Two Medals of Honor

| October 16, 2019

History is everyone’s story. This week’s history comes from Mason.

Since I highlighted last week those who have received the United Kingdom’s highest honor, the Victoria Cross, twice, I think it’s only fitting I now explore some of the Americans who have received two Medals of Honor, our highest award.

This will be a multi-part series, as there have been 19 men awarded two Medals of Honor. I’ll explore dual recipients, but I am putting some restrictions on it. I will not be going over those who received both the Army and Navy Medals of Honor (two distinct awards) for the same action. Five men received both awards for the same act during World War I. Similarly, I’ll not be looking at peacetime recipients, of which there are four who received two Medals of Honor with both being for peacetime actions. This whittles our list of 19 down to ten.

In this first installment, we’ll be looking at the first three dual recipients, for which their acts of bravery all took place during the Civil War.

Only three men received two MoHs for actions during the Civil War. The very first man to receive two had a very familiar name.

Thomas Custer, younger brother of George Armstrong Custer and older brother of Boston Custer, would repeatedly distinguish himself in battle during the Civil War. All three men would much later die together in battle at the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn during the Indian Wars.

Enlisting with the Union Army at age 16 in 1861, Thomas Custer saw action early in the Civil War with the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry including the Battles of Stones River, Missionary Ridge, and in the Atlanta Campaign. He left the 21st Ohio Volunteers in 1864 and was a corporal when he mustered out.

He soon enlisted with his brother George’s unit, the 6th Michigan Cavalry. Serving as his brother’s aide, he was commissioned a second lieutenant upon his enlistment. By this point, George Custer, despite having graduated dead last in his West Point class in 1861, had earned several brevet promotions for gallant conduct during the war. By the time he was joined by Thomas in the 6th Michigan Cavalry, George was simultaneously a substantive captain in the US Army, a brevet colonel in the US Army, and a brevet major general in the US Volunteers.

Only 20 years old at the conclusion of the war, Thomas Custer had also been given brevet promotions for brave and distinguished service. He had been breveted to captain, major, and finally lieutenant colonel. At the time this was a high honor as the MoH was the only medal of the US military. Brevet promotions such as his were for battlefield bravery not rising to the level befitting a MoH or for distinguished and meritorious service.

Both of Thomas Custer’s awards of the Medal of Honor were for capturing the regimental flags of Confederate units. As with a Roman legion’s aquila, the regimental flags were sacred symbols of a unit’s honor. Under the din of battle these standards were how the soldiers on the ground were directed. As the battle flag would move forward or back, so would they. As such,

the capture and the dropping of the colors could turn the tide of a battle. Capturing one was a significant honor for the man and unit capturing it and a major disgrace for the unit losing it.

The first such instance of Thomas capturing one was on April 3rd, 1865 at the Battle of Namozine Church in Namozine, Virginia. As part of the Union forces charging the Confederate lines, Thomas Custer was atop his horse and used it to leap a barricade while under heavy enemy fire. The Confederates of the Second North Carolina Cavalry behind the revetment were taken aback in confusion. Using this to his advantage Custer saw the color bearer. Racing to the man, Custer seized the Confederates’ colors. Holding them aloft he demanded the men surrender.

Custer took three officers and 11 enlisted men prisoner and led them back to Union lines. He immediately requisitioned another horse to return to the fight, his horse having been shot. He received his first Medal of Honor for actions from this day.

Only days later, on April 6th, 1865 at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek near Farmville, Virginia, Custer again went on a heroic, if perhaps foolhardy, charge into the enemy. Riding next to fellow Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Charles Capehart, when the order was given to charge, Custer raced into the enemy barricades under a hail of enemy fire.

Leaping his horse over the enemy barriers, Custer was now fully surrounded by Confederate forces, behind their lines. Drawing his pistol he shot it to his right and his left, scattering the Confederate troops. He watched as the scattering men ran towards their regimental flag nearby. Seeing the enemy colors, Custer again rushed to them.

As he came up to the color bearer Custer was taken aback by a shot to the face. Throwing him back on his horse he was upright again in a moment, blood gushing from his wound. Shooting the color bearer in the chest, Custer wrested the standard from the man’s hands as he fell.

Custer hoisted the seized flag and lofted it triumphantly and rode towards Union lines. An officer of the 3rd New Jersey Cavalry saw this and warned him, “For God’s sake, Tom, furl that flag or they’ll fire on you!” Custer ignored the man and continued to ride to his brother’s personal flag.

Custer handed the flag to one of his brother’s aides and said, “Armstrong, the damned rebels shot me, but I’ve got my flag.” When Thomas turned his horse to return to the battle, his brother ordered him to attend to his wounds. Thomas ignored the order and George Armstrong had his brother arrested and sent under guard to see the surgeons.

Thomas Custer received his second Medal of Honor, becoming the first dual recipient, for his actions that day. As mentioned earlier, he continued his service with the US Army Cavalry after the Civil War, perishing with his brothers at the Little Big Horn while an officer with the 7th Cavalry in 1876.

Since the bulk of the Civil War was fought on land, it might surprise readers that the other two dual Medal of Honor recipients during the War Between the States were not soldiers but rather sailors from the US Navy. Also very interesting is that both of these men were born in Ireland.

John Laver Mather Cooper was a US Navy sailor, known in the US as simply John Cooper. Enlisting in 1845 from New York, he was a coxswain assigned to USS Brooklyn on August 5th, 1864. During the Battle of Mobile Bay his ship was fighting against Confederate gunboats, forts, and the CSS Tennessee, an ironclad ship designed for ramming. It was during this battle that Rear Admiral Farragut, commanding, was said to have ordered “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” at the mouth of the bay. His actual quote is quite a bit longer, but that is the gist of it and it’s what’s been remembered.

During the battle, as USS Brooklyn was heavily damaged and taking fire from stem to stern, Coxswain Cooper continued to fight his gun station with “skill and courage” throughout the hectic battle. At the end of the battle the ironclad Tennessee had been surrendered and the forts destroyed.

Just a few months later, on April 26th 1865, Cooper was quartermaster on the staff of Acting Rear Admiral Thatcher. Thatcher was a successful naval commander of the war and was in charge of the Western Gulf Squadron. The squadron was taking part in the continued Mobile Campaign.

It was on this April day that there was a massive fire at Mobile. I’m unable to find exactly what caused the fire, nor where the fire occurred. His award citation does say that the fire was risking shell explosions, so it was either aboard ship near the ship’s magazine or ashore at an ammo store.

Despite the risk of shells exploding in the fire, Cooper rushed into the inferno to rescue a wounded comrade. Grabbing the man from the grip of certain death, Cooper hoisted him onto his back and ran back out of the fire to safety. He received a second Medal of Honor for his heroics.

I can’t find any record of what Cooper did after his Navy service. It does look as if he returned to New York, as he was buried in Brooklyn when he passed in 1891 at the age of 63.

Patrick Mullen, like Cooper, was an Irishman by birth and an American by choice. Serving with the Union Navy during the Civil War, he’d enlisted from Baltimore.

A boatswain’s mate aboard USS Wyandank, which was a steamship acquired by the Navy and used as part of the Union blockade of Southern ports along the Potomac. On March 17 1865 Wyandank was on an expedition up Mattox Creek, a tributary of the Potomac.

Their ship coming under fire, Mullen was called to action to service a howitzer. Forced to lie on his back due to the heavy enemy fire, Mullen loaded the weapon and fired it with sufficient

accuracy to kill several rebel troops and driving the remaining men into retreat. For this, Mullen was awarded the Medal of Honor.

On May 1st, 1865, still with the Potomac Flotilla, Mullen was now aboard USS Don, a captured British blockade runner pressed into Union service. The steam-powered cargo ship was dispatched to pick up the crew of a picket ship that had become swamped.

The boatswain’s mate saw an officer unable to keep himself above water. As the officer slipped below the water and headed under for good, Mullen lept overboard and brought the drowning man back to the ship. Saving the officer’s life resulted in Mullen’s second Medal of Honor.

Interestingly, since he was only the third man to have received a second MoH, the award citation specifies that he is entitled to “wear a bar on the medal he had already received at Mattox Creek”. Later regulations would say that a double recipient wears both medals (or ribbons as appropriate). This is in contrast to every other American military decoration in which a bronze oak leaf cluster (for Army, Air Force, and DoD awards) or gold award star (for Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard awards) is worn on the medal/ribbon to signify an additional award.

As with Quartermaster Cooper, I can find no information on what Boatswain’s Mate Mullen did after the war. He appears to have returned to Baltimore as that’s where he was buried after dying at the age of 52 in 1897. Mullen was buried under his name’s original spelling of “Mullin”. He was survived by his wife Emma and son William. He was preceded in death by son Edward, who had died at age three in 1884.

Stay tuned for next week’s part two, as we move forward into the Indian Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Same valor time. Same valor channel.

 

Category: Historical

Comments (14)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. just lurkin says:

    Well, I don’t want to take anything away from any of these gentlemen, but I’ve got an honorable mention who deserves a shout out in any discussion of the history of American valor and that’s Will Cushing, aka “Lincoln’s Commando”, who probably could have been awarded the MOH multiple times for his actions during the Civil War given the daring manner in which he conducted himself. Among other things he led the mission which sank the rebel ironclad CSS Albemarle, led his men on a daring nighttime raid on Wilmington in an attempt to capture the the garrison commander there (he got an aide instead), scouted the Cape Fear river under heavy fire before the battle of Fort Fisher and generally made a nuisance of himself along the NC and Virginia coasts during the war.

    Not bad for a young man who was expelled from Annapolis a few months before the war started (eventually the Navy realized that they needed capable officers and gave him a commission).

    Instead of the MOH he got the “thanks of Congress” for sinking the Albemarle, which was considered a very high honor indeed. He also rose all the way to Lt. Commander during the war which was no small feat in the rank conscious navy.

    Ironically his brother Alonzo did get the MOH, for his actions as a battery commander at Gettysburg, though it took 150 years for it to be awarded. Lon Cushing was killed in action commanding his battery against “Pickett’s charge”, but stayed at his guns until the end and was instrumental in helping repulse the offensive.

    • Mason says:

      William Cushing is on the list. Pt 2, being submitted shortly, includes part of the story of an earlier attack on Albemarle.

      The Thanks of Congress was a high honor. Only 30 officers (15 Army and 15 Navy) received the honor during the Civil War. Compared to 1,523 Medals of Honor during the war. It’s probably most analogous to a Congressional Gold Medal (co-equal to the Presidential Medal of Freedom), but was only given to military officers. If you look at the list of names, it’s rare company indeed.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanks_of_Congress#Civil_War_recipients

  2. OldCorpsTanker72 says:

    Sorry, but you lost me at “the general’s brother got two Medals of Honor.”

  3. ninja says:

    Mason,

    Thank You for sharing the story of Thomas Ward Custer.

    He was barely 20 years old when the Civil War ended.

    He is buried at Fort Leavenworth.

    https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/6793225/thomas-ward-custer

    Rest In Peace.

    • Mason says:

      It’s hard to imagine being that young and not only have seen so much war but to be in a position of leadership of large numbers of men. The list of “boy generals” is fairly large. George Custer was only 25 when he was made a major general after serving through four years of the war.

      • 11B-Mailclerk says:

        If you think “general=political=connections” today, the previous system was an incestuous social-circle salad.

        The service academies can function as “aristocrat” factories. Paybacks are a thing, etc.

        Like any fraternal organization, it can get hijacked for personal agendas. This needs major ongoing work to weed out. Otherwise, the overall purpose becomes inverted. (Humans being humans.)

        • Mason says:

          At least we didn’t have people buying their commissions like in the British system of the time.

          During the Civil War I always found it interesting that many of the USV units elected their company grade officers.

      • Anonymous says:

        There was a Galusha S. Pennypacker who made 1-star at 18.

  4. 5th/77th FA says:

    Thanks for the History refresher class Mason. I always look forward to your research details. Will give a big BZ to Mullen, Cooper and with a hat tip to justlurking, another BZ to the Cushing Brothers. To Custer…well not so much. And it’s not because I consider his brother Artie, to be a self centered, self promoting, self grandstanding, glory seeking, treaty breaking, bottom of his class, stain on the Honor of other West Point Graduates. The situation in April of 65 was very different than earlier in the war when playing “Capture the Flag.” The 3 officers and 11 men of the NC unit was probably all that was left of the 2nd NC. Their horses were literally starving to death and the men knew that they had no chance or choice. Sheridan had unlimited resources at his disposal and his troops were sweeping up everything in their path. On 6 April, Sailors (Saylers) Creek AKA High Bridge was more rinse and repeat. Surrounded, cut off, no supplies, no unit cohesion, but knowing the end was here, The Army of Northern Virginia ceased to exist as a fighting force. Many flags and units were captured, but the popularity in the news media of the Custer name, plus the addition of Tom being a Grant fair haired boy, assured the awards. Many others that captured flags during this same time frame got no official recognition. At least one of the 3 Custer boys got what they deserved at Greasy Grass 25 Jun ’76. If not for Artie’s Wife, Libby, lobbying her political connections after that battle, his legacy would have been recorded differently. Or if Artie had of listened to Tom, the battle at Greasy Grass wouldn’t of happened. YMMV

  5. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    I see I became a bit political, above. Wrong thread.

    The valor of our heroes requires periodic airing, lest we forget.

  6. M. Thompson says:

    CDR William B. Cushing was never awarded the Medal of Honor despite his actions, as the law at the time did not allow Navy officers to receive it.

    And many of the awards given by the Navy in Peacetime would today be Navy and Marine Corps Medals, as there were few awards available for heroism at that time.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The double-MoH deleted scene from We Were Soldiers… fiction (double-MoH hasn’t happened since 1918) but a good fish story about how tough CSM Plumley is: