History has always been a great love of mine. It is a truly vast and complex subject and, as we all know, it is often taught from biased perspectives, those of the conquerors, or those who may have an agenda to support.
History is always much more complex than what can be covered in a single text book, no matter how good that text is. No matter how much a given text may try to “broaden” the telling of the story to be more inclusive, it can never be complete enough to tell the whole story. There are always details, sometimes of great importance, that get shunted aside, that do not get told, for any number of legitimate and illegitimate reasons.
As a result these untold details are often forgotten by the general public. But there are always a few “experts,” scholars, or amateur historians who focus on the peripheries and keep these historical memories alive.
This story is about one of those individuals whose actions in life carries some considerable weight in military history, but whose story is generally unknown by the masses, because another personality involved in a particularly important moment in history was more “colorful,” or charismatic, or more effectively fit the desired narrative of the times.
The important place that Capt. Thomas Custer holds in the annals of American military history is one of those stories that is lesser known, because it was overshadowed by the story of his older brother, the legendary Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
Most Americans would recognize the name George Armstrong Custer and most would associate his name with the famous U.S. Army defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. That battle was a great loss for the U.S. Army, and a great victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors who won the day.
In popular American history, it is George Armstrong Custer’s name that is remembered, not those of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, Lame White Man and Two Moon who were among the leaders of the winning side that day. That view of history is also not well known, but that is a story for another article. Most also may not know that George Custer was not the only Custer to die that day. His younger brothers, Thomas and Boston Custer would also fall there, near their brother, on Last Stand Hill. And probably even fewer would know that of the three Custer brothers, Thomas was the most highly decorated military man to die that day.
Here is the rest of the story.
Thomas Custer was only 15 at the beginning of the Civil War. His older brother, George, was gaining some notoriety already early on in the war, because of his exploits as a cavalry officer. Thomas wanted to get into the action too. He tried to enlist at 15, but his father put the kibosh on that idea for as long as he could.
Thomas would not be held back from his desire for long. By the age of 16 he was enlisted as a private in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
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He would be involved in several difficult campaigns in the Western theater over the course of the Civil War. He would fight at places like: The Battle of Stone River, Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga, and then in the Atlanta Campaign. He proved himself on the field of battle many times over and in 1864 he was commissioned a 2nd Lt. He was then assigned to the same unit with his older brother, George, as his aide-de-camp.
But it was at the end of the war, in April of 1865, that he would prove his real mettle.
On April 3, he was in a battle in the campaign leading up to the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox at a place called Namozine Church. During the heat of the battle, Thomas charged the Confederate lines on his horse and leapt over their barricades under withering fire. Now inside their defenses, he saw the Confederate color bearer and went directly for him to take the colors. During the Civil War this gesture had a great deal of significance.
Thomas wrenched the Confederate colors from the color bearer while at the same time ordering those around him to surrender, which, stunningly, they did. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
Only four days later, on April 7, at Sailor’s Creek, he was once again up against a Confederate barricade and their fierce defense. Once again, he saw an opportunity to take the enemy flag. On his horse, he charged the Confederate barricades, leaping over them, firing pistols in both hands.
Seeing the flag bearer, he charged directly for him. As he wrestled the flag from the bearer he was struck by a rifle bullet in the face. The bullet tore his cheek, but did not do damage to vital parts. Bleeding, he remained atop his horse still holding the flag. The battle was won.
For these actions, he was awarded his second Medal of Honor, becoming the first soldier in our history to receive the nation’s highest award for valor on the field of battle twice, and in his case, within the span of 4 short days.
Thomas, George and their youngest brother, Boston, would make the Army their careers. Those careers would all come to an end on another field of battle, near a small river in eastern Montana on June 25, 1876.
That river and place of battle was known to them as the Little Bighorn. For the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors Custer’s troops attacked that day, it was known as the Greasy Grass.
On that day, Custer had foolishly attacked the largest gathering of allied Northern Plains tribes that had ever been seen. The battle that ensued was fierce and intense. The tide of battle turned away from the 7th Cavalry and into the hands of the Indian warriors with almost lightning-like speed.
The Custer brothers would all fall that day within feet of each other. But it would be George Custer’s name that would go down in American history as the great general who had struggled against overwhelming odds, dying a tragic hero. It would be George who would get all the press, whose reputation would be built up into the status of a legend that was well beyond the reality. In reality, he had suffered the greatest defeat of the U.S. Army during the long years of the Indian Wars.
Few today know that Thomas Custer was the most highly decorated man to die on that field that day. In terms of truly heroic actions on the field of battle, Thomas far outranked his brother.
Well, now you are among the few who know the rest of the story.
Read More and learn about one of the great decendants of the warriors who fought at Little Big Horn, Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.