Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, sixteen-year old Thomas Henry French of Tenleytown joined a newly formed company of District of Columbia militia; three years later he received his commission as an infantry officer, and was wounded at Petersburg. After the war French served in the cavalry; at the Battle of Little Bighorn, he distinguished himself in Reno’s Valley Fight.
French believed his immediate commander, Major Marcus Reno, to have been guilty of dereliction of duty for failing to come to Custer’s aid. French drank, was court-martialed, and died at age 39. His family brought his remains home to Washington, and he now shares a monument with them in Holy Rood Cemetery.
(Photo: The French Family Association)
Notes on Thomas Henry French
His father, Thomas French, arrived in Baltimore from Lincolnshire, England before 1825, and married Naomi Brown of Greenspring Valley, Baltimore County; she died before 1833.
Thomas French remarried in Washington DC, to Mary Ellen Burke Foy, November 30, 1833. Their children were: Mary Ellen (1836-1907), Rebecca E. (c. 1837-1880, married John Henry Harry), Adele B. (1841-1890), and Thomas Henry (1843-1882); all are buried at Holy Rood Cemetery.
Thomas Henry French, born in or near Baltimore, Maryland, March 5, 1843.
Sent to live with his uncle––and later, adoptive father––Lt. Col. Martin Burke at a young age; Burke was a veteran of the Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War.
Between 1853-1857, Thomas Henry attended Georgetown College (Preparatory School) as a day scholar.
His father died circa 1858. In the 1860 census, his mother, Ellen French, was a shopkeeper, and lived at about Wisconsin Avenue and River Road; in the same household, French’s sisters, Mary and Adele, seamstresses.
Georgetown.––”Our neighbors in Washington county, north of this city, have organized a most efficient company of able-bodied men to be called the District of Columbia Rifles. The officers are––Captain, H.W. Blunt; First Lieutenant, Jas. W. Harry; Second do, Geo. F. Green; Third do., D.W. Lightfoot; First Sergeant, Thos. H. French; Second do., E.H. Smith; Third do., R.L. Ball; Fourth do., G.W. Hurdle.” (Star, February 2, 1861)
District of Columbia Rifles, Captain Blunt, Lieutenants Harry, Green, and Lightfoot. This is the new company organized at Tennallytown, and this is their first appearance in uniform. They numbered about thirty-seven men, and with their bright blue coats and pants, the former with red trimmings, and the latter with red stripes, and neat fatigue caps, they presented a fine appearance. (National Republican, March 5, 1861, p.3.)
“The following is a complete list of the corps, old and new, now uniformed and equipped, belonging to the District militia: Tenallytown, D.C., Rifles, Capt. H. Blount, 64 long-range rifles.” (Star, April 9, 1861)
Henry Woodward Blunt––a Georgetown dealer in teas, wines, liquors and groceries––organized this company. De-activation of and reorganization of DC militia took place on July 10, 1861.
French then obtained a clerkship in the Diplomatic Section of the State Department. Meanwhile, hoping to give French a career, his adoptive father worked to get him into West Point, but without success.
On January 13, 1864, French enlisted in the 10th Infantry, in hopes of getting a commission through the ranks.
He qualified for a commission on February 25, and was commissioned 2nd lieutenant in May 18, and 1st Lt., on June 23, 1864.
Battle of Weldon Railroad (or Globe Tavern), Virginia, August 18-22, 1864; brevetted Captain for gallant services.
Severe leg wound at Battle of Chapel House, near Petersburg, October 1-3, 1864.
Brevet Captain, December 1864, for gallant services at Weldon Railroad.
Hospitalized at Georgetown, D.C.
Detailed to Judge Advocate Corps, Fort Lafayette, New York City
(where General Martin Burke, his uncle, was in charge of a prison).
March 26, 1868, appointed as Captain, 10th Infantry.
Struggling to advance in a reduced army, French turned his attention to the cavalry:
Assigned to 7th US Cavalry, January 1871, Ft. Ripley, Minnesota, and Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory.
1871-73 the 7th Cavalry was in South Carolina, arresting tax evaders; returned to the west in 1873 for the Yellowstone Expedition.
June 25, 1876: Captain, commanding Company M, 7th US Cavalry, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, serving under Maj. Marcus Reno. In Reno’s Valley Fight, and retreated with Reno’s Battalion to the hilltop, four miles from Custer, where he distinguished himself by keeping the men firing and repairing their rifles, while fully exposed to Indian fire.
Nez Perces Expedition, 1877, Battle of Canyon Creek.
August, 1878: head trauma, inflicted by a horse’s hoof.
Court-martialed on January 13, 1879, for being drunk on duty; severed from service, but sentence commuted by President Hayes, to suspension on half pay for one year.
Placed on the retired list, February 5, 1880.
Died at the Planter’s House hotel, Leavenworth, Kansas, March 27, 1882, age 39.
Obituary, Bismarck [N.D.] Tribune, April 14, 1882. Cause of death: apoplexy.
Initially buried in Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, his body was exhumed, March 4, 1891 and reinterred in Holy Road Cemetery, Washington DC (lot 257, section 23), in a plot purchased May 13, 1880 by his sister, Adele B. French, of Tenleytown Road.
(It was a provision of Adele’s will that her brother’s body be brought back.)
John M. Carroll, a Custer historian, discovered that French was buried in Washington:
Eugene L. Meyer, “Tracking a Custer Indian Fighter”,
Washington Post, March 27, 1980, A1.
The best-researched account of Thomas French:
Barry C. Johnson, A Captain of “Chivalric Courage”: Thomas H. French, 7th Cavalry,
London, the English Westerners’ Society, Brand Book Vol. 25, Nos 1&2, 1987-88
A biographical sketch of French appears in:
Thom Hatch, A Custer Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Life of George Armstrong Custer, 2002, pp.122-3.
Find A Grave Memorial 5866913
Research by: Kit and Morgan Benson
Record added: October 21, 2001
Melinda Parker Watson, descendant of the immigrant Thomas French
The French Family Association;
7th Cavalry Vignettes:
The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.
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