Pretty much everyone who has even the slightest interest in anything involving badass cowboy shit probably knows the tragic, bloody, and badass tale of United States Army Cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer. Long-haired, awesomely-mustached, and so ultra-confident of his unstoppable asskicking credentials that he could have had probably starred in his own over-the-top reality TV series, Custer graduated last in his class at West Point yet still went on to become the youngest General in the United States Army during the Civil War. Leading the 6th Michigan Cavalry (“Custer’s Wolverines”) on dozens of epic, daring saber charges straight-on into the teeth of Rebel cannons time and time again, this guy had unshakeable faith in his gigantic steel balls and glorious 80s hair metal blonde mane and (correctly) figured that there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot that he couldn’t solve by personally leading a death-defying charge aimed at killing hundreds of enemy riflemen with a fucking sword. Despite Custer’s lifetime of hardcore, balls-out heroism in engagements on blood-soaked fields from from Virginia to Montana, unfortunately nowadays he’s best known for becoming an overconfident primadonna and foolishly getting five companies of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry completely annihilated by thousands of Crazy Horse’s hardcore Sioux warriors at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
Well people usually put the apostrophe in the wrong place when they talk about the Custers’ Last Stand, among of the 268 men who fought to the death on the fields of Little Bighorn were two of George Armstrong Custer’s brothers as well as a nephew and a brother-in-law. And, as it turns out, despite all of his brazen heroics on the field of combat, George Armstrong isn’t even the most badass person in his nuclear family – that honor goes to his younger brother, Thomas Ward Custer. The United States Army’s first two-time Medal of Honor recipient and man so badass that his corpse at Little Bighorn was so fucked up from battle wounds that had to be identified by its tattoos – one of the Goddess Liberty, and another of the United States flag with his initials inscribed overtop of it.
In true badass fashion, Captain Thomas Ward Custer wasn’t found among the bodies of the soldiers in the company he commanded. He was found further up the hill, beside the body of his brother. It’s believed that he was the last man to survive his unit, and fought his way through the swirling melee of Sioux to die defending his family.
Thomas Ward Custer was born on March 15, 1845, in New Rumley, Ohio. He was six years younger than his significantly-more-famous brother, making him just 15 years old when the United States put out a call for men to come help Abe Lincoln kick the shit out of some uppity rebel Southerners. Even though Tom wouldn’t even be old enough to get into an R-rated movie today, he immediately rushed down to the local recruiting office, told the guy he was 16 (the minimum age to enlist in 1861), and tried to join up. Tom’s dad was like “fuck that” and put the kibosh on the underage enlistment, but on Tom’s sixteenth birthday he was right back in the same spot, enlisting as a Private in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Even though his bro was already riding around with bars on his shoulders as a Cavalry officer, Private Tom Custer was the first member of his family to see front-line combat in the American Civil War, when he participated in the capture of Nashville, Tennessee from rebel forces and out-of-control Elvis impersonators in February 1862. Fighting with the rank-and-file riflemen in the infantry Corps of ultra-badass Union General George Henry Thomas, Custer ramrodded his way into rebel forces, holding the line in a desperate defense against hordes of enemy forces at the Battle of Stones’ River on New Years’ Eve 1862. Thomas had given his men an appropriately-awesome pump-up speech, saying, “Gentlemen, I know no better place to die than right here,” yet despite repeated bayonet attacks and hand-to-hand combat that killed 159 men from his Regiment, Custer swung his rifle and stabbed with his bayonet and helped the Union hold the line in some of the toughest up-close-and-go-fuck-yourself fighting on the Western Front. A few months later he found himself in a similar situation at the Battle of Chickamauga, when he was part of a rag-tag group of Union soldiers who had been thrown together to fend off an attack that outnumbered them five-to-one and simultaneously hit them in the front and from both flanks, and later, in the Battle of Chattanooga, Custer and the 21st Ohio charged up a hill into Confederate rifle fire and participated in the decisive attack that broke Braxton Bragg’s Confederate forces in the West once and for all.
After taking part in basically every single major battle in the Western Theater of the Civil War and somehow clubbing his way through the fray despite routinely being outnumbered by impossible odds, Custer was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant and sent out to serve with his brother in the 6th Michigan Cavalry. Part of Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps, Tom and the Wolverines fought in some of the most decisive battles in the East at the end of the Civil War, cutting off Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Five Forks and Dinwiddie Courthouse. Armed with badass Spencer Repeating Rifles (one of the first rifles in history to use a magazine that could hold multiple bullets), the Custers rode hard into combat, hurtling through fields of gunfire with their sabers drawn, their pistols blazing, or their Spencers machine gunning into enemy lines.
It was in the final months of the war, at the Battle of Namozine Church in Virginia, that Tom Custer performed the towering act of heroic badassitude that would earn him his FIRST Medal of Honor. Lee’s forces had been defeated at Petersburg and were now on the run, and it was up to Sheridan’s cavalry to make sure they didn’t get away and regroup. The Wolverines were sent in to battle a brigade of Confederate cavalry, and the Custer brothers were right there on the forefront leaping their horses over obstacles and ripping off fire with their awesome six-shooters. Tom Custer, racing ahead of his unit, dove headlong into the enemy cavalry, swinging and hacking with this saber and firing his pistol point-blank into the enemy. Tom’s horse ended up being shot out from under him, but Tom proceeded to fight on foot, stabbing and shooting left and right as he raced towards the flag of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry.
To understand the importance of Tom Custer’s badassitude, it’s important to understand that unit flags were a really big fucking deal in ancient warfare. Back in the days before radios, HUDs, GPS satellites and helpful video game minimaps, the only way for your average soldier to know what the fuck was going on would be to have him look for the flag of his unit and make sure he was somewhat near it. If things went to hell and everyone was just running around beating the fuck out of each other, a trooper could scan the sky for his unit’s flag, and he’d know that he could run over there and he’d have a bunch of his buddies waiting to get his back. Also, unit flags in the Civil War were typically stitched by the women of the Regiment’s hometown, meaning that this thing might as well have been a bullet-riddled version of that one fancy old tablecloth your grandma made that you’re not allowed to fucking spill orange juice on for any reason ever.
Having your flag captured by the enemy was the greatest humiliation a Regiment could endure. Likewise, stealing one of these things from the enemy was the military equivalent of lining up the entire enemy regiment and kicking every single man square in the balls as hard as you can.
At the Battle of Namozine Church, Tom Custer, already wounded and thrown from his now-dead horse, sprinted into the fray on foot, killed a couple of the enemy with a sword and pistol, single-handedly captured the flag of the Second North Carolina, and took nearly a dozen men and officers prisoner by himself. For his actions, he received the Medal of Honor.
Three days later he did it again.
I don’t know how many people in U.S. history have received two Medals of Honor, but I think it’s less than a dozen. Thomas Ward Custer was the first. And he’s probably the only one to get both Medals in the same calendar week.
The second Medal came at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, the last engagement of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War, on April 6, 1865. The rebels were on the ropes, making a last desperate break to escape the Union vice, but the hard-riding Wolverines had cut off a large portion of Lee’s men and were eager to deal a final death blow to the Confederacy. Once again leading a daring cavalry charge, Thomas Ward Custer (still recovering from his wounds at Namozine Church!) raced ahead of his Company and jumped his horse over a barricade head-on into a line of Rebel infantrymen, completely ignoring the rifle fire and bayonets jamming up into his face. Shouting a rallying cry to his troops, he pulled two pistols and dual-wielded them from horseback, ripping off rounds in every direction like a goddamn berserker. When he saw a Sergeant trying to rally troops to his flag, Custer ran over and grabbed the flagpole. The Sergeant drew a pistol and shot Tom in the face, drilling him in the jaw with a fucking .44-caliber bullet at point-blank range, but a fucking bullet in the face only succeeded in making Custer even more righteously angry. Tom drilled the Sergeant with a bullet, wrenched the flag from the dying man’s hand, and then hopped his horse back over the barricade and galloped back to U.S. lines.
When he arrived, he handed the flag to his brother, then immediately turned to go back into the battle. George Armstrong was like, “Yo, bro, you fucking got shot in the face dude! You should probably get that checked out by a medic or some shit,” but Tom was like “Motherfucker I ain’t got time to bleed,” and George had to literally put him under arrest and have him restrained by three MPs in order to keep his brah from sprinting into combat with a bullet hole in his face.
After the Civil War, Thomas Ward Custer became a Captain in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry and joined his brother in the Indian Wars out West. He was shot in the hand by Sioux in 1868, participated in the Yellowstone Expedition in 1873, and fought on the front lines of the Black Hills Expedition in 1873. His ferocity in battle, unwillingness to back down from the enemy, and extensive collection of Washington Redskins memorabilia made him a much-hated foe to several Sioux chiefs, many of whom swore to avenge themselves on the man who was wreaking havoc on their forces.
They eventually got their chance on June 25, 1876, at the battle I discussed at the beginning of this article. Commanding Company C of the 7th Cavalry, 31 year-old Thomas Ward Custer valiantly died fighting back-to-back with his brother, Winchesters in hand, using their dead horses as cover from the circling enemy hordes. Surrounding their bodies were the corpses of 163 enemy warriors.