- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

The idea of rewarding the nation's fighting men for battlefield gallantry was conceived by Gen. George Washington in 1782. The honor, known as the Badge of Military Merit, was issued to only three soldiers, and interest in an award waned until the early stages of the Civil War.

On Dec. 21, 1861, President Lincoln signed into law Public Resolution 82 that provided for a Navy Medal of Valor. On July 12, 1862, a similar measure awarded a Medal of Honor to the Army and became a permanent decoration by Congress in 1863.

One Medal of Honor winner not prominent in the history of the war although his last name was is Tom Custer. He was the younger brother of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, the flamboyant Civil War cavalryman. In the shadow of this legendary figure was his brother, Tom, who not only received the distinguished award but was the only Civil War soldier to be twice awarded the high commendation for bravery.

Thomas Ward Custer was born March 15, 1845, in New Rumley, Ohio. In September 1861, he enlisted in the 21st Ohio Regiment, a thin, blue-eyed, sandy-haired private. Later in the war, he transferred to the 6th Michigan Cavalry as a second lieutenant, which put him on the staff of his older brother, George, who commanded the Michigan Cavalry Division.

On April 2, 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant forced what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia out of the trenches at Petersburg, with Custer's division leading the relentless pursuit. The next day, George Custer's troops brought a force of the retreating Rebels to bay just south of the Appomattox River. Here, near Namozine Church, Tom Custer spurred his horse over the works and captured a dozen Confederates along with the colors action that earned him his first Medal of Honor.

On April 6, along Sayler's Creek, retreating Southern soldiers fought desperately, refusing to give in. Once again, Tom Custer pushed his mount across breastworks, grabbing the flag while ordering the ragged enemy to surrender. His horse was shot, and another bullet grazed is own neck and cheek. Bloodied, he fired his pistol and killed the Rebel who wounded him. He then escaped, with the Confederate colors flowing in the breeze.

For this, Tom Custer received a second Medal of Honor. George Custer, in a letter home, expressed admiration for his brother: "Of all my staff officers he is the quickest in perceiving at a glance the exact state of things. I am as proud of him as I can be, as soldier, brother."

Eleven years later, on June 25, 1876, George Custer and 261 of his command were killed by the Sioux in the Valley of the Little Big Horn. In tall, bloody buffalo grass, the mutilated body of Capt. Tom Custer was found near the side of his famous brother.


Another of those lesser-known recipients of the Medal of Honor was also the youngest to receive it. He carried a drum rather than a gun.

The minimum age was 18 for volunteers to fill the ranks of the Army. Thousands, however, served under age, and William Johnston of Vermont was one of them. The old song, "Willie Has Gone to War" was written about this 12-year-old.

Born in upstate New York in 1850, Willie Johnston at an early age moved with his family to the area of St. Johnsbury, Vt. Living in a state known for producing good fighting men, 12-year-old Johnston, with his father's permission, enlisted in the 3rd Vermont Infantry as a drummer boy on May 1, 1862. During the Civil War, these young drummers performed the important function of "timekeepers" for each company, sounding their drums to call the ranks together for drill, march and other major movements.

Soon after enlisting, Willie carried his drum in Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, including the battles known as the Seven Days. Through unforgiving swamps and thick Virginia pines, the drummer boy from Vermont pressed on while escaping shot and shrapnel. McClellan's Army of the Potomac approached so close to Richmond that his soldiers could see the church spires. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, however, drove "Little Mac's" army from the gates of the Rebel capital.

Along the retreat, the 3rd Vermont acted as rear guard and engaged in some of the heaviest fighting at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862. Finally, the Army of the Potomac reached Harrison's Landing, finding safety under cover of federal gunboats on the James River. There, it was discovered that Willie had refused to let his drum fall into enemy hands. He was the only drummer still clinging to his drum; all others and much equipment had been discarded along the disorganized retreat.

For his endeavor, Willie was given the privilege of drumming for the divisional parade. When word of his courage reached Washington, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton personally awarded him the medal. Then 13, he was the youngest of the 30 individuals under age 17 who received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.

Historians believe that after the war the Johnston family moved west, possibly to Colorado. Willie's date of death and place of burial are unknown.

Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and a longtime relic hunter and collector who has written widely on the topic and the Civil War.

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