Thomas Ward Custer was born on March 15, 1845, at New Rumley, in eastern Ohio. He was the third of four sons of Emanuel Henry and Maria (Ward) Custer to survive childhood. Custer also had a younger sister and several half-siblings. His oldest brother was George Armstrong Custer, a graduate of the United States Military Academy and noted officer in the U.S. Army during and after the Civil War. Custer’s father was a farmer and blacksmith.
In 1849, the Custer family moved to a farm north of New Rumley. In 1860, they moved to Tontogany in northwestern Ohio. It was near there that Custer tried to enlist in the Union Army at sixteen years of age after the Civil War began. His father’s intervention with the recruiting officer thwarted Custer’s first attempt to enlist. Seeing his son’s determination, the father relented and did not object when Custer lied about his age and attempted to enlist a second time. On September 2, 1861, Custer joined the 21st Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry. On September 19, he mustered in at Camp Vance in Findlay, Ohio, as a private in Company H.
Service with the Army of the Ohio
Soon after Custer enlisted, the army armed and equipped the 21st OVI at Camp Dennison near Cincinnati, and then moved them to Northern Kentucky to take part in the Big Sandy Expedition—a Federal undertaking to thwart a Confederate incursion into the neutral state. For roughly the next year and a half, Custer and his unit campaigned in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama as part of the Army of the Ohio. During that time, Custer saw little combat until the Battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863).
Chickamauga and Chattanooga
In April 1863, officials assigned Custer to escort duty on the staff of division commander Major General James S. Negley. Custer served in that capacity at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). During the Chattanooga Campaign (October–November 1863), Custer served briefly on the staff of Major General U.S. Grant and saw action at the Battle of Missionary Ridge (November 25, 1863).
Early in 1864, Custer reenlisted in the army and officials promoted him to the rank of corporal. Following a furlough in February to attend the wedding of his brother, George A. Custer, he returned south to take part in the Atlanta Campaign. A short time later, Custer joined the staff of Major General John M. Palmer, commander of the 14th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. During the Atlanta Campaign, Custer took part in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27, 1864), and the Battle of Jonesborough (August 31–September 1, 1864).
After Union forces captured Atlanta in September 1864, Custer and the 14th Corps pursued Confederate General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee northwest during the Franklin-Nashville Campaign (September 18–December 27, 1864).
In late October 1864, Colonel James H. Kidd offered Custer a commission as a second lieutenant in the Michigan 6th Cavalry (at the behest of Kidd’s former brigade commander, and Thomas Custer’s older brother, General George Armstrong Custer). On October 3, the general wrote to Kidd offering his “sincere and heartfelt gratitude for this great favor.” Two weeks later, on October 23, 1864, Corporal Custer mustered out of the 21st Ohio. On November 8, 1864, Lieutenant Custer assumed his new appointment and promptly joined the staff of his brother who was commanding the 3rd Division of the Cavalry Corps of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah.
Two-time Congressional Medals of Honor Recipient
Although Thomas Custer served as a staff officer, he did not avoid combat. In March 1865, officials brevetted him to first lieutenant and cited him for bravery during the Battle of Waynesboro (March 2, 1865). Soon thereafter, portions of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah joined Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant near Petersburg, Virginia for the final push against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. At the end of March, Custer received a brevet promotion to captain for bravery during the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House (March 31, 1865). He received another brevet promotion to major just two days later for action during the Battle of Five Forks (April 1, 1865).
Custer’s reputation reached unprecedented heights during April and May 1865. On April 3, 1865, while leading a charge of the Second Brigade against a Confederate barricade during the Battle of Namozine Church, Custer personally captured the battle flag of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry. Three days later, during the Battle of Sailor’s Creek (April 6, 1865) a Confederate standard-bearer shot Custer through the cheek and neck as he captured the battle flag of the 2nd Virginia Reserve Battalion. On April 24, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presented Custer with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallantry at Namozine Church. A month later, Stanton presented Custer with a second Medal of Honor for his actions at Sailor’s Creek. Custer was the first U.S. serviceman to receive the Medal of Honor twice. He remains one of only twenty two-time recipients of the award.
Post-war Army Officer
While Custer recuperated from his wounds at Sailor’s Creek, Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant. As the war came to a halt, Custer remained in the volunteer army. He served in the South on Reconstruction duty until he mustered out of volunteer service in Detroit on December 31, 1865. In February 1866, army officials commissioned Custer as a second lieutenant in the regular army and assigned him to the 1st U.S. Infantry. On July 28, 1866, officials promoted him to first lieutenant and transferred him to the 7th Cavalry. Custer spent the next ten years with the 7th Cavalry campaigning against Native Americans in the West. On December 2, 1875, the army officials promoted Custer to captain and two weeks later they gave him command of Company C.
Death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn
On June 25–26, 1876, a combined force of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians engaged the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in south-central Montana. In a stunning victory, the Indian warriors killed 263 U.S. soldiers and attached personnel, including George and Thomas Custer, their younger brother, Boston (a civilian guide), and their brother-in-law, First Lieutenant James Calhoun.
Soldiers who discovered the massacre initially buried Custer’s badly mutilated body on the battlefield. In July 1877, army personnel exhumed Custer’s remains and re-interred them at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas on August 3, 1877.