The View from Weir Point towards Last Stand Hill
The Civil War exploits of George Armstrong Custer, such as his repeated charges with three Michigan cavalry regiments against J.E.B. Stuart outside Gettysburg, have become a familiar part of the Custer legend. Knowledgeable readers may also recall that at the Little Bighorn, Custer, two of his brothers, a brother in law and a nephew died during “the Last Stand.” What is not so common knowledge is that one of those brothers was awarded the Medal of Honor twice for bravery during the Civil War, one of only three men during the war to be so decorated and one of only four in the entire history of the medal. That soldier was known as “the Other Custer.”
Thomas Ward Custer, second youngest brother to George Custer, was born in New Rumley, Ohio on March 15, 1845. Even though the eldest brother had moved to Monroe, Michigan as a teenager, George, known as “Autie” to his family, returned to the family farm in northwest Ohio during the summers. Tom and Autie formed a deep emotional bond which would carry the brothers through the latter six months of the Civil War and into the Indian wars, culminating on a wind swept Montana ridge in 1876.
As his brother marched off to war in 1861, Tom Custer tried to enlist at the age of 16. Sent home, he tried again when he turned 17. On September 2, 1861, Private Custer joined the 21st Ohio Infantry. On December 31st 1862, Private Custer and the 21st Ohio participated in the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee. That regiment distinguished itself twice during the battle; in the morning the regiment launched a bayonet charge during the Union Army of the Cumberland’s withdrawal, covering their brigade’s retreat across the Nashville Turnpike. In the afternoon, the 21st participated in the counterattack on Union General Rosecrans’ left across Stones River, bringing Confederate General Breckenridge’s attack to a halt. Stones River would be the only battle Tom Custer would fight in while a member of the 21st Ohio.
Meanwhile, brother George was beginning his meteoric rise in the Army of the Shenandoah, now commanding the 3d Cavalry Division, with a brigadier general’s star on his epaulets. The promotion, contrary to the popular impression made by the Errol Flynn movie “They Died With Their Boots On,” was no bureaucratic accident. Custer’s audacity, fearlessness and leadership abilities were recognized and rewarded. Tom Custer shared those same traits. General Custer arranged for his brother’s transfer and promotion to second lieutenant of the 6th Michigan Cavalry in October 1864. Tom became his brother’s aide, a not uncommon promotion during the war. Custer’s superior, General Phillip Sheridan had his own kid brother serving as an aide de camp as well. For anyone who thought brother Tom had easy duty, the lieutenant asserted: “And if anyone thinks it’s a soft thing to be a commanding officer’s brother, he misses his guess!”
Lieutenant Custer got his first opportunuty to prove his worth on March 2, 1865, at Waynesboro, Virginia. In a final effort by General Phillip Sheridan to demolish the remnants of Jubal Early’s army, George Custer’s 3d Cavalry Division surrounded the Rebel army at Waynesboro and captured sixteen hundred rebel soldiers. As a reward for leading the charge which chased ‘Old Jube’ and some nine hundred rebel soldiers into the Blue Ridge mountains, Tom Custer was promoted to Brevet Captain. With the threat posed by Jubal Early out of the way, General Sheridan rushed east to join Grant at City Point for the final push against Lee.
On April 3, 1865, as Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry brigade was covering the Army of Northern Virginia’s withdrawal towards Appomattox, one of Custer’s cavalry brigades, under Colonel William Well attacked the Confederate cavalrymen near Namozine Church in Amelia County. The results of the clash were inconclusive and casualties numbered seventy-five. But during the melee, Lieutenant Tom Custer, serving with Company B, 6th Michigan captured a Confederate battle flag and fourteen prisoners, including three officers, earning his first Medal of Honor.
On April 6, 1865 at a crossroads near Saylor’s Creek, Custer’s 3d Cavalry Division was pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear guard. The Custer brothers led the cavalry charge on a Confederate defensive postion consisting of barricades formed from General Ewell’s supply train. Captain Tom Custer was the first over the barricade where he came face to face with the 2d Virginia Reserve Battalion’s color bearer. Grabbing the Confederate battle flag, Custer demanded the sergeant’s surrender. The sergeant replied by shooting Tom point blank in the face with a pistol. The bullet went through Custer’s left cheek and exited his neck. The captain, still holding the flag, drew his own revolver and shot the sergeant dead.
Older brother George, mounted on horseback, leapt over the barricade and was unhorsed in the confusion of so many Confederate soldiers trying to escape the Union cavalry. Getting to his feet, he saw his younger brother, grievously wounded, flag in hand.
“Aut!” Tom yelled. “The damn Rebs have shot me, but I got their flag!” As Tom turned his horse to begin pursuing the retreating Rebels, George grabbed the horse’s halter.
“Where d’you think you’re going?” demanded the general.
“After Ewell!” was the reply.
George Custer’s famous temper flared at his brother. “You damn fool, can’t you see you’re bleeding like a stuck pig? Get to the rear and find a surgeon before you drop dead!”
Brother Tom proved to be equally as stubborn as his famous brother. “Is that an order?”
“That’s an order!” replied the general, whereupon he directed his orderly to conduct the captain, under arrest, to the rear to find an ambulance.
Tom complied with the order. But George, despite his temper, could be as equally rewarding as he was punishing. For Tom’s bravery (and obedience to orders), General Custer promoted him to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel and submitted his name for a second Medal of Honor. Of Tom’s bravery, older brother George once commented: “To prove to you how much I value and admire my brother as a soldier, I think that he should be the general and I the captain.”
After the war, George and Tom, along with George’s wife, Libby, went west, taking assignments at various posts in Texas and Kansas. Ironically, the Custers served with the 2d Cavalry in Texas, the last unit in which Robert E. Lee had served with prior to his resignation from the Union Army. Ultimately, the Custers were assigned to the 7th Cavalry based at Fort Riley, Kansas. On July 28, 1866, George became Lieutenant Colonel of the newly raised regiment, essentially a second in command job. While his brother’s postwar career had its peaks and valleys (his court martial for being Absent Without Leave the ebb tide), Tom Custer, eventually rising to the regular Army rank of Captain, ultimately took command of C Company, 7th Cavalry. He would serve in that capacity until his death at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. After the battle, Tom’s mutilated body was discovered close to that of his brother’s. The body was only identified because of the tattoos Tom had: A goddess of liberty and flag, as well as the intials TWC above the elbow of his right arm. The two time Medal of Honor winner had served his brother to the last. The brothers were intially buried together on the battlefield, in shallow graves, as was the rest of the command. Rain and nature’s scavengers mixed the remains together and when the Army returned, identification was nearly impossible. In 1877, the presumed remains of George were reinterred at West Point, while those of Tom and several other officers were interred at Fort Leavenworth. The rest of the command were buried in a mass grave marked by a granite monument at the Little Big Horn.
Peter Cozzens, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991, 143 and 193.
D.A. Kinsley. Custer: A Soldier’s Story. New York: Promontory Press, 1992. p. 258.
Deeds of Valor: How America’s Civil War Heores Won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Edited by W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel. Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1994. D.A. Kinsley. Custer: A Soldier’s Story. New York: Promontory Press, 1992. p. 277.
Peter Panzeri, Little Big Horn 1876. The Osprey Campaign Series, London: Reed International Ltd., 1995, 46.