The Little Big Horn Associates’ Research Review Magazine
When first becoming aware of our Minerd-Miner family’s connection with General George Armstrong Custer’s brother Tom, I was deeply moved by the fact that the general was not the only Custer to die at Little Bighorn. In fact four of his immediate relatives – two brothers, a brother in law and a nephew – also gave their lives on the field that fateful afternoon. It should have been an American tragedy for all time. Instead, at best, the story has been treated in American popular culture as a mere footnote.
The Little Big Horn Associates, a national organization devoted to promoting the exchange of knowledge on the life and times of the general and the battle, is changing that discourse. In fact, its Research Review Magazine has just published my article, “Speckled Legacy: Tom Custer in American Pop Culture.” The piece surveys the photographs, news and magazine articles, books, stage plays, and television and movie films which have influenced Americans’ limited perceptions of Tom.
The Custer disaster at Little Bighorn mirrors the epic story of the five Sullivan brothers whose dramatic tale is much better known. The siblings – George, Frank, Joe, Matt and Al – all perished together after their U.S. Navy cruiser, the Juneau, when torpedoed at Guadalcanal during World War II. Their saga was trumpeted nationwide in news stories and wire photos and even became a 1944 Hollywood film, The Fighting Sullivans, starring Anne Baxter and Thomas Mitchell. It led the U.S. War Department to bolster its rules about separating siblings in military service, known as the “Sole Survivor Policy.” And the policy was central to Steven Spielberg’s 1998 blockbuster film Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore.
Beyond his death at the Bighorn, Thomas Ward “Tom” Custer, younger brother of General George Armstrong Custer, made his mark on Americana in many ways – as a Civil War hero who won two Medals of Honor; as a brother-in-law who charmed the general’s wife Elizabeth “Libbie” (Bacon) Custer; and as a fighter for the U.S. Seventh Cavalry on the Great Plains during the Sioux Wars.
In death, Tom has not been ignored in American popular culture, but his presence has been more speckled and uneven. He just never has received his “big break” into the limelight until the dawn of the 21st century, and even then, the effect has been limited.
Tom could have been a posthumous folk hero. Perhaps the best known legends about him, which could have become larger story lines, are his feud with Chief Rain in the Face, who vowed to cut out and eat Tom’s heart (and may well have); the run-ins with lawman/gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok in Kansas; and his well-earned reputation as a heavy drinker and womanizer, including a sexual relationship with my own cousin, Rebecca Minerd.
In the most famous Custer film of all – They Died with Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland – Tom’s persona is noticeably absent. The film reportedly was Warner Bros.’ second biggest hit of 1941 and has inspired many to become interested in the Custer story. Despite intimate scenes where the general made important decisions, settled barroom brawls and planned for battle, where Tom could have played a meaningful big screen role, he was not written into the script.
Any legend typically has a core of truth which has staying power as it takes on new meanings and twists over time. A legend often requires that others, perhaps motivated to exploit the story to make money, add their own interpretation and shadows. All of these factor into Tom’s legacy. Some of what we know today bears little resemblance to actual facts, but the paper archaeology tracing the development and continuance of Tom-related stories in our culture’s mass media is fascinating and enhances our understanding.
It was not until 2002 – some 126 years after the Bighorn battle – that Tom’s story was featured in two full-length biographies. One was authored by Carl Day, Tom Custer: Ride to Glory. Roy Bird also published a lesser known biography about the same time, In His Brother’s Shadow, later re-issued under the title The Better Brother: Tom & George Custer and the Battle for the American West.
This study could not have been possible without early encouragement from Beverly (Hansen) Miner, Carl Day and the late Brian Pohanka, and over the years from LBHA friends Fr. Vincent Heier, the late Joan Croy, J. Jefferson “Jeff” Broome, the late John “Jack” Manion, the late W. Don Horn, Don Schwarck, Bill Serritella, Bruce Liddic, Lowell Smith and Vicki Trego Hill.