What Libbie Custer knew was that Mrs. Nash was her favorite laundress and also an excellent baker, midwife, and seamstress. What Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s wife did not know was that this multi-talented woman was really a man.
Despite the fact that Nash had been married at least three times during her acquaintance with Libbie, no one other than her husbands was certain of her true gender. People commented on her coarse and stubborn beard, angular shape, and awkward gait, but it was not until after Nash’s death in 1878 that people learned the truth.
Because her husband came under ridicule after the revelation of her gender, he committed suicide.
Today, nothing is known about the early life of Mrs. Nash because she carefully guarded the secret of her identity. She claimed that she was from Mexico and had two children. She told Libbie Custer that prior to coming to Kentucky, she earned a living by driving ox teams.
In 1866, she moved to Elizabethtown, Ky., and got a job doing laundry for the U.S. Army during Reconstruction.
Nash gained a reputation for the meticulous work she did on the laundry. To earn extra income, she tailored officer’s uniforms and served as a midwife. She saved the extra money she earned.
She was not noted for external beauty that would catch a soldier’s eye, but there were a number of attributes that made Nash an apparent good catch. She was reputed to be an excellent cook, kept a neat and tidy house, was industrious, and had her own source of income. In 1868, she married Harry O. Clifton, the quartermaster’s clerk.
On April 3, 1871, the 7th Cavalry arrived in Elizabethtown, and on Sept. 3, Custer assumed command of the post. The reason the military assigned the 7th to this southern city was to deal with the Ku Klux Klan and illicit distilleries. Libbie Custer joined her husband at the post, and they made their home in the elaborate “Hill House.” It was here that she first met Nash (Mrs. Clifton at that time).
Libbie Custer admired Nash. Sensing that something was bothering her laundress, Libbie Custer paid a visit to her home. She learned that Clifton had deserted his wife, stealing all of the money that she had saved. In so doing, he also deserted from his military obligation.
It wasn’t long before another man came courting — Sgt. James Nash, the personal servant to Libbie Custer’s brother-in-law, Capt. Tom Custer. In 1872, Nash and the company laundress married, despite the fact that the Cliftons never divorced.
In March of 1873, the 7th Cavalry was ordered to Dakota Territory. The Nashes arrived at Fort Rice on June 10 to rejoin the rest of the 7th and were then transferred to Fort Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 21. When the couple first arrived at Fort Lincoln, they seemed happy attending military balls and other social functions.
But Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted. Mrs. Nash was then pursued by Cpl. John Noonan, and the two were married later that year.
Nash kept a bright and tidy home for her husband, who became a favorite hunting partner with Col. Custer. When Custer went with most of the other 7th in pursuit of Sitting Bull in 1876, Noonan was serving with a detached unit at the Yellowstone Depot. After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, he returned to Fort Lincoln.
In the fall of 1878, Noonan was sent out on patrol in pursuit of some rebellious Indians. It was at this time that Nash fell ill. When her condition became worse, she called for a priest and instructed her friends that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the normal preparation for burial.
When Nash died on Nov. 4, some of her closest friends decided that they could best show her proper respect by cleaning her up. To properly wash her, they removed her clothing and made the discovery that Nash was really a man.
When Noonan returned, he was teased by many of the other soldiers. Not only had he lost the person he loved, he was humiliated. To get away, Noonan fled the fort and busied himself cleaning stables south of Fort Lincoln.
On Nov. 28, a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune located him. Noonan insisted that “he didn’t know his wife was a man. In fact, he said they had been trying very hard to have a baby.”
Two days later, Noonan shot himself. To try and restore the dignity that he had been denied by his fellow soldiers at Fort Lincoln, Noonan was buried with his fallen comrades at the Custer Battlefield Cemetery in Montana.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at firstname.lastname@example.org.)