.

Accompanying Noor on the train to Paris was René Clement, a member of the reception committee that had greeted her Lysander. “Elle avait très peur,” Clement said later. “She was very scared.” In Paris, Noor made her way to Emile Garry’s flat. Overlooking an intersection at rue Erlanger and rue Molitor, the eighth-​floor apartment had clear, unobstructed views in several directions. Garry’s cell hadn’t had a radio operator since he’d recently formed it. But after taking one look at Noor, he wasn’t sure about Noor. Why, as the Germans were picking apart Prosper—​the SOE’s most effective network in Europe—​was he stuck with this slip of a girl? Was this a joke? Or was the SOE so desperate it was sending him anyone who volunteered? Garry didn’t know and he didn’t have time to find out.

Noor couldn’t have come at a worse time. Two months before, the Gestapo had arrested the sisters who had helped a top SOE agent, Frank Suttill, organize Prosper. A few weeks later, the Germans caught a Resistance leader, André Marsac, and two of the SOE’s best agents, Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom. All three were tortured. Churchill and Sansom said nothing. Marsac talked, conned by a German officer who pretended he hated Hitler. Marsac’s misplaced trust was part of the beginning of the unraveling of Prosper.

Garry and his fiancée gave Noor a good meal. She’d barely eaten for more than a day: the SOE hadn’t told her how to use the ration cards it had given her and she didn’t think it was wise to ask strangers about them. Garry and his fiancée liked Noor. She was sweet and endearing, open about how much she appreciated their company and how hard it had been to leave her mother. But she looked and acted like she was twenty. Twenty-​one, at the most. Too young to be on the run from Nazis in Paris. And too tired on this, her first night in occupied France, to run from anything. Noor had been awake for more than twenty-​four hours. She fell asleep in front of them.

Treating Gas Attack Victims𠅊nd Being Gassed

Women volunteers of the American Women&aposs Oversea Hospitals Unit were not only physicians they also served as drivers, plumbers, electricians and mechanics, some of whom supported mobile hospital units.

World War I Pamphlet Collection. Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

In the summer of 1918, the French asked NAWSA to send 50 more women doctors, nurses and assistants to set up a 300-bed hospital in Nancy for victims of gas attacks, along with a mobile unit that could travel to the frontlines. NAWSA leaders scoured the country for female physicians with appropriate experience, but warned candidates, "This service may be dangerous and will require women of good nerve."

Among those who volunteered were Dr. Marie Lefort, a specialist in skin diseases from Bellevue Hospital Dispensary in New York Dr. Nellie Barsness, an ophthalmologist from St. Paul, Minnesota and Anna McNamara, a mechanic needed to drive the mobile unit&aposs three-ton truck and run the steam engine needed to heat water for baths and disinfecting clothes. Several of the women suffered gas attacks themselves, including Dr. Irene Morse, a lung specialist from Clinton, Connecticut, who died of the after-effects in 1933.

&aposRoots,&apos &aposThe Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman&apos and More

Despite her mother&aposs initial disapproval (the two didn&apost speak for two years before reconciling), Tyson found success as an actress, appearing onstage, in movies and on TV.

In 1963 Tyson became the first African American star of a TV drama in the series East Side/West Side, playing the role of secretary Jane Foster. She went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for 1972&aposs Sounder. She also portrayed notable roles on television, including Kunta Kinte&aposs mother in the adaptation of Alex Haley&aposs Roots and the title role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which earned Tyson two Emmy Awards in 1974. Moving to Broadway in 1983, Tyson was the lead in The Corn Is Green, a play set in a Welsh mining town. In 1994 the actress nabbed her third Emmy in her supporting role as housemaidꃊstalia in CBS&apos miniseries television adaptation of the Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

However, Tyson&aposs career trajectory wasn&apost a smooth one at times, she had trouble simply finding work. She flatly refused to do "blaxploitation" films, or to take parts solely for the paycheck and was selective about the roles she chose. As she explained in a 1983 interview, "Unless a piece really said something, I had no interest in it. I have got to know that I have served some purpose here.&apos&apos

&aposThe Help,&apos Broadway&aposs &aposThe Trip to Bountiful&apos 

More recently, Tyson appeared in The Help (2011) as maid Constantine Bates, for which she received many awards for being part of the ensemble cast and also worked on several Tyler Perry movies. And after a 30-year absence from Broadway, Tyson returned with a role in Horton Foote&aposs The Trip to Bountiful. The actress traveled to Texas in an effort to better understand her part in the acclaimed production — dedication that paid off when her performance won Tyson the 2013 Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play. In 2017 Tyson appeared in director Richard Linklater&aposs film Last Flag Flying, an adaptation from the 2005 novel of the same name.

Cicely Tyson (as Jane Foster) in a scene from an episode "East Side/West Side," October 18, 1963

Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

A Bengali Thanksgiving

I've always struggled with being identified as simply “Indian.” My name reflects my Indian heritage better than I do, as a Montreal-born, New York City native living in Louisiana. No DNA test could reflect the mix of American and Indian cultural practices that my family has created. Take, for example, American Thanksgiving, which my family co-opted when I was young and combined with a traditional West Bengali feast. At our table, we served the turkey alongside traditional Indian luchi (oil-fried puffed dough) and fusion dishes such as vegetarian shepherd's pie with Indian spices. Because my birthday falls near Thanksgiving, the meal was often followed by a turkey-shaped ice cream cake, Indian sweets like jalebi (a bright orange pretzel of fried sweet dough), gulab jamun (fried syrupy-sweet milk balls), and a spiced tea. We did adhere to the American tradition of overstuffing ourselves with food.

During the holiday, we listened to Bollywood pop, with high-pitched Indian women singing in Hindi or Bengali. Later in the season, my father would mix in some Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, or we would play an album from jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Being in Queens, I would always play “Christmas in Hollis” by the Queens-native hip-hop group Run DMC. My parents enjoyed it about as much as I did their Bollywood music, which is to say, not much.

In December, the large extended family of cousins, uncles, and aunts (all with a different honorific based on their birth position relative to my parents) would come over, each removing their shoes at the door out of respect. The men, in sweaters and ties, played bridge cross-legged in a corner on the floor. The women, in saris and their finest gold necklaces and earrings (gaudier than any of the jewelry worn by the hip-hip artists I worshiped), congregated in the dining area, where they teased each other, told stories in Bengali, and prepared meals. Food was served constantly from the moment the first guests arrived until they left. The smell of food cooking, mostly oil and spices, radiated and permeated through every fabric of the house. Chatter, the sounds of food frying, and playful arguing filled every room with noise. Our home was festively decorated Santa Claus had equal billing with Durga, Kali, and Ganesh.

The kids watched American football or challenged each other to an Indian game called carrom, which is similar to billiards but played on a flat smooth table on the floor. Players use their fingers to flick flat wooden discs into different corner pockets. We would play different tournament styles and use a mix of Bengali and English to taunt and tease each other over missed shots or “lucky” wins.

Before our current chapter as Americans, my family's Indian past stretches back to time immemorial, but India has a complicated history of invasions and rule. I hoped a DNA test would help clarify some ancestry questions. I wanted the results to say 25% Genghis Khan, 25% Gandhi, 25% Alexander the Great, and 25% unknown. What I got was 64% Central Asian, 30% South Asian, 3% Eastern European, 2% Southeast Asian, and 1% Siberian. So, I could claim Genghis, Gandhi, and Alexander! But of course, not really. I wondered when and where the mingling of my different geographic ancestors took place and if the results were more a reflection of the current genetic reference populations in those areas. The DNA results didn't make me feel differently about my identity, and they were not as interesting as the results I received from a genetic profile that revealed an inversion in one of my chromosomes. That genetic result made me realize how hardy our genomes are and how similar we are as humans even the 1% or so that makes each of us unique is almost meaningless when considering the bigger picture.

Prosanta Chakrabarty Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science, Baton Rouge, LA 70803–3216, USA. Email: prosantalsu.edu

24 November 2013

Lorraine Adie (1921-2013)

Francine Agazarian (1913-1999)

Francoise Isabella "Francine" Agazarian (nee Andre) was born on 9 May 1913.


She landed in France by Lysander aircraft on 17 Mar 1943, with Claude de Baissac and France Antelme. She was joining her husband Jack Agazarian and the Prosper network as a courier. It was deemed unusual a married couple working on the same network after the war Francine clarified the situation:

"Although in the same network, my husband and I were not working together as a radio operator he worked alone and transmitted from different locations every day. I was only responsible to Prosper (Francis Suttill) whom we all called Francois . He liked to use me for special errands because, France being my native land, I could get away from difficulties easily enough, particularly when dealing with officialdom.

Francois was an outstanding leader, clear-headed, precise, confident. I liked working on his instructions, and I enjoyed the small challenges he was placing in front of me. For instance calling at town halls in various districts of Paris to exchange the network's expired ration cards (manufactured in London) for genuine new ones. Mainly I was delivering his messages to his helpers: in Paris, in villages, or isolated houses in the countryside. From time to time I was also delivering demolition material received from England. And once, with hand-grenades in my shopping bag, I travelled in a train so full that I had to stand against a German NCO. This odd situation was not new to me. I had already experienced it for the first time on the day of my arrival on French soil, when I had to travel by train from Poitiers to Paris. A very full train also. I sat on my small suitcase in the corridor, a uniformed German standing close against me. But, that first time, tied to my waist, under my clothes, was a wide black cloth belt containing bank-notes for Prosper, a number of blank identity cards and a number of ration cards while tucked into the sleeves of my coat were crystals for Prosper's radio transmitters the crystals had been skilfully secured to my sleeves by Vera Atkins herself, before my departure from Orchard Court. My .32 revolver and ammunition were in my suitcase. The ludicrousness of the situation somehow eliminated any thoughts of danger.

In any case, I believe none of us in the field ever gave one thought to danger. Germans were everywhere, especially in Paris one absorbed the sight of them and went on with the job of living as ordinarily as possible and applying oneself to one's work.

Because I worked alone, the times I liked best were when we could be together, Prosper (Francis Suttill), Denise (Andrée Borrel), Archambaud (Gilbert Norman), Marcel (Jack Agazarin) and I, sitting round a table, while I was decoding radio messages from London we were always hoping to read the exciting warning to stand by, which would have meant that the liberating invasion from England was imminent."

As the network appeared to be close to being broken by the Germans, Francine and Jack returned to England by Lysander on 16 Jun 1943 arriving on that flight were Diana Rowden, Cecily Lefort and Noor Inayat Khan.

Jack returned to France, but was arrested on 30 Jul 1943 after falling for a German trap. He was tortured by the Gestapo for six months at Fresnes Prison and eventually sent to Flossenburg concentration camp where he was kept in solitary confinement.

After the war Francine settled in London. Her husband, Jack, did not come back from Flossenburg concentration camp he was executed on 29 Mar 1945, one of the many SOE Agents killed by the Germans immediately before the camps were liberated.

Juliene Aisner (1919-1980s)

Vera Adkins (1908-2000)

While in Romania, Vera came to know several diplomats who were members of British Intelligence, some of whom were later to support her application for British nationality, and to whom in view of her and her family's strong pro-British views, she may have provided information as a 'stringer'. She also worked as a translator and representative for an oil company.

In the spring of 1940, Vera travelled to the Low Countries to provide money for a bribe to an Abwehr officer for a passport for her cousin, Felix, to escape from Romania. She was stranded in the Netherlands when the Germans invaded on 10 Mar 1940, and, after going into hiding, she was able to return to England late in 1940 with the assistance of a Belgian resistance network.

In February 1941, despite not being a British national, Vera joined the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), originally in a secretarial capacity, but soon as assistant to section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster and a de facto intelligence officer. Her primary role was related to the recruitment and deployment of British agents in occupied France. She was also given responsibility for the 37 female SOE who would later work as couriers and wireless operators for the various circuits established by SOE. Vera also would take care of the 'housekeeping' related to the agent, such as ensuring they received their pay, checking that their clothing and papers were appropriate for their mission and acting as SOE liaison with their families, which included the sending out at regular intervals of anodyne pre-written letters.

She would often accompany agents to the airfields from which they would depart for France, and would carry out final security checks before waving them off. She did this for almost all of the women agents, each of whom she regarded as one of her 'girls', and to whom she felt a close affinity despite never herself serving in the field or undergoing military or signals training.

Vera did not usually arrive at F Section's Baker Street office until around 10 a.m., but always attended the daily section head meetings, and would often stay late in the signals room to await the decoded transmissions sent by agents in the field. Although not a popular officer with many of her colleagues, especially in view of her inability to admit to mistakes, she was trusted for her integrity, good organizational skills and exceptional memory. She was 5' 9" tall, liked to dress elegantly in tailored skirt-suits and was a lifelong smoker, preferring the 'Senior Service' brand.

Controversy has arisen as to why clues that one of F section's main spy networks had been penetrated by the Germans were not picked up, resulting in the failure to pull out agents at risk. Instead, several more were sent in. A radio operator for the Prosper circuit, Gilbert Norman, had sent a message omitting his true security check - a deliberate mistake. So why didn't Vera challenge Buckmaster when other signals from captured radios came in without checks?

Vera, it is alleged, was negligent in letting Buckmaster repeat his errors at the expense of agents' lives, including 27 who the Germans arrested upon landing and later killed. Her biographer, Sarah Helm, believes that Vera, who still had relatives in Nazi occupied Europe, may have travelled to the Netherlands in 1940 and helped a cousin to escape by bribing Abwehr officials, and then later escaped from occupied Belgium through a resistance 'lifeline'. She did not tell SOE of this when she joined in 1941, and kept it secret for the rest of her life. Whatever the truth, Buckmaster was Vera's superior officer, and thus ultimately responsible for running SOE's French agents, and she remained a civilian and not even a British national until February 1944. It was Buckmaster who recklessly sent a reply to the message supposedly sent by Norman telling him, and thus the actual German operator, that he had forgotten his 'true' check and to remember it in future.

It was not until after the end of the war that Atkins learnt of the almost total success the Germans had had by 1943 in destroying SOE networks in the Low Countries by playing the Funkspiel (radio game), by which radio operators were captured and forced to give up their codes and 'bluffs', so that German intelligence (Abwehr in the Netherlands Sicherheitsdienst in France) officers could impersonate the agents and play them back against HQ in London. For some reason, Buckmaster and Atkins were not informed of the total collapse of the circuits in the Netherlands (N Section) and Belgium (T Section) due to the capture and control of wireless operators by the Abwehr. This may have been a result of inter-departmental or service rivalry, or just bureaucratic incompetence, but the failure of their superiors to tell F Section officially of these other SOE disasters (although rumours about N and T Sections circulated at Baker Street) may have led Buckmaster and Atkins to be overconfident in the security of their networks and too ready to ignore signals evidence that questioned their trust in the identity of the wireless operator.

Notice should also be taken of the well-organised and skillful counter-espionage work of the Sicherheitsdienst at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris under Hans Josef Kieffer, who built up a deep understanding of how F Section operated in both London and France.

It has been suggested that Vera's diligence in tracing agents still missing at the end of the war was motivated by a sense of guilt at having sent many to deaths that could have been avoided. It is also possible that she felt it her duty to find out what had happened to the men and women, each known personally to her, who had died serving SOE F Section in the most dangerous of circumstances.

In the end, what caused the complete collapse of the Prosper circuit of Francis Suttill and its extensive network of sub-circuits, were not errors in London, but the actions of Henri Dericourt, F Section's air-landing officer in France, who was at the heart of its operations, and who was literally giving SOE's secrets to the Sicherheitsdienst in Paris. What is not completely clear is whether Dericourt was, as is most likely, simply a traitor, or, as he was to claim, working for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) (unknown to SOE) as part of a complex deception plan in the run-up to D-Day. However, it is beyond doubt that Dericourt was at least a double agent, and that he provided, first his friend, Karl Boemelburg, head of the Sicherheitsdienst in France, and then Kieffer, with large amounts of written evidence and intelligence about F Section's operations and operatives, which ultimately led to the capture, torture and execution of scores of British agents.

The conclusions of M.R.D. Foot in his official history of F Section are that the errors made by Atkins, Buckmaster and other London officers were the products of the 'fog of war', that there were no conspiracies behind these failings, and that few individuals were culpable.

Vera Atkins never admitted to making mistakes, and went to considerable lengths to hide her errors, as in her original identification of Noor Inayat Khan, rather than (then unknown to Atkins) Sonya Olschanezky, as the fourth woman executed at Natzweiler-Struthof on 6 Jul 1944.

After the liberation of France and the allied victory in Europe, Vera went to both France, and later, for just four days, Germany, where she was determined to uncover the fates of the 51 still unaccounted for F Section agents, of the 118 who had disappeared in enemy territory (117 of whom she was to confirm had been murdered in German captivity). Originally she received little support and some opposition in Whitehall, but as the horrors of Nazi atrocities were revealed, and the popular demand for war crimes trials grew, it was decided to give official support for her quest to find out what had happened to the British agents, and to bring those who has perpetrated crimes against them to justice.

At the end of 1945 SOE was wound-up, but in January 1946 Vera, now funded on the establishment of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), arrived in Germany as a newly promoted Squadron Officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force to begin her search for the missing agents, including 14 women. She was attached to the war crimes unit of the Judge Advocate-General's department of the British Army HQ at Bad Oeynhausen, which was under the command of Group Captain Tony Somerhaugh.

Until her return to England in October 1946, Atkins searched for the missing SOE agents and other intelligence service personnel who had gone missing behind enemy lines, carried out interrogations of Nazi war crimes suspects, including Rudolf Hoess, ex-commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and testified as a prosecution witness in subsequent trials. In November 1946 her commission was extended so that she could return to Germany to assist the prosecution in the Ravensbrueck Trial which lasted into January 1947. She used this opportunity to complete her search for Noor Inayat Khan, who she now knew had not died at Natzweiler-Struthof, as she had originally concluded in April 1946, but at Dachau.

As well as tracing 117 of the 118 missing F Section SOE agents, Vera established the circumstances of the deaths of all 14 of the women, 12 of whom had been murdered in concentration camps: Andree Borrel, Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky (whom Atkins did not identify until 1947, but knew as the fourth woman to be killed) and Diana Rowden executed at Natzweiler-Struthof by lethal injection on 6 Jul 1944 Yolande Beekman, Madelaine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan and Eliane Plewman executed at Dachau on 13 Sept 1944 Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo executed by shooting at Ravensbrueck on 5 Feb 1945 and Cecily Lefort gassed at Ravensbrueck sometime in Feb 1945. Yvonne Rudelat died of Typhus on 23 Apr 1945, 8 days after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Muriel Byck had died of meningitis in hospital in Ramorantin, France, on 25 May 1944.

Libbie Custer’s Literary Love Affair With Her Late Husband

Dressed in mourning clothes and veil, Elizabeth Custer, better known as "Libbie," poses for an 1886 image. She dressed in mourning attire to honor her husband until her death in 1933. (Courtesy of the National Parks Service)

For nearly six decades after Little Big Horn, George Custer’s widow burnished the general’s reputation and wrote movingly of reconciliation with former foes

Elizabeth Bacon Custer outlived her husband, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, by 57 years. In the nearly six decades between the annihilation of her husband and five companies of the 7th Cavalry on the Little Big Horn River in Montana and her own death, Libbie wrote three memoirs. The most famous of these, Boots and Saddles, describes the couple’s experiences in Dakota Territory and the years leading up to the 1876 summer campaign against the Sioux that ended in arguably the most famous blunder in American military history. Two other memoirs (Tenting on the Plains and Following the Guidon, respectively) treat the immediate postwar period in Texas, where Custer performed Reconstruction duty, and the events of the 1868 Washita Campaign, in which Custer served under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. They are almost unmatched in their detail about many elements of the U.S. Army’s experience in the aftermath of the Civil War, and, more broadly, about the meaning of that war for the future of the American West. For the most part, historians have dismissed the books as filled with nothing but saintly depictions of an army officer who fell from great heights after the Civil War and died trying to reclaim his military fame. Critics of George Custer’s vanity and impetuousness especially deride the work of his wife, who smoothed the edges off a prickly subject and countered depictions of the Civil War’s “Boy General” as an officer who disobeyed orders and endangered his command. In consequence of Libbie’s decades-long defense of her husband, she often has been categorized as one of the most prominent “professional widows” of the Civil War era.

The label of professional widow followed several well-known women whose husbands participated in the Civil War. Without a doubt, LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett became the most prominent and problematical professional widow of the Civil War generation. Civil War scholars spent years unravelling the myth Sallie created about her husband, Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, and his ill-fated charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Historian Gary W. Gallagher’s investigation into Sallie’s publishing record revealed that large sections of the widow’s work were plagiarized. In other cases, Gallagher noted, Sallie completely fabricated correspondence that later became the basis for popular historical fiction—in the form of author Michael Sharra’s The Killer Angels—as well as informing filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Civil War.

Sallie’s efforts to burnish her husband’s reputation and shift blame for the failure of Pickett’s Charge proved useful to advocates of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” mythologization of the war—supporting a narrative that Pickett’s Charge and the fight at Gettysburg had been the high-water mark of the Confederate struggle for independence.

In a study dedicated to prominent husband and wife duos from the Civil War era, historians Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon assert that Libbie Custer conformed to the stereotype of a professional widow, gaining “a measure of her own independence by promoting a man and creating a myth.” The authors include Libbie alongside Sallie Pickett, Mary Anna Jackson (widow of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson), and Jesse Benton Frémont (widow of Union general and 1856 presidential candidate John C. Frémont). In many ways, Libbie is the odd woman out among the other widows named by Bleser and Gordon.

Unlike Sallie Pickett, Libbie did not fabricate evidence about her husband and his military career. Neither did Libbie, unlike Jesse Frémont, write under her husband’s name, and Libbie’s memoirs, in contrast to Mary Anna Jackson’s, were not designed to provide an embellished biographical sketch of her husband. Libbie hoped her writing would provide a depiction of the couple’s life and experiences on the American frontier. George is a central figure in the three books, to be sure, but he is by no means their sole subject.

Yet Shirley A. Leckie, the most prominent biographer to tackle Libbie Custer, helped perpetuate the idea that George Custer’s widow wrote for the sole purpose of mythologizing her husband. Leckie contends that Libbie wanted her husband to serve as a model for young men, who could read her memoirs and be inspired to emulate the moral rectitude and Christian bearing she attributed to her husband. It is possible to read the memoirs of Libbie Custer and reach the conclusions drawn by Leckie and other Custer critics. Looking beyond the work Libbie did to weave the Custer myth, however, reveals the voice of a perceptive observer and active participant in the events of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Western expansion. Libbie Custer offers readers rare insight into the Civil War and its aftermath—providing glimpses of reunions between former foes, reflections on the meaning of the war, and a belief in the cause of reconciliation—that make her collected works well worth revisiting.

Born to a prominent local judge in Monroe, Mich., on April 8, 1842, young Elizabeth Clift Bacon experienced a privileged childhood, though not one without tragedy. Her mother, Eleanor Sophia Page, died before Libbie’s 13th birthday. Libbie spent the next several years enrolled at the local seminary school, Boyd’s, where she graduated in 1862 at the top of her class. One year earlier, her husband had graduated at the bottom of his West Point class. Libbie and George met shortly after her graduation, but until Custer earned promotion to brigadier general of volunteers and distinguished himself in the Gettysburg Campaign, Libbie’s father disapproved of the match between his daughter and the young professional officer. Daniel Bacon worried that Libbie would not adjust well to Army life and that marriage to an officer would be a step down in social standing for his daughter.

Libbie Custer was at ease in both the field and the halls of power in Washington, D.C. Sketch artist James E. Taylor depicted her riding sidesaddle with the general near Winchester, Va., and presenting battle flags captured by George Custer’s men to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Whether or not Libbie found life in the Army difficult, her commitment to being by her husband’s side never wavered after they exchanged vows on February 6, 1864. That summer and fall, while her husband participated in General Philip Sheridan’s campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Libbie stayed in Washington observing and absorbing the culture of the national capital. She met many of the war’s most famous figures, including Abraham Lincoln, who recognized Libbie as the wife “of the man who goes into the cavalry charges with a whoop and a yell.”

Lincoln told Libbie marriage might make Custer more cautious. Libbie assured the president that would not be the case. Given the boost Sheridan’s success in the Shenandoah Valley provided to Lincoln’s reelection campaign in 1864, the president doubtless felt a fondness for “Little Phil” and the cadre of hand-picked young cavalry officers who served alongside him. Sheridan’s own fondness for Custer later helped George out of several scrapes with Army higher-ups, who benched the former boy general in 1867 after he led 75 men some 225 miles across Kansas, from Fort Wallace to Fort Harker, without orders—for the purpose of visiting Libbie.

Custer’s Civil War exploits, especially those that occurred after his marriage to Libbie, elevated him to the status of a national hero. He appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in March 1864. Increasingly, Libbie shared her husband’s spotlight, delighting in being recognized around Washington as General Custer’s wife. When Civil War sketch artist James E. Taylor accompanied Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley expedition, he sketched Libbie on horseback alongside her husband and as a solo rider during one of her visits to Custer’s headquarters near Winchester, Va. Taylor also sketched Libbie with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at a Washington reception, where Stanton received Confederate flags captured by Custer’s command in the Valley.

The Custers at their Virginia 1865 winter quarters. Brother Tom Custer is on the general’s right, while their father sits and reads at upper right. (Granger NYC)

Libbie emerged from the war with a treasured memento that spoke to her husband’s importance and her own association with his activities. Sheridan gave her the table from Wilbur McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House upon which Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant drafted the terms of the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender. The accompanying note to Libbie read: “There is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.”

In 1912, Libbie loaned the table, which had spent much of its life in a fireproof warehouse in New York City, to the Museum of American History in Washington. Upon her death in 1936, the table officially joined the collections of the Smithsonian, in accordance with Libbie’s will. Libbie often defended her right to own the table in the press, denying that her husband had stolen the piece from the McLean House. In the December 5, 1885, issue of Harper’s Weekly, she supplied her reminiscences of acquiring the table—and a copy of a letter from Sheridan that proved “an unassuming little stand, of the cheapest stained pine” indeed belonged to her. The letter also served to remind readers of the high esteem Sheridan held for her husband at the close of the Civil War.

The Custers dine al fresco in 1869 outside their field headquarters at Fort Hays in Kansas. (Courtesy of the National Parks Service)

Libbie’s three volumes of memoirs focus most closely on details about living in army camps and at military forts on the Great Plains, which she believed Americans knew little about. Though she dedicated no book to Civil War recollections, the conflict is not absent from the three memoirs. Why did Libbie largely ignore the most formative national event her generation experienced? Perhaps she thought she had little original to say on the subject, as compared with her insights about life with the professional army after the war. She also never undertook a defense of her husband’s Civil War career comparable with that she offered regarding him as an Indian fighter. More than likely, she reckoned his Civil War reputation did not need polishing.

Despite the overall lack of Civil War content, Mark Twain and his publishing partners at Webster’s deemed Libbie’s work worthy of inclusion in their “Shoulder Strap” memoir series. The series included the two-volume memoirs of Generals Grant, William T. Sherman, and Sheridan. Both Ellen McClellan and Almira Russell Hancock shepherded recollections begun by their husbands, Union Maj. Gens. George B. McClellan and Winfield Scott Hancock, to publication in the series. Samuel Wylie Crawford also contributed a volume on the coming of the war. Libbie’s Tenting on the Plains stood as the only volume written by a woman and from the perspective of an Army wife, rather than from a general in command. Moreover, it alone deals exclusively with events after the war. Libbie emphasized her perspective on the events she experienced, which further weakens the case that she wrote as a professional widow attempting to absolve her husband for his perceived failures.

Libbie’s memoirs offer deep insight into how she made sense of the consequences of the conflict and the subsequent reunion of the country. She manifested a strong impulse toward sectional reconciliation throughout her work. Libbie’s recollections (all written within 25 years of the war’s conclusion) emphasized two primary themes in relation to how the Civil War should be remembered. First and foremost, the war had been waged for the preservation of the Union—Libbie and George (an ardent Democrat who joined Andrew Johnson on the campaign trail during his “Swing Around the Circle” campaign) gave little thought to emancipation as a further outcome of the conflict. Second, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, reconciliation with former Confederates should be the paramount goal of Americans. Libbie did not present these themes didactically rather, she used stories to illustrate her strong feelings about national reunion and forgiving former Confederates.

Early in the text of Boots and Saddles, Libbie recalled the journey made by the 7th Cavalry from Elizabethtown, Ky., to Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, in 1873. While delighted at the prospect of escaping Reconstruction duty, Libbie arrived at present-day Bismarck, N.D., to find that she would not be allowed to travel with her husband while he accompanied a surveying expedition to determine a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad. She recorded her return to her family home, and the slow days she spent waiting for missives from her husband. Despite her disappointment in being left behind, Libbie gladly recounted her husband’s reunion with his old West Point comrade Thomas L. Rosser, a former major general in the Confederate Army who had taken a position as the chief engineer of the Northern Pacific.

Libbie told her readers of Custer and Rosser’s long association, from their West Point days to their frequent encounters commanding troops in opposing armies on the battlefields of the Shenandoah Valley.

During the war, Libbie suggested, neither man felt any true animosity toward the other, even though Custer had captured all Rosser’s supply wagons or routed his troops in battle. Libbie explained that even when one soldier got the better of the other, the letters that followed addressed a “dear friend.” That the two former generals should fall back into such an easy friendship, reclining on a buffalo robe and spending “hours talking over the campaigns in Virginia” provided evidence of an easy reconciliation. In present day Bismarck, Rosser Avenue remains a main thoroughfare. Libbie may have appreciated the fact that the street provides the northern boundary for Bismarck’s first municipal park, which the city named in the memory of her husband in 1909. The cityscape thus embeds their reconciliation story into the modern memorial landscape.

A number of famous Civil War personalities appeared in Libbie’s memoirs to make the case for reconciliation, especially in Tenting on the Plains, which presented the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to readers. Among the figures that Libbie drew on were William T. Sherman and former Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. Libbie remembered meeting Hood while sharing a steamboat bound for New Orleans as she and her husband prepared to travel to Austin, Texas, and begin their Reconstruction service.

Libbie related a story of Hood’s quest to find the best possible prosthetic leg after losing one of his at the Battle of Chickamauga. He had tried models from England, France, Germany, the South and the North. She happily noted that Hood acknowledged, despite his previous sectional loyalty, that “the Yankee leg was best of all.” When the steamer arrived at Hood’s destination and he disembarked, “General Custer carefully helped the maimed hero down the cabin stairs and over the gangway.”

Libbie believed that many of the Army’s highest-ranking officers shared her husband’s desire for an easy peace. “In retrospection,” she wrote, “I like to think of the tact and tolerance of General Sherman, in those days of furious feeling on both sides, and the quiet manner in which he heard the Southern people decry the Yankees.” Commending the general most famous for setting large swaths of the Confederacy ablaze, Libbie related that “he knew of their impoverished and desolated homes, and realized…what sacrifices they had made more than all, his sympathetic soul saw into the darkened lives of mothers, wives and sisters who had given, with their idea of patriotism, their loved ones to their country.” He remembered a maxim that we all are apt to forget, ‘Put yourself in his place,’” she approvingly said of Sherman.

Beyond the theme of reconciliation, Libbie believed her readers should appreciate the sacrifices of the volunteer soldiers who fought the Civil War. The section of Tenting on the Plains dealing with the need to honor the service of individual soldiers is strikingly modern. She described the wounds received by many of the men who had campaigned with her husband as Custer’s Wolverines in the cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac. She described a soldier who “carried always, does now, a shattered arm, torn by a bullet while he was riding beside General Custer in Virginia.”

The wound, she explained “did not keep him from giving his splendid energy, his best and truest patriotism, to his country down in Texas even after the war, for he rode on long, exhausting campaigns after the Indians, his wound bleeding, his life sapped, his vitality slipping away with the pain that never left him day or night.” Libbie’s tribute to soldierly resilience could not ease the pain of the wounded men, but it recognized that not all Civil War service ended with an easy return to the pursuits of civilian life.

Libbie and George pose together not long after his promotion to major general of volunteers on April 15, 1865. As a brooch, she wears a version of the “Custer Medal” designed by her husband and awarded to his troopers. (Heritage Auctions/Dallas)

In their home at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, George and Libbie surrounded themselves with mementos of the Civil War. He hung portraits of McClellan and Sheridan in his library, and she described how much the couple treasured two examples of sculptor John Rogers’ groupings—mass-produced plaster statuettes of various Civil War scenes—with which they crisscrossed the Great Plains. Life traveling in the back of army wagons did not particularly suit the statuary, but Libbie explained to readers that her husband’s first chore upon unpacking his library was mending the figures depicted in “Wounded to the Rear” and “Letter Day.” Looking upon the figures with guests (many of whom were Civil War veterans) sparked lively conversations about the war and how participants remembered their service.

Elizabeth Custer revealed her memory of Civil War experiences in small glimpses, sprinkled among over 1,000 pages of recollections about life in the postbellum Army. Encouraging readers to practice sympathy toward defeated Confederates, she highlighted the degree to which her husband and other army officers committed themselves to reconciliation, while extending an army widow’s sympathy to maimed veterans. Her writings reveal that she thought a great deal about the war and its memory, independently of her husband’s role in saving the Union. To reduce Elizabeth Bacon Custer to just another professional widow denies modern readers a chance to explore the rich recollections she left of the most transformative period in the history of the United States.

Friendly Enemies

In Boots and Saddles, Libbie Custer presented the wartime exchanges between her husband and Confederate cavalry commander Thomas Rosser as examples of a friendship the Civil War had briefly interrupted. In this passage from the book describing Lt. Col. Custer’s postwar campaign in the Dakotas, she put a humorous tone to events that occurred in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign:

“[Custer] wrote of his delight at having again his whole regiment with him, his interest in the country, his hunting exploits, and the renewal of his friendship with General Rosser…Once General Custer took all of his friend’s luggage, and found in it a new uniform coat of Confederate gray. He wrote a humorous letter that night thanking General Rosser for setting him up in so many new things, but audaciously asking if he ‘would direct his tailor to make the coat-tails of his next uniform a little shorter’ as there was a difference in the height of the two men. General Custer captured his herd of cattle at one time, but he was so hotly pursued by General Rosser that he had to dismount, cut a whip, and drive them himself until they were secured.”

Judge won't toss confession of girlfriend of suspected killer of Vanessa Guillén

Attorney Natalie Khawam (center) addresses the media before a hearing as family and supporters of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén appear at a hearing in Waco, Texas on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 for Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of Guillén's suspected killer, who asked a judge to suppress her confession to police that she helped hide the late Houston soldier's body after her boyfriend bludgeoned her to death. A judge rejected her motion to suppress evidence of her police statement from a potential jury. She also has a pending motion to dismiss the entire indictment. While the hearing was underway, family members and supporters stood outside the courthouse and chanted for justice for Guillén .

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Larissa Martinez (right) and Veronica Cardona both from San Antonio join family and supporters of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén at a hearing in Waco, Texas on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 for Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of Guillén's suspected killer, who asked a judge to suppress her confession to police that she helped hide the late Houston soldier's body after her boyfriend bludgeoned her to death. The judge rejected her motion to suppress evidence of her police statement from a potential jury. She also has a pending motion to dismiss the entire indictment. While the hearing was underway, family members and supporters stood outside the courthouse and chanted for justice for Guillén.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Lupe Guillén (center), whose sister was slain while on duty at Fort Hood in 2020, appears emotional as she gets a hug from supporter Larissa Martinez of San Antonio after learning outcome of a federal hearing in Waco, Texas on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 for Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of Guillén's suspected killer, who asked a judge to suppress her confession to police that she helped hide the late Houston soldier's body after her boyfriend bludgeoned her to death. A judge rejected her motion to suppress evidence of her police statement from a potential jury. She also has a pending motion to dismiss the entire indictment. While the hearing was underway, family members and supporters stood outside the courthouse and chanted for justice for Guillén. Aguilar's requests were denied.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer Show More Show Less

The family of Vanessa Guillén and their attorney Natalie Khawam address the media after a federal hearing in Waco, Texas on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 for Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of Guillen's suspected killer, asked a judge to suppress her confession to police that she helped hide the late Houston soldier's body after her boyfriend bludgeoned her to death. A federal judge rejected her motion to suppress evidence of her police statement from a potential jury.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Mayra Guillén (left), whose sister was slain in April 2020, takes questions from the media after a federal court hearing in Waco, Texas on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 for Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of Spc. Vanessa Guillén's suspected killer, who asked a judge to suppress her confession to police that she helped hide the late Houston soldier's body after her boyfriend bludgeoned her to death. The judge rejected her motion to suppress evidence of her police statement from a potential jury.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Supporters sing "Happy birthday" to Rogelio Guillén (center), whose daughter was slain while on duty at Fort Hood in 2020, while he gets a hug from his daughter, Lupe Guillen, after a press conference following a hearing in Waco, Texas on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of his daughter's suspected killer, asked a judge to suppress her confession to police that she helped hide the late Houston soldier's body after her boyfriend bludgeoned her to death. The judge rejected her motion to suppress evidence of her police statement from a potential jury.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Valeria Guillén, a family member of slain soldier Vanessa Guillén, holds a U.S. flag and a banner with Guillén's image as family and supporters wait outside a hearing in Waco, Texas on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of Guillén's suspected killer, asked a judge to suppress her confession to police that she helped hide the late Houston soldier's body after her boyfriend bludgeoned her to death. The judge denied her motion to suppress evidence of her police statement from a potential jury.

Kin Man Hui, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Cecily Ann Aguilar, left, faces federal charges for conspiring to hide and hiding the body of slain Spc. Vanessa Guillén. Her boyfriend, Aaron David Robinson, right, was the suspect in the murder of Fort Hood soldier. He died by suicide while Aguilar made a confession to police, according to testimony.

A memorial for Vanessa Guillén in Little River-Academy, near the site where her mutilated remains were found buried in three places in June 2020.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer Show More Show Less

A family pays their respects to Army Spec. Vanessa Guillén on July 17, 2020. The memorial mural of Guillén is across from Fort Hood military post.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer Show More Show Less

WACO &mdash Nearly a year after the remains of Vanessa Guillén were found in a remote woods, the Houston soldier&rsquos family sat in the same room for the first time with the woman accused of helping to mutilate, bury and cement over her body.

&ldquoOf course they spoke to us previous to entering the courtroom about having no outbursts, but it was really hard to sustain all of that,&rdquo Mayra Guillén, the older sister of the slain Fort Hood Army specialist, said Wednesday outside the Waco courthouse. &ldquoSeeing this person for the first time ever, it brings back a lot. . It was really hard to maintain your cool.&rdquo

Cecily Ann Aguilar sat shackled in an orange jail uniform on the opposite side of the courtroom from the Guillén family, flanked by two public defenders at the hearing. After 2½ hours of testimony, U.S. District Judge Alan D. Albright succinctly denied her request to suppress her confession.

Her defense lawyer argued that officers had improperly questioned Aguilar after she&rsquod given them different stories in two previous interviews. They said she could get in trouble for lying to federal officers. They encouraged her to tell them the truth without explaining she had a right a lawyer and that anything she said could be used against her, defense counsel said.

Aguilar told police Spc. Aaron Robinson bludgeoned Guillén. During her confession, Robinson escaped the place where he was detained at Fort Hood, and, as police narrowed in to make an arrest, he shot himself in the head, authorities said.

Lewis Berray Gainor, her defense lawyer, argued Wednesday that police deliberately violated the law by waiting to give Aguilar her Miranda Rights until after she confessed on June 30, 2020.

Aguilar, 23, of Killeen, is accused of helping her boyfriend, Spc. Aaron Robinson, hide the body of the 20-year-old arms mechanic after he bludgeoned Guillén with a hammer in an armory at the military post.

Two investigators who heard Aguilar&rsquos confession firsthand took the stand at the hearing.

A Texas Ranger and a Waco police officer on the federal task force investigating Guillén&rsquos April 2020 disappearance detailed how they stopped Aguilar on the base and asked her to come talk with them one more time. She had turned down a request to take a polygraph test during a previous exchange with the officers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Frazier played video clips of the confession to a rapt courtroom. Aguilar walks casually into a small windowless interrogation room at the Army CID office in short shorts and a sweatshirt. She chats with one of the officers about the tattoos on her thigh, peppering her speech with expletives.

One officer asks in the video if she&rsquos ready to tell them the truth. Aguilar says, &ldquoMight as well. Let&rsquos get this s- - - over with.&rdquo

She spent the next hour outlining the gruesome details of Guillén&rsquos slaying and how she and her boyfriend hid her body, said John Ray, a Waco officer on the U.S. Marshal&rsquos task force. She also helped officers by reaching out to Robinson, the suspected killer, via cell phone.

When Samuel &ldquoTravis&rdquo Dendy, a Texas Ranger, tells Aguilar on the video that she is under arrest, Aguilar acts astonished.

&ldquoWhat? I&rsquom going to jail? I was held against my will,&rdquo she says.

The officers testified that they sought to clarify whether she thought police were detaining her during the interview. Dendy testified that Aguilar told him, no, she was saying that Robinson had forced her at gunpoint to help hide the body.

Lupe Guillén, Vanessa&rsquos 17-year-old sister, said she couldn&rsquot bear to be in the room with Aguilar. Instead she led a crowd of about 20 supporters outside the courthouse in chants calling for &ldquoJustice for Vanessa.&rdquo

Her sister&rsquos disappearance and gruesome death sparked a reckoning in the Army and at Fort Hood about sexual harassment and assault in the military and inspired murals and corridos in her honor. Her family members have met repeatedly with members of Congress in Washington, D.C. to push for the proposed I am Vanessa Guillén Act, which was reintroduced in May. The law would require that sexual assault and harassment allegations be investigated outside of the military&rsquos chain of command.

An Army report in April found that a supervisor sexually harassed Guillén and the encounter profoundly impacted her morale.

The soldier&rsquos family repeatedly told officials after her disappearance they believed she&rsquod been attacked as a result of sexual harassment, but a previous Army investigation, conducted shortly after her death, found no link. They have also taken an active role in attending hearings in the criminal case against Aguilar.

After hearing the testimony, the judge took a short recess and returned to deliver his decision. Aguilar stood to leave after hearing him deny her request. Her eyes were puffy and red.

Watch the video: Marie Laforet - Viens Viens


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