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The major is often badmouthed as the villain of the Little Bighorn, but eyewitnesses insisted Reno was no coward—and he was in fact exonerated

“What do you do when you’re branded, and know you’re a man?’

That question comes up in the theme song of the 1965–66 NBC-TV Western Branded, starring Chuck Connors as Jason McCord, a former U.S. Cavalry captain. McCord is the lone white survivor of the fictional (but Little Bighorn-like) massacre at Bitter Creek, caused by the mental deterioration of the commanding general (read, George Armstrong Custer). Most believe McCord’s survival was due to cowardice, and after a court-martial he is stripped of his rank and forced to leave the service. In the show’s opening titles, as a drum beats and the theme song plays, McCord’s commander rips the decorations from his uniform and breaks his saber in two, tossing the hilt half through the fort gate. McCord then stoically exits. As the gates close behind him, he picks up the broken weapon and studies it, pondering his fate. The exiled McCord travels the West from job to job, running from his undeserved reputation as a coward, but wherever he goes, it seems his reputation has preceded him. He generally suffers the outrages and assaults in silence, though the scars remain a constant reminder of the injustice of his fate. It could just as well have been the story of Major Marcus Reno.

Standard depictions of Reno’s conduct at the Battle of the Little Bighorn are unflattering to say the least. On the hot afternoon of June 25, 1876, Reno led three companies of 7th U.S. Cavalry down the valley of the Little Bighorn to attack the combined Sioux and Northern Cheyenne village while Lt. Col. George A. Custer led five companies along the bluffs to attack from the north. Reno balked when he saw the large village and quickly fell back to a riverside position amid timber. He might have held out for some time, giving Custer a chance to put his unknown plan into action, but Indians infiltrated the timber. When a warrior shot Arikara scout Bloody Knife in the head, blood and brains spattered Reno’s face, totally discomposing the major.

As Bloody Knife fell from his saddle, Reno reportedly shouted, “Dismount!” followed shortly by, “Mount!” Soldiers who heard the commands followed him out and rode for the perceived safety of the high bluffs across the river. Not everyone heard, however, and the rush to the river was chaotic. Some men remained in the timber, some escaped, others died crossing the river—but the majority made it.

Nevertheless, Reno’s career and life were virtually over. Peers branded him a coward, especially since Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his immediate command were wiped out on nearby “Last Stand Hill.” The rest of Reno’s time on this earth was hell. He might as well have been killed with the 33 soldiers and scouts who died during the valley fight and retreat.

While the dismount/mount commands, likely followed by a command to charge to the rear, forever stamped Reno with a “c” for coward, one question lingers through the 135 years of finger pointing: Did it happen as has been depicted? The 7th Cavalry had been soundly whipped. The commands of Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen had barely held out on what became known as Reno Hill. The unit’s iconic commander, Custer, was dead. Many found it unthinkable that a band of “savages” could have defeated the regiment. There had to be a reason. The nation’s eyes turned toward both the dead and the living before honing in on Reno. What kind of monster was he?

Custer, who had risen to brevet major general during the Civil War, had his detractors. First reports blamed him for mistakes that led to the debacle, and Generals Alfred Terry, William Sherman and President Ulysses S. Grant followed the line that Custer had disobeyed orders and brought the disaster upon himself. On the other hand, Custer had many devotees, and they challenged that interpretation. Frederick Whittaker and Custer’s friend Thomas Rosser wrote magazine and newspaper essays, fingering Reno as the main cause for the defeat. Within five months of the battle Whittaker had written and published a massive hagiographic tome in praise of Custer. With the support of widow Libbie Custer, his outcry for an investigation into the matter led to a court of inquiry. At the time Reno was on a two-year suspension, having been charged with “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” in an 1877 court-martial that found him guilty of indiscretions with a fellow officer’s wife. Because of the suspension and the unending accusations against him, Reno welcomed the inquiry.

The court met at Chicago’s Palmer House on January 13, 1879, and the proceedings ran for 26 days. Twenty-three witnesses testified in regard to Reno’s conduct. “I could not find any fault,” Lieutenant George D. Wallace said. “I think it was good.” Asked whether Reno showed fear, Wallace answered, “None.” Asked whether Reno showed lack of military skill, he answered, “No.”

Lieutenant Charles A. Varnum said Reno did not have enough men to hold the timber and that “certainly there was no sign of cowardice” on his part. Dr. Henry R. Porter said the situation in the woods had “flurried” Reno, but his conduct was normal. Porter, who was within earshot of Reno, heard no orders to dismount/ mount but did hear Reno say, “We have got to get out of here—we have got to charge them!”

Captain Myles Moylan said Reno rode at the head of the column, and that his orders “were given as coolly as a man under such circumstances usually can give them, and I saw nothing that indicated cowardice about him.” Lieutenant Luther Hare believed that if Reno did not take the men out of the woods, “we would be shut in so that we could not get out.” As to whether Reno lacked courage, Hare said, “I know of no instances of cowardice at any time.” Asked whether Reno showed any sign of cowardice after the companies retreated to the bluffs across the river, Hare said, “I did not.”

Lieutenant Charles DeRudio was relieved Reno had halted his charge into the village, for he believed the companies “would have been butchered” had they continued. DeRudio saw Reno in action for 10 minutes while fighting in the timber and “admired his conduct.” Sergeant Edward Davern testified that he saw no cowardice on Reno’s part, and Sergeant Ferdinand A. Culbertson similarly replied, “None at all.”

Benteen brought up his three companies to meet Reno on the bluffs and did not see the major in the valley, but on the hilltop. The captain testified, “[Reno] was about as cool as he is now.” When asked if he saw any evidence of cowardice, Benteen answered, “None whatever.” Lieutenant Winfield S. Edgerly met Reno on the bluffs and said he was “excited, but not enough to impair his efficiency,” and that throughout the siege “he seemed very cool.”

Civilian packers B.F. Churchill and John Frett had a dustup with Reno during the night of June 25. Reno demanded to know why they were not on the battle line. They argued. Frett claimed Reno had a bottle of whiskey in his hand, and when the major tried to strike him, “the whiskey flew over me, and he staggered.” The implication that Reno was drinking, or was drunk, also weighed against him, but the fact was that many officers and men in the frontier army drank whenever they had the opportunity. It did not necessarily make them unfit to command. Edgerly saw Reno that night and said he was “perfectly sober.” Reno’s counsel asked Wallace if he saw evidence of insobriety, and the lieutenant said he never even heard the accusation until the court convened. Benteen said Reno was entirely sober at the time. When Reno’s counsel asked if he could have been “staggering and stammering” that night, Benteen responded, “Not without my knowing it.” In fact, Benteen added, had he known that Reno had any whiskey, “I would have been after some.”

A politician once made a similar accusation of drunkenness against General Ulysses Grant to President Abraham Lincoln. “So Grant gets drunk, does he?” queried Lincoln. “Yes, he does, and I can prove it,” the man replied. “Well,” Lincoln answered, “you needn’t waste your time getting proof; you just find out, to oblige me, what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals.” Drinking in the frontier Army was not necessarily an evil.

Captain Edward S. Godfrey, who did not like Reno, said he was “not particularly impressed” with Reno’s leadership and saw signs of “nervous timidity.” Captain Edward G. Mathey countered Godfrey, stating that Reno showed no sign of drunkenness and adding, “I saw no action on his part to indicate want of courage or indicating cowardice.”

Of Reno’s actions on the hilltop, Captain Thomas McDougall said he was “perfectly cool [and]…was as brave as any man there, in my opinion.” Describing the second day of battle, when Reno walked the line with bullets flying, McDougall said Reno “had plenty of nerve.”

Of all the witnesses called, only two were critical of Reno’s conduct in the valley. Civilian interpreter Frederic F. Girard, whom Reno had once fired, said he thought Reno could have held out in the timber as long as the ammunition lasted. (Left unsaid was that at the rate they had been firing, that would not likely have been more than another half-hour.) Civilian scout George Herendeen also disliked Reno. He said that when Bloody Knife was killed and another soldier hit, “Reno gave the order to dismount, and the soldiers had just struck the ground when he gave the order to mount, and then everything left the timber on a run.” Herendeen said the incident “demoralized him [Reno] a good deal,” but when pressed by court recorder Lieutenant Jesse M. Lee, Herendeen stated, “I am not saying that he is a coward at all.”

The court of inquiry ended on February 10, and the presiding officers—Colonel John H. King, Colonel Wesley Merritt and Lt. Col. William B. Royall—wrote their official judgment: “The conduct of the officers throughout was excellent, and while subordinates in some instances did more for the safety of the command by brilliant displays of courage than did Major Reno, there was nothing in his conduct which required the animadversion [criticism] from this court.”

The judge advocate general concurred with the court “in its exoneration of Major Reno,” as did Sherman, Grant and Secretary of War George W. McCrary. Reno was vindicated. Congratulatory letters came in from around the country. He was pleased with the findings. Now perhaps his life would get back to normal.

It was not to be. Libbie Custer was furious, and Whittaker claimed the verdict was “a complete and scientific whitewash.” Custer believed that Merritt’s old rivalry with her husband had influenced his verdict, and Whittaker claimed the witnesses were enticed by Chicago’s “ladies of pleasure” to make favorable comments. He sent a scathing letter to The Chicago Times, charging that Grant, Reno, Benteen and others had initially charged Custer with rashness and disobedience. Whittaker sought “to vindicate Custer as a soldier,” but the court had not gone far enough in that direction. He sought to prove Reno the villain, but he was barred from serving as accuser or prosecutor. The court of inquiry, Whittaker said, showed Custer to have been prudent, and that he was “not defeated by the enemy, but abandoned by the treachery or timidity of his subordinates.” The testimony was in, but Whittaker refused to accept it. He seemed to know better than the men who were there.

Reno’s suspension from rank and pay would end within six weeks. He was only 44 years old, had been in the Army most of his life, and he looked forward to rejoining his regiment, the clouds of suspicion and accusation lifted from his head. The coming years, however, would be cruel. What had gone wrong? Reno’s Civil War career had been creditable; he’d demonstrated bravery on several occasions and been commended for handling his men “gallantly and steadily” and praised for his “coolness, bravery and good judgment.” Even General Philip Sheridan, a tough taskmaster, characterized Reno as “full of energy and ability.”

Reno drank some, but so did thousands of other officers, and it never impaired his abilities. Only later in life, when he was unable to shake off the millstone of “cowardice,” did his drinking get him into trouble and accelerate his slide into disgrace. He’d never had an appealing personality, and after years of being “branded,” it became downright disagreeable. His young wife died, and he was left with the emotional pain and concerns of raising a child alone. Reno became morose, a martinet and a man who smoked constantly and seemed to welcome alcohol-induced oblivion, with its implicit promise of an early grave. In 1880 Reno faced fresh charges for striking a junior officer, for being a “peeping Tom” and for being drunk while on duty at Fort Meade in Dakota Territory. He was found guilty and dismissed from service, for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.” Reno tried vigorously for the rest of his life to clear his name, but to no avail. He remarried, but that ended in a divorce. Broken, Reno died of throat cancer on March 30, 1889. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In 1967 a great-grandnephew pressed to have the major’s remains exhumed and reburied at Custer National Cemetery on the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. The events that day in June 1876 had destroyed his life as surely as if he had been physically killed there.

Reno’s detractors had seemingly gotten their wish. They had broken Reno and eventually tainted nearly everyone’s opinion of him. Fred Whittaker and Tom Rosser in particular, who had not been at the Little Bighorn, seemed to revel in publicly excoriating Reno, as if by destroying him could they elevate their hero, Custer. It worked.

But how? An examination of the court record shows that 20 of the 23 eyewitnesses who testified to Reno’s conduct had neutral or favorable observations. Only three were unfavorable—and none of those damning. Yet scarcely mentioned is Porter’s account of Reno’s statement, “We have got to get out of here—we have got to charge them!” Instead, Herendeen’s claim that Reno ordered a dismount and an immediate mount appears often in print. It seems incredible. One man claims Reno issued conflicting orders while extracting his command from a desperate situation, and it snowballs into an avalanche of cowardice and treachery.

This doesn’t equate to a rational examination of evidence. Facts are bowing to gut reaction. Reno was not a villain; neither were Benteen or Custer. No, the persistent misrepresentation of Reno as a treacherous coward is largely attributable to an idiosyncrasy of the American character: our penchant for conspiracy theory, for voodoo history. More important than the man is the myth. We relish a hidden story about a sinister villain involved in a government cover-up. There are many examples. Browse through any bookstore, and you’ll see such titles as Abuse Your Illusions, You Are Being Lied To, Everything You Know Is Wrong and Lies My Teacher Told Me. In 1963 a lone gunman killed President John F. Kennedy, but 43 years later it was “proven” the Mafia killed him.

The conspiracies are everywhere. According to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jews once engaged in a massive secret conspiracy to control the world. The battleship Maine was blown up to get America into a war with Spain. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor but let it happen anyway to draw America into World War II. Actress Marilyn Monroe was killed to cover up her secret love affair with President Kennedy. Britain’s Princess Diana was murdered with the blessings of the royal family. Religious factions in the Catholic Church are covering up the fact that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, and that their bloodline is still viable. The U.S. government was behind a massive plot on 9/11 to destroy the World Trade Center.

Americans love their conspiracy theories. Some of it stems from an anti-intellectual current flowing beneath the surface of our history. Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote of the phenomenon in Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), in which vast conspiracies are the motive forces in historical events.

The Warren Commission found that a lone gunman had killed President Kennedy, but many Americans still refuse to believe it. The Reno Court of Inquiry exonerated Marcus Reno and cleared him of charges of treachery and cowardice, but many Americans refused to believe it. Custer, a Civil War hero and the idol of thousands, could not have made mistakes that led to his own downfall; there had to have been sinister forces working toward his destruction. “Savages” could not have defeated the 7th U.S. Cavalry in battle; perfidious whites who despised Custer must have been behind it. In truth, there were no villains in the classic sense, and the Army did not lose the battle as much as the Indians won it.

One can readily ascertain the predilections of the Custer crowd as they smirk, wink knowingly and affirm that Reno was a coward who turned tail, and that Benteen purposely dawdled in the hope that Custer would die (see “Benteen: Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” by Robert Barr Smith, in the June 2010 Wild West). They might agree the inquiry testimony was largely favorable to Reno, but only because mysterious forces saw to it that witnesses who would have testified against Reno were conveniently dead or not allowed to testify. Custer was the victim, while Reno, Benteen and other officers who testified at the court of inquiry were participants in a grand cover-up. It is nearly impossible to break through this mindset. How do we get beyond it? One way might be to simply apply Ockham’s razor to the seeming intricacies and conundrums of history. Basically, it means that one hypothesis is more plausible than another if it involves fewer assumptions. Keep it simple.

The overwhelming testimony of eyewitnesses to the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn did not find Reno a perfidious coward. He was exonerated. Yet, the facts are disbelieved. The conspiracy-minded who see secret agendas and government or business cover-ups everywhere continue to dominate, to the detriment of sense and understanding. Marcus Reno was not a monster. Those who denigrate Reno to elevate Custer are not providing true insight and are doing us a disservice. Reason backed by evidence should be our guides. When we stray from those tenets, our history suffers for it.

Gregory Michno is a Wild West special contributor. For further reading see In Custer’s Shadow: Major Marcus Reno, by Ronald H. Nichols, and Reno Court of Inquiry, edited by Nichols.