Major Reno Vindicated

Major Reno Vindicated

An Interesting Analysis Justifying His Conduct of the Fight in the River Bottom and Timber, During the Battle of the Little Big Horn, June 25-26, 1876, Commonly Referred to as “Custer's Last Fight.”

Two hundred and fifty copies published by E. A. Brininstool, at his expense, and with the permission of Col. W. A. Graham, Judge Advocate, U.S.A., to correct the false and malicious stories circulated about Major M. A. Reno, criticizing his fight in the river bottom and timber, at the battle of the Little Big Horn, June 25, 1876.


FOR more than fifty-five years—ever since I was old enough to read and form an intelligent opinion on; any subject—I have been a most interested student of the celebrated battle of the Little Big Horn. I believe I have read everything that has ever been printed on the subject, including all the government reports; I have talked with several of the men and officers who fought in the Seventh Cavalry those 25th and 26th days of June, 1876, on the Little Big Horn, and many of the Sioux who battled against them; I have been over the entire battlefield several times; have photographed everything pertaining to the lay of the land where the three separate and distinct engagements occurred on the days mentioned. I have the complete report of the Reno Court of Inquiry held at Chicago in 1879, which gives the questions and answers to and from every witness who testified; I have letters galore written by Captain Benteen, Col. Varnum, General Godfrey and Mrs. Custer, as well as from enlisted men of the Seventh Cavalry, and I have written and published many articles myself, in book and pamphlet form, pertaining to “Custer's last fight.”

At the 50th anniversary of the battle of the Little Big Horn, in 1926, I was an interested, invited guest as a member of General E. S. Godfrey's National Committee which fostered this remarkable gathering—the like of which can never again be seen —at least with the same number of survivors, both red men and white—who fought in the battle. The only living officer today (1935) of Custer's old regiment is Col. Charles A. Varnum of San Francisco, who, in 1876, was a lieutenant in the 7th Cavalry. Few are left of the enlisted men of the old Seventh Cavalry who were present at the 50th anniversary in 1926. Many of the old Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who were there, have likewise passed away. It is indeed doubtful if within another ten years there will be a single living survivor, red or white, of that most talked-of Indian fight.

It is not my purpose here to go into the details of the battle of the Little Big Horn; but as for 59 years now, Major Marcus A. Reno (Custer's second in command) and Capt. F. W. Benteen (Custer's senior captain) have by many unscrupulous and prejudiced writers, been assailed and defamed and branded as having acted in a cowardly, unmilitary manner; having been criticized most unjustly “for not having gone to Custer's rescue,” and “not obeying Custer's orders”; and other foolish and utterly untrue charges having been hurled at them, until the general public has come to believe (until lately) that all these charges were true, it is high time that the real truth, the actual, undisputed facts, concerning the conduct of these officers be presented to the reading public.

Custer's separation of his regiment was his most fatal error. Likewise his failure, when such separation was made, to have a distinct understanding as to reuniting again, calls for much criticism.

What his idea was of sending Benteen, with three companies, “off to the left,” and putting him entirely away from a quick hurry-up call, with no instructions as to rejoining the regiment—and with the packtrain, carrying all the reserve ammunition, miles in HIS rear—has never been satisfactorily explained. Benteen called it “just a wild-goose chase—valley hunting.”

Custer's failure to support Major Reno's attack, after sending that officer into battle with only 112 men, has likewise never been explained; it never can be, as every man with Custer was killed. Custer's orders were: “Take as rapid a gait as you think prudent; charge afterwards and we will support you with the whole outfit.” The promised support never came. Without even sending Reno word of his intentions, Custer starts across hills, gulleys and ravines, for (apparently) the lower end of the great Indian village, and on the opposite side of the river from Reno!

And because Reno, with his pitiful little handful, did not keep right ahead through that Indian village, swarming with seasoned warriors, and ten times his own strength, in an effort to join Custer (when Reno had no knowledge of Custer's whereabouts!) he has been branded as a “cowardly poltroon” ! Because Major Reno had the sound common sense to get to a better defensive position than the timber afforded, and save what he could of his command, and because that position happened to be the high hills across the river, he has been charged with having “deserted Custer to his fate!”

Likewise Benteen has been similarly assailed. His traducers claim he was dilatory in obeying Custer's orders, carried by Trumpeter Martin, to “Come on; be quick; big village; bring packs.” Custer sends Benteen on a “wild-goose chase,” miles and miles away, beyond supporting distance, and then expects him, like a will-o'-the-wisp, to be able to fly to his defense in a few seconds!

Custer had no reason to expect Benteen to “bring on the packs.” Those were in charge of Capt. McDougall, several miles in Benteen's rear, and Custer knew it. Benteen lost no time in answering Custer's summons; he came on as fast as worn-out horses and weary men could come—and on the way he runs into Reno's befuddled command, and naturally he stops to help his superior officer. Neither Reno nor Benteen had any definite idea where Custer was, save that it was thought that he was down the river somewhere. Reno has also been assailed for not IMMEDIATELY upon reaching his hill position, attempting to locate Custer. When Reno's men reached the hills, Col. Varnum's statement to me is that “We did not average five cartridges to the man.” Reno's men would have looked upon it as a most foolish move to attempt to assist Custer with practically empty guns!

Had the Indians who assailed Reno known that the packtrain, with 24,000 extra rounds of ammunition, was a few miles in Benteen's rear, they could easily have left off fighting Reno, swarmed upstream and captured the packs in no time. It would have been an easy matter to have stampeded the ammunition mules and gobbled the whole outfit—and had this been done, nothing under God's heavens would have saved a single man of the entire Seventh Cavalry! It would have been “just pie” for the Sioux to have then surrounded the others and made mighty short work of them.

The whole affair was a most lamentable blunder from start to finish, or a series of blunders, every one of which was due to Custer himself; that cannot be contradicted.

En route to testify at the Reno Inquiry, in 1879, Captain Benteen was interviewed at St. Paul by a correspondent of the Chicago Times, whose printed report says: “While declining to state the nature of his evidence, he did say that he believed Reno did not deserve the charge of cowardice or treachery, but that he behaved as any other man would have acted, surrounded by the same circumstances. 'The fact is,' said Benteen, 'all the talk about Reno's being able to reinforce Custer is simply absurd. Custer himself was responsible for the Little Big Horn action, and it is an injustice to attribute the blame to anyone else.'” (Special dispatch to the Chicago Times from St. Paul, Minn., Jan. 12, 1879.)

Ten years ago, while putting the finishing touches to his most excellent and truthfully-written volume, “The Story of the Little Big Horn,” before its publication in 1926, Col. W. A. Graham, Judge Advocate, U.S.A., held spirited correspondence with many old Indian fighters. To one who, in common with General Nelson A. Miles, had severely criticized Major Reno's conduct during the fight in the valley, referring to him as a “cowardly poltroon,” Col. Graham wrote a reply, a copy of which lately came into my hands, and which I have his permission to publish. In deference to his wishes I have omitted the name of the addressee; but the Colonel has lately written me that this letter expresses the opinion he then held and still holds, with regard to Major Reno's part in the battle of the Little Big Horn.

Because the letter is so impartial and judicial an analysis of the whole situation, and so clearly demonstrates the unfairness and injustice of certain so called “historians” who have sought to cover up the fatal errors of General Custer which led to his defeat, by making Reno a scapegoat, I am publishing Col. Graham's letter, written in 1925, and offer it herewith, with these comments, which are entirely my own,as a valuable contribution to the military history of “Custer's Last Fight.”

E. A. BRININSTOOL. Los Angeles, Cal. March 23, 1935.


“March 18, 1925. “Dear Captain—:

  • (Two personal paragraphs omitted.)

“I cannot agree with you about Reno. Nor do I believe, if you will take the time to make a careful and comprehensive study of the fight in the valley, that you yourself would hold to the views you have expressed.

“I do not know whether you have read the testimony taken by the Reno Court of Inquiry at Chicago; but if you have, you cannot reach the conviction you now hold without discrediting the sworn statements of every military witness, whether called by the prosecution or the defense, who recounted what occurred in the valley. These were Wallace, Hare, Varnum, Moylan and DeRudio of the officers, and Sergeants Culbertson and Davern of the enlisted men.

“In all their testimony yon cannot find one word in criticism of Reno's action in halting and deploying in skirmish line, instead of charging headlong into the village. On the contrary, you will find only commendation, and unanimous agreement (italics mine. E.A.B.) that had he not done as he did, his little force would have been swallowed up and exterminated in five minutes.

“And you will find no criticism, but only approval of his action in getting out of the timber; and unanimous opinion that had he remained there, I without support (which he might have done a short time longer), his command would have been completely wiped out.

“I am not ready to agree that Reno was a 'cowardly poltroon' because he did what all these officers say was the only thing he could have done with the knowledge he had of the situation; and which they all agree, saved what was left of the regiment.

“I do not doubt that Reno was alarmed; that he was frightened, and lost his head during the retreat. But that fact does not justify any such charge against him. If every officer who gets alarmed and frightened during an action is a 'cowardly poltroon,' the Army is full of them, always has been and always will be.

“The test—if one wishes to be fair and impartial —should be, not —was he scared? Nor—might he not have done something else? But, did he do what, under the circumstances which confronted him, he ought to have done? I think he did, up to the time that his column reached the river in retreat. And I believe that you will think so, too, if you will study the situation with care, and with an open mind.

“You would not say that Wallace and Hare and Varnum and Moylan and DeRudio were all 'cowardly poltroons,” I feel sure. Yet, to be consistent, you must say either that, or that they willfully and deliberately perjured themselves at Chicago in 1879. And you would not say that, either. “The truth is—and I think you will recognize it when you think it over—that most of the criticism and condemnation of Reno comes from men who were not with him in the valley, and whose ideas upon that matter were based on hearsay, not always too accurate; and upon the natural disdain that arose from his passing of the buck to Benteen, as soon as the latter came up. “I hold no brief for Reno, but I believe in giving even the devil his due; and it is not necessary to attack and condemn Reno in order to account for what happened to Custer. (Italics are Col. G's.)

“Don't forget that Reno's 112 were opposed in the valley by not more than twenty-five percent of the Indians at any time. There never were to exceed eight or nine hundred of them. The rest— fully 2500 to 3000, were attacking Custer before Reno's retreat got under way. There was no hope for Custer from the moment he abandoned his intention to support Reno from the rear. His command was doomed as soon as it rode down the river. If he, with five companies, was unable to even reach the river, what chance had Reno, with three, to charge through the camp? (Italics Col. G's.) The idea is absurd. There were enough Indians there to defeat the whole Seventh Cavalry, just as Crook had been defeated the week before at the Rosebud fight.

“Was Crook a 'cowardly poltroon' because he, realizing that they [the Indians] were too strong for his force — much larger than the Seventh Cavalry and not divided into far-separated detachments — withdrew? And there were fewer Indians against Crook than were then against the Seventh, for several large bands had joined Sitting Bull during that week.

“I don't think you can compare Forsyth's Beecher Island fight with the Little Big Horn fight at all. Forsyth's men were all picked men, while the Seventh was from thirty to forty percent raw recruits, who had never been in the field before. Forsyth, moreover, was entirely alone, cornered, and had to fight to the death, whether or no. Reno could get out, and had a chance at least to rejoin the rest of the regiment. The two situations are in no sense comparable.

“Now, Captain, put yourself in Reno's place for a minute. Just forget all you know of what happened afterward, and confine your estimate to the situation as it had developed up to the time he made his retreat. (Italics Col. G's.)

“What are the facts?

“Custer's order was, ' Take as rapid a gait as you think prudent and charge afterwards; and the whole outfit will support you.' That's the only order he ever got. He starts, reaches the river, and sends word twice to Custer that 'the enemy is in force in my front.' Nothing comes back from Custer. Reno has every reason to believe that Custer is following him in support. He gets down the valley two miles from his crossing. He finds himself confronted by a force of Indians which outnumbers him ten to one. He can see that the village is an immense one, and that there are hordes of Indians in the distance. His scouts, who form his left flank, run, as soon as the Sioux attack. His left flank is in the air, and Sioux by hundreds are massing there and to his rear.

“I concede that he might have gone on, just as the Light Brigade went on at Balaklava. But the promised support was not coming, as everyone could see. To go on meant that in less than a minute he would be in the midst of a thousand warriors, which you aptly describe as 'the finest light cavalry in the world.' They were not only ready for him, but inviting him to continue his advance. His little command wouldn't have lasted five minutes if he had gone a thousand yards further. It would have been utter lunacy to have gone on.

“When he halted, remember, Custer was on his way down the river, on the other side. He was not attacked for a good half hour after Reno halted and dismounted. If Reno had charged into the village, his command would have been wiped out and gone the better part of a half hour before Custer reached the point where the Sioux met him. His failure to charge, therefore, could not and did not have any bearing whatever on what happened to Custer. Its only result was to prevent the annihilation of his [Reno's] own battalion. “What did he do next? “He formed a skirmish line, dismounted, and that line advanced a hundred yards or more, and until the nearest tepees were within range, for many of his bullets reached them. As soon as he did this, the Indians massed against his left flank, and came into the timber, where he had put his horses, from right flank and rear.

“What did he do then?

“He took G Troop off the line and put it in the timber to protect the horses, and Moylan (A Troop) extended to the right to fill the gap. And this extension made the line so weak that the left flank was crushed in, and he was forced to change front, and bring the line in to the edge of the timber.

“So far, certainly, he has done nothing that indicates cowardice and poltroonery. He has preserved his command from utterly useless and senseless sacrifice, and has it in a position where the support, which Custer had promised, can reach it. I call that good leadership, so far. Can you find any flaw in it? I think not.

“How long did he stay out in the open, in skirmish line?

“You know how long military movements take. Figure it out. Could it have taken less than fifteen or twenty minutes to do the things he did? He did all these things—not one right after another as if on a schedule, but as the necessity for them developed. You have had long experience in handling troops. I have had a little myself. But we both know that situations do not develop, nor are troop movements made, in an instant.

“What next?

“He is on the bench now, his men along the edge of the timber, as far as they will reach. So far, only one casualty. He finds that he has not enough men to cover the position and keep the Indians out of the timber. If he puts his men at the long intervals necessary to line the edge of the timber, they will be so far apart as to be beyond supporting distance —and also beyond control of his officers. The Indians are creeping up along the front; they are slipping into the woods on the right, and from the rear. He is being fired on from all sides, and Custer's promised support still does not come! (Italics Col. G's.)

“I grant you that Forsyth, with his picked and experienced men, might have held that timber as long as their ammunition lasted, and that they would not have wasted ammunition. But do you think it was possible to exercise any great firecontrol— always a difficult thing, even with the best of troops—over a command that was forty per cent raw recruits, every one of whom was probably scared stiff!(Italics mine. E.A.B.)

“All the time—and don't lose sight of this—Reno and his officers and men expected to see Custer come charging through from the rear. They had no reason to believe that he would not do what his order promised. They had no reason to be very sparing of ammunition, so far as they knew; and there would have been no need of it had Custer supported the attack. (Italics mine. E.A.B.)

“How long was Reno in the timber?

“It is hard to tell; but at least as long as he was on the plain. And long enough to become convinced (from the fact that in every direction from which support could come, the country was full of Indians), that Custer was not coming!

“He made up his mind to get out and go where he had a chance to save his command, and to connect with other parts of the regiment. For this you condemn him! (Italics mine. E.A.B.)

“Well, let's see: If he had stayed there half an hour longer (if not wiped out by that time), Benteen's command would have come along, following Custer's trail (not Reno's) and might, or might not, have discovered where he was. But don't overlook the fact that Reno didn't know that Benteen was coming; and Benteen, on the other hand, didn't know that Reno was across the river, in the timber. (Italics mine. E.A.B.) “By the time Benteen could have crossed the river and gotten to where Reno was, IF he had stayed there, it would have been at least as late in the afternoon as when Benteen did join him on the hill, or after 4:30. Probably later, as Benteen would have had to fight his way through.

“By the time that the remnants of Benteen's battalion had joined him (conceding that he could have cut his way through), he must have used much of his ammunition, lost some horses and had some casualties. Upon joining Reno (after 4:30) the two together might have made a charge into the village, leaving their wounded in the timber.

“Suppose they had done so. Custer was already hotly engaged, and had been for some time, and was at least three miles away, on the other side of the river. (Italics mine. E.A.B.) The combined force of Reno and Benteen might have created sufficient diversion in Custer's favor to have drawn from him a part of the Indian force. Whether it could have been done soon enough to have saved any considerable part of Custer's command, is problematical, and I think rather doubtful. I think most of Custer's command was dead by the time it was possible for Benteen to have joined Reno in the timber (conceding for the sake of speculation that he would have tried to do so.)

“You say in your comments that you do not think it possible to have done anything for Custer after Benteen and Reno united on the hill. HOW', then, would it have been possible to do anything more, had Reno remained in the timber and Benteen had joined him there, after fighting his way through? The time element, to say nothing of others, is more unfavorable to the chance in the latter case than in the former.

“No, Captain, I don't think it was 'in the cards,' however played, to have saved Custer's command. From the time he divided the regiment and separated the various detachments so widely, without any plan for co-operation, what happened was bound to happen. The enemy was too strong—too cohesive—too confident —too well equipped. The Seventh Cavalry could not have beaten them. Why not admit it?

“Supposing, however, that Benteen had joined Reno in the timber, and the two together had charged into the village. They had at least two miles of village to go through before reaching a point anywhere near Custer, whose whereabouts they did not know and could not have known. (Italics Col. G's.)

“It is within the bounds of possibility, I grant you, that the Indians might have left what remained of Custer's command, if any, to oppose them. And what was then left of Custer's command (if they had any horses, ammunition or spirit left), might have crossed the river and tried to fight through to the south. What chance would either force have had to fight through to the other?

“And in the meantime, what would have become of the packtrain which had all of the reserve ammunition?

“But Reno didn't stay in the timber—so all this speculation is beside the point. I have merely called to your attention some grave objections to your assumption that IF he had remained there, and IF Benteen had joined him there, and IF together they had charged the village, it might have saved Custer's battalion.

“When Reno decided to get out and re-cross the river, both you and General X seem to be under the belief that he made a break, and that officers and men followed, helter-skelter, each man for himself. But this is very far from the fact, unless again all the military witnesses at Chicago deliberately perjured themselves. Wallace, Hare, Moylan and Varnum all describe what was done —how the word was passed to get to the horses—how the companies were formed in the clearing—how the Indians who had gotten into the timber fired into them point-blank, killing Bloody Knife at Reno's side, and mortally wounding another; how they broke from the timber and formed on the plain in column of fours, and with pistols drawn, cut their way to the river. It's all in that testimony, and perfectly clear, if you read it with an unbiased mind.

[Reno, Marcus A., 1835-1889, (Marcus Albert) / The official record of a court of inquiry convened at Chicago, Illinois, January 13, 1879, by the President of the United States upon the request of Major Marcus A. Reno, 7th U.S. Cavalry, to investigate his conduct at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876.]

“And I am free to say, that in my opinion, based upon the most careful and painstaking study, with no reason in the world to be biased one way or the other, Reno, up to the moment that Bloody Knife was shot down by his side, and the Sioux fired a pointblank volley into his troops, had done only what a capable commander should have done in the circumstances.

“At that point, however, he became excited and lost his head. He broke out of the woods, instead of waiting to collect all his men— many of whom, belonging to G Troop, were scattered through the timber; and once out, the companies were hastily formed into columns and the retreat began. “And it was just as I have described it. The head of the column reached the river in very good order; but along the length, what with the Indians firing into it, it became a rout, a panic at the rear.

“And what happened to Reno's column on this retreat gives you a very fair picture of what would have happened to Benteen's, had he tried to cut through to Reno in the timber (supposing Reno to have remained there.) “The character of the retreat is the only thing that can rightly be charged against Reno. And even that, the evidence showed, was intended by him, and understood by everybody, to be a charge, to cut through the surrounding enemy and gain contact with the regiment. (Italics mine. E.A.B.)

“The most that can fairly be charged against Reno is that he became excited and lost his head when this charge or retreat began; that he failed to cover his crossing and temporarily lost control of his men. That much is true. But to blame him for the disaster to Custer is not only unfair and unnecessary, but, in the light of the demonstrated and demonstrable facts, most unjust. (Italics mine. E.A.B.)

Sincerely yours, (Signed) W. A. GRAHAM.


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