The Forgotten Custer - Thomas Ward Custer
Most of us are familiar with the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer from his quick rise to fame in the Civil War and his demise at Little Big Horn. However, it was his younger brother, Thomas Ward Custer, who became the first soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor twice. He earned both Medals as a member of the 6th Michigan Cavalry under the command of his brother George.
Thomas Ward Custer was born on March 15, 1845, in New Rumley, Ohio. He was the fifth son of the second marriages of Emanuel Custer and Maria Ward Kirkpatrick. Their first two sons died in infancy. Tom’s brothers were George Armstrong (born in 1839) and Nevin Johnson (born 1842). Tom also had several half brothers and sisters. The Custer’s moved north-west to Tontogany, near Toledo, Ohio in 1860. It was here that Tom entered the Ohio Volunteers.
When the Civil War broke out, Tom lied about his age and joined the 21st Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a private. The 21st Ohio fought in the Western Theater as part of the Army of the Ohio, and later in the Fourteenth Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. From October 1861 until the end of 1862, the 21st Ohio participated in frequent but relatively bloodless engagements in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. In December 1862, Tom participated in his first major battle at Stone’s River (Murfreesboro), Tennessee. The 21st Ohio was in the center of the Federal line that was victorious. After the Battle of Stone’s River, Tom was reassigned to escort duty on the staff of Major General James S. Negley, the 21st Ohio's division commander. He was Negley's escort at the Battle of Chickamauga but was not involved in the fighting. This was fortunate for Tom as the 21st Ohio’s casualties numbered nearly half the regiment: 28 killed, 84 wounded and 131 captured or missing. After Major General James S. Negley was relieved of his command, Tom Custer proceeded to serve in the escorts of a succession of generals including Major General U.S. Grant at Missionary Ridge and Chattanooga. Tom was with General Palmer in time for the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864 and General Jefferson C. Davis, for the Battle of Jonesboro on September 1, 1864. Tom was with the Fourteenth Corps when William Tecumseh Sherman's forces chased John Bell Hood's Confederate army into Alabama.
Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer arranged for Tom to be commissioned a second lieutenant in Company B of the 6th Michigan Cavalry and become his brother's aide-de-camp in late October 1864. It was under George’s tutelage that Tom was awarded two Medals of Honor for the capture of enemy flags in the spring of 1865.
During the quiet winter months of 1864 and 1865, Tom spent time with George and his sister-in-law Libbie near Winchester, Virginia. Encouraged and assisted by Libbie, Tom studied and learned to be a perfect soldier and a gentleman. As for work, there was never any question of Tom's receiving preferential treatment from his brother George. When the General and his staff were awakened by news that required one of them to saddle and start off for night duty, Tom was the one selected. Tom had even been known to complain about George who grumbled at him for "every little darned thing just because I happen to be his brother.
Tom Custer was awarded his first Medal of Honor for actions during the Battle of Namozine Church, April 3, 1865. Tom led the charge of the Second Brigade against the Confederate barricade. Custer had his horse leap the barricade while coming under fire. The Confederates fell back in confusion. Tom seized the flag of the Second North Carolina cavalry from the bearer and commanded those around him to surrender. He took three officers and eleven enlisted men prisoner.
Similar actions in the Battle of Sailor's Creek resulted in Custer being awarded his second Medal of Honor. This was a much larger fight than Namozine Church, involving both cavalry and infantry. When the command to charge was made, he raced his horse toward the enemy barricades through a line of rifle fire and leapt the barricade to be surrounded by the enemy. He discharged his pistol to both sides scattering the enemy. He noticed Confederates attempting to make a new battle line and saw the color bearer they were rallying toward. Custer charged the bearer to capture the flag. Colonel Capehart reported the events in a letter to Libbie Custer.
"I saw your brother capture his second flag. It was in a charge made by my brigade at Sailor's Creek, Virginia, against General Ewell's Corps. Having crossed the line of temporary works in the flank road, we were confronted by a supporting line. It was from the second line that he wrested the colors, single-handed, and only a few paces to my right. As he approached the colors he received a shot in the face which knocked him back on his horse, but in a moment he was upright in his saddle. Reaching out his right arm, he grasped the flag while the color bearer reeled. The bullet from Tom's revolver must have pierced his heart. As he was falling Captain Custer wrenched the standard from his grasp and bore it away in triumph." - Colonel Capehart
After the Civil War, Tom served as his brother’s aide until January 1866 when he mustered out of the 6th Michigan Cavalry to accept a commission as a second lieutenant in the regular army. He was assigned to the newly formed 7th Cavalry. The 7th Cavalry was assigned to the Indian Campaign. Their first encounter with Indians came in mid 1867 as they chased hostiles through the Kansas plains. In 1868, he was wounded in the Washita campaign against a Cheyenne encampment.
After the Washita campaign, the 7th Cavalry was distributed over seven different Southern states to conduct constabulary duties in support of the Reconstruction Act such as enforcing federal taxes on distilleries and suppressing the activities of the Ku Klux Clan.
In 1873, the 7th Cavalry was reunited and assigned to Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, North Dakota to protect settlers and Northern Pacific Railroad engineers from Sioux Indians. During the summer of 1873, Tom and his men escorted North Pacific Railroad surveyors as they worked their way westward along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. While protecting the surveyors, Tom was involved in several skirmishes with the Sioux. It was during one of these skirmishes that a Sioux Warrior named Rain in the Face killed Dr. John Honsinger and three others. Tom Custer eventually arrested Rain in the Face in 1874. The warrior escaped from custody a few months later and vowed to cut out the heart of Tom Custer and eat it.
On June 25, 1876, Rain in the Face had his revenge at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Tom died along with his brother George and brother-in-law James Calhoun. Tom was scalped, disemboweled, and mutilated almost to the point of being unrecognizable. Although Rain-in-the-Face denied cutting out Tom Custer's heart after the battle; it has been readily accepted as fact by those who attempted to identify Tom’s remains. His body was finally identified by a tattoo - a flag, the goddess of liberty and the initials T.W.C. on his arm. Tom Custer was buried on the battlefield with all those who died that day at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Tom’s body was exhumed the next year and reburied in Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.