A Zeal for Glory

 

Tom was young when the war broke out, too young to legally enlist. He lied about his age and enlisted as a private soldier anyway. He spent the first years of the war as a private, and then mustered out after three years as a corporal. By that time, Tom was old enough to join the army legally.

His eldest brother had gone to the United States Military Academy at West Point and managed to graduate just as the war was heating up and get a commission as an officer. The eldest brother had done fairly well for himself, well enough and with enough promotions that he could have an aide-de-camp. Tom was commissioned a second lieutenant and became one of his brother’s aides. By this time, it was 1864. Lincoln had finally gotten a general who fights, and some of the hardest fighting of the war was still before them.


Throughout military history, units have always had some sort of standard or “colors,” a flag. The Romans had their eagle standards. The purpose of such devices is three-fold:

  1. They serve as a visual signal in the confusion of battle.

  2. They can serve as a rallying point.
  3. They can preserve the history of the organization through various means, such as adding campaign ribbons or sewing the names of battles onto flags, as you can see here.

Flags help us remember service and sacrifice of Civil War ...

Losing the regimental colors or other such devices was considered a very bad thing. The person charged with carrying the colors was often told, “Don’t lose them while you’re alive.” It was generally considered a high honor to be given charge of the colors. In the old British army, they had had a specific rank for a young officer who would be in charge of the regimental colors: ensign. The name itself had meant he would carry the ensign/flag/colors/insignia. It was a great dishonor to lose one’s organization’s colors.

Conversely, it was considered glorious to be the one to take the colors of the other army.


Tom really shone right near the end of the war. It was during a week in early April, 1865. The war would officially end on May 9th, so just over a month later. Lee would surrender on April 9th, and it was in that final push that led to Lee’s surrender that Tom made history. There were many battles and skirmishes in that final week of Lee’s army. On April 3rd, there was a battle called the Battle of Namozine Church. Namozine is in central eastern Virginia. Tom joined the Federal troops in their charge and leapt his horse over the Confederate barricades. The Confederate forces had been firing at him, but now that he was in among them, they were a bit confused and fell back. Tom spotted their color bearer, went straight for him, grabbed the flag away, and then demanded the Confederates around him surrender. Fourteen men did surrender. He took them back behind Federal lines and requisitioned another horse, since his had been shot during the attack.

Capturing the colors and men of the Second North Carolina Cavalry earned Tom a Medal of Honor, the highest medal the United States of America bestows.

But the war was not done. Three days later, there was the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. Once again, the Federal troops charged, and Tom was right in the thick of it. Again, under fire, he leapt his horse over the Confederate barricades, firing his pistol to scatter the enemy. He saw the Confederates trying to form a new battle line and spotted the color bearer they were forming on. Tom charged forward, receiving a bullet to the face that knocked him back on his horse. He managed to straighten back up, shoot the color bearer through the heart, and grab the colors. Holding the flag aloft, Tom rode back to the Federal lines. Another officer shouted for him to “Furl that flag!” so he didn’t get shot by Federal troops. He didn’t either one, furl the flag or get shot by his own side. He just kept riding to where his brother’s flag was. He handed over the Confederate flag and said to his brother, “The damned Rebels shot me, but I’ve got my flag.” Tom turned back to rejoin the battle, but his brother stopped him to send him to get his wound treated. Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. Tom didn’t want to bother and thought that he had a fight to get back to, so his brother had to have men arrest Tom to get him to report to the surgeon.

That day, April 6th, 1865, Tom earned his second Medal of Honor, only three days after his first. Since 1861 when the Medal of Honor was created, there have been 3,520 awarded, and that includes only nineteen people in more than a hundred-fifty years who have earned a second Medal of Honor. Tom was the first of these. That is Tom’s claim to history. At the time, Tom was less than a month beyond his twentieth birthday.

Tom went on to continue his career as an officer in the United States Army until his death at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, in which his elder brother George Armstrong Custer and a younger brother, Boston Custer—who was a civilian contractor—also died.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.

There are 14 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the October theme of Zeal.

    In November, our theme will be Elimination. Group Writing was created to help allow more members to feel comfortable writing on Ricochet. Not everyone can write deeply on political issues, but we all face the same issues of being human. Each month a theme is chosen, and members can sign up for a date and make their contribution by starting a conversation. The themes are chosen to be very broad and allow people to find their memories, their rants, and their voice in sharing their lives with us. In November, if you have ever been eliminated, eliminated something from your life, or intend to do so, perhaps you might consider visiting our schedule and sign-up sheet. Don’t be shy now. It’s why we’re here. We want to hear from you. We want you to start a conversation.

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The concept is very old indeed. Each Roman legion had an aquila, or eagle that was considered sacred to that legion. The Romans would go to extraordinary lengths to regain lost standards. In one battle, when a legion’s morale was flagging, the Roman leader threw the aquila into the midst of the enemy and told his men to get it back. They did. (That sounds like a Caesar move, but I can’t remember which battle.)

    • #2
  3. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Outstanding.  Thanks ‘Hant.

    Arahant: a younger brother, Boston Custer—who was a civilian contractor—also died.

    The contractors always get schwacked…

    • #3
  4. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Outstanding. Thanks ‘Hant.

    Arahant: a younger brother, Boston Custer—who was a civilian contractor—also died.

    The contractors always get schwacked…

    Well, they’re slimy, so… :)

    • #4
  5. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Crazy. Way crazy.

    • #5
  6. Mole-eye Inactive
    Mole-eye
    @Moleeye

    At the other end of the seriousness spectrum, here is a story from a friend from law school:

    “Sam” (name changed to protect the guilty) was doing his ROTC “summer camp”.  War games were scheduled and Sam was on the red team.   A day or two before the games were scheduled to begin, he went to the office where the guidons were stored, gave a snappy salute and in his most officious manner announced that he was there to take the guidons to be cleaned.  (Guidons are narrow triangular flags like sports pennants.)   All the guidons, red and blue, were turned over to him.

    The morning games were to commence, red team fell out in good order, proudly holding all of the blue guidons, as well as their own red ones. 

    Any wonder why my friend Sam became a lawyer?

     

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Mole-eye (View Comment):
    At the other end of the seriousness spectrum, here is a story from a friend from law school:

    I love it.

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Battle flag of the 1st Kansas Infantry (Colored) – The regiment that won the Battle of Honey Springs

    Adopted from African American Soldier in the Civil War: USCT 1862–66by Mark Lardas:

    On July 17, 186w (On the same day that the 54th Massachusetts was being repulsed at Battery Wagner – as depicted in the movie Glory) the 1st Kansas Infantry (Colored) was contributing to the greatest Union victory of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, at Honey Springs in the Indian Territory.  The 1st Kansas (Colored) was probably the best trained unit on either side.  It had been raised in late 1862, from runaway slaves from Missouri. Due to politics, and a mistrust of the reliability of blacks, it was not committed to service until early summer of 1863.

    Placed in the center of the Union line, exposed to enemy fire, the men were ordered to lie down in the tall grass.  The officers remained standing to direct the battle, and several were injured.  When a Union Indian Cavalry regiment, held in reserve behind their line began redeploying, the Confederates assumed the Union was retreating.  Anxious to destroy the Yankees, the Confederates, a mixed force of Texas and Confederate Indian cavalry regiments charged.

    As the charge began the 1st Kansas, on orders from their officers, stood.  They then fired three volleys in quick succession that shredded the charging cavalry.  The color guard, a picked force of NCO guarded the regimental colors seen above.  The flag still exists and is on display in the Kansas State Capitol, with many more battle honors than it had on July 17th 1863.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Outstanding. Thanks ‘Hant.

    Arahant: a younger brother, Boston Custer—who was a civilian contractor—also died.

    The contractors always get schwacked…

    There was one more semi-Custer, their nephew through a sister, who was with Boston. He also died at the Little Bighorn.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Battle flag of the 1st Kansas Infantry (Colored) – The regiment that won the Battle of Honey Springs

    I chose the picture I did for a reason. The 6th Michigan Cavalry was the unit Tom was commissioned into as a second lieutenant, and of course, that G. A. Custer was leading at that time in 1864.

    • #10
  11. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I chose the picture I did for a reason. The 6th Michigan Cavalry was the unit Tom was commissioned into as a second lieutenant, and of course, that G. A. Custer was leading at that time in 1864.

    I figured as much. But I couldn’t resist adding another battle flag.

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I chose the picture I did for a reason. The 6th Michigan Cavalry was the unit Tom was commissioned into as a second lieutenant, and of course, that G. A. Custer was leading at that time in 1864.

    I figured as much. But I couldn’t resist adding another battle flag.

    I was actually looking for either of the flags T. W. Custer captured, but came up blank on those.

    • #12
  13. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I chose the picture I did for a reason. The 6th Michigan Cavalry was the unit Tom was commissioned into as a second lieutenant, and of course, that G. A. Custer was leading at that time in 1864.

    I figured as much. But I couldn’t resist adding another battle flag.

    I was actually looking for either of the flags T. W. Custer captured, but came up blank on those.

    He probably took them home with him after the war.

    • #13
  14. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    The Medal of Honor was a lot easier to win in the Civil war than it was in, say, WWII.

    • #14

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