On April 12, 1861, fighting began in the Civil War when Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. In September of that year, 16-year-old Thomas Ward enlisted in the Union Army and became a private in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Thomas, who was underage by almost two years, lied about his age to enlist. Thomas took part in several battles in Georgia and Tennessee before he was sent to perform escort duties for generals including General Ulysses S. Grant.
In October 1864, Thomas reenlisted and was promoted to second lieutenant with the 6th Michigan cavalry where he served as aide-de-camp to the cavalry’s general. Between June 1864 and April 1865, Union and Confederate soldiers struggled for control of Petersburg, Virginia. Petersburg was strategically important because several rail lines connected at the city, and because numerous wagon roads which were used as supply lines met at a junction known as Five Forks. The final conflict in the fight for Petersburg was at Five Forks.
On April 3, 1865, Thomas took part in the Battle of Namozine Church. During the fight, Union soldiers charged Confederate barricades. While being fired upon by the Confederate soldiers, Thomas and his horse jumped one of the barricades. An enemy bullet struck his horse, but Thomas was unharmed. The Confederates were surprised by his bold action and fell back in confusion. A short distance away, Thomas saw the confused flag bearer. He spurred his horse and headed straight for the frightened flag bearer. Rather than attacking the flag bearer, he grabbed the flag of the Second North Carolina cavalry. Capturing the battle flag was demoralizing to the already confused soldiers. In addition to capturing the battle flag, Thomas took three officers and eleven enlisted men as prisoners.
Three days later, Thomas fought in the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. Similar to his actions in the Battle of Namozine Church, Thomas had his horse jump the enemy barricade while being fired upon. This time, however, Confederate soldiers surrounded Thomas and his horse. Without a moment’s hesitation, Thomas began firing his pistol on both sides of his horse. The Confederate soldiers scattered. In the confusion, Thomas saw the flag bearer and charged toward him. As he approached the flag bearer, a shot struck Thomas in his jaw under his right ear. The force of the shot knocked him back in his saddle. Thomas righted himself, grabbed the flag from the flag bearer with one hand, and fired a pistol shot into the chest of the flag bearer with the other. Thomas returned to the Union line waving the captured battle flag. He handed the flag to an aide and turned his horse to return to the battle. His commanding general saw Thomas’s bleeding wound and ordered him to report to the surgeon. When Thomas ignored the order, the general had Thomas arrested and sent to the rear of the line for medical attention. Luckily, Thomas’s injury was not serious.
In April 1865, Union soldiers presented 85 captured Confederate battle flags to the War Department. Of the 85 flags presented, Thomas presented the two flags that he had personally captured. For his bold actions in these two battles, Thomas became the first solider in American history and the only Federal soldier in the Civil War to be awarded two Medals of Honor.
Following the Civil War, Thomas continued to serve in the Union Army as aide-de-camp to the same superior officer he had served under during the Civil War. For the next 11 years, Thomas fought in the conflict known as the Indian Wars. On June 25, 1876, Thomas was among the soldiers who fought against various tribes of Plains Indians in the Battle of the Greasy Grass. During the battle, the Plains Indians completely destroyed the five companies of American soldiers. Thomas’s body was so badly mutilated that he could only be identified by a tattoo on his arm. Also killed in the battle were two of Thomas’s brothers and his nephew.
Few people remember Thomas because he was overshadowed, even in death, by his older brother. Thomas Ward, the first man in American history to be awarded two Medals of Honor, who died in the same battle as his famous brother, had a famous last name… Custer. Thomas Ward Custer, the younger brother of George Armstrong Custer, died in what the Indians call the Battle of the Greasy Grass. History books refer to it as the Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand.
1. Detroit Free Press, April 28, 1865, p.1.
2. The New York Times, July 7, 1876, p.1.
3. Katie Lange, U.S. Department of Defense, “Medal of Honor Monday: Army Capt. Thomas Custer,” January 27, 2020, accessed November 5, 2023. https://www.defense.gov/News/
4. National Park Service, “Capt. Tom Custer,” accessed November 5, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/libi/
5. National Park Service, “Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer,” Accesssed November 5, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/libi/
6. National Park Service, “Virginia: Petersburg National Battlefield,” accessed November 5, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/articles/