In the endless assessments of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Captain Frederick Benteen has often been portrayed as a villain. Might he be viewed as a hero instead?
He saved us, said Dr. Henry Regnaldo Porter, the only surviving surgeon of the three under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s command at the Little Bighorn in June 1876. And so said Company K commander 1st Lieutenant Edward Settle Godfrey. No one has ever questioned the integrity or courage of either man. The acting assistant surgeon set up shop in a tiny swale between two little knolls, where he cared for the wounded under a storm of bullets, doing at least one amputation behind a skimpy barricade of dead animals and supply boxes. The lieutenant helped lead the defense on Reno Hill and would later achieve the rank of brigadier general.
The man they praised was Captain Frederick Benteen. Although known for bravery since his days in command from early in the Civil War, Benteen has generally not fared well in most assessments of the Little Bighorn debacle, in which Plains Indians killed more than 250 men of the 7th Cavalry. Perhaps no event in the history of the American West has generated more controversy and consumed more ink, and more often than not, Benteen has been portrayed as a villain—even as the cause of Custer’s defeat. That’s not right. Sad as it was, the summer disaster could have been a great deal worse had not one man stepped up in the midst of the fight to save the day. That man was Frederick William Benteen.
Benteen, born in Petersburg, Va., in August 1834, served the Union Army well in some 18 major Civil War engagements. After the war, he was colonel of the 138th U.S. Colored Volunteers for less than a year before receiving his commission as a 7th Cavalry captain in September 1866. In fights with the Cheyennes, Benteen distinguished himself several times. But after the November 1868 Battle of the Washita in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), he criticized his commanding officer for “abandoning” Major Joel Elliott and his men during the conflict and came to personify the anti-Custer element of the 7th.
Eight years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory, Benteen was third in command behind Custer and Major Marcus Albert Reno. Benteen has been condemned for dawdling during the long reconnaissance on which Custer sent him, for failing to rush to Custer’s aid when a messenger delivered the famous order to COME ON…BE QUICK and for deciding to stay with Reno’s shattered command rather than break out to help Custer.
Some of Benteen’s alleged failures are attributed to the mutual dislike between Benteen and Custer. Along with his harsh judgment of Custer’s performance at the Washita, Benteen detested Custer’s glory-hound ways. Custer didn’t like Benteen much either, though he did not speak disparagingly of the captain. The evidence suggests Benteen remained a professional throughout his years with the 7th Cavalry and that relations between the two officers were militarily proper. As Colonel William A. Graham wrote in The Custer Myth (1953), “Benteen hated Custer, [and] everybody knew it … but it is too monstrous a supposition for any reasonable being to hold that because Benteen hated Custer he was willing to sacrifice the lives of …other men whom he did not hate, some of whom were his best friends.”
Another criticism of Benteen is that once he joined the remnants of Reno’s command, which had been driven back from the river and besieged, he should have gone out to relieve Custer immediately, whether or not Reno was willing. However, it is worth noting that when the united command at last did move toward Custer, the Indians quickly drove them back to the rise (Reno Hill) where Benteen and Reno fought. Lieutenant Godfrey, at least, said that only an initial attack by the whole command had any chance of success.
It is also not entirely accurate to say that somebody—or even several somebodies—“lost” the fight at the Little Bighorn. It is more accurate to say the Plains Indians won, for they had every reason to stand and fight; in other circumstances, they might have drawn off to fight again another day. Benteen himself put it pretty well: “There were a great deal too many Indians.… We were at their hearths and homes; they had gotten the bulge on Reno; their medicine was working well, and they were fighting for all the good God gives anyone to fight for.”
The allied warriors—Lakotas, Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos—were, as one American officer aptly put it, the finest light cavalry in the world. Custer’s men threatened their villages, their women and children, their herds. And as Custer’s scouts knew and reported to Custer, there were a whole lot more of the enemy than Custer had soldiers, whether or not his command fought together.
A significant but often over- looked factor in the Little Bighorn fight is the very tall grass that covered the battlefield. The tall grass isn’t there today, but one can imagine the advantage it gave advancing warriors, many of them crawling, out of sight in deep cover, rising only long enough to fire. These warriors targeted the exposed troops with close-range bullets and arrows and then vanished before the soldiers could accurately return fire.
Then there is the rolling terrain. It is much easier to criticize Benteen when referencing a nice, sterile, two-dimensional map. Walking the terrain above the Little Bighorn today, however, one notices many knolls and steep arroyos —called “coulees” in that part of the world. Benteen’s order from Custer that day was not explicit: He was to take his command toward a line of bluffs three or four miles away. Once there, he was to advance to the next bluff line, and so on.
Traditionally, Americans have lauded Custer as a hero—the legendary figure towering above his subordinates, long yellow hair flowing as he fought his last fight hand to hand. That image is almost irresistible, given the wide publicity the fight got, then and later. Innumerable paintings of “Custer’s Last Stand” erroneously depict him with long hair and swinging his saber (his hair was trim and the 7th carried no sabers to the fight).
But Custer ignored basic military principles when he issued his orders before the fight. Perhaps worst of all, he divided his force—already too few—in the presence of a numerically superior enemy. That tactic had worked against a much smaller force during the winter battle on the Washita, but this time Custer had confronted a huge body of the enemy, within carbine range of their families, pony herds and tepees.
At least one account of the fight states that Benteen had reservations about splitting the 7th in the presence of so many warriors. H Company Private Charles Windolph overheard Benteen expressing his concern to Custer; he also heard Custer’s curt response: “You have your orders.” Custer’s sole focus seems to have been that the Indians should not escape him.
Worst of all, Custer brushed off reports from his Indian scouts that the river valley held a world of warriors, enough, said chief Ree scout Bloody Knife, to give Custer “two or three days” fighting. Historians have estimated Custer was up against some 2,000 first-class fighting men, defending a camp that stretched downstream an estimated three miles.
Custer gave Reno an absurd order, directing an advance to cross the river and strike the flank of the huge Indian camp. That order sent a relative handful of troopers into a fight against enormous odds without the support Reno said he had been promised. Whether Reno lost his nerve and gave his men conflicting orders, whether he should have continued his charge toward the village or held on and fought where he was in the timber by the river, Custer had sent him into the lion’s mouth with too few men and no help. Reno’s panicked retreat back across the river was doubtless a disastrous error, but Custer must bear part of the blame.
Estimates vary widely as to the timing of events that day, but Benteen probably joined Reno about 2:30 p.m., and the combined forces started in Custer’s direction about 5 p.m. Captain Thomas Weir and 2nd Lieutenant Winfield Edgerly took the lead and advanced far enough to witness mounted Indians circling the Custer field, shooting wounded and dead troopers. Below were monstrous clouds of dust and a great many hostile horsemen; when that force started up toward Reno and Benteen, the soldiers fell back uphill.
According to some accounts, Reno was so badly rattled that Benteen took effective command. One history describes the latter as “fearlessly stalking the lines” under heavy fire. Many men who fought on Reno Hill claimed its namesake was confused and confirmed it was Benteen who organized and led the vital counterattack that drove back warriors from the summit.
Godfrey wrote that as Indian fire increased, Benteen came to Reno and said: “You’ve got to do something…pretty quick. This won’t do. You’ve got to drive them back.” Reno then ordered the counterattack that Benteen successfully led against warriors closing in from the south.
There is no gainsaying Benteen’s courage and leadership ability. One man later put it this way: “I found my model early in Captain Benteen…who governed mainly by suggestion; in all the years I knew him, I never once heard him raise his voice to enforce his purpose.” The same writer called Benteen “the idol of the 7th Cavalry on the upper Missouri in 1877.” Civilian scout George Herendeen put it simply: “I think Captain Benteen saved the fight on the hill.” First Lieutenant Francis Gibson told 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, and Benteen just took the management of affairs in his own hands, and it was very fortunate for us that he did. I think he is one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known.”
When Custer ordered Ben- teen on his reconnaissance south, the sup- posed reason was to find an overlook from which Benteen could peer into the upper valley of the Little Bighorn and discover any Indians who might be there. He was also to “pitch into” any Indians he found and, if he could find none, to keep going beyond the second line of bluffs, wherever that may be, until he could see the Little Bighorn Valley. It is worth wondering whether Custer sent Benteen away in hopes he would have to “pitch into” Indians and thus draw a body of warriors away from Custer himself.
As it turned out, Benteen found no Indians. So he kept going, increasingly dubious about both the purpose and effectiveness of the apparently interminable scout. Benteen sent Gibson ahead of the command with a few troopers to find a spot from which he could see the valley. The lieutenant did find an overlook, but even using field glasses borrowed from Benteen, he could discern no viable threat to Custer.
When Gibson reported the valley empty, Benteen, on his own initiative, started back to rejoin Custer’s command, precisely what he should have done. He said later he moved at a trot, except for a break to water his horses. Godfrey, as unimpeachable a witness as the day provided, said Benteen’s command traveled either at a trot or walk, “as the ground was smooth or broken.” And when Benteen drew near Reno’s command and heard firing, “the column took the gallop with pistols drawn.” None of this sounds much like “dallying,” a verb one commentator used (although in another place he wrote that Benteen “hastened”).
Benteen, therefore, joined battle a long way from Custer, on Custer’s own orders, and he did so with tired horses on a murderously hot day. Godfrey later wrote that the view from the spot at which Custer split his command “did not discover the difficult nature of the country, but as we advanced farther, it became more and more difficult.” Godfrey also commented on the increasing exhaustion of the command’s horses, some of them “getting far into the rear of the column.” The command was, he said, “wandering among the hills.” Benteen’s pause to water the mounts of his command was entirely proper. They had not been watered since the night before, and on the scout some of them had become “jaded,” in Godfrey’s words.
Benteen should have reported the result of his fruitless search to Custer, but he did not. While that was a failure on his part, it is difficult to see what difference delivering the report could have made in the destruction of Custer’s command. By that time, Custer would have been at last aware he had found his quarry and made the shocking discovery his scouts had been right: There were a great many more of the enemy than he had wanted to believe.
The primary criticism of Benteen is simply that he didn’t move fast enough. He should have, according to critics, galloped to Custer’s side when he received his commander’s earnest order: BENTEEN, COME ON—BIG VILLAGE—BE QUICK—BRING PACKS. P.S. BRING PACKS.
Trumpeter Giovanni Martini (John Martin), who carried the message, said in old age that Custer told him to ride as fast as he could to Benteen: “Tell him it’s a big village, and I want him to be quick and to bring the ammunition packs.” Adjutant William Cooke then reduced the order to writing, perhaps cognizant of immigrant Martini’s limited knowledge of English. Martini found Benteen and remained with him. Martini later stated: “We all heard him [Reno]. ‘For God’s sake, Benteen, halt your command and help me. I’ve lost half my men.’” Or maybe it was, “For God’s sake, Benteen, halt your command and wait until I can organize my men.” Whatever Reno’s precise words, he was clearly a badly shaken man pleading for help.
It is fair to say that no experienced soldier (which Benteen surely was) would leave his superior officer (Reno) or that officer’s men in the lurch. Nor would Benteen expect the regimental commander (Custer) to attack without waiting for all his troops to close ranks; had there been a need to attack the village immediately, or indeed to repel an attack on Custer, it was reasonable to assume Custer’s message would have said so. Nor did Benteen yet know the truly vast extent of the village and the number of its defenders. Nor could he immediately “bring packs,” for the pack train had not yet come up. Godfrey recalled that the pack train did not arrive until about 4:30 p.m.
Should Benteen have come without the train, with or without Reno? Benteen’s men did have at least one ammunition-bearing mule, Barnum, who at one point spooked and galloped toward the Indians under heavy fire. Sergeant Richard Hanley pursued and, after a wild chase, drove Barnum back to friendly lines—later receiving the Medal of Honor for his daring. Still, even with Barnum and his precious load back with the command, the major part of the reserve ammunition remained with the absent pack train. The condition of Benteen’s horses, and the sometimes difficult ground Godfrey described, would also have slowed any response by Benteen, whether Custer’s note did or did not convey the threat of imminent destruction of his command or Reno’s without immediate help.
Benteen said later that trumpeter Martini, who brought him Custer’s peremptory message, had also reported the Indians were “skedaddling.” But shortly afterward, according to Godfrey, Benteen’s men heard firing, first scattered rounds, then heavier firing, growing in volume. Although he later denied it, Benteen must have heard firing from Custer’s direction as he approached Reno’s position. Other men did. But that alone did not provide compelling reason for the captain to leave a besieged, feckless Reno—desperate for help— and his men, many wounded, many low on ammunition. No one knew what the firing meant—whether Custer was attacking or defending—for his immediate command was out of sight and, according to Godfrey, 2 1⁄2 to three miles away.
There was no reason to believe anyone was in serious trouble other than Reno, and his plight would have been obvious to Benteen. As Benteen’s command joined Reno, the firing intensified, and everyone in the command surmised Custer was in action, perhaps attacking the Indian village. At one point they heard two “distinct volleys,” which Godfrey later guessed were “signals of distress.” Reno later acknowledged that Benteen showed him the note Martini had brought from Custer, but it “did not occur” to him that Custer, with more than 200 men, “needed anyone quickly.”
Reno was plainly rattled, from the time the blood and brains of scout Bloody Knife splattered across his face down in the river valley. But he remained Benteen’s superior officer, and his command had taken heavy casualties. One historian has termed Reno “a besotted, socially inept mediocrity,” although Benteen himself said later that Reno was sober during the day’s fighting.
Benteen had a choice to make, and he elected to stay with Reno, sharing his ammunition and fighting from the high ground alongside Reno’s besieged survivors. That decision, and his own leadership, probably saved both Reno’s men and his own; Lieutenants Godfrey and Gibson, scout Herendeen and Dr. Porter were not the only survivors of the Little Bighorn to think so. First Sergeant John Ryan said later: “Too much cannot be said in favor of Captain Benteen. His prompt movements saved Reno from utter annihilation, and his gallantry cleared the ravines of Indians and opened the way for water for the suffering wounded.”
The scout White Man Runs Him told how he and two other scouts joined Reno, Benteen and the pack train on the high ground above the river. “If those soldiers hadn’t turned back and been reinforced by the pack train,” the scout said later, “they would all have been killed.” It seems a fair conclusion.
The sheer volume of writing on the subject is almost impossible to fully digest, even leaving out the mass of contemporary newspaper accounts. There will never be complete agreement on who was responsible for the Custer disaster, who did what and when they did it, and where fact ends and mythology begins.
The Custer fight has also spawned more spurious claptrap than perhaps any other event in American history. It is impossible to resist including one of the silliest of them. Related in a letter by one Willard Carlisle—to George’s wife, Libbie, of all people—it reads like a bad Hollywood film script. The author, who claimed to have survived the fight, wrote: “At last only the brave General Custer was left, with his comrades dead around him. One sweep of the saber, and an Indian’s head was split in two; one flash of his revolver, his last shot, and a redskin got a bullet between the eyes. Then he fell with a bullet in the breast, the last of that brave band. I saw him within 15 minutes after he was shot, and there was still a smile on his face.”
Endless accounts later, including a board of inquiry into Reno’s conduct, and Custer’s critics and partisans remain divided. Certainly, Captain Benteen had a tough decision to make. Many experts concur that Reno failed in leadership, that his men had taken serious casualties and were somewhat demoralized. Add to that Reno’s shortage of ammunition, and that he was Benteen’s superior, and the latter seems justified for electing to remain with Reno’s command. Had he and Reno joined Custer, the 7th Cavalry might have prevailed down the valley, and at least part of Custer’s command might have survived. On the other hand, given the Indians’ determination and numbers, the whole command might have died at the Little Bighorn.
The bottom line is this: No one but Custer himself is clearly answerable for the fate of his command. There were contributing factors, particularly Major Reno’s precipitate retreat from his position in the timber near the river and his failure to rush to Custer’s aid—although Custer, hearing heavy firing from Reno’s command, might as readily have made a move to assist Reno. Regardless, the vast assemblage of Indians encamped along the river wasn’t about to get away in the interim, as Custer apparently feared it might.
As 2nd Lieutenant Edgerly of Benteen’s command wrote later of Reno’s retreat across the river: “As soon as this …recrossing was made, nearly all the Indians left Reno and went to meet Custer. From that moment, nothing could have saved Custer’s command.” In the end, there were simply too many very brave, very determined Indian warriors. Custer’s luck had run out, while Benteen survived with a bit of luck and a bit of bravery in the heat and fog of battle.
A contributor to Wild West since its premiere issue in June 1988, Robert Barr Smith is a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and a retired U.S. Army colonel. Suggested for further reading: The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custeriana, by William A. Graham, and Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834–1898, by Charles K. Mills.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.