A Second Medal of Honor: Thomas Ward Custer at Sailor’s Creek

George Armstrong Custer (left), his brother, Thomas W. Custer and wife, Libbie. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
George Armstrong Custer (left), his brother, Thomas W. Custer and wife, Libbie. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene about to play out was one that had become all too familiar in recent days. Union cavalry squadrons were preparing to assault an enemy position. An artillerist recalled that it was “the grandest sight he had ever witnessed.” With bugles blaring, the blue troopers quickened their pace from a trot to a gallop, bearing down on the Confederate infantry. As the pace quickened, a young staff officer rode to the front of Col. Henry Capehart’s brigade. Taking a position alongside Capehart, he was determined not to miss out on the coming fight.



While his older brother, George Armstrong began the American Civil War as a Second Lieutenant fresh out of West Point, Thomas Ward Custer enlisted as a private on September 2, 1861 in the 21st Ohio Infantry. He would fight at the Battle of Stones’ River. While Armstrong Custer distinguished himself on the battlefields of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, his younger brother served on escort duty for Generals James Negley, and George Thomas, among others.

Through the efforts of Armstrong, now a Brevet Major General and head of the Third Cavalry Division, Tom was mustered out on October 23, 1864, in order to receive a commission as Second Lieutenant in the 6th Michigan Cavalry. Traveling to Virginia, Armstrong appointed Tom as an aide-de-camp on his staff in November. He would see his first action in the Eastern Theater at Waynesboro in March, 1865, during Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s march to rejoin the Union armies besieging Richmond and Petersburg. The return of Sheridan’s troopers and the onset of spring prompted Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to launch an offensive to cut off the final rail line leading into Petersburg.

Tom fought at the Battle of Five Forks, where Sheridan and the V Corps from the Army of the Potomac captured the Southside Railroad. With this railroad firmly in Federal hands, Grant launched an all-out assault the following morning. This massive attack succeeded in breaking Robert E. Lee’s lines at Petersburg and forcing the evacuation of Richmond.

Lee pointed his columns west in an effort to not only outdistance the Yankees but to obtain supplies for his men. On April 3, Custer’s pursuing division tangled with Confederate cavalry near Namozine Church. The elder Custer would write to his wife Libbie afterwards that “God has blessed us with victory…Tom in the most gallant manner…captured the battle flag of the Second North Carolina Cavalry…he will go to Washington with his captured flag when the trophies are sent there. He will receive thirty days leave and a Medal of Honor.” These words would be prophetic. One month later, Thomas Ward Custer would receive the Medal of Honor. Armstrong could not have known it then, but just a few days later his little brother would once again distinguish himself in battle.

Three days after Namozine Church, the Third Cavalry Division, along with the rest of the Army of the Shenandoah caught up with the Confederate infantry as they were attempting to cross Sailor’s Creek, just east of Farmville. In the ensuing battle, as the VI Corps pressed Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s infantry along Little Sailor’s Creek, Custer’s troopers attacked Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s entrenched division to the south. As the Federals mounted a charge against Anderson, Tom accompanied Henry Capehart’s brigade into the fight. Spurring his horse over the enemy works, Tom engaged the gray infantry. Spotting another battle flag, he attacked the color bearer. In the melee, the Rebel shot him in the face, only to be shot dead seconds later by a round from Tom’s pistol. Snatching the flag, he rode toward the rear, delighted with this conquest.

Armstrong Custer, however, was not as happy as Tom. Shaken by the site of blood streaming from his little brother’s face, Armstrong placed his aide under arrest so as to keep him out of the remainder of the engagement. Sailor’s Creek would prove to be Tom’s final battle. Incapacitated, he was sent to City Point on the James River for treatment. He would miss Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Any disappointment he may have felt over not being present would be assuaged the following month. On May 26, twenty three days after he received his first Medal of Honor, Tom would receive his second for capturing the Confederate battle flag at Sailor’s Creek.

On July 27, 1866, Tom received an appointment as First Lieutenant in the newly formed Seventh United States Cavalry, in which Armstrong was the Lieutenant Colonel. Although Tom would move from company to company over the next several years, he would fight at the Washita River in November 1868 and participate in the Seventh’s 1873 Yellowstone and 1874 Black Hills Expeditions. On December 2, 1875, he would be appointed Captain of Company C. The following spring, he would be back on Armstrong’s staff as an aide-de-camp for the summer campaign of 1876 against the Sioux. That campaign would end for both men atop a high knoll overlooking the Little Big Horn River in southeastern Montana on June 25, 1876. Tom’s body would later be found several yards away from Armstrong and the two would be interred within close proximity of each other. The following year, Tom’s body was disinterred and reburied in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.

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