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Custer’s brothers and nephew rode with him to their doom

Custer’s brothers and nephew rode with him to their doom

Nearly a whole generation of Custers fell at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876.

By the end of the fight, which probably lasted no more than two hours, three of five Custer siblings lay dead on Last Stand Hill. An 18-year-old nephew, who had come to spend the summer romping on the plains, was killed near them. A brother-in-law died with his company a short distance across the ridge top.


Photos courtesy Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

1st Lt. James Calhoun, above, and Capt. Tom Custer, below, were among the Custer family members to die at the Battle of the Little Bighorn 125 years ago.

roster of the dead included Lt. Col. George A. Custer, 36, and his brothers Capt. Tom Custer, 31, and civilian guide Boston Custer, 27; their sister Margaret’s husband, 1st Lt. James Calhoun, 31; and nephew Autie Reed.

Of the Custer siblings, only brother Nevin, a farmer, and sister Margaret survived.

George’s wife, Libbie, and sister Margaret received word of their husbands’ deaths at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D., where the 7th Cavalry began its journey to Montana. When the troops rode out on May 17, the two women accompanied them the first day, returning to the fort in an ambulance after saying what would be their final good-byes.

George Custer liked to have his family around him, and saw to it that relatives and friends were placed under his command whenever he could. For his civilian brother, Boston, he secured high-paying jobs that kept him close.

It was a high-spirited group, and all its members clearly adored one another. But George Custer was not universally popular among other officers, who sometimes referred derisively to the clique as “the Custer gang.”

The Custer brothers were born in Monroe, Mich. George, the eldest, decided early on a military career. He graduated from West Point just in time for the Civil War. While he failed to impress his teachers at the U.S. Military Academy, his reputation on Civil War battlefields soared. By the age of 23, he received the field rank of general and was a favorite among the Union commanders running the war.

Tom couldn’t resist the call of battle, either, and was soon enlisted in the Union army. George arranged for Tom to be assigned to his command, and from that time until the Little Bighorn 12 years later, they were together almost continually.

Tom did as well as his older brother in the annals of Civil War glory. He won two Medals of Honor four days apart on Virginia battlefields. The first was earned April 2, 1865, for the capture of a Confederate battle flag at Namozine Church. The second was awarded for action at Sayler’s Creek on April 6, 1865. He leaped over enemy defenses and captured another battle flag. His horse was shot from under him and he received a gunshot wound to the cheek. The bullet passed through and exited his neck. He intended to continue the battle, but his brother put him under arrest and sent him to the rear for medical treatment.

When the Civil War ended, George obtained a commission for Tom and both were eventually assigned to the 7th Cavalry. The 7th brought them to Fort Abraham Lincoln, where they spent their last two years together.

Boston Custer was at the fort by 1874, and probably lived in the spacious house built for his brother George, the post commander, according to Neil Mangum, superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield. Boston was hired as a civilian forage master at a wage of $75 a month. At the time, enlisted men were paid $13 a month. Just before the march to the Little Bighorn, Boston received a new position as a civilian guide, a job for which he probably was not even marginally qualified. His salary increased to $100 a month.

Autie Reed apparently was along under the guise of a herder, but was really there just to enjoy the summer campaign with his uncles. George Custer had been in Washington, D.C., in early May, and on his way back to Fort Abraham Lincoln, he stopped in Monroe to pick up Autie and Autie’s sister, Emma Reed.

When the 7th was dispatched to Montana in an effort to get Sioux and Cheyenne back to their reservations, the Custers did not anticipate a fight to the death. They probably assumed that most of the time would be spent pleasurably together on an adventurous excursion across the West. There was little reason to believe that the tribes had formed a powerful alliance intent on resisting attempts to corral them into reservations.

Tom was

today in history June 22, 1876 — Expedition commander Gen. Alfred Terry writes Custer his final orders, which appear to give him a free hand once he’s located the Sioux and Cheyenne village. About noon, the 7th Cavalry passes in review before Custer and Terry. Then they head up the Rosebud eager for action.

captain of Company C and Calhoun was on duty with Company L. Boston was at his post with the pack train when the first shots of the engagement were heard. He left the pack train and rushed to be with his brothers. That decision cost him his life. Most of those with the pack train survived a fierce standoff with the Sioux and Cheyenne a few miles away from where the Custer family and five companies of the 7th Cavalry died.

When the burial detail began its work three days later, all of the dead were buried as best could be managed by soldiers who had no tools to dig in what Gen. Edward Godfrey described as “hard, dry ground.”

According to Godfrey’s account, George Custer had been shot in the left temple and left breast, but was not mutilated in any way. Tom, who died nearby, got the worst of it. His corpse was so badly disfigured that identification was made by his initials, T.W.C., and the goddess of liberty tattooed on his arm.

Boston and Autie were found together a short distance away. Both had been shot several times and Boston’s body had some signs of mutilation.

A member of the burial detail reported that Tom and George were buried together in a grave 15 to 18 inches deep. The bodies were covered with pieces of blankets and tents. Large stones were placed over the grave to protect it from wolves.

There the family lay together for about a year, until their bodies were exhumed and buried all over the country. George Custer was reburied at West Point. Tom and James Calhoun were interred at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas. Autie and Boston got new graves near the family home in Monroe.

Tom and Boston had never married, and Custer had no known offspring.

Read more

Sunday:The Custer connection endures in Big Horn County.

Amazing disaster resonates still, especially in Big Horn County

Britons follow Little Bighorn history

Hollywood star set the hook for historiansMonday:The Battle of the Rosebud was a prelude to disaster a few days later.Tuesday:Did Custer’s dazzling success in the Civil War contribute to bad decisions later?Wednesday:After the battle, the Army pursues Sitting Bull’s SiouxThursday:A look at the legacy left for the Crow and Arikara scouts and their families.Today: Four of Custer’s relatives went to the grave with him on that fateful day in 1876.

Saturday: Bismarck was where the news of the battle broke. A look at some living links to the place.

Sunday: What does the future hold for the battlefield monument?


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