Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thomas Ward Custer - George Custer's brother who fought and died with him

(Brother of George Armstrong Custer)

1845 – 1876

Unless one has an extraordinary amount of time and patience, many of the Custer family tree twigs and branches seem impossible to untangle (and frankly, I have given up on that project for now). What we do know is that the Pennsylvania and Midwest branches sprang from Paulus Kuster, who moved his family from Crefield, Germany to America in 1682.   

Whether the name begins with a K or a C, it has recognition!  I can personally testify that upon mentioning that my great grandmother was a Custer before she married a Franklin, the immediate response is recognition of my infamous distant cousin - George Armstrong Custer.  We don't deny the relationship!  After all, it is a fact that not all fruit on any one's family tree is tasty.

George definitely qualifies as a family legend.  At first I had considered writing about this talented and forceful  man who possessed questionable decision making skills - the last one of which was responsible for the loss of  211 lives, including his own.

Emanuel and Marie Ward Custer
However, upon digging deeper into his life, I was shocked to discover that George's parents, Emanuel and Marie, actually lost three sons, a son-in-law and a young grandson on June 25, 1876 during the battle known as "Custer's Last Stand". Their only blessing was knowing that their surviving son, Nevin, would never be able to fight in a war because of his asthma and rheumatism.

The Custer casualties were:
Lt. Colonel George Custer
Libby and George Custer
  •  37 year old General George Armstrong (aka "Autie" because, as a child, he couldn't pronounce Armstrong) Custer  who fought with the Union Army.  As the War drew to a close in 1865, he  married Elizabeth (aka Libby) and then took some time off to determine whether he would have a better career outside the military. A year later, he joined the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment as a Lt. Colonel.  Libby traveled with him to his outposts, and defended his reputation to anyone who would listen long after his death.  Although there were rumors that he had fathered two children with a Cheyenne woman, this was never proven.
Captain Thomas Ward Custer
  • 31 year old Captain Thomas Ward Custer,  who some sources firmly say was married with children and others just as firmly disagree. He was described as a handsome, charming ladies' man, and his story is featured later in this post. 
    Boston Custer

  • 28 year old Boston Custer had been unable to join the military because of poor health, so he became a civilian contractor who served the 7th Cavalry as forage master, guide, packer and scout.
  • 18 year old grandson, Harry Armstrong “Autie” Reed, joined his Uncle Boston on the pack train which followed Custer's troops.  After hearing that ammunition was needed for the impending fight, he and Boston raced up to join the main column as it moved into position to attack a sprawling Indian village. Had they stayed with the pack train, Boston and Autie could well have survived the battle.
  •  31 year old James "Jimmy" A. Calhoun, was married to the Custers' sister, Margaret, and had served as a Second Lieutenant in the Union Army.  He was called "The Adonis of the Seventh" solely because of his handsome features.  But the truth was he was devoted to his wife and never a womanizer.  He was the Acting Commander of L Company when he was killed with most of his company, all of whom fought fiercely on what became later known as Calhoun Hill. 
Obviously they were all interesting men in their own right, but I decided to concentrate on Thomas, who was a tiger on the battlefield!  He was the only Civil War soldier to have been awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor (which he was shown wearing in the above photo). 
At age 16 in 1861, he was not allowed to enlist in the Army.  However, it was only two weeks later that he successfully lied about his age and was mustered into the 21st Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  During the next couple of years after taking part in a couple of skirmishes, he was assigned to escort duty on the division commander's staff and then transferred to the staff of Major General Ulysses S. Grant.

Finally, in the summer of 1864, his brother, George, obtained a commission for the 19 year old to serve as the General's aide-de-camp in the 6th Michigan Cavalry.  By 1865, the brothers had seen action in several campaigns. 

But it was at the battle at Namozine Church in Virginia that Tom, who was now a Second Lieutenant in the 6th Michigan Cavalry won his first medal when he recovered the enemy's flag.  Only a couple of days later, he charged the breastworks at Sayler's Creek and after again snatching the enemy colors, demanded their surrender.  Even though he was
badly injured and had his horse shot out from under him, he refused to give up his prize and rode off with the colors. He had to be threatened with arrest before he agreed to report to the surgeon and be treated. This action earned him his second metal.

Finally in 1866, after having mustered out of the 6th Michigan, he  received a commission in the U.S. 7th Cavalry as a first lieutenant and his career over the next several years included being wounded in 1868, serving in the Yellowstone Expedition in 1873 and the Black Hills Expedition in 1874.  In 1875, he was promoted to Captain and given command of Company C of the 7th Cavalry which was based in the Black Hills.

Only one year later, while joining his brothers, brother-in-law and nephew in a  military action on June 25, 1876 against the Sioux and Cheyenne, his life came to a violent end. The bodies of the three Custer brothers were found within yards of one another but Thomas' body was so mutilated it was only possible to identify him by means of a tattoo he was known to have had.  Initially he was buried on the battlefield but later exhumed and buried in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.

George Custer's marker
Boston Custer's memorial

James Calhoun's memorial before fire
Autie Reed Gravestone