The Big Horn Debacle

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It is my fate to notice the obscure and the hidden rather than the bold and beautiful seen by others. In my own mind, I believe it a hangover from a childhood spent in endless hours of hunting birds and small game. Hunting success came from noticing small details, the spot of brown hidden in the shadowed green of the leaves or the grass waving in counterpoint to the breeze. A comforting explanation for this dysfunctional perceptive, but it is more likely just another character flaw, little noticed among the many. But at this time in my life, I excuse it as a charming tick in my character, taking pleasure in the obscure nuggets I chance upon.

The genesis of this post is from a summer or two past’s morning in Western Nebraska. The fact that my wife and I were visiting interesting places in Western Nebraska is proof of my dedication to the obscure. We spent a couple of morning hours at the Agate Fossil Beds near Harrison, Nebraska – halfway between Scottsbluff and Chadron, amid the almost trackless prairie covering 500,00 square miles of the North American continent.

The Agate Fossil Beds are a National Monument built to showcase and protect a large cache of mammal fossils, some 20 million years old. Of course the fine facilities at Agate Fossil Beds may owe more to Nebraska’s demand for a share of the National Park Service’s budget than to its intrinsic appeal. States, even as people, are sometimes forced to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Most of the exhibits feature a creature called the Palaeocastor – described as a land beaver living in corkscrew-shaped burrows.

Another more jaundiced view might describe the Paleocastor as just another version of the prairie dog, only bigger. Sorry, no Tyrannosaur Rex, nor even any saber-toothed tigers – just giant rodents from another time. Given the prairie dog towns nearby, perhaps the Agate Fossil Beds are simply further proof as if needed, that the more things change – the more they stay the same.

But what drew my attention that morning weren’t the fossils but another collection entirely, housed in the same building. This monument and these fossils were on land owned by a Nineteenth Century rancher by the name of James Cook. Living here in the 1890’s he got to know the Sioux Indians in the area and traded with them. During his lifetime, he put together a nice collection of Indian artifacts displayed in the modern Visitor Center. Under glass in two good-sized rooms, the collection has some interesting items and is a pleasant stop as well as a clean bathroom break if MapQuest leads you astray and you find yourself near Harrison, Nebraska.

A visit to the Trip Advisor website reveals numerous reviews gushing over the Indian artifacts on display at Agate Fossil Beds. I understand our tendency to gush, to offer opinions larded with hyperbole in a review, but breathless admiration of feathered sticks and crudely painted deerskin is a bit like mentioning your “Rescue” dog. It is mostly about showcasing your credentials as an Adorable. Of what use is virtue if no one knows about it?

But it was a small piece, lost amid the headdresses made of eagle feathers and decorated shields, caught my attention, just a small gold plated trinket resting amid other more mentioned pieces. It was a US Army shoulder strap with the crossed sabers of the cavalry. Looking closer, the strap carried the number “7” and the letter “I”.

Here was the shoulder strap of a cavalry trooper from Company I, 7th Cavalry.

To be honest, it was probably something traded by an AWOL private for whiskey in some Deadwood, South Dakota bar, but speculative fancy should never be held hostage to dreary probability. Company I of the 7th Cavalry was Captain Miles Keough’s company.

Miles Keough and his entire company died along with George Custer and some two hundred and twenty troopers of the United States Cavalry on Last Stand Hill back in 1876. Miles Keough’s horse, Comanche, was the only living survivor of Custer’s command found on the battlefield. This museum collection is composed of keepsakes the Sioux victors of that battle traded with James Cook in the late 1800’s. Two plus two sometimes equals five.

As I begin to write this piece, it is May – springtime on the Great Plains of America. I look out my window at the green prairie grass waving in the brisk spring breeze and it is hard not to glimpse misty figures out on those grassy knolls. It’s May 17, 1876 on the parade ground of Ft. Abraham Lincoln. I can see long lines of mounted men in the late morning sunshine, finally ready to begin their journey into the endless prairie of what is now Wyoming and Montana.

Modern minds schooled by years of training might be judgmental, thinking it a lazy start for what was supposed to be a combat ready regiment. But George Custer commanded this assembly of horses and men and George Custer could never do anything without a parade. So in keeping with professional expectations of the present day, the regiment had indeed broken camp at daybreak. The nearly seven hundred men of the regiment had been bivouacked on the banks of the Missouri River just outside of Bismarck in the future state of North Dakota. But their destination that morning had been the parade ground of Fort Abraham Lincoln, a few miles distant. There the 7th Cavalry Regiment had paraded in the pomp and circumstance so beloved by their commander, in front of assembled families, staff and hangers on. That completed, the real journey could begin.

Perhaps this strap now collecting dust in the museum was on the shoulder of I Company’s First Sergeant, Frank Varden, that May morning. Through the misty veils of time and imagination, I can see him giving his horse a light kick forward, raising his hand and calling out in that way guaranteed to send a shiver down my spine in the movies of my youth; “By fours! – a pause– Left wheel! – another pause and then a long drawn out – Forward . . . ho!!”. And behind him, the fifty some men of Company I would move forward in sequence, turning four men at a time into a column of horsemen riding into harms way – into Indian country – into the sea of grass claimed by what now is called the Sioux Nation. Some forty days later, these men would be on a hillside four hundred miles away fighting in a doomed battle for their lives.

Speculation about Frank Varden is just that – speculation. We don’t know that much about Sergeant Varden other than he had served with Company A of the 11th Maine Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Re-enlisting in the 2nd Cavalry after the war, Varnum deserted from the Army in 1871 and was court martialed when apprehended a month later. Captain Miles Keough interceded as a friend of the court in Varden’s behalf, asking for mercy to be shown. A short time later, Frank Varden is transferred from the 2nd Cavalry to the 7th Cavalry, becoming First Sergeant Frank Varden of I Company. I suspect an untold story lurks among these scant details.

But we know much more about other people on that parade ground 142 years ago, people figuring large in the events that would follow from this morning. The 7th Cavalry had paraded before their expedition’s commanding officer, Brigadier General Alfred Terry. A lawyer by training rather than a graduate of West Point, Alfred Terry had also served in the Civil War, acquiring a reputation for administrative competence rather than combat leadership, perhaps explaining why he retained his general’s rank in the post war Army. Men riding in review before him as captains, lt. colonels and majors had been generals as well in the Civil War.

I think it fair to say that Alfred Terry was a good man, but I think it also fair to say a bit relieved that morning. He had demonstrated strong management skills and a heart for fair treatment during the Civil War and even more so during the military occupation of the defeated South during Reconstruction. But commanding cavalry in search of hostile tribes on the vastness of the prairie was outside his comfort zone. In fact he had moved heaven and earth, pulled strings and begged, to make sure that George Custer was basking in the pomp and circumstance of the parade ground at Ft. Abraham Lincoln that morning.

George Custer shouldn’t have been there at all. George Custer had mightily pissed off the President of the United States, US Grant. Testifying before the US Congress three months earlier about mismanagement in the administration of Indian Affairs, Custer had accused the President’s brother of corrupt practices. Furious, Grant had suspended Custer, removing him from command of the 7th. In response to Custer’s suspension, General Terry’s boss, General Phil Sheridan, had ordered Alfred Terry to come out from behind his desk, pull himself into the saddle and replace Custer at the point of the spear.

General Terry’s begging and pleading to anyone who would listen for Custer’s reinstatement did not do credit to anyone involved. But just days before this May morning at Ft. Abraham Lincoln, President Grant relented and Custer was allowed to return to duty. General Terry could once more assume a role more in keeping with his talents.

There was no mistaking the star of this morning’s show, George Armstrong Custer, the man Alfred Terry watched ride in review before him. If People Magazine had been around in 1876, George Custer would have been a regular visitor to its pages. He was a celebrity. In the eyes of 1870’s America, he was the face of the US Cavalry and the regiment he led, the 7th Cavalry, was the US Cavalry.

It was Custer’s parade that morning. There was a part of George Custer that remained a ten year old boy. What other commander had a well-practiced band of soldier-musicians traveling with him into the wilderness to battle the hostile Indians? What other commander had his own theme song? During the morning’s parade, the band was playing “Garryowen”. At the Washita River, some eight years previously, this same band had been playing this same song during the regiment’s dawn cavalry charge into Black Kettles’s village. Custer took a childish delight in things like parades, showing off his toys and uniforms – well, uniform is a bit of a stretch. It is a fact that on campaign, Custer usually dressed like a Russian Duke’s idea of a frontiersman.

Custer liked to show off, and he especially liked showing off to a particular member of the audience at Ft. Abraham Lincoln that morning. Attempting to understand George Armstrong Custer requires a look at his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer. Custer married well. The daughter of a wealthy judge/politician, Libby, as she was known, was bright, vivacious, beautiful and rich. All things Custer was not.

Some thirteen years before, Libby’s father had been adamantly against his daughter’s courtship with George Custer, desiring a more suitable match for his daughter. That is until Gettysburg. Custer’s reckless charge at the head of his regiment, the stuff of which legends are made, stopped JEB Stuart’s attack on the Union flank in support of Pickett’s Charge. In many eyes, Custer’s charge was the crucial piece in the narrowly won Union victory. Now Custer was a brigadier general in rank and a rising celebrity, Libby’s father gave his blessing to the union and they were married.

It is a foolish person that presumes to know what goes on in another marriage. It is hard enough to try and understand what goes on in one’s own marriage. But by all accounts, Libby Custer was a formidable woman – and a major league charmer. It also seems true that she was ruthless in deploying these assets to advance her husband’s career, both in the Army and in the public’s eye. At the same time, Libby liked to play with Custer, to leave him unsure of her loyalty, to make him eager to please her. She flirted and schemed in the service of those two objectives. It was rumored that Phil Sheridan himself, among others, visited her door when Custer was away, rumors sure to reach Custer’s ears in the hot house gossip of an army post. Libby’s reaction was always a big factor in George Custer’s decisions, and Libby liked it that way.

There was another man on parade that morning, a much plainer, more pedestrian character than George Custer; Frederick Benteen, captain of H Company; 7th Cavalry. We look back at Fred Benteen and see a distorted image of George Custer. As did Custer, Benteen served in the Union Cavalry during Civil War. Benteen had also been a great combat leader, rising to command of a division – given the responsibility of a two star general but not the rank. But whereas Custer had rode to glory in Pennsylvania and Virginia under the eyes of big city newspapers, rubbing shoulders with Phil Sheridan and US Grant, Benteen had led men in places like Missouri and Alabama. No headlines or promotions for Fred Benteen.

As it happened, Fred Benteen also rode in parade formation before his wife and two year old son, Freddy, that morning at Ft. Abraham Lincoln. Kate Benteen was a strong woman, a good army wife, following her husband from one dismal post to another. Unlike Libby Custer, Kate was short on money, glamorous beauty and celebrity, but she had strength of character and love for her husband. Kate Benteen bore five children in those years, with four of the children dying before their third birthday – painful deaths from spinal meningitis. The surviving letters between Fred and Kate show a marriage of love and passion, but with none of the drama and political intrigue seemingly ever present in the Custer marriage.

Custer was a charismatic, divisive, personality. As an officer, Custer could be a fun companion, full of hijinks and high spirits. Of course a little flattery was expected, as well as the ability to listen appreciatively to Custer’s monologues, mostly about himself. In modern management parlance, Custer, aided and managed by his wife Libbie, was adept at managing “up”. He was a sycophant to the generals above him and expected no less from his own subordinates.

By and large Custer’s soldiers had no love for him. He was indifferent to them, other than harshly enforcing his ideas about discipline in ways that had led to tragic circumstances. Back in Kansas, he had abandoned some of his men to death and executed others by firing squad in questionable circumstances. His actions that summer had led to a court martial and Custer’s suspension from duty.

Many of his officers just didn’t like Custer either, none more so than the Captain of H company – Fred Benteen. Part of the problem was that the baby-faced Benteen was much more laid back, but hidden in that calm demeanor was a talented and courageous cavalry officer harboring bitterness at life’s unfairness.

Where George Custer was a teetotaler and aloof outside his “circle”, Fred Benteen was always available to share a drink or join a game of poker around the campfire. Benteen was the man to see if you came up short before payday. As a very good poker player, he always had a steady supply of ready cash and was willing to help out a friend. Benteen even managed a baseball team composed of men from his company. By all accounts the baseball team was quite good, perhaps because Benteen recruited “ringers” into his company from time to time.

And so it was on June 25, almost six weeks after that morning on the parade ground, the regiment found itself moving west along a creek, now known as Reno’s Creek, in the Montana Territory. The men of the 7th were weary but there was a sense of excitement, of building tension. It was obvious to all that they were closing in on a large Indian encampment. The ground stretching out a sizeable distance from the creek was marked by large numbers of pony hooves mixed with the trash and tracks of a sizable group of human beings on the move. The cavalry scouts, some sixty members of the Arikara tribe with a few Crow and Sioux mixed in, had stripped down to near nudity and were now painting themselves, wailing eerie death chants.

Capt. Fred Benteen, at the head of Company H, was in the lead, the position of honor, first to engage when action came. That was not Custer’s choice. But that morning Benteen had resorted to a bit of flim-flam trickery, a petty trick, leaving Custer wrong footed, with no choice but to place Benteen and Company H in the lead position.

About mid-day, Custer called a conference of his officers. Contrary to later myth making, Custer and the entire regiment were fully aware that they were coming upon a large Indian village. It was at this impromptu conference that controversies still swirling about the day began. It was here and now that Custer ordered Benteen to separate from the main column. Benteen was to take three companies, a force of about 110 men, and patrol to the south toward distant ridges. According to Benteen’s later statements, Custer told him to “scout for Indians and pitch into any he might find.”

It was an angry Fred Benteen leading his small command out to the left of the main column that early afternoon. Upon his assignment to the 7th Cavalry in 1868, Fred Benteen had quickly developed a mild dislike for George Custer. Almost from the beginning, Benteen regarded Custer as a fatuous blow-hard and a hopelessly inept poker player, a serious deficiency in Benteen’s eyes. But at the Battle of the Washita later that year, dislike and contempt turned into hate. The fact that Benteen now hated Custer was no secret, certainly Benteen made no effort to hide it. All you had to do was ask him.

And while George Custer was so self-absorbed that he might have been unaware of Benteen’s feelings, it was a fact that over their years together Capt. Benteen was assigned more than his share of dirty jobs. In fact, Benteen had been assigned to guard the pack mules the previous day, a job he hated. His irritation at that dirty job had led to his trickery this morning putting him into the lead position. And now in the face of the long awaited engagement with the Sioux, Custer was sending him off on a fool’s errand, away from the action and any opportunity for advancement.

Meanwhile, Custer continued toward the village with the rest of the 7th following the tracks along the creek. Sometime after Benteen left the column, Custer made another decision that would figure large in the controversies swirling around the day. Custer ordered his second in command, Major Marcus Reno, to take another three companies, approximately 130 men, cross onto the plain and charge into the Indian village whose location was now increasingly obvious.

According to Reno’s later statements, he was to “charge into the village and Custer would support him”. With Reno’s column on the south side of the creek and Custer on the north, they continued onward in parallel. The two columns soon separated as Custer took his force behind the high hills that now crowded down to the river where Reno Creek joined the Little Big Horn River. Reno took his troops, fording the Little Big Horn River, heading out into the plain where the now visible village lay.

Major Marcus Reno is the other actor whose actions loom large in the controversy of what is remembered as Custer’s Last Stand. Marcus Reno was a member in good standing of that group of people known in future times as “middle management”. Reno graduated from West Point and served with competence in the Civil War. But unlike Custer and Benteen, Reno’s military record was filled with assignments such as “recruiting, mustering and disbursing.”

While Custer had married well above his station, Marcus Reno had hit the lottery. He had married the daughter of a wealthy Harrisburg, PA family with political connections. That connection had served him well. While men of distinction and proven combat leadership like Fred Benteen had been reduced to the rank of captain in the post-war army, Marcus Reno was a Major.

But Reno’s wife, Marry Hannah Ross, had recently died. Her death seemed to have broken something in Marcus Reno. They had a young son, Robert. With Mary Hannah’s death, her parents – the Ross family back in Harrisburg, PA, had taken in their son. Now the Ross family was making it difficult for Reno to see his son and in fact they made it clear that the Ross Family would not be dismayed if Marcus Reno simply dropped out of their life altogether.

The ways of the Army, indeed any large bureaucratic organization, are inscrutable. But it is indeed a mystery as to why Marcus Reno was a Major, second-in-command of the famed 7th Cavalry. Or perhaps if one is cynical enough about political influence and Washington patronage it is not mysterious at all. But now, in the valley of the Little Big Horn River on June 24, 1876, the child born of politics murky swamp would be tested with the lives of good men in the balance. Major Marcus Reno would lead a headlong cavalry charge into an Indian village out in the Montana wilderness, the greatest test of his life.

And so the drama begins. An outwardly peaceful encampment of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians sits drowsing in the heat of an afternoon sun, completely surprised by the 7th Cavalry. Estimates vary, but let’s say that the village contained between 4,000 and 5,000 people, quite possibly the largest village of the Plains tribes ever assembled. Since most of the women and children remained safe and protected on their Reservation back in the Dakota Territory, the village contained an estimated 50% fighting men. Stretched out around the village was a massive pony herd of perhaps 10,000 ponies.

Coming toward the encampment across a grazed out plain perhaps two miles away is a force of 130 men, stretched out in column of fours at a slow gallop over a quarter of a mile in length. Somewhere to their right perhaps 3-4 miles away, now hidden behind the hills bordering the Little Big Horn River, is George Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry. Custer’s strategy is forever unknown but in retrospect it seems likely that he planned to sweep into the village from the flank, after the attention of the village’s defenders had been diverted by Reno’s attack. Behind Reno’s column and off to their left wandering through the grassy knolls of the prairie, 7-8 miles away, is a steaming Fred Benteen and his detachment.

The village is slowly becoming aware of Reno’s column charging across the flat plain toward them. Scattered warriors mount their ponies. Women and children scream in panic, running for shelter. As the fighting men get into action they either fire scattered shots at the oncoming cavalry or drag tree branches and/or robes behind their ponies to raise a dust cloud for a diversion. As Reno’s column gets closer to the village, Major Marcus Reno either chooses an act of prudence or gets cold feet. Monday morning quarterbacks differ.

Major Reno halts the column a mile or so distant from the village, ordering his three companies into a skirmish formation. Forming a line facing the village and anchored on the river, the men dismount, taking their carbines and kneeling in a line facing the village with 4-5 ft separation between men. Every fourth man takes the horses of the other three and drops back behind the line of the kneeling men in action. In a short time there is fairly heavy skirmishing going on between the dismounted troopers and ever increasing numbers of warriors boiling out of the village.

An important switch has flipped. The cavalry is no longer on the attack. The initiative is now with the Indians. Reno’s men are in a defensible position of some strength, but their situation is not good. As cavalry troopers run short of ammunition and the numbers of Indians increase on a flat plain much broader than their line, their situation will soon become untenable. But for now the troopers are behaving in a disciplined fashion, standing their ground in good order and engaging the enemy. It is now at this time that Major Reno, on his horse behind the line, shouts something to the effect that, “I need to go check on something!”, racing off on his horse toward a stand of trees some distance in their rear.

Kneeling on a dusty plain holding a hot carbine in your hand, you are worn out after six weeks of exhausting trek through a grim prairie of endless grass, ravines, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes. In front of you are what looks to be a million hostile Indians. You have heard endless stories of Indian women and their drawn out tortures; sensitive private parts, dull knives and hot fires. You might even have seen the brutalized corpses of white men captured by the Sioux. And now your commanding officer is running away as fast as his horse will take him. What do you do?

A few men run for their horses, followed by a few more, followed by everyone. My childhood experience of building dirt dams in streams gives evidence of a leak’s consequences. A general race begins, the rear of their Major’s horse well in front of them, their destination a stand of cottonwood trees along the river. The disciplined firing of the skirmish line had kept the Sioux from closing with them which served them well on their retreat. The command makes it to the trees and some welcome shelter – as a fighting force, badly disorganized but without severe casualties.

Now begins an extended, slow motion encirclement. Contrary to those racist, sexist and misogynist western movies of long ago, actual Indians don’t make reckless charges against opponents firing from cover. They actually do what logic suggests. They snipe, work their way in close under cover and attack cautiously, using the terrain and superiority in numbers. Just like real family men, they are likely more concerned with protecting their homes and loved ones than killing cavalrymen.

But though the tactics used to get into the copse of trees were less than well executed, Reno’s command is now in a position that can be held for a lengthy period of time, supposing of course competent officers and reasonable discipline on the part of the soldiers. After the debacle on the plain, the discipline of the soldiers was probably questionable, making competent strong leadership from their officers even more important.

Alas, that was not to be. After some time in the trees, Major Reno once more shouted out something to his command – an order or an explanation? His words were on the order of “I’m getting out of here! Anybody else want to go?” – kicking his own horse into a gallop toward the river and hills beyond. Replay the men’s thoughts out on the firing line and the dam dissolves once more. Only this time the results are more serious. The men break for the river and the steep hill beyond it, in groups and singly, organized and disorganized. This time the Indians are close in. It is possibly a charitable kindness to describe the retreat (?) as a buffalo hunt, a game in which the Sioux were well practiced. Some 40 of Reno’s 130 men didn’t make it to the top of the hill. Most fell, tomahawked or speared from behind.

Perhaps I have been less than charitable to Major Reno. It must be said that immediately prior to his abrupt departure from the shelter of the trees, Bloody Knife, his Arikara scout was killed right next to him. Bloody Knife’s blood and brains splattered across Reno’s own face. Bloody Knife’s gruesome end undoubtedly shocked Marcus Reno. In fact later events in Reno’s Army career point to what we would now diagnose as acute PTSD. However multiple accounts also mention Reno’s frequent resort to truly prodigious amounts of liquid refreshment kept in pocket flasks, on the trail before the fight, during the fighting on the skirmish line and in the copse of trees.

Meanwhile back at the ranch as they used to say, Captain Benteen had decided his patrol of the lifeless grass covered ridges to the south was a useless exercise, further deciding to disobey Custer and cut back toward the rest of the regiment. Benteen’s journey back is controversial. Monday morning quarterbacks through the years’ fault Benteen and his “leisurely” pace back into the unfolding drama even though Benteen turned around well before he was ordered to.

Critics do have a point. Benteen did not, in true John Wayne fashion, return at a gallop the 10-12 miles now separating himself from Reno’s command, even further to Custer. His detractors’ sniff in shock that on his way back, he took a thirty-minute break to water the horses, going so far as to hobble his horse during the break.

Of course, at the time Benteen did not have any reason to think he should hurry. In Benteen’s mind, he was convinced that Custer had shunted him to the side so that Benteen would be unable to share in Custer’s glory. Or even worse, be in a position to criticize Custer in the public forum of the newspapers. Benteen had done just that at the Washita – an incident that had come down to Benteen’s offering of a duel’s satisfaction if Custer felt Benteen’s criticism unfair.

It is also true that 10 miles is a long distance in the summer’s heat for already weary horses. Arriving at a cavalry battle with exhausted and dehydrated horses is not a good thing and Benteen was a very experienced cavalry officer. Additionally the pause for water allowed Benteen to rendezvous with the pack train and its guard, Company B, coming up behind the advancing cavalry. The small force now has the welcome reinforcement of the eighty plus troopers escorting the pack train.

Benteen’s reinforced command, now moving along in the track of regiment, meets two messengers coming back from George Custer. The first messenger was a sergeant bringing a message sent by Capt. Tom Custer, George Armstrong Custer’s brother to Thomas McDougal, Captain of B Company escorting the pack train. The messenger, Daniel Kanipe of C Company, carries a message saying that “a big Indian camp was in sight. The pack train should come up and if Benteen was around, he should come up as well. Be quick about it.” In conversation, Kanipe is reported to have said, “They are licking the stuffing out of them.” After talking with Kanipe and hearing about Custer’s seeming success, Benteen turns away in disgust.

At this juncture, Benteen’s mood is even further blackened. George Custer had brought along two young members of the Custer clan, his youngest brother Boston Custer and a nephew, Autie Reed. As civilians they were ordered to stay with the pack train, but now, hearing of Custer’s reported victory and secure in their position as indulged family members, they head out on their own in defiance of any supervision to join their brother/uncle in the great adventure.

Some 1-2 miles further along the second messenger arrives. Another sergeant, Trumpeter John Martin, has a message, this one for Benteen. This message was from Lt. W.W. Cooke acting as Custer’s adjutant. Sgt. John Martin’s message for Benteen was essentially the same, written at about the same time as the previous message from Sgt. Kanipe – Village sighted, bring up the packs, come quick.

But it seems that John Martin had left the column some time after Sgt. Kanipe had departed with his message for Capt. McDougal. John Martin had continued with Custer’s command for some further distance before leaving and he had witnessed the beginnings of Custer’s engagement with the Indians. John Martin’s horse had a bloody rear end, apparently hit by a stray Indian bullet. In fact Martin’s back was wet with blood from the horse’s wound, but he himself was seemingly unaware of either the horse’s wound or his own bloody back.

Which is the crux of another controversial point. In later testimony, Benteen remembers that John Martin was excited almost to the point of incoherence, saying that the Indians were “skiddaddling”. Benteen took that to mean that Custer was in control of the situation, with victory near. In retrospect, John Martin does not think he said that. He said, she said. In any case, Benteen did not blow bugles, draw sabers and come on at a full gallop over the six or so miles still separating Benteen’s force from Custer’s command at this point.

What are we to think? In addition, there are “circumstances”. It so happens that John Martin’s real name was Giovanni Crisostomo Martino, a native of Italy immigrated to the United States in 1873 and joining the Army in 1874. John Martin had limited English skills, not always clear in what he said even when not excited to the point of incoherence. His main job in the cavalry, blowing a trumpet did not require language skills.

On a more personal note, the personalities involved in this messaging activity probably worked to raise Benteen’s already smoldering temper to a higher temperature. The messages involved people that Benteen had little use for. Tom Custer was another braggadocio Custer who had reaped the rewards of being near Washington when the prizes were handed out. W.W. Cooke was Billy Cooke, Benteen’s lieutenant until he ingratiated himself with Custer and his hangers-on. Billy Cooke was a flamboyant sort, his troops nicknaming him the “Queen’s Own”, just the sort of person that Benteen doted on anyway. John Martin, alias Giovanni Martino, had been Benteen’s sergeant, but found ways to hang around with the Custer clan as well, resulting in his special assignment with the Custer “circle”.

There were probably good reasons for Tom Custer, Cooke and Martin to be involved, but as we all know, it is hard to get outside the circle of your grievances when you are having a pity party. It is easy to imagine that being ordered around by these people were just additional twigs feeding the fire under Benteen’s bruised and hurting ego.

And so, Benteen continues along the trail probably getting hotter under the collar by the minute. The column breaks into a trot, the pack mules and their escort lagging behind, as they begin to hear the gunfire associated with Reno’s predicament on the plain.

Benteen’s force reaches the scene of the action just as the remnants of Reno’s command straggle up to the top of a hill on the east side of the river. Benteen orders his men into skirmish formation along the ridgeline providing cover and engaging the remaining Indians. The Sioux are already moving off, vacating the plain and quickly returning in the direction of their village, not pursuing up the hill. A few remain, finishing off stragglers in the river below, counting coup on the plain, or playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with other stragglers in the brush bordering the river.

Temporarily safe, confusion reigns at the top of the hill. By now Reno’s men are well and truly shell-shocked. Benteen later recalls his arrival on the hilltop meeting up with Reno whom he describes as “hatless and hysterical, demanding an immediate counterattack while whimpering that Custer hadn’t supported him”. In Benteen’s often uncharitable way, he writes about Captain Myles Moylan, “The first thing that attracted my attention was the gallantly mustached captain of Troop A blubbering like a whipped urchin, tears coursing down his cheeks.” I think Captain Moylan had reason for his tears.

Benteen, as well as a few other officers, move to bring some order to the situation, but chaos reigns. The situation suffers from a severe lack of leadership. It is unclear who is in charge. Obviously Major Marcus Reno should be in command, being the senior officer on the spot. However the Major is nearly catatonic, by turns angrily shouting and slumping into depressed silence. He is almost surely drunk. In fact he continues to seek solace from his pocket flask. Reno’s face is still crusted with the bloody remains of Bloody Knife’s head. To the extent Reno has any coherence, it expresses itself in his repeatedly voiced need to return to the plain and bury his adjutant, Lt. Ben Hodgson, who he had seen killed at the base of the hill.

Captain Thomas Wier of Company D, a close confidante of George Custer and his wife, Libby, continually argues with Reno demanding that they move out to join Custer immediately. It should be noted that Custer and Benteen had argued over whether Captain Wier and Company D should be included in Benteen’s wing. Custer had originally allocated Wier and his company to be with himself, but Benteen argued with Custer about that. Company D was one of the largest companies in the regiment and Benteen argued that he needed more men as otherwise his group was too understrength for any effective action. Even with Company D, he had only 110 men for his independent role.

As time went on, the men on the hilltop began to hear a growing sound of distant gunfire, even identifying volley fire. In later testimony, some, in fact most of the officers including Benteen, deny they heard heavy gunfire. But the testimony of others, as well as the fact that Custer’s final stand occurred only a few miles distant, makes their memory appear quite suspect.

Captain Wier returns again and again to Major Reno who refuses to give him satisfaction. Finally Tom Wier stalks off in a rage and mounts his horse, heading out in Custer’s direction. Wier’s lieutenant sees him ride off and assuming Reno had ordered it so, leads D Company along behind Wier. Obviously, no one is in charge. It is a herd of badly frazzled cats on the hilltop.

After this, Reno takes this time to go back down the hill and find Ben Hodgson’s body, while Benteen works to bring order to the scattered men on the hilltop. There are many wounded men that need care. Units need to be put back together. Ammunition and other supplies from the pack train needs to be distributed. Scattered survivors from the retreat on the plain continue to stagger in from time to time.

Some half an hour later, Benteen, by force of personality if nothing else, leads out a mixed and disorganized force along Wier’s trail. No one seems sure who is in charge or what they should be doing. Reno remains behind with the supplies, the wounded and the pack train. Benteen’s sortie reaches a high point about a mile down the trail when they begin to see Indian riders off in the distance. Around this time, Tom Wier and Company D came riding toward them up out of a ravine, apparently under fire from pursuing Indians.

It quickly becomes apparent that a large mass of Indians is coming toward them and a hasty retreat back to the original hilltop begins. 1st Lieutenant Edward Godfrey, commanding Company K, shows outstanding leadership by covering the retreat of the badly exposed force. Godfrey orders his men to dismount, forming two skirmish lines some distance apart. The first line, 12-15 men, fires in volley on command, falling back behind the second line and then sets up again. The second line then fires on command and follows suit.

Godfrey and his men’s disciplined rear guard action prevented the Indians overrunning Reno’s command. It should be noted that Lt. Godfrey had performed the very same fighting retreat at the Washita, some eight years previous.

Back on the hilltop, known today as Reno’s Hill, chaos reigned. But it was time for someone to take charge and everyone knew it. This was no time to argue over protocol and procedure. Some thousands of Indian warriors were descending upon them in short order. Fred Benteen stepped up and took the reins of command. He was the leader we all hope for when the chips are down.

Over the next day and a half the Indians besieged Reno’s command, working their way in close and sniping continuously. Fred Benteen was the man of the hour. He organized a defensive perimeter, leading mounted charges when the Indians sapped in too close and walked the line, encouraging where needed and chewing out the frightened and inattentive. Even those who didn’t like him remembered his exceptional courage.

Enduring a siege is a difficult thing. There is constant danger – and there is time to think. “Where was Custer?” It was on everyone’s mind and the constant topic of conversation. Fred Benteen knew where Custer was. And he did not hesitate to speak his mind, reminding one and all of Custer’s past abandonments of his men, both at the Washita and during Hancock’s expedition through Kansas/Nebraska in 1867.

Joel Elliott and the troopers of his ill-fated command became a ghostly presence haunting the minds of the men enduring the siege, especially Fred Benteen. Joel Elliott had been the 7th Cavalry’s first Major, Marcus Reno’s predecessor. At the Battle of the Washita some eight years earlier, Major Joel Elliott had led an independent command of some twenty troopers in pursuit of Indians making an escape from the village. Elliott and his men did not return.

The day of the Washita, surrounded by a burning village and the on-going slaughter of Indian ponies, Fred Benteen had heated arguments with George Custer. Benteen angrily confronted Custer about the missing men. Benteen wanted to take a force, one or two companies of troopers, and make a sweep looking for Elliott and the missing troopers. Custer refused. Custer said not only no, he said hell no!

Benteen never forgave Custer, his mounting dislike and contempt turning to hate that cold November day in the Oklahoma Territory. Some weeks later the naked and butchered bodies of Elliott and his men were found, frozen and still lying in the defensive circle where they had died, besieged just like the men of Reno’s command now were. Afterward, Benteen accused Custer of leaving Elliott and his men to die on the altar of Custer’s fame. He felt that Custer used them as decoys, allowing the full force of the Indian counterattack to fall on Elliott while Custer made an easy exit, returning to Camp Supply and declaring victory. In Benteen’s mind, and that of many others, Custer had left the men of Reno’s command here in the same circumstances as Elliott. Knowing Custer as many of the more experienced did, few doubted that Custer would do just that.

But on the morning of June 27, the Indians were gone and there was a dust cloud on the horizon. Scouts were sent out and soon made contact with Col. John Gibbon leading a mixed force of infantry and cavalry, approximately four hundred men from Fort Ellis in the Montana Territory. Sometime later General Terry rode into camp. Along with the sighs of relief from the besieged troopers, there were angry questions – “Where was Custer?”

Alfred Terry, clearly distraught, attempted to answer those asking that question:

“To the best of my knowledge and belief, he lies on a ridge about four miles below here – with all his command killed.”

Benteen snorted in angry disbelief, answering General Terry:

“I can hardly believe it. I think he is somewhere down the Bighorn grazing his horses. At the Battle of the Washita, he went off and left his command and I think he would do it again.”

Terry looked at him, saying:

“I think you are mistaken, and you will take your command and go down where the dead are lying and investigate for yourself.”

And so it was that Captain Fred Benteen led a column of 7th Cavalry troopers out. They cut the trail of Custer’s route, following it until the smell led them to the bodies. Just like Elliott’s men before, the bodies were lying naked, butchered and mutilated in grotesque fashion, covered with flies after two days lying in the sun. It is likely that the shoulder strap in James Cook’s collection, Sgt. Frank Varden (?), came from a uniform scavenged by the Sioux engaged in stripping and mutilating these bodies.

When Custer’s body was found, the soldiers signaled Benteen. Benteen galloped over to the site and looking down at the body, said – “That surely is General Custer.”

In the days that followed, the nation was shocked at the story of Custer’s Last Stand. The media of the day buzzed. Alarmed reports of rampaging Sioux shook western settlements, though the reports were patently false. It seemed that the great Sioux village had disappeared into the vast prairie and remained hidden. In fact the Sioux had gone north, taking refuge in the sanctuary of Canada, safe for the moment from any vengeance by an enraged US Army.

As calm returned to the nation, the story of the battle began to take shape. Captain Fred Benteen began to receive the national acclaim and appreciation that had never before been his lot. Newspaper headlines hailed him, calling him “The Savior of the 7th”. It was universal acclaim, from the knowledgeable and the ignorant both.

In his official report on the action, Major Marcus Reno, no big fan of Benteen’s, wrote:

“. . . but the conspicuous services of Brevet Colonel F.W. Benteen I desire to call attention to especially, for if ever a soldier deserved recognition by his Government for distinguished services he does.”

Lt. Francis Gibson wrote his wife:

“If it hadn’t been for Benteen every one of us would have been massacred. Reno did not know which end he was standing on . . . I think Benteen is one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known.”

The curious, the hucksters and the celebrity seekers besieged Benteen. In an attempt to use his fame, the Army temporarily assigned him to recruiting duty back in Chicago. But he was without his Kate, lonely for her, and increasingly unhappy with this new found fame. He was back at Ft. Abraham Lincoln for the winter of 1876-77. Surrounded by the admiring and appreciative officers and men he had fought with and living with his wife and young son, it was probably the happiest time in his life.

And then Frederick Whittaker and Libby Custer changed all that. Frederick Whittaker was a writer churning out dime novels, the distant ancestors of comic books. But Mr. Whittaker aspired to something more. Six months after the Little Big Horn, Frederick Whittaker published “A Complete Life of General George A Custer”. It was a mish mash of plagiarized and inaccurate writing that aspired to be a stirring eulogy to a fallen hero.

But it had something else as well. It contained a few first hand details of the events surrounding events before and after the battle, details that very probably came from Libbie Custer. The book also had a theme, a case to make. Custer was a martyr, a hero, betrayed by cowardly and willfully insubordinate officers. Whittaker said Marcus Reno was a drunken coward. He painted a lurid picture of Fred Benteen as a disloyal and bitter officer who had purposefully abandoned Custer to his fate.

Given the notoriety of the battle, the book became an immediate best seller. Various politicians sensing opportunity to grind axes with the Army began demanding a congressional inquiry into the events surrounding what was now being called “the Big Horn debacle”. The controversy developed a life of its own and began growing into something that couldn’t be ignored.

It was now that Libby Custer grew into her genius. She had beauty, she had charm, she had brains and she used them. Newspaper editors and reporters loved her. Libby became a national figure, the widow Custer. She kept the pot boiling. Libby was Kris Jenner before there was reality television.

Too many survivors of “the Big Horn debacle” were around, united in their admiration for Benteen, for that particular story line to gain traction, at least in the beginning. But Marcus Reno was another case. Quotes and stories from survivors began to circulate about Marcus Reno and his actions the day of the fight and during the siege, anonymous and some not so anonymous.

During this time, Marcus Reno did not help himself. He drank to excess, even beyond the fairly high standards of alcohol consumption set by Army officers in frontier postings. And then he really shot himself in the foot. He made “unwanted advances” on the wife of a fellow officer who was on out patrol resulting in a public court martial. Reno was acquitted but it added to the fire.

Reno found himself a figure of national ridicule. The Army was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this whole circus of unwanted publicity, publicity they had no control over. They were becoming even more uncomfortable with the idea of congressional investigations. During these years, relationships between the Army and Congress were not good. There were bills with strong support before Congress reducing Army staff and strength by 25%. The Army had fought hard to get control of the Indian agencies some years before and now Congress was talking about turning those agencies over to the Interior Department again. Things were getting nasty in the Washington trenches.

And so in an effort to regain control of the situation, the Army opened a Court of Inquiry in January of 1879, specifically called to examine and cast judgment on the performance of Major Marcus Reno. For twenty-six days, the principal survivors of the “Big Horn debacle” testified in a military tribunal as to the facts. This tribunal was held in a meeting room at the most luxurious hotel in Chicago, the Palmer House.

Select newspaper reporters were allowed into the courtroom. Attorney Lyman Gilbert, a sharp and ambitious lawyer from Pennsylvania, represented Marcus Reno. It appears that the Ross family did not want any dirt to come their way from their now estranged relationship with Marcus Reno at the “Big Horn debacle”. The Army’s courtroom attorney charged with questioning witnesses was a young lieutenant with no legal or courtroom experience. Frederick Whittaker was outside, demanding “certain questions be asked”. Major General Phil Sheridan, otherwise known as “God” in the Frontier Army, had his rooms in the same hotel as the Inquiry.

As you might expect, it had the elements of a circus, a cover-up and a white wash as well as a sometimes honest attempt to uncover the truth of the events. Testimony was often self-serving, contradictory, prone to misdirection – sometimes revealing most times confusing. Pretty much everything we know about “the Big Horn debacle” comes from the testimony given during that Inquiry.

The Court of Inquiry ended on February 10, 1879. The official judgment of the court upon Major Reno was:

“The conduct of the officers throughout was excellent, and while subordinates in some instances did more for the safety of the command by brilliant displays of courage than did Major Reno, there was nothing in his conduct which required animadversion (criticism) from this court.”

Marcus Reno was exonerated and the Army had done its duty. Life could move on. And so it did. “The Big Horn debacle” entered the realm of myth. It became a cottage industry for Libby Custer. She did lecture tours, she wrote books, she was a celebrity. She lived well into the 20th Century, finally passing in 1933 at the age of 90. More than anyone else she has shaped our memory of that Sunday afternoon.

Back when the United States was interested in its history, “The Big Horn debacle”, i.e. Custer’s Last Stand, was a recurring topic, a touchstone everyone knew about. Movies, TV shows, books and magazine articles plowed its memories and stories again and again. Just as Libby wanted, our ideas and our historical memory were all about Custer. Some thought him a martyred hero, a man to be admired and looked up to. Others thought him a madman for attacking when so outmanned, forgetting his easy success at the Washita in similar circumstances.

Sometimes my Dad and I would go to the John Deere dealer to get parts for a broken down tractor. On our way back we would often stop at a bar for refreshment, Dad for a cold one and me for a soda. I spent a lot of time contemplating Budweiser’s take on Custer’s Last Stand, a poster on the wall above the bar. Any American male in mid-20th Century had an opinion about Custer’s Last Stand.

Life for the surviving actors in “The Big Horn debacle” went on. Captain Thomas Weir, who should have ridden with Custer and who argued with Reno about riding to the guns, fell into deep depression and heavy drinking. He wrote letters to Libby Custer hinting at dark secrets regarding her husband’s death. Barely six months afterward, he was found dead in his room.

Lt. Edward Godfrey, the man leading the rear guard action that allowed Benteen the needed time to organize and save the remnants of Reno’s command eventually reached the rank of Brigadier General, retiring in 1907. Along the way, he fought with distinction in America’s wars, winning the Medal of Honor for his leadership at the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain the year following “the Big Horn debacle”.

Marcus Reno’s life went from bad to worse it seems. Though the Court of Inquiry exonerated him, he had been found guilty in the court of public opinion and in the eyes of his fellow soldiers. Just months after the Court of Inquiry, he was court martialed again for “conduct unbecoming an officer while drunk” for which he was convicted and dismissed from the Army. He had been found peeping into the window of his commanding officer’s teenage daughter while drunk.

Reno died ten years later of pneumonia while hospitalized for cancer. Those ten years had seen remarriage, turbulent family life including the disintegration his son’s life and divorce. He was buried in a temporary grave until he could be buried with his first wife, which the Ross family blocked. Reno remained in his “temporary” resting place.

In 1967, his great nephew petitioned to have Reno’s court martial reopened. A military review board reversed the decision of Reno’s dismissal, granting him an honorable discharge. Thereupon, Reno’s remains were taken from his “temporary” grave and re-interred at the Custer National Cemetery with full honors including an eleven gun salute on the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Reno is the only man to be buried with full military honors at the cemetery containing the soldiers who died at “the Big Horn debacle”.

I don’t think Fred Benteen ever really recovered. Life did not seem fair to Fred Benteen. As the legend of George Custer grew into mythic proportions, fanned by Libbie Custer, his bitterness grew and became deeply entrenched. Whatever the truth was, he knew a different one.

The year following the “Big Horn debacle”, Benteen was singled out and brevetted for gallantry at the Battle of Canyon Creek. No promotions though. I wonder what he thought. Eventually, in 1882 Benteen was finally promoted to Major – and assigned to the 9th Cavalry at the “idyllic” wilderness of Ft. DuChesne in Utah, a combination of bleak post, fractious political situation and difficult commander.

By all accounts Benteen made a good job of it, handling the Ute Indians, the Morman population, George Crook his difficult commander and the buffalo soldiers of the 9th Cavalry well. But Benteen also spent more and more time with the bottle. He was court martialed for being “drunk and disorderly” in 1887 at Ft. DuChesne. Convicted, he faced dismissal from the Army, but in view of his services President Grover Cleveland reduced the sentence to a one year suspension. Perhaps unable to once more face life in the political minefield of NE Utah or simply worn out by war wounds and a urinary system enflamed by decades of riding a horse, he retired to Atlanta, Georgia at the end of his year’s suspension.

Was Fred Benteen bitter because George Custer became an iconic hero by taking two hundred and sixty men to their grave seeking glory while Benteen had saved the rest from certain death for which action he had been relegated back to the obscurity of mean frontier postings? Perhaps he wondered as many others have done, if Fred Benteen had led the charge on the village rather than Marcus Reno, the battle on the Big Horn might have been another Washita, a victory that even further enhancing the legend that was Custer. Or was it because Fred Benteen might have done more to save Custer and his doomed command but had been blinded by his own wounded pride?

Fred Benteen died in Atlanta in 1898 with his pallbearers including the Mayor of Atlanta and the Governor of Georgia. His only surviving child, a son, entered a career in the Army, retiring as a Lt. Col and surpassing his father’s rank.

Fred Benteen was a man like the rest of us, a collection of virtues and weaknesses. He had often acted in a selfless manner, doing his best for his men or his family. Phil Sheridan himself, hero of the Civil War and future Army Chief of Staff, credited Fred Benteen for saving his career by showing kindness to himself as an out of favor captain in the early days of the Civil War. Benteen had turned down honors and advancement that he felt he did not merit. He had undoubted courage and leadership, demonstrated again and again in tight situations. But he had a streak of bitterness, was capable of holding grudges and often said what better politicians would leave unsaid.

If Benteen would have written his own epitaph it might be in his own words taken from a letter to his wife. Benteen writes that his career in the Army has been “a harvest of barren regrets . . . spent following the brazen trumpet”.

But others would have a different view of Fred Benteen and his career. General Hugh Scott, Army Chief of Staff during WWI, served as a young lieutenant fresh out of West Point with Fred Benteen. In his memoirs, he wrote:

“I found my model early in Captain Benteen, the idol of the 7th Cavalry on the Upper Missouri in 1877, who governed mainly by suggestion; in all the years I knew him I never once heard him raise his voice . . . He would sit by the open fire at night, his bright pleasant face framed by his snow-white hair, beaming with kindness and humor. . . If he found that this kindly manner were misunderstood, then his iron hand would close down quickly, but that was seldom necessary, and then only with newcomers and never twice with the same person. Benteen’s policy, which I adopted in 1877, has paid me large dividends.”



For more on Bred Benteen, George Custer and the 7th Cavalry – try An Afternoon Along the Washita River   —

One Response to “The Big Horn Debacle”

  1. Morris Knorr says:

    Do you have a source for Custer and Benteen arguing about who gets D Company? I have one, more and possibly better will help.

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