Frederick William Benteen can best be described as an enigma. To George Armstrong Custer, Benteen was a nefarious subordinate, a man who doubted every decision, questioned every order. To his own men, the cavalrymen with whom he served, Benteen was a courageous and honorable man, a leader in whom they held the greatest respect and trust.
In his book on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, To Hell with Honor, Larry Skelnar illustrates Custer’s nemesis in less than complimentary terms, describing a jealous and oftentimes unprofessional military officer. In the mold of numerous other writers, Skelnar characterizes Benteen as a man devoid of honor, an angry bit player on the stage of history who allowed his personal feelings to overcome his sworn duty.
In Harvest of Barren Regrets, Charles K. Mills, portrays Benteen in a far different light. For Mills, Benteen represents the flawed human being within each of us — the common man thrust upon a strange and unforgiving stage, cast to perform in a deciding role in a classic tragedy of epic proportions. Mills views Benteen as misjudged by history, a man forced to shoulder much of the blame for events far beyond his scope of influence or control. He finds in Benteen a hero lost in the sands of time, a warrior forgotten by history.
While Custer and Benteen shared a certainly acrimonious relationship, few historians — and even fewer Custer buffs — possess the military experience or intuitive wherewithal to judge the professional commitment of a career officer. During the Civil War, Benteen demonstrated a level of raw courage and bravado that drew others to him. Yet, even then he was an enigmatic leader; he was often peculiar to a fault and was markedly unforgiving with those in whom he found character flaws. Nevertheless, in the heat of battle, few men were as decisive in victory as Frederick Benteen.
On the frontier with Custer, Benteen exhibited the same daring and audacity, but his personal life became one of recurring tragedy. However, his resolve to serve never wavered. In 10 years of campaigning with an officer he obviously held in rather low regard, he performed his duty with all the gallantry and boldness one would expect from a military professional. At no time did Benteen allow his duties and responsibilities to succumb to a personal distaste for Custer.
The true essence of military professionalism is the ability to serve in the face of adversity, to maintain honor and personal integrity under the most difficult circumstances. For years, Frederick Benteen demonstrated those qualities with an unremitting steadfastness. To assume that he would abandon his principles in an adversary’s greatest hour of need is to underestimate the depth and intensity of those tenets in a military officer.
Frederick William Benteen may have been little more than a minor actor on the grand stage of history, but he was much more than many have portrayed him. Ultimately, he was a human being, flawed and imperfect, but a human being nonetheless. And, maybe not so unlike us after all.
On 24 February 1887, Major Frederick William Benteen sat quietly before his court-martial board at Fort Duchesne, Utah. In the waning hours of a trial that mocked the career of a man who had so honorably served his country, Frederick Benteen introduced a final exhibit for the court to consider — his heart. For a man such as Benteen, whose emotions were intensely private and closely held, this measure was as remarkable as it was unexpected.
Benteen told of a proud military career spanning three decades of selfless, often sacrificial, service to his country. He spoke candidly of his decision to take arms for the Union, a choice that alienated him from his own father and effectively divided the Benteen family. With deep furrows across his face and locks of snowy white earned on the field of battle, Frederick Benteen bore little resemblance to the powerful young cavalryman who fought with distinction against both Confederate soldiers and Native American warriors. Looking deeply into the eyes of those who would judge him, he solemnly said, ‘There was nothing left for my immediate family, but a harvest of barren regrets.’
Frederick William Benteen was born in the Virginia port city of Petersburg on August 24,1834 to Theodore Charles and Caroline Hargrove Benteen. The Benteens had moved to Virginia from Baltimore shortly after the birth of their first child, Henrietta Elizabeth, in October 1831. The elder Benteen earned a prosperous living as a paint and hardware contractor, securing a private education for his son at the Petersburg Classical Institute, where Frederick was first trained in military drill. Sadly, Caroline Benteen died suddenly in 1841, leaving a young husband and family. Undoubtedly, the loss of his mother at such an impressionable age impacted Frederick, but to what extent is unknown.
Following the marriage of his daughter in the spring of 1849, Charley Benteen followed the call of the west and moved his family to St. Louis, Missouri. There, he remarried, established a paint and glass supply business, and employed his sixteen-year-old son as a sign painter. In 1856, Frederick became acquainted with Catharine Louisa Norman, a young woman recently arrived in St. Louis from Philadelphia. ‘Kate’, a staunch supporter of the Union, would have a profound influence on the future of Frederick Benteen.
The election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President in 1860 polarized the country, and Missouri was no less affected than any other state in the Union. Kate strongly urged Frederick to support the cause of the Union forces in Missouri. His father, an ardent secessionist, vehemently opposed Frederick’s association with Unionists, igniting a family crisis that was never truly resolved. When told of his son’s decision to support the Union, Charley Benteen retorted, ‘I hope the first God damned bullet gets you.’
As early as July 1861, Frederick was observing and supervising the drill of volunteer infantry companies in and around the St. Louis Arsenal. He got his first taste of battle — although not officially on the rosters of any of the participating units — on August 10, at Wilson’s Creek. Outnumbered five to one, volunteer and Federal forces under Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon attacked a concentrated force of 22,000 Confederates ten miles southwest of Springfield, inflicting over 5000 casualties before retreating in ultimate defeat to Rolla. The opening act of the Civil War in Missouri, although inauspicious, cemented Frederick’s decision to join with the volunteers.
On September 1, the 67 members of what would become the 1st Battalion, Missouri Cavalry, held an election of officers; Frederick Benteen was elected first lieutenant of C Company. By October 1, the battalion was at full strength and Benteen was elected captain and commander of C Company. Twelve days later, Benteen saw his first action as an officer at Dutch Hollow against a large body of irregular Confederate cavalry.
On January 7, 1862, Benteen married his longtime girlfriend, Kate Norman, at Saint George’s Church in St. Louis. Only her immediate family attended the ceremony. Their honeymoon was short; within three days, Frederick returned to Rolla. Kate settled into their new home to wait out the war.
In the closing days of the month, the Union forces in Missouri under Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis organized in what was to become the Army of the Southwest. Rather than join with one of the four new divisions on their march into Arkansas, Curtis assigned Benteen’s cavaliers as his headquarters bodyguard. In that capacity, Frederick forged a friendship with Curtis’s Commissary of Subsistence, an outspoken West Point captain named Philip H. Sheridan.
For most of his first two years of military service, Frederick Benteen engaged his cavalry against ‘bushwackers’, irregulars, and local guerrilla bands in the areas in and around Missouri. A thoroughly respected and well-regarded leader, Benteen drew from those experiences lessons that would serve him so well in later years. Ironically, perhaps, Benteen mastered the art of irregular warfare long before he would take to the Great Plains during the Indian wars.
In August 1862, as General Ulysses S. Grant brought the Army of the Tennessee to bear on Vicksburg, Benteen’s battalion launched an assault against the Confederate supply vessel Fair Play. The converted luxury steamboat, used primarily to transport quartermaster stores from Mississippi to fragmentary forces in Louisiana and southern Arkansas, was reportedly carrying a large shipment of weapons and ammunition. The ship’s manifest listed her chief engineer as Theodore C. ‘Charley’ Benteen.
With Frederick Benteen leading the way, the Union cavalry captured Fair Play, destroyed a Confederate supply depot along the shore, and routed the rebel forces garrisoned there. His father, who knew nothing of Frederick’s role in his capture, spent the duration of the war in a Federal prison; Union troops released Charley Benteen’s crewmates at Helena, Ark.
Shortly after the Fair Play incident, the 1st Missouri Cavalry reorganized into the 9th Missouri Cavalry. In December, the regiment joined with the 28th Missouri Volunteers, becoming the 10th Missouri Cavalry. On December 11, 1862, under the provisions of Special Order 218, Frederick Benteen was promoted to second major of the regiment. Benteen’s close friend, William J. DeGress took Benteen’s captaincy in C Company two days later.
On February 15, 1863, the 10th Missouri Cavalry joined with the Army of the Tennessee at Grant’s forward command post at Corinth, Mississippi. Soon after arriving, a long-running feud erupted between the regimental lieutenant colonel, William D. Bowen, and the senior major, Thomas Hynes, resulting in the court-martial of the latter. Hynes never returned to duty with the 10th Missouri and Benteen became the senior major of the regiment.
In July 1863, Grant finally took Vicksburg, the Army of the Potomac found victory at Gettysburg, and Kate Benteen gave birth to the couple’s first child, Caroline Elizabeth, in St. Louis (sadly, she would die before reaching her first year). On July 7, Bowen’s ongoing and continual war with the officers of the regiment left Benteen in command of the 10th Missouri. He wasted no time, leading the regiment in its first true taste of regular combat in a minor, yet spectacular, cavalry clash at Iuka. Benteen’s bravery and audacity earned a singular commendation from the Union cavalry commander, Colonel Florence M. Cornyn. It would not be the last time Frederick Benteen received official accolades for his ability to lead troops in battle.
Success continued to follow Frederick Benteen and, on February 27, 1864, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and commander of the 10th Missouri Cavalry. April brought new reorganization and the regiment joined the 3rd and 4th Iowa Cavalry under the colors of Brig. Gen. Edward F. Winslow’s brigade. The reorganization would remain unchanged until the end of the war.
On October 22, a gunshot wound to Winslow’s left leg resulted in Benteen taking command of the brigade in the midst of battle at Westport, Mo. Benteen led his brigade in a charge that broke through Confederate lines and came within moments of trapping J.O. Shelby’s brigade. Three days later, Benteen’s 1,300 cavaliers routed a Confederate division of 7,000 men north of Mine Creek; Benteen himself had the right skirt of his overcoat shot off when, during the cavalry charge, he took his mount over one of the rebel guns.
As the pursuit of the retreating Confederates began, General Curtis drafted a letter to Willard P. Hall, the Union governor of Missouri, urging his support in securing a brigadier’s commission for Frederick Benteen. On November 23, Governor Hall forwarded his recommendation to President Lincoln, noting that he had already nominated Benteen as a Brigadier General of the Enrolled Militia of Missouri. Sadly, Benteen would remain a lieutenant colonel for the remainder of the war.
Even as Governor Hall penned his letter to the president, the 10th Missouri Cavalry was steaming from St. Louis to join the Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi, at Clarksville, Tennessee. The commanding general of this new organization, a 27-year-old West Pointer named James Harrison Wilson, was to become Benteen’s mentor in the coming months.
Wilson’s raid into the Deep South marked the defeat of the last organized Confederate resistance. From Nashville, Wilson’s divisions marched into Alabama and soundly defeated the rebel stronghold of Selma, taking the city as the president lay dying in Washington. The following afternoon, they continued the march into Columbus, Georgia, then on to Atlanta, where Benteen would garrison his forces.
On June 7, 1865, Wilson recommended that Benteen be brevetted brigadier general for gallant and meritorious service. He specifically noted Benteen’s distinguished and conspicuous bravery in the official reports dispatched to the War Department. But the war was over and the Army was in the process of being dismantled. In Washington, Wilson’s request was noted and ignored.
Yet, Frederick Benteen felt no slight. In just four short years, he had risen from a sign painter to a regimental commander of cavalry. He personally led one of the largest cavalry charges of the war at Mine Creek. The War Department denied his promotion simply because the war ended before his turn came.
In Atlanta, Wilson became the military governor of Georgia and his cavalry corps, the largest cavalry force of the war, was disbanded. On 23 June 1865, Benteen reported to Macon to clarify another change not reflected in the orders deactivating the 10th Missouri Cavalry: Frederick W. Benteen was to be promoted to colonel and given command of one of the new volunteer units to garrison postwar Atlanta.
Most Civil War veterans wanted to go home. Benteen’s experiences during the war, combined with Wilson’s influence and guidance, convinced him to remain in the military. The prospect of returning to a sign painter’s life in St. Louis no longer appealed to him. Benteen saw the promise of the future in his new assignment.
To Benteen’s surprise, however, his new command would consist of the former slaves that followed the march of Wilson’s Cavalry Corps through Alabama and Georgia. Benteen was a Southerner by birth, his father a slave owner, and his personal association with slaves and servants undoubtedly prejudiced. Yet, if he was to enjoy a postwar military career, he could not reject the opportunity.
On July 15, Benteen mustered into the 138th United States Colored Troops (USCT) in Nashville; four days later, he resigned from the 10th Missouri Cavalry. The tour in Atlanta was pleasurable for Frederick and Kate. They purchased a home in the city and a former plantation south of the city. On January 6, 1866, the 138th USCT was disbanded and Benteen became a civilian once again.
By summer, with Congress in the midst of expanding the Regular Army to meet the security requirements of an expanding frontier, Benteen was seriously considering returning to the military. The Army Act passed on July 28 authorized 30 new regiments, four of which were cavalry; the 9th and 10th Cavalry were designated ‘colored’ units while the 7th and 8th Cavalry were segregated for white recruits. In September, Benteen applied for a Regular Army commission in one of the regiments.
On November 24, Benteen wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to accept his offer of a captain’s commission in the 7th Cavalry. Later in life, Benteen told a correspondent that he refused a major’s commission in the 9th Cavalry, preferring to serve as a captain with a white regiment. He was ordered to report for duty at Fort Riley, Kansas. In January 1867, he departed for his new assignment with the 7th Cavalry, his regiment for the next 16 years. Ironically, he would one day leave the regiment for a promotion to major in the 9th Cavalry.
Upon arriving at Fort Riley, Captain Benteen found himself in the company of many old acquaintances. The commander of the 7th Cavalry, Colonel A.J. Smith, was an old friend of Benteen’s who witnessed some of his finest moments in the Civil War. Smith’s aide-de-camp, Captain Henry E. Noyes, held the same position for Wilson during the march to Atlanta. Both men knew and respected Benteen.
But it was the lieutenant colonel of the 7th Cavalry that made the first, lasting impression on Benteen. On January 30, 1867, Benteen made a customary courtesy call to the quarters of George Armstrong and Elizabeth Custer. While no one can be sure exactly what transpired during that visit, it is apparent that at some point, Custer made comments that greatly offended Benteen (many historians believe that the slight regarded the Civil War record of Benteen’s mentor, James H. Wilson, but no one can be absolutely sure). From that day on, their relationship consistently bordered on conflagrant.
By the end of July, the 7th Cavalry had dispersed appropriately to begin campaigning on the frontier. Of the nine companies remaining in Kansas, four companies were assigned to Fort Riley, two to Fort Harker, and one each to Fort Hays, Fort Dodge and Fort Wallace. The three remaining companies were assigned to posts in eastern Colorado, with two at Fort Lyon and one at Fort Morgan. The cavalry formed the roots of a strategic strike force for launching deep assaults into the frontier; in times of crisis, the companies would mass for an expedition into ‘hostile’ territory.
The Cheyenne Indians represented the greatest threat on the Kansas frontier in 1867. With the discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858, the old Santa Fe Trail brought hordes of settlers through the Cheyenne lands, upsetting the ecological balance on which the Native American people thrived. As with most tribes, the Cheyenne Nation viewed the encroachment as a threat to their very survival.
Benteen proved to be a skillful, if relentless, warrior on the plains. But he also showed a deeper respect for American Indians than did many of his fellow countrymen. Although he held the belief that the westward expansion of white culture was to blame for many of the problems on the frontier, he also saw the need for Indian culture to adapt to his own.
The spring of 1867 also brought great joy to the Benteen family. On March 27, Kate gave birth to a son, Frederick Wilson Benteen, in Atlanta. Kate Benteen named her new son in honor of his father’s mentor and friend, General James Henry Wilson. Meanwhile, the Senate finally approved awards of brevets to distinguished veterans of the Civil War; Benteen received brevets of major for Mine Creek and lieutenant colonel for Columbus. From that day forward, his contemporaries referred to him as ‘Colonel’ Benteen, despite his more junior rank.
That same month, the War Department authorized a show of force on the frontier in an effort to compel the recalcitrant natives to the government reservations. Major General Winfield Hancock, the department commander, began preparations to array his forces and march en masse on the tribal encampments in an exhibit of his ability to force the natives onto reservations, if necessary.
‘Hancock’s War,’ as it is often called, provided Benteen the first opportunity to exercise his talents as an irregular warrior since the early days of his service in Missouri. On April 14, 1867, Hancock ordered his troops to surround a large village of Cheyennes and Sioux north of Fort Dodge on the Pawnee Fork of the Arkansas River. But in the darkness, the natives escaped and Hancock sent Custer’s 7th Cavalry in pursuit.
During the pursuit, Custer delayed the command to send Benteen and two companies after what he believed to be fleeing natives in the distance. The ‘natives’ proved to be nothing more than grazing wildlife — elk, deer, antelope and buffalo. A full day was lost. When Custer’s eight companies approached the Smoky Hill Road near Fort Hays on 19 April, they found stage stations burned, settlers butchered, and livestock run off. When Hancock received the news, he burned the abandoned village to the ground.
The incident sparked a controversy that spread across the frontier. It also sparked a war, leading to a plague of raids against settlers that endured well into the autumn months of that year, when the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty brought a temporary end to hostilities. In May, Hancock dispatched Custer and his command on an expedition to Nebraska that resulted in the latter’s court-martial and one-year dismissal from service. Benteen, serving on a separate court-martial at Fort Riley, was not present during the debacle that culminated in Custer’s arrest.
With the signing of the treaty at Medicine Lodge Creek, Hancock returned the 7th Cavalry to the dispersed frontier posts for the winter. Benteen arrived at Fort Harker, his first permanent duty station as a regular, on 10 November 1867. In February 1868, Kate and young Freddie joined Benteen in their new home. In March, Major General Philip H. Sheridan replaced Hancock as commander of the Department of the Missouri.
As spring came to the Kansas prairie in 1868, unrest on the reservations brought renewed anxiety to the settlers. In late July, Benteen (with fresh mounts obtained at the expense of Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s 10th Cavalry) led an expedition to provide security for Indian agents near Fort Larned, when raiders began to wreak havoc among the homesteads along the Saline River. Benteen led two companies back to Fort Harker to pursue the raiders.
Upon reaching Fort Harker, Benteen resumed the chase with a small force tailored to the pursuit. Early in the morning on August 13, Benteen caught the raiding party along the banks of Elk Horn Creek near Fort Zarah and charged his troops into a force of about fifty warriors atop a hill. To his surprise, Benteen discovered a force of more than 200 braves in the process of raiding a small ranch. The startled natives mistook Benteen’s audacious charge for a much larger force (instead of just 30 troopers) and scattered in panic.
Benteen pursued the young Cheyennes without rest until dark, engaging the raiders throughout the day without respite. The first undisputed victory of the 7th Cavalry brought Benteen a brevet to colonel (one of the last awarded before Congress halted the practice until 1890) and the adoration of the settlers of central Kansas.
On September 24, Sheridan wired for Custer to return to the 7th Cavalry. On October 10, restored to favor, Custer joined the regiment at an encampment on the Arkansas River south of Fort Dodge. Three days later, he dispatched Benteen and an orderly to make a hazardous return to Fort Harker to retrieve fresh horses and new recruits.
During the return march, Benteen spurred his troops ahead to overtake a Mexican wagon train loaded with guns and ammunition bound for the regiment. He reached the wagon train just as a native war party began to attack. Benteen and his young cavaliers drove the warriors off, saving the wagon train. Later, the trail of the raiding party would lead the 7th Cavalry to an enormous Cheyenne encampment on the Washita River in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
November brought the first winter snowstorms to Kansas and the beginning of Sheridan’s winter campaign. The 7th set out from Camp Supply on November 23, with over a foot of snow on the ground, bearing toward the Texas state line; Custer dispatched Benteen to escort the supply train. After four days march in continually falling snow, fitfully following the trail left by Benteen’s raiders, Custer finally found his prey nestled in the Washita River valley.
Just before dawn on November 27, Custer launched a four-pronged assault on the village. As the Cheyennes began to scatter in panic, Custer’s men pursued them with a vengeance. Unknown to Custer — who failed to perform a reconnaissance of the village — the encampment was but a portion of a much larger collection of winter camps, including other Cheyenne bands, as well as Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche. Custer soon found himself surrounded and, with the coming of nightfall, feigned a cavalry charge to facilitate his escape.
Custer marched his regiment proudly into Camp Supply on December 2 and submitted a single report to Sheridan concerning the events at Washita. In his report, Custer failed to commend anyone in his command, uncharacteristic for the time in an Army in which such commendations were the recognized practice. In a battle that represented the first spectacular victory of the frontier regulars in the post war era, his omission was notably unusual.
Custer’s report to Sheridan also made light reference to casualties, failing to note that he had abandoned Major Joel Elliot and 16 others on the battlefield. According to Benteen, Custer made no attempt to locate the bodies. The bodies were found together, in a tight circle, when the regiment returned to the battlefield on December 11. At Fort Harker in mid-December, Kate Benteen gave birth to a daughter, Kate Norman Benteen, but the child lived less than a week.
The completion of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad and the rise of racial organizations saw the 7th Cavalry dispatched to the South in 1871. Ultimately, Benteen’s H Company was assigned to Nashville over the objections of Custer. On April 2,1872, Kate had another daughter, Fannie Gibson Benteen. In April 1873, the regiment was transferred to the Department of the Dakota; in late June, Benteen and his family reported to Fort Rice in Dakota Territory.
On June 20, Colonel David S. Stanley departed with the 7th Cavalry on a surveying expedition of the Yellowstone River, known to historians as the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873. On July 31, Custer ordered Benteen to remain behind at what became known as Stanley’s Stockade, a supply point on the Yellowstone some 20 miles upriver from the mouth of Glendive Creek.
As winter descended upon the expedition, Benteen received word that baby ‘Fan’ was very ill at Fort Rice. He immediately requested leave to return to the post, a leave that Custer promptly denied. Before Benteen could resolve the issue, his daughter was dead. In April 1875, the Benteens produced a second son, Theodore Norman Benteen; the following winter, little Theodore was laid to rest at Fort Rice. Of the Benteen children, only Freddie would grow to adulthood.
On May 5, 1876, Benteen departed for Fort Abraham Lincoln with Companies H and M; his rendezvous with history was but two months distant. Custer and Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry arrived soon after. For the first time in the regiment’s history, all 12 companies were assembled together. On May 17, the regiment marched from Fort Lincoln as the regimental band played ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’
On June 22, as the regiment drew nearer the native encampment for which the expedition was searching, Custer’s demeanor noticeably changed. Survivors later noted that he lacked his usual confident swagger, casting a pall over the evening’s officers call. After the meeting, Lieutenant George D. Wallace commented to Lieutenant Edward Godfrey, ‘I believe General Custer is going to be killed.’
The following day, Custer made the fateful decision that would forever be remembered as the turning point in his short life: disregarding Terry’s orders to continue to scout the Rosebud, he followed the growing Indian trail into the Valley of the Little Bighorn.
Upon arriving at the native encampment, Custer split his command much as he had at Washita years earlier. In the Washita Valley, the 7th Cavalry had converged on a village of perhaps 50 teepees; at Little Bighorn, at least 1,000 lodges were present in the valley. Custer barely escaped the Washita Valley. He would not leave the Valley of the Little Bighorn alive.
At the Washita, Custer’s attack had been synchronized for a simultaneous assault from four directions. But at the Little Bighorn, he committed his forces piecemeal, in an uncoordinated attack ill conceived for a village of such immense proportions. First, Major Marcus Reno’s charge was repulsed with disastrous results. Then, Custer’s own charge through Medicine Tail Coulee was met by Chief Gall at the cost of his entire battalion. Benteen, dispatched by Custer along the south fork of the Little Bighorn River, arrived in time to regroup Reno’s shattered battalion and probably save the remains of the regiment.
In this role, Benteen will forever be remembered. Nearly 125 years later, historians continue to debate Benteen’s role in Custer’s Last Stand. While some assert that he allowed his personal prejudice in his relationship with Custer to influence his response to Custer’s call for his advance, no evidence exists to substantiate such a claim. Instead, much evidence exists to suggest that Benteen was responsible for preventing further death and destruction resulting from Custer’s ill-advised attack.
Benteen’s arrival on Reno’s besieged position northeast of the village signaled a turning point in what could well have resulted in the destruction of the entire regiment. Reno was visibly shaken and disoriented and his battalion was on the verge of total collapse. Benteen quickly organized defenses for the two battalions. He personally directed construction of breastworks, ‘in full view of the Indians, making no effort whatever to seek shelter.’
Given the size and scope of the native force encamped along the Little Bighorn, it is doubtful that Benteen could have successfully relieved Custer’s battalion. Unwittingly caught between the pincers of Gall and Crazy Horse, Custer’s command fell in much the same manner as Elliot’s much smaller command had at Washita — separated, isolated, and with unmitigated violence. The miracle of the Little Bighorn is that any portion of the regiment survived, and that mainly due to the timely and heroic intervention of Captain Frederick W. Benteen.
The following year, during the Nez Perce War of 1877, Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis led the 7th Cavalry deeper into Montana Territory in pursuit of the fleeing Indians. On September 13, 1877, Benteen distinguished himself the Battle of Canyon Creek, an engagement remembered for the resulting allegations of Sturgis’ cowardice under fire.
As the native threat receded with each coming spring, the need for the 7th to take to the trail diminished. Benteen’s service on the frontier all but ended after Canyon Creek. He testified before Reno’s court of inquiry in 1879, served duty as a cavalry recruiter officer in 1880, and supervised the Army Board on Magazine Guns through 1882. On January 27, 1883, Benteen received official notification of his promotion to major, effective December 17, 1882, in the 9th Cavalry.
Benteen joined the regiment on July 20, 1883 at Fort Riley, Kansas. But, unlike the regiment he had spurned 16 years earlier, the 9th Cavalry of 1883 had an excellent reputation. Not only had the regiment performed with distinction in Texas and New Mexico, the unit had fewer desertions, incidents of drunkenness, and reports of criminal behavior than any of the white regiments.
But the Benteen who served with the 9th Cavalry was also not the same Benteen who joined the 7th 16 years earlier, either. Aged by years in the saddle and his share of battle, Benteen was no longer capable of extensive campaigning. When the regiment took to saddle, Benteen usually remained behind to command the post in Colonel Edward Hatch’s absence. On May 16, 1884, Benteen was assigned as the post commander of Fort Sill, Indian Territory. In 1885, the 9th was posted to the Wyoming Territory and Benteen commanded the 2nd Squadron (the new ‘official’ name for a cavalry battalion) upon departure for Fort McKinney on June 12,1865.
Chronic ill health caused Benteen to consider retirement by 1886, but on July 5, he became the senior major of the 9th Cavalry and prepared to march two companies into Utah Territory to establish a new post. General George Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte, needed to establish a presence in the territory to counter the unsettling influence of the Utes. On August 20, after an especially difficult and tiring march, Crook designated a point roughly three miles north of the confluence of the Duchesne and Uintah rivers as the site for Fort Duchesne.
There, an ailing Benteen found himself embroiled in controversy between the post sutler (and Crook’s building contractor for the new post) and General Crook. Benteen settled the problem with natives with ease, dispatching a company of infantry to secure the agency. Building the new post, however, proved a daunting, if impossible, task. In January 1887, the troops remained in tents; building material, forage, food and other essential supplies were slow to arrive. The troops of the 9th, accustomed to such treatment, were not nearly as upset as Benteen.
As Benteen’s relationship with the sutler continued to erode, he found himself on the wrong side of Crook. Crook dispatched his inspector general, Major Robert H. Hall, to investigate and report on the progress at Fort Duchesne. With nary a word to Benteen, Hall’s scathing report implicated the old major as unfit for duty and the principal cause behind the lack of progress at the post. The report made six, largely unsubstantiated, allegations of Benteen’s repeated drunkenness.
Crook, angered by a Kansas City Times article criticizing his mismanagement of Fort DuChesne, ordered Benteen to face a military court martial on January 7, 1887. The board found Benteen guilty of three charges of drunkenness, largely due to the questionable testimony of the sutler and another civilian, and recommended his dismissal from service. On April 20, at the recommendation of General Sheridan, President Grover Cleveland approved the findings, but mitigated the dismissal to suspension from rank and duty for one year at half pay.
On July 7, 1888, Benteen received a medical discharge for maladies incident to service. He and Kate retired to Atlanta, where they enjoyed the amenities of life denied them for so many years on the frontier. On February 27, 1890, the Senate approved awards of brevets for gallantry in action against natives; the Army submitted only 144 names, one of which was Frederick Benteen. In April 1892, he was nominated for a brevet as Brigadier General for gallant and meritorious service at the Little Bighorn and Canyon Creek.
On Wednesday, 22 June 1898, Frederick William Benteen died. The funeral was well attended, and the pallbearers included the governor of Georgia, the mayor of Atlanta, and several other prominent figures. Charles K. Mills summarized the life of a forgotten warrior at the conclusion of his biography of Benteen:
‘There are no monuments to Frederick William Benteen today. He remains as he lived: a rather obscure supporting actor who appeared briefly on center stage in a well-known American history drama and then quietly faded away. It was his misfortune to live largely unknown and to die largely misunderstood.’
Often misunderstood himself, Custer overshadowed everyone else who ever served in the 7th Cavalry, including Frederick Benteen.
This article was written by Steven M. Leonard and originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of Wild West.
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