The story of General George Custer is one widely known, one taught in grade-school classrooms just a few short decades ago, back when American history was carefully and accurately instilled into young minds. It’s impossible to forget the tale of Custer, who is frequently portrayed as arrogant and foolish, and equally impossible to forget the way in which he and his men died at Little Big Horn. But for all you think you know about the way things went down that 19th century day at Little Big Horn, there’s more. This week we’re going to take a look at another man who stood his ground that day, one who made his mark on history for a number of reasons – valor, courage, selflessness – a man by the name of Thomas Custer. This week we take a look at George Custer’s brother.
Thomas Custer was born in Ohio on March 15, 1845, the third of three boys. Not much is often said about the Custer boys’ parents, Emanuel and Marie Custer, but it seems a likely assumption they were staunch patriots and firm believers in the importance of standing your ground. After all, all three of their sons were soldiers, and all three made the ultimate sacrifice.
Young Tom wasted no time enlisting; at the age of 16 he joined the Union Army, getting his start in the early days of the Civil War. As a private in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Army he fought in a number of battles including Stones River, the Atlanta Campaign, and Missionary Ridge. Three years after enlisting, in 1864, he mustered out as a corporal. He was immediately commissioned as a second lieutenant and rather unsurprisingly became his brother’s aide-de-camp, spending the end of the Civil War serving alongside the elder Custer. Through those years Tom made his mark; before reaching the age of twenty he’d earned the brevets of captain, major, and lieutenant colonel, and his actions resulted in something even more noteworthy. Before Tom Custer reached the age of twenty, he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor. Not once, but twice.
The first stage for his heroism was the Battle of Namozine Church, which was part of the Appomattox Campaign during the Civil War. The battle took place after General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army evacuated Petersburg on April 2, 1865. The Confederate soldiers immediately ran up against Union resistance, and while the Union soldiers were under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant the brigades of the cavalry division were under the command of Union Brig. Gen and Brevet Maj. Gen. George Custer, and along with George was his youngest brother, Tom.
The battle took place on April 3, 1865, and for those who believe the “church” part of the engagement’s name isn’t literal, well, it is. In fact, a local historical society maintains the Namozine Presbyterian Church to this day. On the day of battle in question, Tom’s actions involved a unit flag, among other things. During the Civil War era – and others – the unit flag was of fairly monumental importance. The flags were unique and served several functions, perhaps most importantly giving soldiers belonging to the unit a visual way of pinpointing location. Troop movements couldn’t be tracked by GPS, there were no radios; bottom line, the unit flag let soldiers know where to go, which was especially helpful in the chaos and heat of battle. Just imagine trying to beat a hasty retreat and not knowing where your unit was going. Aside from functioning as a sort of beacon, there was a great deal of pride behind each unit flag, and losing the flag was a humiliating, infuriating experience. Losing a flag to the enemy was unspeakably terrible.
The confederates had constructed a barrier which was by no means well thought-out or carefully made; it was thrown together with great haste in the hopes it would slow down the union soldiers somewhat. Clearly they did not count on a soldier like Tom Custer, who simply saw the barricade as an opportunity to practice jumping with his horse. Custer cleared the barricade and came down armed with his pistol and sword. Wasting no time, Custer charged ahead, ripped the unit flag from color bearer, and proceeded to take three confederate officers and eleven enlisted men into custody. When he made the decision to jump the barricade he did so in the face of flying bullets and clashing swords. He took his life into his hands for the sake of attempting to bring some sort of resolution to the battle, and it worked. Having taken the men prisoner he then had to procure another horse because his mount had been fatally shot during the charge over the barricade. For his actions, he was awarded his first Medal of Honor.
Tom’s second Medal of Honor was awarded to him for his actions at The Battle of Sailor Creek. This particular battle took place just days after the Battle of Namozine Church on April 6, 1845, and involved similar actions. This battle is also sometimes referred to as Sayler’s Creek, Harper’s Farm, Marshall’s Cross Roads, and Hillsman Farm, among others. On this occasion Tom was riding alongside Colonel Charles E. Capeheart, who witnessed the events which followed.
When the order to charge was given Tom took it all the way, galloping his horse straight for the barricades once again. Again he jumped the barricades, which were this time much more solidly built, racing headlong into streams of oncoming rifle fire. He hit the ground firing his pistols simultaneously, which quickly backed up the confederate soldiers on either side of him – yes, Tom Custer was an original badass. Who else wields two pistols at the same time other than a serious American badass? And he wasn’t done.
Thanks to the onslaught of Tom Custer and his fellow soldiers, the confederates were backing up, attempting to form new battle lines. In order to do so they needed, as always, to rally to the point of the color bearer. Tom quickly spotted the unit flag the confederates were organizing around and did what he apparently did best: played his own version of capture the flag. In the rush for the flag he was shot in the face, a wound which left a bloody gash down his jaw that would easily have killed him had it only been a tiny bit to the side, severing arteries or major vessels. But he wasn’t going to let something like a bullet wound to the head slow him down, no, he was Thomas Custer, and he was going to kick some confederate ass and break up the enemy’s battle line. And he did. Tom claimed the flag for himself, ripping it from the color bearer’s hands and firing a return shot, which took down the other soldier hard and fast. When Tom returned to his brother’s side he was jubilant in his feat, proclaiming “The damned rebels shot me, but I got my flag!”
An account was given by Col. Capeheart 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.”
Because Tom’s actions did indeed have an important effect on the battle’s outcome just as they had only three days prior, he was awarded a second Medal of Honor. He was also the first and only soldier to date to be awarded the medal twice in under a week. Tom Custer was the first soldier to receive the medal twice, and his fierce, in-your-face attitude made him, well known throughout his years as a soldier. His older brother may be the one the average person recalls, but reality is Tom himself was one serious badass.
At the end of the Civil War none of the Custer brothers wanted to leave behind the heat and adrenaline of battle, and they were in luck, because next came the Indian Wars. During the Indian Wars Tom Custer was a captain in the 7th U.S. Cavalry and continued to serve with his brothers. He fought in a number of battles prior to the one for which his eldest brother is known: in 1868 he fought in the Washita campaign and was shot through his hand and he also took part in the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873. As his ferocity in battle gained speed and word spread, more than one Sioux chief swore vengeance against him. Sadly, they would get it.
Little Big Horn is known among the Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass – and among countless Americans as Custer’s Last Stand. It took place over June 25th and 26th, 1876, and there are more historical accounts and studies of this particular battle than can possibly be listed. Regardless of the rest the fact is the 7th Cavalry was horrendously outnumbered; there were 600 soldiers, and most historians put the total tally of Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho at upwards of 2,000. The cavalry believed there were no more than 800.
It would be easy – and accurate – to describe the events of that day as a slaughter. Half the cavalry present was killed, and the methods by which they met their end were frequently barbaric. For those who are quick to respond that all manners of death in combat are barbaric, this is the time to respectfully disagree. Some methods are far more horrific and go beyond being shot with a gun or run through with a sword. Such methods were heavily employed at Little Big Horn against the cavalry soldiers.
Tom Custer is thought to be among the last of the men from his unit to be killed on that day. He battled his way through the field to his oldest brother’s side, taking his last stand alongside his family. The men used the fallen bodies of their horses for whatever cover could be achieved, and Tom and George Custer died fighting the enemy back-to-back. Rumors abound that a Lakota by the name of Rain-in-the-Face cut Tom’s heart from his body when the battle had ended, and although his chief would later deny it when questioned during an interview, there is a sadly excellent chance it did take place. Tom Custer’s body was so mutilated he was identified solely by his initials, which he’d had tattooed on his arm.
When most people refer to Little Big Horn by the name of the fallen general, they place the apostrophe after the r – “Custer’s” – when it was actually a far greater loss for the Custer family. At Little Big Horn all three Custer brothers were killed along with their nephew and a brother-in-law. It was a devastating blow to the Custer family.
Say what you will about the tactics and failures of Little Big Horn, but Tom Custer and his brothers were tough-as-nails fighters. Tom Custer was an American Hero and a serious badass who receives little recognition, and his actions in his short life proved his dedication to fighting for his country. When you think of Little Big Horn, think of our nation’s first two-time Medal of Honor winner, and remember his bravery in the face of danger. He never flinched and never backed down; Tom Custer was the kind of American Hero this nation was built on.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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