Saturday, January 19, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Saturday, Jan. 18, 1862

Marching with (a) Custer

Nineteen-year-old Pvt. Liberty Warner of Company H, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, keeps up a steady correspondence with the folks at home in Tontogany, a farm village in northwest Ohio. Like other soldiers, he yearns for letters from home, and to encourage responses, he sometimes resorts to crude sketches to fill out his own epistles.

Sometime this month (Liberty occasionally loses track of dates) he fills out a letter to his brother listing fellow occupants of his tent, complete with a diagram of where in the tent the 12 men slept. The 12 men constitute a “mess” or grouping for feeding purposes. All the members of this mess are from Tontogany; all are members of Company H.

They occupy a Sibley Tent, a conical structure resembling a large wigwam. A single pole in the center holds it up, and guy ropes about two feet apart around the perimeter steady it. Arrayed in a clock-like circle, the men sleep two to a bunk, feet to the center of the tent. Crowded into the tent with them are a gun rack, a “dish box” for eating utensils, and various tools. (Warner doesn’t include it in his diagram, but there’s a stove in there somewhere. Keeping stoves like Warner’s fed always causes the denuding of areas around army camps: not only trees, but wooden structures are apt to disappear.)

After the war, the surviving members of this mess can look back on the time they were only two degrees of separation from one of the most famous and flamboyant figures in the war, and, after the Battle of Little Big Horn, one of the most famous figures in the Indian wars.

One of the 12 men from Tontogany is Thomas Ward (“Tom”) Custer, younger brother of none other than George Armstrong Custer. Born in eastern Ohio, the Custer family came to Tontogany in 1860. George graduated from West Point in 1861, entered the war immediately, and, for his remarkable leadership skills, in June 1863 will be named brigadier general, age 23. Thanks to demerits for his conduct, he had graduated last in his class at West Point, but he will become one of the war’s most outstanding cavalry commanders.

Tom Custer entered the war as a mere private but in late 1864 will join his brother’s staff as an aide, with the rank of lieutenant. (Lt. Tom Custer, is pictured above, standing behind brother George and his wife, Libbie.) A daring fighter, Tom will win two Medals of Honor and repeated promotions. An admiring George will say of him, “Tom should have been the general and I the lieutenant.” Tom and another Custer brother will die with George at Little Big Horn.

ELSEWHERE IN THE CIVIL WAR: Cooped up in winter quarters in western Virginia, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes complains to his diary, “How impatiently we look for action on Green River [and] at Cairo.” Green River lies within Don Carlos Buell’s command in Kentucky; Cairo refers to Brig. Gen. Ulysses s. Grant’s command further west. Both commands will see action soon, first of all in Kentucky, where Union forces under Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas are approaching Confederates in the vicinity of Mill Springs.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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