A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 8

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Major Reno's conduct on the first day of the fighting on the Little Big Horn, has been severely criticised by several of Gen. Custer's personal friends; and one of them, Gen T. L. Rosser, in a letter addressed to Reno and published in the Army and Navy Journal, blames him for taking to the timber when his "loss was little or nothing." "You had," he says, "an open field for cavalry operations, and I believe that if you had remained in the saddle and charged boldly into the village, the shock upon the Indians would have been so great that they would have been compelled to withdraw their attacking force from Custer, who, when relieved, could have pushed his command through to open ground, where he could have manoeuvred his command, and thus greatly have increased his chances of success." It would seem as if this and similar criticisms were sufficiently answered by Reno's report; and by his reply to Rosser, which is given in part below:—

"After reading all your letter I could no longer look upon it as a tribute of a generous enemy, since through me you had attacked as brave officers as ever served a government, and with the same recklessness and ignorance of circumstances as Custer is charged with in his attacks upon the hostile Indians. Both charges—the one made against him and the one made by you against us—are equally untrue, You say:—'I feel Custer would have succeeded had Reno, with all the reserve of seven companies, passed through and joined Custer after the first repulse;' and after confessing that you are firing at long range say further: 'I think it quite certain that Custer had agreed with Reno upon a place of junction in case of the repulse of either or both detachments; and, instead of an effort being made by Reno for such a junction, as soon as he encountered heavy resistance he took refuge in the hills and abandoned Custer and his gallant comrades to their fate.

"As I shall show, both the premises are false, and consequently all the conclusions of your letter fall to the ground. * * * The only official orders I had from Custer were about five miles from the village, when Cooke gave me his orders in these words: 'Custer says to move at as rapid a gait as you think prudent, and to charge afterwards, and you will be supported by the whole outfit.'

"No mention of any plan, no thought of junction, only the usual orders to the advance guard to attack by the charge. When the enemy was reached I moved to the front at a fast trot, and at the river halted ten minutes or less to gather the battalion. I sent word to Custer that I had the enemy in my front very strong, and then charged, driving the reds before me about three miles or less, to within a short distance of their village, supposing my command, consisting of 120 officers and men and about 25 scouts and guards, followed by the columns under Custer. The stream was very crooked, like a letter S in its wanderings, and on the side on which the village was it opened out into a broad bottom, perhaps half or three-quarters of a mile wide. The stream was fringed, as usual, with the trees of the plains—a growth of large cottonwood, and on the opposite side was a range of high bluffs which had been cut into very deep ravines.

"As I neared the village the Indians came out in great numbers, and I was soon convinced I had at least ten to one against me, and was forced on the defensive. This I accomplished by taking possession of a point of woods where I found shelter for my horses. I fought there dismounted, and made my way to within 200 yards of the village, and firmly believe that if, at that moment, the seven companies had been together the Indians could have been driven from their village. As we approached near their village they came out in overwhelming numbers, and soon the small command would have been surrounded on all sides, to prevent which I mounted and charged through them to a position I could hold with the few men I had.

"You see by this I was the advance and the first to be engaged and draw fire, and was consequently the command to be supported, and not the one from which support could be expected. All I know of Custer from the time he ordered me to attack till I saw him buried, is that he did not follow my trail, but kept on his side of the river and along the crest of the bluffs on the opposite side from the village and from my command; that he heard and saw my action I believe, although I could not see him; and it is just here that the Indians deceived us. All this time I was driving them with ease, and his trail shows he moved rapidly down the river for three miles to the ford, at which he attempted to cross into their village, and with the conviction that he would strike a a retreating enemy. Trumpeter Martin, of Co. H, who the last time of any living person heard and saw Gen. Custer, and who brought the last order his adjutant ever penciled, says he left the General at the summit of the highest bluff on that side, and which overlooked the village and my first battle-field, and as he turned, Gen. Custer raised his hat and gave a yell, saying they were asleep in their tepees and surprised, and to charge. * * *

"The Indians made him over confident by appearing to be stampeded, and, undoubtedly, when he arrived at the ford, expecting to go with ease through their village, he rode into an ambuscade of at least 2,000 reds. My getting the command of the seven companies was not the result of any order or prearranged plan. Benteen and McDougal arrived separately, and saw the command on the bluffs and came to it. They did not go into the bottom at all after the junction. They attempted to go down the trail of Gen. Custer, but the advance company soon sent back word they were being surrounded. Crowds of reds were seen on all sides of us, and Custer's fate had evidently been determined. I knew the position I had first taken on the bluff was near and a strong one. I at once moved there, dismounted, and herded the pack train, and had but just time to do so when they came upon me by thousands. Had we been twenty minutes later effecting the junction not a man of that regiment would be living to-day to tell the tale."

Another writer attacks both Reno and Benteen, accusing one of incapacity and utter demoralization during the attack of the Indians, and the other of wilful disobedience. "That he (Benteen) should have, as his own testimony confesses, deliberately disobeyed the peremptory order of Custer to 'Come on,' argues either a desire to sacrifice Custer, or an ignorance of which his past career renders him incapable. Custer told him to 'Come on,' and he reported to Reno." In order, as he says, to "vindicate the reputation of a noble man from unjust aspersions," this writer further declares, that "had Reno fought as Custer fought, and had Benteen obeyed Custer's orders, the battle of the Little Big Horn might have proved Custer's last and greatest Indian victory."

Of the writer last quoted, the Army and Navy Journal says:—"With reckless pen he thrusts right and left, careless of reputations, regardless of facts, darkening the lives of other men, in the vain hope that one name may shine more brightly on the page of history * * * Nothing but the most absolute demonstration, accompanied by the proof, would justify such statements as he has made, and this he has not given. The reports of anonymous newspaper correspondents, and an ex parte statement of the conclusions drawn from letters, of which we have not so much as the names of the writers, is not proof on which to base criticisms affecting character and reputation."

Capt. Benteen, Brevet Colonel U.S.A., who has been a captain in the 7th Cavalry since its organization in 1866, at which date Gen. Custer was appointed its Lieut. Colonel, in a letter to the Army and Navy Journal uses the following language:—

"Col. Reno and I thought during the siege of June 25th and 26th, at the Little Big Horn, that he, Reno, was the abandoned party, and spoke of it as another 'Major Elliot[1] affair'; thinking that General Custer had retreated to the mouth of the river, where the steamboat was supposed to be, and that Reno's command was left to its fate. I am accused of disobeying Custer's orders. Nothing is further from the truth in point of fact; and I do not think the matter of sufficient importance to attempt to vindicate myself, but can rest contentedly under the ban when I have the consoling belief that the contrary is so well known by all my military superiors and comrades."

Lieut. Gen. Sheridan, in his report for 1876, expresses his views of the Custer disaster as follows:—

"As much has been said in regard to the misfortune that occurred to General Custer and the portion of his regiment under his immediate command in this action, I wish to express the conviction I have arrived at concerning it. From all the information that has reached me, I am led to believe that the Indians were not aware of the proximity of Custer until he had arrived within about eight or nine miles of their village, and that then their scouts who carried the intelligence back to the valley were so closely followed up by Custer, that he arrived on the summit of the divide overlooking the upper portion of the village, almost as soon as the scouts reached it. As soon as the news was given, the Indians began to strike their lodges and get their women and children out of the way—a movement they always make under such circumstances. Custer, seeing this, believed the village would escape him if he awaited the arrival of the four companies of his regiment—still some miles in his rear. Only about 75 or 100 lodges or tepees could be seen from the summit or divide, and this, probably, deceived him as to the extent of the village. He therefore directed Major Reno, with three companies, to cross the river and charge the village, while he, with the remaining five companies, would gallop down the east bank of the river behind the bluff and cut off the retreat of the Indians. Reno crossed and attacked gallantly with his three companies—about 110 men—but the warriors, leaving the women to strike the lodges, fell on Reno's handful of men and drove them back to and over the river with severe loss.

"About this time Custer reached a point about three and a half or four miles down the river, but instead of finding a village of 75 or 100 lodges, he found one of perhaps from 1500 to 2000, and swarming with warriors, who brought him to a halt. This, I think, was the first intimation the Indians had of Custer's approach to cut them off, for they at once left Reno and concentrated to meet the new danger. The point where Custer reached the river, on the opposite side of which was the village, was broken into choppy ravines, and the Indians, crossing from Reno, got between the two commands, and as Custer could not return, he fell back over the broken ground with his tired men and tired horses (they had ridden about 70 miles with but few halts) and became, I am afraid, an easy prey to the enemy. Their wild, savage yells, overwhelming numbers, and frightening war paraphernalia, made it as much as each trooper could do to take care of his horse, thus endangering his own safety and efficiency. If Custer could have reached any position susceptible of defence, he could have defended himself; but none offered itself in the choppy and broken ravines over which he had to pass, and he and his command were lost without leaving any one to tell the tale.

"As soon as Custer and his gallant officers and men were exterminated and the scenes of mutilation by the squaws commenced, the warriors returned to renew the attack upon Reno; but he had been joined by Captain Benteen and the four companies of the regiment that were behind when the original attack took place, and the best use had been made of the respite given by the attack on Custer, to entrench their position.

"Had the 7th Cavalry been kept together, it is my belief it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn, and under any circumstances it could have at least defended itself; but separated as it was into three distinct detachments, the Indians had largely the advantage in addition to their overwhelming numbers. If Custer had not come upon the village so suddenly, the warriors would have gone to meet him, in order to give time to the women and children to get out of the way, as they did with Crook only a few days before, and there would have been, as with Crook, what might be designated a rearguard fight—a fight to get their valuables out of the way, or in other words, to cover the escape of their women, children and lodges."
  1. Major Joel H. Elliot of the 7th Cavalry, and 19 of his command, were missing after the Battle of Washita in Nov., 1868. Their dead bodies were found some weeks later.