Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Marcus Reno, the Branded Coward of the Little Bighorn

George Armstrong Custer was no military novice in 1876 when he rode out to subdue the Sioux. Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, and distinguished himself in the American Civil War as a brave cavalry officer, being promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general in 1863 and brevet major general in 1865. Custer’s adherents made much of the fact that he was a “boy general”, but such honors were fairly common during the Civil War. In fact two of Custer’s subordinate officers in the 1876 campaign, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen had been given similar honors during the Civil War. Reno was made a brevet brigadier general in 1865 and, by the end of the war, Benteen had been recommended to receive the rank of brevet brigadier general.   Unlike many other brave soldiers, however, Custer had a knack for publicity. He frequently invited correspondents from leading newspapers to accompany his campaigns, and their reporting significantly enhanced his visibility and reputation.

On June 25, 1876 Custer ordered Major Reno, with three companies, to attack the Indian village along the Little Bighorn River from the south, while Custer with five companies intended to cross the river farther north and come into the village from the opposite side.  Historian Nathaniel Philbrick writes in The Last Stand, “For many of the soldiers in Reno’s battalion, this was their first time in combat.  Their horsemanship skills were rudimentary at best.  They were fine sitting on a walking horse or even trotting horse, but galloping among 130 mounted troopers over uneven, deceptive ground was a new experience.”  He continues, “No U.S. cavalry officer before or since had what Reno now faced: the chance to see if a mounted battalion could push the collective psyche of a thousand tepee village past the breaking point and transform this giant seething organism of men, women, children, horses, and dogs into a stampeding mob.  The question was who….wanted to be the guinea pig in this particular experiment.”  Apparently not Marcus Reno or his men. 

Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village as ordered.  The Indians did not flee as expected, but began pouring out of the village toward Reno like angry bees.  Reno halted, had his men dismount and formed a skirmish line.  As pressure from the hostiles mounted, Reno withdrew to a second defensive position in the timber near the river.  Sioux and Cheyenne warriors began to flank Reno’s position and he beat a hasty retreat, or as he reported it “a charge to the rear”.  The disorderly retreat/rout resulted in many casualties, but Reno established a defensive position atop the bluffs overlooking the river and made a successful stand against the attacking Indians. 

Custer partisans blamed Reno for Custer’s death and denounced him as a coward and a drunkard.  Responding to persistent charges of cowardice and drunkenness at the Little Bighorn, Reno demanded and was granted a court of inquiry. The court convened in Chicago on January 13, 1879, and called as witnesses most of the surviving officers who had been in the fight. After 26 days of testimony, Judge Advocate General W. M. Dunn concluded, “I concur with the court in its exoneration of Major Reno from the charges of cowardice which have been brought against him.” He added, “The suspicion or accusation that Gen. Custer owed his death and the destruction of his command to the failure of Major Reno, through incompetencey or cowardice, to go to his relief, is considered as set to rest….”  The findings of the court of inquiry did little to stop Custer partisans from hounding Reno. 

After years of being branded a coward, Marcus Reno became morose and descended into alcoholism.  In 1880 Reno faced charges of drunkenly attacking a junior officer with a pool cue, of being a “peeping Tom” and of being drunk while on duty at Fort Meade in Dakota Territory. Reno was found guilty and dishonorably discharged from the 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 failed. Marcus Reno died of throat cancer on March 30, 1889, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Washington, D.C. 

In 1967, at the request of Charles Reno, the Major's great-nephew, a U.S. military review board reopened Reno's 1880 court martial. It reversed the decision, ruling Reno's dismissal from the service improper and awarded him an Honorable Discharge.

Marcus A. Reno was reburied, with full military honors, at the Custer National Cemetery on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, on September 9, 1967.  Reno was reburied with all of the honors due a brigadier general, including an eleven gun salute, a guard of honor, taps, and a black riderless horse bearing the Seventh Cavalry emblem.  There was also a parade in Hardin, Montana, with two bands and a drum and bugle corps in the dress of the uniformed cavalry.  The governor of Montana attended the ceremony as did chiefs of the Crow, Cheyenne and Arakira Indian nations.

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