Eriksmoen: Younger Custer served with brother at Bighorn

The first person to be awarded the Medal of Honor on two separate occasions later served at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck. Tom Custer was the younger brother of George A. Custer. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Tom, George and a...

Tom Custer

The first person to be awarded the Medal of Honor on two separate occasions later served at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck.

Tom Custer was the younger brother of George A. Custer. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Tom, George and a third brother, Boston, were all killed. Tom, like the rest of his siblings, admired George, and it was with great pride that he was able to serve with his older brother during the Civil War and with the 7th Cavalry in Dakota Territory.

George also had great admiration for his younger sibling. Near the conclusion of the Civil War he commented, "Tom should have been the general and I the lieutenant."

Thomas Ward Custer was born March 15, 1845, in New Rumley, a small town in southeastern Ohio. He was the third living son of the second marriages of Emanuel Henry Custer and Maria Ward Kirkpatrick Custer.

Tom began his education at a "subscription school" in 1851 founded by A.B. Creal, where he frequently found himself in trouble. At an early age, he picked up the habit of chewing tobacco. Since this was not allowed at school, there were no provisions available for him to spit the juice. Tom solved this by drilling a hole in the floor next to his desk. The teacher eventually discovered the hole, and he was punished.


On Sept. 2, 1861, Tom went to the recruiting station at the age of 16, lied about his age and joined the 21st Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 21st became part of Army of Ohio and, later, the 14th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland and was initially stationed in Kentucky.

At the beginning, military life was not easy for Tom. During the first 18 months at the front, he was only involved in minor skirmishes. In April 1863, he was assigned to escort duty with Maj. Gen. James S. Negley, division commander of the 21st. On Sept. 19-20, Negley and the other officers of the Army of the Cumberland were involved in the Battle of Chickamauga.

This was "the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater and the battle with the second highest number of casualties," second only to Gettysburg. Casualties in the 21st numbered nearly half the regiment. On Nov. 20, Tom became an orderly on the staff of Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant.

Tom re-enlisted for another three years at the beginning of 1864. On Oct. 23, he was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and assigned to Company B of the 6th Michigan Cavalry. Two weeks later, he joined his brother, Brig. Gen. George Custer, as an assistant aide-de-camp. After some minor skirmishes, Gen. Custer launched an attack on Gen. Jubal Early's Confederate forces at Waynesboro, Va., on March 2, 1865. On March 3, Tom led a charge against three regiments at Namozine Church, causing the Confederates to break rank.

Despite having his horse shot from under him, he took a dozen prisoners and captured the enemy flag. For his action, Tom was awarded the Medal of Honor. Three days later, at Sailor's Creek, he led a mounted rush against the Confederate line, was shot in the face, and was still able to wrest the enemy flag from the color-bearer. He then demanded that the Confederate soldiers surrender. Tom was awarded the Medal of Honor.

At the end of the Civil War, when he was only 20 years old, Tom was promoted to brevet ranks of captain, major and lieutenant colonel for extraordinary bravery at Waynesboro, Namozine Church and Sailor's Creek.

Tom was officially mustered out of the service on April 24, 1866. On July 28, he was assigned to the 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of his brother and given the rank of 1st lieutenant. As aide to his brother, he accompanied the 7th Cavalry to Fort Riley, Kan., on Nov. 23. In 1867, the 7th was stationed at Fort Hayes, Fort Wallace, and Fort Harker, all in Kansas.

After George Custer was court-martialed, Tom went to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in September to testify on his brother's behalf.


After serving five years as commander of Company M at various forts in Kansas and present-day Oklahoma, Tom and his company joined the 7th Cavalry at Fort Rice in Dakota Territory on June 10, 1873. He accompanied his brother on the Yellowstone Expedition and then transferred to Fort Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 21.

In 1876, George Custer ordered Tom to the Standing Rock Reservation and arrest the Lakota chief, Rain-in-the-Face, for killing an army veterinarian in Montana. Tom arrested the chief on Dec 14, and the chief was jailed at Fort Abraham Lincoln. The chief later escaped and joined Sitting Bull. Rain-in-the-Face and Tom would later meet on the battlefield at the Little Bighorn.

On Dec. 2, 1875, Tom was promoted to captain and two weeks later became commander of Company C. The 7th Cavalry left Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876, to track down Sitting Bull and his followers. After arriving at the Little Bighorn on June 25, companies C, D, F, and M were quickly surrounded by Indians. Tom and the rest of Company C were trapped in a deep ravine.

In the battle, Tom, George, brother Boston and nephew Henry Reed were all killed. Three days later, Tom's badly mutilated body was found and buried. In July 1877, Tom's remains were removed from his burial site and sent to Fort Leavenworth for reburial.

"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at .

What To Read Next
Get Local