The Better Brother: Tom & George Custer and the Battle for the American West
by Roy Bird, Turner Publishing, Nashville, Tenn., 2011, $19.95.
At the Little Bighorn and elsewhere, “General” (actually Lt. Col.) George Armstrong Custer has long overshadowed his little brother Tom. Five years George’s junior and late in acquiring the sense of purpose that drove George to West Point, Thomas Ward Custer sometimes resented but always felt a closeness to George that set their paths on almost parallel courses. Along the way Tom managed to achieve feats even George would admire, most notably earning not one but two Medals of Honor within four days during the last week of the Civil War in Virginia. He also became associated, albeit to a less certain degree, with gunslinger James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok and Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face.
In The Better Brother, Kansas-based historian Roy Bird draws on years of research to bring Tom Custer to the fore. He is only partially successful, however, for the unavoidable reason that it is all but impossible to tell Tom’s story, in however much detail as is available, without doing so in the context of George’s. George even intrudes on Tom’s second Medal of Honor moment, albeit in a way that is described in rousing and darkly humorous enough a manner to look at home in a John Ford film.
Bird’s narrative is somewhat muddied by occasional repetition of his points and by his inclusion of whatever supporting or refuting material he could find, including passages from historical novels. His efforts to discern fact from fiction sometimes confuse the two until he reaches his ultimate conclusions, which often leave legends, such as Tom’s run-in with Hickok, looking almost disappointingly prosaic. Bird’s look into the Custer brothers’ sexual shenanigans is a case in point, as he speculates on who may have done what to whom, leaving much to speculation, save for Tom coming off as the more wayward.
It was fascinating, however, to read two quotes the author compiled regarding Rain-in-the-Face’s alleged fulfillment of his vow to cut out Tom Custer’s heart at the Little Bighorn—one made while plied with drink by sensation-seeking journalists in 1894, and one more soberly stated 10 years later. Although the old Lakota had by then resigned himself to white men believing whatever they wished, Bird’s luridly detailed description of Tom’s fate as the most mutilated corpse found on the battlefield reveals that about the only organ not cut out of him was his heart. So much, it seems, for “Rain-in-the-Face’s revenge.”
Tom Custer did much in his life that stands on its own merits, and he deserves to have his own story told. Until the inevitable emergence of still more documentation, The Better Brother suffices to give him at least some of his due.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.