The strange case of Major Reno

06 January 2019

Anyone looking at the Battle of Little Bighorn and its “Dramatis Personae” cannot avoid the constant and unrelenting denigration of Major Reno, the Regiment's second in command.

The defeat of Custer profoundly shocked the American public who could not understand how one of their famed Indian fighters and heroes could have died. People needed to have someone to blame for the tragedy - and many  focused on Reno, and to some degree Captain Benteen, the Regiment's senior company commander, as the officers that had failed their hero in his hour of need.

A culture of blame has grown up around them. It is as if this would then excuse Custer from any responsibility for the loss. It also helpfully ignores the fact that Custer disobeyed his orders and robs the Indian Warriors who fought and won the battle of any recognition for their feat of arms.

The Court of Inquiry

Nearly three years after the defeat of the 7th Cavalry, an official enquiry into Reno's conduct was held. It was convened at Chicago, Illinois, January 13, 1879, by the President of the United States upon the request of Major Marcus A. Reno, 7th U.S. Cavalry, to investigate his conduct at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876. 

The inquiry followed a flurry of letters in May 1878, from a Wyoming Congress delegate on behalf a Frederick Whittaker, Custer’s Biographer. These letters started the process to open a Court of Inquiry into Major Reno’s supposed cowardice at the battle itself.

In reply to the letters, Major Reno asked the President for a Court of Inquiry to take place. He asked that it investigate “the many rumours started by camp gossip may be set and the truth made be fully known.”

You might think that It is not the move of a coward to ask the President of the United States for a court of inquiry to specifically look at, investigate and make findings on his actions. And so began 26 days of examination of 23 witnesses, who faced detailed questioning about the battle and the actions of all the officers and men.

Up to this point Reno was clearly the villain of the piece. However witness after witness insisted in court that Reno was no coward. At the end of the court of inquiry, he was exonerated. Here are some of the headline findings of the court:  

STATEMENT: “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 requires animadversion (criticism or censure) from this Court.”

OPINION: "It is the conclusion of this Court in view of all the facts in evidence, that no further proceedings are necessary in this case" 

Eyewitness statements

Lieutenant CA Varnum said that Reno did not have enough men to hold the timber and that there was certainly no sign of cowardice on his part.

Lieutenant GD Wallace said: “I could not find any fault,”. “I think it was good.” He went to answer that Reno displayed no fear or lack of military skill.

Dr HR Porter said that when they were in the woods Reno was “flurried”, but his conduct was normal. Porter, not far from Reno, heard no orders to dismount or mount but did hear: “We have got to get out of here, we have got to charge them!”

Captain M Moylan said Reno leading the column said 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 L Hare was of the opinion that if Reno did not get the men out of the woods, “we would be shut in so that we could not get out.” He went on to answer that, “I know of no instances of cowardice at any time.” Once on bluffs across the river, Hare maintained the same opinion.

Lieutenant C DeRudio was glad that Reno had stopped his charge to the village, as the command “would have been butchered” if they continued. He also stated he saw Reno in action for 10 minutes fighting in the woods and “admired his conduct.”

Sergeant E Davern stated he saw no cowardice on Reno’s part.

Sergeant FA Culbertson similarly replied, “None at all.”

Captain Benteen spoke of meeting Reno on the bluffs as he did not see Reno in the valley and said “[Reno] was about as cool as he is now.” When asked about any evidence of cowardice he said “None whatever.”

Lieutenant WS Edgerly meeting Reno on the bluffs said of Reno “excited, but not enough to impair his efficiency,” and that throughout that time “he seemed very cool.”

Captain ES Godfrey said he was “not particularly impressed” by Reno’s leadership and saw signs of “nervous timidity.”

Captain EG Mathey said “I saw no action on his part to indicate want of courage or indicating cowardice.”

Captain T McDougall said Reno was “perfectly cool [and]…was as brave as any man there, in my opinion.” On the second day of the battle, when Reno walked the line with bullets flying, McDougall said Reno “had plenty of nerve.” 

But the accusations continue 

Reno’s suspension ended six weeks later. At 44 years old, having served in the Army for most of life, he was now looking forward to re-joining the regiment, with suspicion and accusation officially removed from his character.  His command was simply undermanned and overwhelmed in the Little Bighorn valley. The Reno Court of Inquiry had cleared him of treachery and cowardice. 

But it never happened. He was unable to shake off the accusations of cowardice and his circumstances left him a broken man. Reno died of cancer on March 30, 1889 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

And the rumours and conspiracy theories continue to this day. The American public continue to support Custer as a hero and do not want to believe he could not have made errors leading to his own defeat. Some even seem to believe that sinister forces worked toward his being beaten and killed.

But the fact of the matter is that the US Army did lose the Battle of the Little Bighorn. American Indians won it fair and square. And Reno was no villain or coward.