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Family portrait: Tom Custer, standing, with his more famous, higher-ranking brother and the general's wife, Libbie. (Library of Congress)
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Maj. Thomas Custer

Oft-Decorated Soldier Lived and Died in Shadow of Beloved Older Brother



No one has ever completely explained why Thomas Custer's body was found not next to his unit, but next to his brother George after the battle of Little Big Horn. But it is certainly fitting. Although separated by six years in age, the brothers were extraordinarily close, sharing a love of practical jokes and of the military.

Tom Custer idolized his famed elder brother, and when George ("Autie") graduated from West Point in 1861, 16-year-old Tom wanted to join the Army, too. His father foiled his first attempt to enlist but relented several months later. On Sept. 2, 1861, Tom was sworn in as a private in the 21st Ohio Cavalry. He was so young, in fact, that his Army records showed that Tom gained two inches in height over the next two years.

With the 21st, the younger Custer was to see only one battle, that of Stone's River at Murfreesboro, Tenn. In April 1863, he was assigned to escort duty on the staff of division commander Maj. Gen. James Negley. For the next few years, the "huge, handsome man who radiated goodwill" served a succession of generals, until Autie (now a brigadier general) convinced Col. James A. Kidd of the 6th Michigan Cavalry in his brigade to promote brother Tom to second lieutenant.

While nepotism played a large part in Tom's commission, it evidently did not ease his workload. Autie was determined not to show preferential treatment, which led to remarks from Tom to Autie's wife Libbie about "that old galoot." However, Tom proved his mettle at the battles of Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Courthouse, and Five Forks, and was brevetted quickly to major.

His new rank would be recorded in his deeds at the Battles of Namozine Church and Sayler's Creek. In both, Tom Custer captured Confederate colors, and for both he was awarded a Medal of Honor. He was the first to receive two of the medals and is one of only 20 people ever to receive the dual honor. While some Civil War-era Medals of Honor were given on spurious grounds, Custer's sister-in-law could say with pride, "Tom is a hero." His face would forever bear the scar of the bullet that pierced his cheek as he captured the 2nd Virginia Reserve Battalion standard.

For the remainder of his too-short life, Tom Custer wore his Medals of Honor with pride (in at least one photo, we can see that he allowed girlfriends to sport them on occasion). George Custer once said of his brother, "Tom should have been the general, and I the lieutenant." Who knows what would have happened had there been a different outcome at Little Big Horn?

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