Thomas Ward Custer was the first person to win two Medal of Honor awards.
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Thomas Ward Custer was the first person to win two Medal of Honor awards.
Thomas W. Custer was six years younger than his famous brother, George Armstrong Custer. The 16-year-old Thomas enlisted in September 1861 as a private in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In spite of his humble beginnings, Thomas Custer distinguished himself in battle twice, for which he received two Medals of Honor. With the 21st Ohio, Custer participated in major Western Theater action including the battles of Stone’s River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and the Atlanta Campaign. A capable young soldier, he obtained duty on the staff of Major General James Negley in April 1863. He remained in this position until mustering out in October 1864. Seeking further military service, Custer reenlisted, earning a promotion to second lieutenant. He also transferred to the 6th Michigan Cavalry, which served in Virginia. In the Eastern Theater, Thomas worked hard for his brother, Brigadier General George Custer, on staff in the Shenandoah Valley. He fought bravely at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Courthouse, and Five Forks--which led to a battlefield promotion to brevet major. During an engagement at Namozine Church on April 3, 1865, Custer captured a Confederate flag. For this he received the Medal of Honor Three days later, Custer again demonstrated his valor at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. Astride his horse, Custer leapt over enemy works to capture two color standards. He was wounded in his face and his horse was shot out from under him. For this, Custer received a second Medal of Honor--the first of nineteen men so honored. In the Civil War, regimental flags, or colors, were of great military significance. They played a role in guiding troop movements amid the chaos of battle. The loss of a flag meant troop confusion, disarray, and the potential for taking friendly fire. Also, the communities from which the regiment originated often paid for the flags, so they symbolized local pride and sentimentality for the soldiers. As flag capture meant low morale and shame, Custer’s double-flag capture took the honor of two enemy regiments. Custer continued his military career after the Civil War. In 1866, commissioned as first lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Cavalry, he fought in the Dakota and Montana territories. Promoted to captain in 1875, he took command of Company C. By this time he and his brothers, George and Boston (b. 1848), all served in the 7th Cavalry. Their fates were united to the end. Following the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, the bodies of the three Custer brothers were found near one another. Thomas was initially buried on Custer wearing two Medals of Honor, c.1875. Mead Army Museum, Amherst College. 1 the battlefield, but in 1877 his remains were reinterred in Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Kansas. Six two-time Medal of Honor recipients are buried in VA National Cemeteries: ? Captain Thomas W. Custer, Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery (Section A, Grave 1488) ? Coxswain John Cooper, Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Section 2, Grave 5022) ? Sergeant Major Daniel Daly, Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Section 5, Grave 70) ? Captain William Taylor, Loudon Park National Cemetery (Section OFF, Grave 16) ? Captain of the Hold Louis Williams, Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Section 6, Grave 12616) ? Sergeant William Wilson, San Francisco National Cemetery (Section WS, Grave 527)
On Aug. 2, 1877, an announcement appeared on the local news page of the Leavenworth Daily Public Press, informing the citizens of Leavenworth City that, "The remains of the slaughtered officers of the Seventh Cavalry were expected here last evening, but did not reach here until this morning. Consequently the obsequies will not take place this evening, but has been deferred to five o’clock tomorrow evening, when it is expected our citizens will turn out in full force[,] and show by their presence that gallant services of these distinguished heroes have been appreciated by our people."
Fort Leavenworth was known as the finest military installation west of the Mississippi River. This idyllic military installation was destined, the first weekend in August 1877, to serve as the backdrop for the final act in an American tragedy that had played itself out in the Sioux Indian Nation’s reservation on the Little Big Horn River 14 months earlier.
On the morning of June 25, 1876, Crow Indian scouts supporting the 7th Cavalry column commanded by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer reported the presence of a large Indian village on the Little Big Horn River, several miles due north of them. It was the largest such village that the Crows had ever seen, but Custer knew that such a large village couldn’t remain together for long because the grass would be rapidly denuded by the pony herd. When Custer received indications that the presence of his column had been detected by Indians, he determined to attack the Indian village before it could disperse.
That afternoon, Custer led two battalions of five companies personally to attack the village from the east and north. Historians have expended literally oceans of ink speculating on what transpired across the ridges and ravines east of the Little Big Horn over the next few hours, but what is known is that by sunset that day, Custer and every man of the five companies with him were all dead. It wouldn't be until June 27 that the Sioux and Cheyenne broke up their camp and departed from the river, and arriving Army reinforcements gained control of the battlefield.
Most of Custer’s officers were discovered atop a prominent knoll, including himself, his brother Capt. Tom Custer, 1st Lt. Algernon E. Smith temporarily commanding Company E, and Capt. George W. Yates commanding Company F. Custer’s brother-in-law, 1st Lt. James Calhoun, commanding Company L, was found with his company deployed on a skirmish line to the south of Custer. Among the dead with Reno’s Battalion was 1st Lt. Donald McIntosh, temporarily commanding Company G, who had been killed covering the retreat of Reno’s Battalion from the banks of the Little Bighorn.
The battlefield was a ghastly site, over 200 dead bodies and 70 horses scattered across the prairie, having been exposed for 48 hours to intense sunlight and heat. The Montana prairie was scorching hot, and the summer days were among the longest of the year. In accordance with the religious beliefs of the Indians, the cavalrymen's bodies had been mutilated to various degrees, and animal scavengers had already begun their work.
Efforts were made to locate the officers’ bodies, and most of them could be successfully identified, although the process was challenging. The bodies were battered, baked and bloated. At a time when forensic identification through dental records and DNA was unknown, and before identification tags were an Army requirement, personal knowledge of the officers by their brothers-in-arms had to be relied upon. Capt. Tom Custer was identified by a tattoo of his initials and the Goddess of Liberty upon his arm. CApt. Myles Keogh was known by a religious medal, the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") that he habitually wore on a chain around his neck, and that the superstitious Indians hadn't disturbed.
The stench was indescribable, the ground was baked hard, and the soldiers lacked hand tools, making proper internment of the dead impossible. Col. Custer and his brother were buried together in what was the only real grave, and it was just over a foot deep. For the next year, the remains of Custer’s dead would repose in these less than adequate graves, and were exposed to the ravages of both scavengers and the harsh Montana weather. Although the U.S. Army was well aware that their efforts at interring Custer’s dead had been woefully inadequate, ongoing hostilities with the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne nations precluded any further measures regarding the battlefield to be taken for nearly a year. Finally, in early July 1877, things had improved on the Little Bighorn to the point that a column could be dispatched to the battlefield to re-bury the enlisted troopers, and recover the bodies of the officers.
Conditions on the battlefield were deplorable. All of the graves, even the best excavated of the two Custer brothers, had been disturbed to some extent, and bones lay scattered across the field. It was only with difficulty that even the remains of Gen. Custer could be positively confirmed. Still, the remains of eight officers were recovered from the Custer field: Lt. Col. Custer, Adjutant W.W. Cooke, Capt. Tom Custer, 1st Lt. A.E. Smith, Capt. Yates, 2nd Lt. William Van Wyck Riley, Capt. Keogh, and 1st Lt. Calhoun. Three officers’ remains were recovered from the Reno field: 2nd Lt. Benjamin Hodgson, Acting Assistant Surgeon James Madison DeWolf, and 1st Lt. McIntosh. Boston Custer and Autie Reed were also recovered. At the family’s request, 2nd Lt. John J. Crittenden was reburied in a coffin where he had fallen in battle at the Little Bighorn, his face eternally to the enemy.
The remains of the 11 officers and two civilians were placed in pine coffins and initially evacuated to Fort Abraham Lincoln for their final disposition. Upon request, individual officers were returned to their families. Boston Custer and Autie Reed were dispatched to the Custer home for burial at Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Mich. The remains of Adjutant Cooke returned to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; Surgeon DeWolf to Norwalk, Ohio; 2nd Lt. Riley to Washington, D.C.; and Capt. Keogh to Auburn, N.Y. Reno’s Adjutant, Lt. Hodgson, was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery at Philadelphia. At the direction of his widow, the remains of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer were transported to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for burial high above the Hudson River.
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Five of these men were destined to return to Fort Leavenworth, a post long familiar to the 7th Cavalry: Capts. Yates and Tom Custer; and Lts. Calhoun, Smith and McIntosh.
Their bodies arrived at the Union Depot in Leavenworth City on Thursday morning, Aug. 3, 1877. This railroad depot was replaced in 1887 by a second Leavenworth Union Depot that survives today. Once the caskets had arrived at Fort Leavenworth, they were placed in the post chapel, under a guard of honor drawn from the garrison of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, and remained there for viewing by visitors, friends and family. The chapel where the funeral service for the five officers of the 7th Cavalry was performed is no longer extant. In 1877, the Fort Leavenworth Chapel was a one-story wooden frame building on present-day Scott Avenue, constructed prior to 1850 that remained in use through 1878. The historic limestone Memorial Chapel at 626 Scott Ave., Fort Leavenworth, would be constructed the next year and dedicated for service on Nov. 28, 1878.
The funeral for the five officers began at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon, Aug. 4. The presiding minister was Fort Leavenworth Post Chaplain Rev. John Woart. The services followed a long-established, formalized sequence typical of military and major civilian state funerals of the mid-19th century. Within the chapel, the five caskets were placed at the altar, each covered with an American flag. The principal mourners were Mrs. Margaret Calhoun, sister of Lt. Col. Custer, Capt. Tom Custer and Boston Custer, aunt of Autie Reed, and widow of Lt. James Calhoun; Lt. Frederick S. Calhoun, 14th U.S. Infantry, brother of Lt. James Calhoun, afforded leave from Fort Robinson, Neb., Territory to attend the funeral; Mrs. Charles F. Kendall of Topeka, cousin of Mrs. Elizabeth Custer, accompanied by her husband; Mrs. Algernon Smith, and Mrs. Yates. Gen. Sherman’s wife escorted the widows.
Rev. Woart began by reading the first part of the Episcopal protestant burial service. The caskets were then removed by military pallbearers, commissioned officers and enlisted men from the 23rd Infantry, and placed on five artillery caissons that had been positioned on Scott Avenue. While this was being done, the 23rd Infantry Band played “Pleyels Hymn.”
The procession of the five caskets then traveled from the Fort Leavenworth Chapel to the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, through the center of the post. The procession consisted of the 23rd Infantry Band; Capt. Charles Isley, serving as Marshal; two companies of the 23rd United States Infantry in dress uniforms, with arms reversed, commanded by Capt. Joseph T. Haskell, a Brevet Colonel for valor during the Civil War; the coffins of Calhoun, Tom Custer, Yates, Smith and McIntosh, each accompanied by their pallbearers, and trailed by a horse caparisoned in mourning and led by a cavalryman of the 7th Cavalry; 20 carriages containing the principal mourners, Gen. Pope, and distinguished visitors; and carriages of military mourners and guests from Fort Leavenworth and Leavenworth City.
The procession moved around the Parade Ground. Upon its arrival at the Parade Ground, the procession paused while the installation colors were lowered to half mast. From this point forward, a detachment of artillery at the National Cemetery fired minute guns in salute. The procession was accompanied by a crowd of 2,000 mourners. The coffins were aligned from north to south containing the remains of Calhoun, Tom Custer, Yates, Smith and McIntosh. The Rev. Woart then completed the burial ceremony, the coffins were solemnly lowered into the ground, and the graves festooned with decorations. Capt. Isley dropped the first flowers as the official representative of the 7th Cavalry.
The only break in long established tradition occurred when three volleys were fired by the companies of Infantry commanded by Capt. Haskell: “At the conclusion of the burial services at the graves, the troops … fired a salute of three volleys, each company loading with ball cartridge to show that if ever the occasion offers, they will not, with blank cartridges, avenge the deaths of their fallen officers and comrades in arms.”
Lt. Frederick Calhoun had been particularly close to his older brother, and he returned to his post from Fort Leavenworth on Aug. 7, embittered towards the Sioux Indians and particularly Crazy Horse, who he believed to be personally responsible for the loss of his brother. He wrote in early May 1877: “The massacre of the entire Indian race would not repay my loss of last summer.” In May 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered at the Red Cloud Indian Agency near Fort Robinson. Initially because of his duties at the Red Cloud Agency, and later as adjutant of Fort Robinson, Lt. Calhoun found himself having to interact on a regular basis with the man that he held directly responsible for the loss of his beloved brother. On Sept. 5, 1877, Lt. Calhoun transmitted the order for Crazy Horse to be turned over to the post Officer of the Day at the guardhouse, directly leading to a struggle in which Crazy Horse was mortally wounded by a bayonet-wielding guard. Lt. Calhoun gloated, “He was forgiven for murder, but killed for impudence.” The notes of Little Bighorn and Leavenworth were still echoing months later at Fort Robinson.
The U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, and Leavenworth City had fulfilled their sad, solemn duty to five of the more distinguished dead of the 7th Cavalry, symbolic of all the fallen heroes of that regiment. Lt. McIntosh’s remains would be moved in 1909 to Arlington National Cemetery to be closer to his family. The other four officers rest together to this date, alongside their comrades-in-arms and friends, at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. Since the afternoon of Aug. 4, 1877, Tom Custer’s grave has always been flanked by two small American flags, in recognition of the two Medals of Honor that he had won on the field of battle for his nation.