The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest military award in the United States. It is awarded to Americans who distinguish themselves “above and beyond the call of duty.” At the end of the Civil War, there was a Union officer who personally led attacks that helped the Union army capture a sizable portion of the Confederate army, ultimately forcing the South to surrender. For his bravery, he was awarded the Medal of Honor — twice. His name was Thomas W. Custer, brother to one of America’s most famous, some would say infamous, soldiers. This is the story of how he showed “conspicuous gallantry” in the last days of the Civil War.
Thomas Ward Custer may have been the younger brother of George Armstrong Custer, but he proved himself exceptional in his own right. Tom was born in March 1845 in the town of New Rumley, Ohio. He was one of nine children born to the local blacksmith, but he always remained closest to his oldest brother George Armstrong, nicknamed “Autie.” When Tom was four, his father took up farming and moved the family to a farm on the outskirts of town. Tom soon joined his brothers in performing chores around the house and planting crops. At age six he entered the local school. Like his brother “Autie,” Tom preferred mischief to discipline, and many of his pranks ended with a meeting between himself and the rod. This mischievous nature endeared him to many of his schoolmates though, and he quickly emerged as their leader. He longed to escape and embark on adventures, much as “Autie” did when he left New Rumley for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His desire for adventure was fulfilled sooner than he thought when the Civil War erupted in April 1861.
By late 1861, word reached the Custer family that George had fought bravely at the First Battle of Bull Run, and Tom wanted the same opportunity for himself. Even though he was only sixteen-years-old, he begged his parents to allow him to enlist. They finally relented, and on September 2, 1861 he enlisted in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Tom spent the next three years fighting in the western theatre. After training in Cincinnati, the regiment was ordered to march south into Kentucky in October 1861. Tom “saw the elephant” for the first time only a few days later at Ivy Mountain. He and the rest of the regiment attacked a body of Confederates from the rear and forced them to withdraw. He spent most of the winter in camp in Kentucky, and throughout 1862 he was part of the Union invasions of Tennessee and Alabama. He was even stationed for a time in Nashville, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama. At the end of the year, he fought determinedly against the Confederates at the Battle of Stones River. His bravery at Stones River brought him to the attention of his commanders, and he was detached from the regiment to become a military escort. Over the next year, he participated in the climactic Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee in November 1863 and in the capture of Atlanta, Georgia in September 1864. Shortly after the city’s fall, Tom received orders to join the staff of his brother George, now a breveted (temporary) brigadier general in the Army of the Potomac.
Tom officially joined George’s Third Cavalry Division in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on November 8, 1864 and spent the rest of the war fighting alongside his brother. Immediately upon reaching camp, he reported to his brother who informed Tom that he would be serving as an aide-de-camp with the rank of second lieutenant. Despite being the commander’s younger brother, Tom insisted on showing George proper military respect in public. In return, George refused to show Tom favoritism, but he also grew to depend on Tom. Only a month after joining his brother’s command, Tom participated in General Philip Sheridan’s campaign to destroy the Confederate army commanded by Jubal Early. In December 1864 he saw action against a cavalry force commanded by George’s old West Point classmate, Tom Rosser. The battle was a Union victory, but the main Confederate army led by Early still posed a threat.
The military situation was growing desperate for the Southerners. In early March 1865, the Union cavalry assaulted Early’s command outside Waynesboro, Virginia. During the battle, Tom personally led a bold attack against the Confederates and forced them to withdraw. The Union assault effectively destroyed Jubal Early’s army. With the enemy in the Shenandoah subdued, George, Tom and the rest of Sheridan’s cavalry joined the Union army outside Petersburg, Virginia, destroying railroads and bridges as they advanced. The cavalry entered Union lines on March 18, 1865. Tom was soon presented with a commendation for bravery for his role in the Battle of Waynesboro and a brevet promotion to the rank of first lieutenant. It was only one of many decorations that he earned over the next few weeks.
Only ten days after arriving in Petersburg, the Union cavalrymen were ordered to attack the critical Confederate position at Five Forks, just west of Petersburg. On the morning of March 31st Sheridan’s troopers faced off against Confederate General George Pickett. Pickett’s forces launched a surprise attack against the Union cavalry, and Sheridan called on General Custer’s division for support. Tom, alongside George, raced to the front and bolstered the faltering position. The next day, April 1, 1865, Tom was at the forefront of the charge that overpowered the Confederate defenders at Five Forks. At the same time, General Ulysses S. Grant launched an all-out assault on the Confederate army inside Petersburg, which forced the Confederates to withdraw west. Tom led his men in the chase. It was during the pursuit that Tom would truly distinguish himself as a soldier.
Tom’s first moment of lasting glory came only two days after his performance at Five Forks. On April 3rd he and his fellow soldiers faced the Confederate rearguard at a crossroads known as Namozine Presbyterian Church. The Union cavalry wasted no time in charging the Confederate cavalry and virtually annihilated the Confederate force opposing them. In the midst of this action, Tom jumped his horse over the Confederate fortifications. Bullets whistled all around him, but he ignored them. Straight in front of him was a prize coveted by all soldiers — an enemy flag. He spurred his horse toward the body of Confederate soldiers and only slowed for a moment when his mount was shot from under him. Running the last few feet on foot, he wrestled the flag out of the color bearer’s hands. At the same time, he aimed his pistol at the soldiers surrounding the color bearer and ordered them to surrender. They promptly did so. The number of captives included three officers and eleven enlisted men. Tom marched his prisoners back to the Union lines where he presented both them and the flag to his superiors. For his heroism that day, he would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor and the brevet rank of captain. But his acts of valor were not yet done.
As the division continued to pursue the Confederate army, Tom anticipated another opportunity to distinguish himself. That chance came just three days later on April 6th. As the Union soldiers approached Sayler’s Creek, they encountered a Confederate barricade blocking the road. Union troops immediately launched an attack, and after three tries, the Confederates were ultimately dislodged. The advance continued, and soon an entire Confederate infantry corps came into view. Before attacking the infantry, however, Tom and his comrades attacked and captured an artillery battery, 800 soldiers and 300 supply wagons. Then they turned their attention on the main body of Confederates. Tom was filled with excitement and charged the Confederate lines “like a lion” according to George’s chief of staff. As he had three days previously, he jumped his horse over a barricade. He now found himself surrounded by enemy soldiers, but he drew his pistol and began firing. The Confederates broke but quickly formed a new line. Suddenly, Tom caught sight of a battle flag and charged the Confederate formation. He was shot in the right cheek but succeeded in killing the color bearer and capturing his second flag. He would ultimately be rewarded with a second Medal of Honor and the brevet rank of major. He went to find his brother and, when he refused to obey an order to see the surgeon, was placed under arrest. He was escorted to the hospital at City Point, Virginia and later to Washington, D.C. where he officially received his first Medal of Honor on April 24th and his second on May 22nd. He had performed fearlessly during the Civil War, and he would carry that fearless attitude with him as he moved on to the next battleground.
It was on the plains of the American West that Tom Custer next served his country. In November 1866 Tom received a regular commission as a first lieutenant in the 7th Cavalry and eventually rose to the rank of captain. Not long after joining the regiment, Tom and his brother, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, were ordered to pursue the Indians across the barren plains of Kansas. They followed their orders but had little success in engaging the Indians. During these pursuits they often saw evidence of Indian brutality against soldiers and civilians alike. The brothers sought retribution at the November 27, 1868 Battle of the Washita where they captured an Indian village and killed many villagers. The battle helped bring peace to the southern plains. In early 1873 Tom and the 7th Cavalry were transferred to Fort Abraham Lincoln, just outside Bismarck, North Dakota. From Fort Lincoln, Tom joined his brother in exploring the Yellowstone River in 1873 and the Black Hills in 1874. It was from Fort Lincoln that Tom departed on May 22, 1876 on his final march. Just over a month later, on June 25, 1876, he made his last stand alongside his brother George in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He fought as valiantly in his last battle as he had in any battle of the Civil War.
Tom Custer’s life was devoted in service to his beloved country. He was just like his older brother in his desire to always be “at the tip of the sword.” It was his audacious charges that helped make his brother a national hero. George Custer himself praised Tom’s courage under fire by saying that “he should have been the general.” Tom’s gallant and faithful service brought great credit not only to his country but also to the name Custer. The larger-than-life story of his older brother George has largely overshadowed Tom, but by winning two Medals of Honor, Tom took his rightful place in the pantheon of American heroes. For Tom Custer, going “above and beyond the call of duty” was not just a military decoration — it was a way of life.