The Court of Inquiry of Major Reno

Prefatory Material

Not a military court martial, the Court of Inquiry adjourned in 1878-1879 under pressure from Frederick Whittaker’s biography on the life of George Armstrong Custer. Accusations against Marcus Reno’s behavior at the Battle of the Little Bighorn were prominent in the press of day and Whittaker’s work only served to fuel the outrage.

Reno initiated the Inquiry by his own request in an attempt to clear himself of the popular allegations, including cowardice and drunkenness during the fight. Unfortunately for Marcus Reno, the Court of Inquiry served to fuel the flames of conspiracy and government cover up.

My understanding of the proceedings is that a General Courts Martial could be called within two years of the event, but by demanding a Court of Inquiry, Reno effectively demonstrated that the government did not have the evidence to proceed to a court martial, nor did they have the allowance of time under military law to proceed with a formal trial.

Much of the testimony during the Court of Inquiry was not adequately preserved and over time degraded to such a poor state that some estimates by researches suggest that up to 40% has been lost to history. The official military records even include newspaper clippings of the period as part of the record due to popular interest and the lack of reliable court reporting. In our present climate, it would arguably not be a case to use as a basis for proper legal proceedings, unless a person was committed to showing how to avoid recording a case.

In 1933, under the authority of the Office of the Judge Advocate General command, Colonel William A. Graham created a typed copy of approximately 1600 pages. His secretary, Helen J. Bury and Frances J. Burke were directed to create as an exact record as possible of the existing records and newspaper clippings. Despite claims to the contrary1), the text is not searchable and creates an extraordinary burden on researchers under the belief that the text is available for easy research.

As such, according to US Copyright Law, a work of the United States government is not protected domestically, although the government may in some cases retain copyright under certain circumstances internationally. Government content is also free from protection when creative content is derived from works where those works are created by a government employee: “A “work of the United States Government” is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.”2)

In 1955, the Stackpole Company republished their own version of Colonel Graham’s abstract of the Reno Court of Inquiry. I am not using their version since that would enter copyright issues I would rather avoid.

I have made grammatical corrections and changes to military ranks to read more easily. I've also taken the liberty to insert question marks to make the questions of Major Reno and the Court Recorder fit with more contemporary formatting expectations.

To my knowledge, no truly text-searchable, digital copy of this information exists. Upon completion of the entire 1600 page document, I plan to consolidate it with more appropriate chapter divisions and an index.

Audit: This work to date has taken 3589 minutes to produce. I hope researchers find value in this effort.



JUNE 25-26, 1876

Q. Q. 979


The Chicago “Times” issue of January 23, 1879, published the following interview with Frederick Whittaker, then present in the Chicago in anticipation of his being permitted to assist Recorder Lee in the presentation of the case against Major Reno. The interview is captions: “COL. RENO’S PROSECUTOR”’ and reads and follows:

A Times reporter met Mr. Frederick Whittaker, the gentleman who has been so well advertised of late as the official accuser of Maj. Reno, at the Palmer House last night, and entered into a conversation with him in regard to the circumstances that led to the trial. Mr. Whittaker served as an officer in General Merritt's division, under Sheridan, in the valley, and is, therefore, thoroughly competent to speak on matters pertaining to the cavalry branch of the service. He did not, however, go into any criticism of the manner in which the troops were maneuvered on the day of the battle, but confined himself to a brief statement of the circumstances which led to the present investigation, and a few facts which render his action plainer then has yet appeared. He also stated that this trial will not end the matter, and cleared Col. Benteen of the charge of disobedience of orders. Mr. Whittaker's statement, as drawn forth by the reportorial questions, was as follows:

  • “While I was preparing material for the biography of Gen. Custer, in 1876, I became acquainted with the facts attending the Custer Massacre, and I entered into correspondence with various parties present at the battle, with a view to elicit anything which might throw light on the causes of the disaster. When I commenced to work my only materials were the official report of Maj. Reno and such newspaper accounts as had been published, mostly founded on hearsay evidence. My first suspicions that all the circumstances of the battle had not been correctly stated arose from a letter in a New York paper written from the frontier by a gentleman with whom I am personally acquainted. The statements in that letter led me to doubt whether Gen. Custer had been properly supported, and whether his orders had been obeyed by his officers so fully as to insure success. With that letter as a clue, I addressed a series of inquiries to the officers whom I knew to have been prominent in the battle, asking certain specific and detailed questions. My first answer to these letters came from Maj. Reno, stating that he had been shown one of these communications by an officer or his command, and offering me an explanation of his conduct, substantially the same as the present theory of his defense. Only one of the officers to whom I wrote replied, and his letter, while in its expressions of opinion it supported Maj. Reno, agreed in its statements of fact with the newspaper letter to which I have referred as first EXCITING MY SUSPICIONS. Since that time I have had considerable correspondence with a great many people who were present at the fight, and on the information so obtained I wrote the account of the battle which appeared in my “Life of Custer,’ published in December, 1876.
  • At that time my knowledge was not exact to justify me in a formal official accusation of any person, but in the book itself and in several letters published in the New York and other eastern papers, in every case over ray own signature, I declared the necessity of investigation and challenged Maj. Reno thereto. The major was in New York City on the day the book was published, knew my address, and was fully aware or the nature of my accusations, but he took no notice thereof.
  • “Ever since then I have been receiving new information, until, in 1878, I thought that my case was about complete. I then addressed my letter to Mr. Corlett, much the same as already published. That letter was referred to the House Military Committee, and a favorable report was prepared thereon; but, owing to the press of business at the close of the last session of Congress, no opportunity occurred to offer it in the House, also it went over to the present session as unfinished business. Since that time the Military authorities have taken the matter out of the hands of the House and ordered the present .court, and in deference to the wishes of others I have made no effort to push the matter further in the present House. I came to Chicago at the request of the court, at a considerable sacrifice of time and money, leaving much important business unattended to, solely in the hope of securing justice for the memory of Gen. Custer, by bringing to light THE TRUTH ABOUT THE: BATTLE. OF THE; LITILE BIG HORN am the campaign in which the general met his death. Since I have been here I have become satisfied that the scope of the present inquiry and the orders by which the court is limited are too narrow to insure the revelation of all the facts bearing on the question or who is responsible for the Custer disaster. I have, therefore, made application for a further and fuller investigation in the highest tribunal of the country, - the Senate of the United States, - and private letters from Washington assure me that this application will in all probability soon be granted. As regards the question of Maj. Reno's guilt or innocence, I am satisfied that the present court is doing all in its power to probe the truth to the bottom, and I came •here to aid them as far as lay in my power. I must, of course, decline to express an opinion on the merit~ of the controversy between myself and Maj. Reno while the cause is still pending.
  • “With regard, however, to COL. BENTEEN, the case is different. I have heretofore publicly charged Col. Benteen with disobedience of an order sent by Gen. Custer to move up to his support “quickly.” For two years my impression, derived from the testimony of an officer now dead, was that Col. Benteen advanced slowly to the field of action. That impression was strengthened from various causes from mc>nth to month and still further strengthened by the statement of another officer, only a few days since, who, however, I now think misapprehended the exact drift of my question. Only two days ago I saw for the first time the man who carried the order to Benteen, and who remained with his• command in its advance to the field of action. I learned from this men for the first time that Col. Benteen took the trot on his advance. From the moment that he reached the hill and reported to Maj. Reno his responsibility ceased. I therefore desire to state, as publicly as I made the accusation that I consider Col. Benteen wholly blameless for the disaster of the Little Big Horn; and I have already so stated in my application to the Senate. I make this correction in justice both to the living and the dead. That is all l care about saying at present.”


Column 1, page introduced; column 2, page reproduced.

No. 1. Major Reno’s request for a Court of Inquiry, including Frederick Whittaker’s open letter, fully set out in introductory chapter, pp. III, IV and V.

No. 2. Battlefield map drawn to scale 3” = 1 mile, under supervision of General Terry’s Engineer Officer, Lt. Edward Maguire. Reproduced to scale 1 11/32” = 1 mile, from photostat of original used at the Inquiry. The northwest section, the site of Custer’s Last Stand (erroneously designed northeast section in caption) has been enlarged to 5 3/8” = 1 mile. Point “C”, marking right flank of Reno’s skirmish line not shown, being obliterated on original map.

No. 3. Questions submitted by Frederick Whittaker to be propounded to witness George Herendeen.

No. 4. Major Reno’s official report.

No. 5. Reno’s message to Terry appealing for aid.

No. 6. List of casualties submitted with Reno’s report.

No. 7. Capt. Nowlan’s 1877 sketch map of Custer’s battlefield.

No. 8. Major Reno’s request to be allowed to testify.

No. 9. Letter of Adjutant General transmitting to Major Reno, General Sherman’s remarks re-petition of enlisted survivors of the battle.

No. 10. Petition of 246 surviving enlisted men, asking regimental promotion for Major Reno and Captain Benteen.

No. 11. General Sherman’s action on the petition.


Designations of page numbers made when witnesses modified or corrected testimony, as found at pages 81, 92, 113, etc., herein, do not refer to the paging of this volume, but to that of the original official record.


P. 157. A. #4, line 2 - Read “started” for “stated”

P. 161, Q. #1, line 1 - Read “than” for “thean”

P. 198. A. #1, line 3 - Read “until” for “tunil”

P. 302. A. #4, line 2 - Read “led” for “lead”

P. 344. A. #1, line 1 - Elide entirely, repetition

P. 363. A. #8, line 11 - Read “skulking” for “sulking”

P. 515. A. #5, line 1 - Read “Sire for “Sire”

P. 551, line 4 - Read “fell” for “feel’

P. 551, line 14 - Read “indication” for “indicateion”

The following map (Exhibit 2) is referenced from the beginning of the Court of Inquiry. It seemed appropriate to add this Exhibit early.


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