The Other Custer

When you think of the name “Custer,” most people automatically think of General George Armstrong Custer and his death at Little Bighorn. But there was another Custer in the Army at the time, George’s younger brother Thomas Ward Custer. And he was pretty impressive. Here is what his more famous brother George had to say about him:

“If you want to know what I think of him, all I can say is Tom ought to have been the general and I the captain.”

Captain Thomas Ward Custer, two-time Medal of Honor recipient. Image Credit:

Before I go any further, I feel I should mention that a third Custer brother was serving in the Army at the same time as George and Thomas. His name was Boston, and he died while fighting alongside his brothers at Little Bighorn.

Thomas Custer enlisted in the Union Army in September of 1861 at 16. He fought in many early campaigns of the American Civil War as a private in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Working his way up the ranks, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in Company B of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, where he became aide-de-camp to his brother George. Thomas accompanied his brother in this capacity for the remainder of the war.

He worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming a captain, major, and finally lieutenant colonel by the time the Civil War ended, all having barely reached the tender age of 20. When I was 20, I was still doing keg stands at the frat house. I was a cadet who barely knew one end of an M16 from the other, let alone a decorated field-grade officer with years of combat experience. And these are no minor awards I’m talking about. Tom Custer was awarded the Medal of Honor twice. He was the first soldier ever to do so, one of just nineteen in US military history.

Portrait of George (left), Thomas, and George’s wife Elisabeth (Libbie) Bacon Custer circa 1865. Photograph by Matthew Brady courtesy of the US Library of Congress

Both of the younger Custer’s Medals of Honor involved the capture of Confederate battle flags. Battle flags were extremely important parts of the battlefield during the Civil War. In a practical sense, they were used in signaling and communicating, but they also symbolized all that was important to the troops they represented. They served as a source of morale and fierce, loyal pride. They inspired men to perform to the best of their abilities and as such were zealously protected during battle. Flag bearers would fight to the death rather than give up their colors. Capturing an enemy battle flag required extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, and fighting skills. The loss of a flag meant troop confusion, demoralization, and the potential for taking friendly fire.

The First Award

At the onset of the Appomattox Campaign, operating near the area of Namozine Church, Tom was an officer on the staff of Colonel Henry Capehart of the Army of the Potomac’s 3rd Cavalry Division. Custer reportedly jumped his horse over a barricade, tore the battle flag out of the hands of the flag bearer, and demanded the immediate surrender of the Confederate troops around him. Eleven soldiers and three officers complied on the spot. Custer’s horse had been wounded, but Tom had not received a scratch.

This is the flag that Tom Custer captured from the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry at the Battle of Namozine Church on April 3rd, 1865.