Letter from Wild West – June 2010

Where Does Benteen Figure in Blame Game?
He is seen as both hero and villain for his Little Bighorn performance

At the 1879 Reno Court of Inquiry in Chicago, was it Major Marcus Reno or Captain Frederick Benteen who said, “I come to bury Custer, not to praise him”? What’s that? Our resident “walking encyclopedia” at World History Group of battles, assassinations and other tragedies has just informed me that neither of those noteworthy Custer subordinates/Little Bighorn survivors uttered those words. Instead, he says, it was Mark Antony, the late Julius Caesar’s second-in-command, doing the talking (with poetic license from Shakespeare) at the 44 BC funeral of that earlier ambitious egotist with a last name beginning with C.

Pardon my huggermuggery (and this attempt to use that great word in a sentence), but I’m sure anyone who, like me, knows more about Roman Nose than Roman noses—and knows something about this magazine to boot—can appreciate my confusion this month. After all, it’s Custer blitz time at Wild West, an annual event prompted by June being the anniversary month of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, starring this magazine’s favorite cover boy, George Armstrong Custer. That’s always good news for G.A.C. buffs. In Junes past, some of our authors and readers have indeed praised or at least defended Custer, while others have psychoanalyzed him and more than a few—out of romantic or perhaps prurient interest—have obsessed over Custer and Cleopatra (I mean, Libbie. Geez!). And now, in this issue, comes something in the Custer realm yet different. In “Benteen: Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (this issue), author Robert Barr Smith buries that rock Custer (Reno must be the “hard place”) and praises the No. 3 commander at the Little Bighorn. Smith contends that the 1876 disaster would have been worse had not one man stepped up amid the flying bullets to save the day—Frederick William Benteen.

Second-in-command Reno later praised Benteen for helping to save both their commands, saying, “If ever a soldier deserved recognition by his government for distinguished services, he certainly does.” Benteen in turn said nothing nasty about Reno at the 1879 inquiry, although he had a dirty little secret that eventually came out—how Reno had suggested to Benteen while besieged on Reno Hill that they skedaddle, even though it meant leaving Custer (wherever he was) and the wounded behind. Of course, neither Benteen nor Reno was able to save the day for Custer, and each has been accused of lying through his teeth to save himself while throwing his late commander under the blame bus. Smith offers considerable testimony on behalf of Benteen. It is harder to defend Reno’s judgment and command decisions, although a few historians have tried. Reno, they argue, was sent on an impossible mission without support and became an easy scapegoat for anyone sold on Custer martyrdom.

Unwilling to buy Smith’s “Benteen the Hero” assessment? Try the view of Paul Hutton, editor of The Custer Reader: “I have always viewed Benteen as the real villain of the piece, because he was such a good soldier (unlike Reno, who was in over his head). I think Benteen’s visceral hatred of Custer clouded his judgment and delayed his movements. He had a direct written order to join Custer, which he willfully disobeyed (simply saying later that the incompetent Reno was in command, and he had to defer to him).”

Clearly, much whitewashing has been done since the Last Stand, and the June performances of Custer’s two top subordinates are every bit as controversial as what George did or didn’t do on the 25th. None of the trio seems to stay buried for long. I won’t praise any of them, but I will provide this reminder: Benteen rhymes with Dentyne, the classic chewing gum that once used the slogan, “Cleans your teeth while it cleans your breath”—and sometimes people, even good soldiers, lie through their teeth.

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