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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Major Marcus A. Reno
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By Lola Mauer
Webmaster's Note: The following is the second of four short stories written by Lola Mauer regarding principal individuals in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. For background visit the main page of this section.
“Of radically different stamp was Marcus Albert Reno, born of a distinguished
family in Carrolton, Illinois, in the spring of 1835. Graduating from West
Point in 1857, five years before Custer, he was commissioned Colonel of the 12th
Pennsylvania Cavalry in 1861. The close of the war found him in the same grade,
but with an impressive record and a brevet of brigadier general. In 1868 he
received an appointment as one of three majors in the Seventh Cavalry. When
the regiment descended the Little Bighorn watershed on June 25, 1876, Reno was
the only major on duty and second in command. He was also on the eve of his first
Indian fight. Quiet and unassuming, he had made little impression upon the
regiment, either favorable or unfavorable. The Battle of the Little Bighorn would
ruin his career and ultimately his self-respect.” (Robert Utley)
Major Marcus Reno sat high atop his horse. The brown stallion stomped its feet on the dry ground and a slight dust rose about his hooves. The major wondered if the horse also sensed the danger that lay just beyond the tree line. He swiveled in the saddle and scanned the regiment behind him. As far as the major could see, the cavalrymen were a line of blue dotting the rusty colors of the earth. Most of the one hundred and forty men were green troopers, fresh off their family’s farm or the immigrant boats. He supposed most of them had never seen a battle, much less been involved in one. But here they were on the trail he had discovered, leading them against Sitting Bull and his band so that General Custer could take all the glory.
Reno shrugged his shoulders as he faced forward once again and sighed loudly enough for his adjutant to look over. The major's thoughts drifted back to early May, just before the command left for the Little Bighorn. General Custer had stormed around the parade grounds of Fort Lincoln upset with the progress of the troopers.
“If I was a man of foul language I’d be in church for a week repenting my actions. You men are a disgrace to the 7th and the entire U.S. Army,” Custer had said.
Reno shook his head as he recalled his superior’s words. The major thought the general was overly confident and arrogant as far as military matters were concerned. The 1868 Washita battle, where Custer wiped out a Cheyenne camp, had only confirmed Reno's assumptions. It was no secret he and Custer weren’t friends. Hell, they weren’t even acquaintances. In public the two simply regarded one another as congenially as necessary.
The major took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Sounds of the men’s voices, the rustling grass, and an occasional bird were the only things that met his ears. He wouldn’t deny that he was nervous. Inside, his heart raced and his stomach churned. Was it the heat and blaring sun or the task at hand? Reno was reassured by two things, which comforted him only slightly. One, that the Army predicted only 1,100 warriors in the Sioux village they were about to attack, and he felt confident that the 7th could easily whip the Indians and force them onto the reservation where the government, and Reno himself, felt they belonged. Second, the general promised to support Reno’s advance on the village. He recalled the adjutant Cooke’s words.
“The general orders that you and companies A, G, and M attack the Indian encampment and you will be supported by the whole outfit.”
Reno adjusted the blue handkerchief around his neck then pulled out his pocket watch. It was nearly two o’clock. The command had finally reached the river and prepared to cross. The clear waters of the Little Bighorn glistened in the sunlight and the major squinted his eyes. Anxious for fresh water, the horses lunged into the cool stream, their riders unable to stop them. It was the first drink they’d had in nearly twelve hours because of the alkaline waters in the small rivulets they’d found so far during their tedious march.
“Men, hold your mounts steady,” Reno urged as he held his mount in check. “Don’t allow them much water.”
The troopers had a difficult time restraining the thirsty horses. Reno knew the consequences of letting the mounts consume so much water in such little time. The steeds could gorge themselves and become violently ill. A few men desperately held onto several reins as others dismounted to fill canteens.
Reno reached down for his water and brought the cool liquid to his lips. Tilting his head back he looked into the clear blue sky and noticed his hands were slightly shaking. Why am I so on edge? This is the best command in the U.S. Army. We will open the attack on those savages and Custer will support my advance with a surprise attack. The Sioux and Cheyenne won’t know what to do.
Charge Down the Valley
After a brief five minute stop to water the horses, the command moved out and maneuvered north along the valley floor toward the Indian encampment. The near silent Montana landscape was disrupted by the clomp of horses’ hooves and the rattling of equipment. Major Reno led his command, riding twenty yards ahead of the troopers with his adjutant and flag bearer. The companies spread out across the flat basin and the Little Bighorn River ran steadily to their right, the east. The trees were lush green and starkly contrasted with the brown of the foothills and sunburned grass. Reno took a deep breath and was met with the familiar scent of horses, unkempt men and summer. The same wherever we go. Only the scenery changes.
Ahead and to the left, the scouts glanced cautiously in every direction.
“Superstitious fools,” mumbled Reno shaking his head.
“What’s that, sir?” asked the lanky flag bearer.
The major nodded toward the scouts.
The adjutant laughed. “We’re lucky they’re still riding alongside us.”
Reno laughed, knowing what the adjutant meant. The majority of the scouts had earlier confessed to Custer that they had found the village for the cavalry and would now depart to safer territory. The general would hear nothing of this and warned the Ree and Crow Indians. Reno knew that Custer had told the Indian scouts that if they fled they would never find work in assisting the U.S. Army again.
The river now turned right in an easterly direction, cutting through the earth and running just below a series of high bluffs. On the right side of the river the bluffs rose hundreds of feet into the air, spanning north and south for as far as Reno could see. The only trees visible in any direction were those along the river. The cottonwoods were twenty yards thick on either side of the Little Bighorn. Now and then there would be a break in the tree line, but for the most part the area around the banks was thick with undergrowth.
The troops now moved north down the valley at a trot. Reno knew his regimental staff was a few paces behind, while the companies brought up the rear. He rode ahead of the column with his own thoughts. The major looked to his right and scanned the bluffs. Reno met the face of the lieutenant colonel, who removed his hat and waved it in the air. We’ll open the attack. Custer and Benteen will help. It will be a glorious day for the 7th.
“Major,” the adjutant pointed straight ahead.
Reno, lost in thought, wasn’t aware the adjutant now rode alongside him. He looked forward again. No longer was the valley open before them. Almost two miles ahead, a cloud of dust stirred around the oncoming enemy. The wooden ends of the tepee poles pointed into the sky directly behind them. Reno could vaguely make out the tiny figures of the Sioux and Cheyenne as they sped toward the cavalry. Then for a moment, the air seemed to momentarily clear, revealing Indians both mounted and on foot.
Reno halted the command. His heart raced and his throat was dry. It’s beginning. Get the men in line. Go. Go.
The 7th now advanced to meet the enemy. Reno thought his heart would beat out of his chest. This is what we’ve trained for. This is what we’re meant to do. He signaled the command to halt. We’ll do better on foot. Plus, it will give Custer time.
Some of the soldiers began cheering at the sight of the Indians.
“Stop that noise!” Reno shouted before swiveling in his saddle to face the adjutant. The men of the 7th stopped waving their hats in the air and became seated in their saddles once again. “Have someone send word to the general! Tell him I have everything in front of me and that the enemy is strong.” Reno closed his eyes tight, took a deep breath, and looked to the bugler. “Order the dismount. We’ll move forward on foot.”
Skirmish Line Formed
The notes sounded and the men jumped from their horses. Every fourth man remained mounted and took the horses of the three men in front of him in order to lead them to safety at the rear of the command.
Reno cleared his throat as the battalion moved forward in columns of fours. Please let this work. Jesus. Jesus. The major raised his right arm to signal the officers, Captain French, Captain Moylan and Lieutenant McIntosh, who rode swiftly to meet their commander.
“McIntosh, take Company G into reserve along the trees by the river. Wait there for further instructions. You,” he said pointing at the captains, “form your troopers into a skirmish line spanning east and west along the valley. Hurry now!” The major wetted his lips and swallowed hard, wondering if his heart could beat more quickly. For the moment, he placed his friend, McIntosh’s, battalion at the rear of the command. I’ll bring them up when and if I have to. If Custer is here in time I may be able to leave Company G in reserve.
French and Moylan turned their mounts and raced back to inform their troops of the major’s plan. Glancing back, Reno thought the men seemed to be a blur of navy blue, each one strangely resembling the other. As shots were fired from the Indians’ guns the troopers’ horses became frantic and many were unable to be controlled. Next came an onslaught of arrows, their stone points slicing into the ground. Reno watched helplessly as one soldier was carried into the mass of oncoming Sioux and Cheyenne.
The thin line of cavalry soldiers spread out across the sun scorched Montana landscape. Mounted warriors, which continued to flow from the village, rode in a swirl of dust and began circling the left side of the command. Threatened, the Ree scouts fled to the safety of the hills. As the warrior presence increased, the left flank began to fall back. Open mouthed, Reno watched his men continuously move backwards, unable to hold the ground.
The noise! Who could think at a time like this?
The Indians continued to speed towards the cavalry, their arrows coming closer to the Army targets. Stop yelling, you savages! Can’t you fight like normal men?
The soldiers frantically pulled handfuls of cartridges from their belts and dropped them on the ground beside them for easier loading. Crouching on one knee, the men fired into the Indians. One of the troopers dropped his gun and then blew into his hands. Reno assumed the continuous firing was causing the rifles to become hot. There was nothing that could be done to help.
What are they doing? Now and then a few Indians would rush forward and hit a trooper with a club or lance only to act as if a major victory had been won. The trooper who had laid his rifle down was struck in the side of the head as he bent forward to secure his gun. Reno watched as the young soldier shook his head and wavered slightly.
Perhaps the greatest fear was not the whizzing bullets and arrows but the ringing of the Indians' war cries. The major had to only glance around the open field area to see the troopers' terror stricken eyes and red, sweating faces. All of them, including Reno, were unaccustomed to the tactics of the Sioux and Cheyenne, and this day would be a test of their mental strength.
Reno looked to the south hoping to see Custer arriving with Colonel Benteen and the other battalions. There was no support in sight and the presence of the warriors seemed to increase by the second. Jesus, what do I do? We’re not making any headway.
“Get Company G out here now!” Reno screamed at the adjutant. I’ve got to do it. I have to bring out McIntosh. “Jesus!” the major said to himself breathlessly. In a panic he fired his pistol at random, not caring if the bullets struck one of the enemy.
Moments later, McIntosh arrived with his troop and Reno placed them on the left where the line was still wavering due to the focused attack by the Indians. Out of the corner of his eye Reno saw the company doctor pulling a wounded soldier into the safety of the timber. Scanning the line he saw no other indication that anyone was killed, yet he felt this position couldn’t be held much longer. Rising slightly in his saddle Reno surveyed the horizon for sign of Custer’s promised support. Damn! Damn him! So help me God if he doesn’t show up. . .
“Where in God’s name is he?” he said to no one in particular. "Get Captain Moylan over here!" he yelled to the adjutant who took off to the line of battle.
Think. What did Cooke say? He said that Custer wanted me to lead the attack on the village and that I would be fully supported. Well, I’ve led the attack and couldn’t even get into the village because we were met with such force. Reno ran his fingers down his moustache then pounded his fist into his thigh. I should have known.
The army line was irregular yet the men were following orders as best they could. Their commanding officers rode behind the lines urging the cavalrymen to not be wasteful of ammunition. Reno knew the pack train, which held boxes of extra bullets was likely still miles away. A hundred yards behind the cavalry, the major sat on his horse and continued to watch the perilous scene. He laughed to himself.
"If you don't mind me asking, sir, what do you find humorous?" asked Moylan, who had just arrived.
Reno wiped his face with the back of his hand. "Our situation and knowing the general is probably just over that knoll watching.”
Reno continued to stare ahead as if he hadn’t heard Moylan’s voice.
“Sir?” he said once again.
Reno now looked upon the captain and noticed a certain calmness about him.
“You asked for me?” Moylan said.
“Yes, move your men over there on the left. If those savages keep pushing us back we’re going to spend the rest of the day in the timber along the river,” Reno said looking behind him and Moylan.
“Yes sir--right away.” The captain saluted Reno and dug his heels into his horse’s sides.
“I swear to God if Custer isn’t here soon we’re all going be scalped and left to perish. He said, no promised, his full support. That’s exactly what. . .”
Move Into The Timber
Before the major could finish, a handful of warriors attacked the soldiers on the west, the farthest point from the river. The line crumbled and the men huddled together for protection. Move it! Don’t just stand there! The Indians taunted Reno's men by riding back and forth only feet away. Their shouts, "Hay-ay, hay-ay!" sounded over the random gunfire and shouting officers. One soldier fell forward after an arrow sliced through his throat. Feeling he had no choice and with the left of his line faltering, Reno ordered for the men to shift so that the river would be at the cavalry’s back. The major counted on the thickness and safety of the underbrush along the Little Bighorn to protect his regiment.
"The very earth seems to be growing Indians!" Reno said to no one in particular.
"Sir," spoke the adjutant, "I'm not so sure our position. . ."
"Damn, boy, do you find me a fool? I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances. We're outnumbered here five to one!"
"Forgive me, sir. I was only trying to be of assistance."
"Well, be of assistance then and inform Lieutenant McIntosh and the captains that we're moving to the timber."
“The timber, sir?”
Reno glared at the adjutant. “Do it!”
After only fifteen minutes of action the major had made the decision to seek shelter from the painted enemy. “Get to the timber,” he yelled without looking back to see if the men nearby heard him. The troopers who apparently heard their commanding officer’s order frantically followed him into the refuge of the underbrush and timber. Those who were lost in the sound of gunfire or perhaps their own desperate thoughts retreated only after they saw their comrades’ fleeing figures.
Among the cottonwood trees that lined the river, the members of the 7th Cavalry grouped together and fired at random, wasting precious ammunition. Seconds later the warriors began working their way into the woods, expertly creeping through the tangled underbrush. The timber was a jumble of mass confusion as the men grouped together for support against the Indians.
Reno scanned his regiment. Wide eyed, the soldiers held their guns at chest level and prepared to open fire at any moment. He tried not to feel sorry for the men who were in this situation. The major had seen younger boys fighting during the Civil War. It’s Custer who’ll be sorry. From the east a rain of arrows came down upon the troopers, killing two and injuring several others. Reno heard a throaty grunt and watched as a trooper from Company A grabbed at a wound on his leg and slunk to the ground.
The Indians’ war cries permeated the timber from all sides. If things would calm down for just a moment I could think properly. I need a drink. Whiskey. Yes, that would do the trick.
“I think we’ve damn near got every savage in the country after us,” the adjutant yelled over the gunfire and shouts.
Reno let the words trail into the air as he once again searched for the rest of the command and Custer. Maybe if I stop looking they’ll show up. As the Sioux and Cheyenne pressed nearer, Reno’s confidence continued to falter. Oh God, oh God! I can’t think. Everything is falling apart. The next time I see Custer there’s going to be hell to pay. I don’t care if I’m court marshaled.
Part of him expected Custer to gallantly ride onto the field, his ego flaring, at any moment. If I'd have been in charge of this command as requested we wouldn't be in this mess. The government should be lucky I found the trail in the first place. I’d have waited for Terry and Gibbon, but no, not Custer. He’s probably off laughing somewhere or halfway to the reservation by now.
The major glanced over his shoulder looking for the enemy and noticed that next to him in the timber a favorite scout of the regiment had just shot a partially hidden warrior in the chest. “I’m damned certain we won’t be staying here long,” he spoke to the scout.
The scout nodded and smiled briefly before opening his mouth to speak. The words never came. A stray bullet struck the scout in the head spraying bits of his skull and brain onto Reno’s face. Bullets joined the arrows and flew at the troopers’ feet and bodies in a more furious manner. A few horses screamed as the lead tore into their flesh. The smoke was becoming so thick in the rear of the timber that Reno couldn’t make out the troopers fifteen yards away. He could hear their words of desperation and knew the attack was more furious on that side.
Jesus, we can’t stay here. We’re being picked off one by one! I’ve got to get myself and these men out of here!
“Mount and get to the bluffs!” shouted Reno, hoping everyone heard.
The horse holders attempted with little success to secure the panicked steeds. As the soldiers heard their commander’s order they rushed to retrieve their mounts. Indians both mounted and on foot continued with their attack. Several more horses were hit and their groans resounded through the air. Reno twisted in his saddle to survey the area. Those savages are shooting my men off their saddles. We must be quicker. The men continued to shoot at the enemy who would stand up long enough to attract the attention of the troopers. Most of the bullets didn’t hit the Indians but instead landed amongst the brush and in tree trunks.
Pop, pop, pop, the sound flooded Reno’s ears. He felt as if his head would explode. How many are dead? How many wounded?
Over the sound of flying lead and shouting men the major’s voice resounded, “Dismount!” Afraid his men would be annihilated from the backs of their horses on this very spot, the major shouted the command.
He and the men around him slid from their saddles and crouched behind the unruly steeds. Despite the thickening smoke nearby, Reno could see some of the troopers take cover behind the cottonwoods and brush. The Indian gunfire had slackened, and for the first time Reno became aware of how heavy he was breathing. Okay, think now. Stop and think. We’re alone and have to take care of ourselves. What are we going to do?
“My God, we’re surrounded!” a trooper yelled, disrupting Reno’s thoughts.
As if on cue, the Indians sent a shower of arrows over the troopers’ heads. Reno watched as the points struck the trees and ground. A scream brought the major’s attention to his right. One of the troopers had jumped up and was attempting to grab at an arrow sticking in his back.
“Get down, man,” someone yelled from nearby.
Retreat From The Timber
Reno wiped at his blood streaked face with the sleeve of his uniform. He stared at the blue jacket for a moment and watched the blood create a darkened spot. There was mass confusion among the men. Custer had abandoned him to be massacred by the Sioux; Reno knew this was the case. The major looked feverishly from left to right and back again. Help me!
“Mount and get to the bluffs!” Reno ordered for the second time as he himself turned his horse abruptly and headed out of the woods. "We'll charge those bastards!"
The men that heard this order went back to the daunting task of finding and mounting their horses. The woods along the river were chaotic. Reno wanted to scream right along with the swearing men, and the Indians for that matter. The smoke stung his eyes and burned his nose. He could hear the men behind him and hoped to God that everyone made it out of the timber.
Reno sped across the valley floor, back the way the 7th had come forty five minutes earlier. The handkerchief was still secured around his neck, and he gripped the pistols firmly in his hands and continued to fire them simultaneously while also holding onto the reins. The race was every man for himself as both soldier and beast fought their way out of the tree-lined battleground. Glancing over his shoulder, Reno witnessed some of the stallions holding two or three troopers desperately hanging onto anything they could grasp. Just outside the timber a handful of warriors scattered after seeing the rush of blue clad troopers. Reno hoped to see the Indians fleeing back to their village but wasn't surprised when faced with the truth. As the cavalry sped from the protection of the timber the warriors were once again fast approaching. The exhausted, dehydrated Army horses struggled to follow the urgings of their riders while the ponies of the Sioux and Cheyenne quickly caught up to the front of the retreating soldiers.
To the major's horror, Lieutenant McIntosh's horse buckled beneath him right outside the protection of the timber. Pierced through the head by an arrow the brown stallion’s body jerked in its final moments before death. McIntosh scrambled back into the woods and Reno was satisfied that his friend had retreated safely to the brush. Although part of him wanted to aid his friend, Reno knew he must lead the rest of the cavalry to safety.
On the field nearly two thousand Indians, some with streaks of red or black on their faces, rode side by side with the terrified soldiers. Using clubs and guns, the Indians fiercely knocked the troopers onto the ground. Reno watched as one cavalryman had his rifle grabbed from his hands. The Indian then struck the trooper in the head with the captured Springfield. Defeated, the soldiers tried jumping to their feet but the Indians on foot cut them down, their tomahawks expertly slicing the scalps of the young men.
Reno wished his horse would move faster. He wished he was back at Fort Lincoln--no, back at home. This was a nightmare--a living nightmare.
Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, amen. Hail Mary full of grace the Lord. . .
Chaos At The Ford
The frantic ride to the ford couldn’t happen quickly enough. With mounted Indians closing in on his right side, Reno was forced to cross the river far in advance of the troops’ original crossing. Upon arriving at the riverbank Reno was startled when his eyes met the six-foot drop that led down to the blue waters. Without thinking twice, he urged his stallion forward into the Little Bighorn. The cool water splashed upon the major’s body, soaking him from the knees down. In a rush, dozens of his men soon followed. Reno heard the whinnying of the horses and the thud their bodies made as they hit the water. Their riders cursed them across the river and up the other side.
To Reno’s surprise the enemy force slackened significantly. The cavalry, however, continued to feel tension from the band of Indians who pressed down upon them. He glanced over his shoulder as he forced his mount up the bluffs. A few of the horses stood at the riverbank shaking their heads from side to side as if telling their riders that they would go no further. The mounts refused to jump from the high bank despite the urgings of their riders, until they were forced over by the horses behind them.
Both horses and men lunged into the Little Bighorn as those behind them pushed forward. The once calm waters were teeming with rearing horses and terrified men. Reno shared their horror and confusion. War cries being shouted by the pursuing Indians only added to the mounting fear that rushed through the major's blood.
On The Bluffs
Upon reaching the top of the bluffs the soldiers dismounted and opened a steady fire on the warriors to help protect the troopers still attempting to climb the hill. Reno was comforted to see only a handful of the enemy still pursuing the cavalry. He slid from his horse and bent over, placing his hands on his knees. Breathe. Get your breath now. Reno slowly lifted himself upright. The last of the men were coming over the bluffs. He hastily untied the bandana from his neck, folded the blue cloth and tied it around his forehead.
“Where’d all them Indians go?” questioned one of the troopers.
The soldier next to him fired off a shot before responding. “Who cares? The point is they ain’t here.”
“My God,” Reno spoke as he pointed one of his pistols downhill.
The Indians on the valley floor were stripping and mutilating the cavalrymen who had fallen in the retreat.
“Get away from them,” the major yelled as he fired his pistol. He knew he was too far away to do any damage. “Jesus Christ!”
“There’s nothing we can do for them now, sir,” said the breathless adjutant.
“They’re dead because of that coward, Custer. He should have to bury them all and tell their families they’ve been slaughtered by these screaming savages,” stormed Reno.
The major retrieved his horse and led it away from the edge of the bluff. While walking, he hastily surveyed their surroundings. To his left, was a series of high bluffs from which it would be easy to detect any crawling Indians. In front of him was a deep depression with more sloping bluffs on the other side of it. The right side of their new defensive position was what worried the major. Jutting into the landscape were numerous gullies very capable of hiding Indians.
Reno found his voice once again. “All right men; let’s get the horses out of the line of fire. The depression there in the middle of our position will be the field hospital. Get all of the wounded there now, and corral the horses around the men.”
Reno noted how calm and seemingly organized his officers were. As he glanced around the men he immediately realized that Lieutenant McIntosh was nowhere to be found. Racing to Moylan, Reno grabbed the captain by the arm.
“Where is McIntosh?”
Moylan’s eyes sought the ground. “Killed at the edge of the timber, sir.”
Wide eyed, Reno looked about. “Send four of your best men to recover his body.”
“But sir that would be suicide. We barely… ”
Reno glared at Moylan, cutting his sentence short, then turned on his heel and walked away. He very well knew the task was impossible, and he nearly felt spiteful for ordering it. It’s bad enough I’ve lost nearly thirty men and have more than that wounded, but one of the dead has to be a good friend. He didn’t deserve whatever fate he met.
The major walked back to where Moylan stood. “Gather the other officers and meet me over there,” he said softly, nodding his head to the left.
The captain nodded in agreement before departing to find French. Reno watched as the two spoke and then headed in the direction of a gathering of troopers.
“What we’ve got here is a case of abandonment. Here we are stranded on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere while Custer is off gallivanting somewhere.” Reno’s words were tinted with anger. “Any minute those Sioux could ride right over us.”
The Sioux and Cheyenne warrior advance had slackened to a handful of courageous Indian fighters who occasionally fired a shot toward the command on the bluff. On the hilltop the air became clearer and was filled with the heavy breathing of the cavalrymen. Exhausted, many of the troopers collapsed to the ground after sliding off their horses.
“So the plan is to dig ourselves in for the night, rise early, and rush out of this hell hole?” asked one of the officers as the conversation continued.
“It isn’t Army regulation to leave behind all our fallen comrades,” urged French.
Reno gritted his teeth and glanced at each man. “It isn’t Army regulation to hand feed us to those savages either, and that’s exactly what that damned Custer did. He was supposed to support my advance on the village, and where is he?”
Captain Moylan offered a suggestion. “Perhaps he’s trapped the Sioux and is commencing on rounding them up.”
“Like hell,” roared Reno. “And even if he is, Custer undoubtedly did so just to take all the glory himself.”
What had been Custer's plan of action? Reno thought angrily to himself. His mind raced with images of the general marching the Indians to the reservation himself and telling those in Washington that he was to be credited with the successful mission. Reno exhaled through his nose and placed his hands on his hips. “All right, rouse the men and get to work on the pits. We’ll want them completed by night fall because I assume we’re in for it.”
Lacking the proper equipment, the men were forced to dig furiously with tin cups, pickaxes and their own hands. Most of the materials, including extra ammunition, were loaded on the mules in the pack train, which hadn’t yet arrived.
The earth was dry for several inches and below that, hard and less powdery. Sagebrush covered the soil but wouldn’t provide the necessary protection. The harder they worked, the quicker Reno realized that more options were needed.
Benteen To The Rescue
A half-hour had passed since the cavalry’s arrival on the hill. A single shot pierced the air and sent the companies to their stomachs. The bullet made a small thud as it hit a mound of dirt.
“I’ve been hit in the eye,” a nearby trooper yelled as he grasped his face.
“Damnit, Jenkins. You just got some dirt in there. You ain’t hit.”
The young private opened his eyes and laughed in relief with the others. Reno shook his head. Sensing danger, the major stayed in the position on his stomach while he fired his pistol into the ravine where the bullet had come from. Several more shots followed from the Sioux vantage point. Now firing could be heard from the south. Looking left, Reno’s heart leapt as he saw the guidon of Company H coming over the slope. The flag waved briskly in the air, its blue and red colors whipping in the wind. Reno bent his head down and said a hasty prayer before jumping to his feet. Colonel Benteen had arrived with Companies D, H and K.
"Boy, am I damned glad to see you!" Reno exclaimed as he grasped Benteen's hand when the colonel dismounted. Forty five years of age, Benteen was one of the veterans in the command. He stood taller than Reno, and tufts of his gray hair stuck out from under his hat. The major thought Benteen had a presence that demanded respect.
"What the hell is going on here, major?"
"We're being knocked off one by one is what's going on," Reno responded while shooting at a bush some fifty yards away hoping to make contact with an Indian.
Benteen's eyes followed the major's shot. "Where in God's name is Custer?"
Reno laughed wickedly, his eyes looking up to the heavens. "Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is we're here and he's off somewhere probably bringing in the reward all by himself. Anyway, I thought you two would be together by now."
“Hell no, we just returned from our reconnaissance over the roughest territory in search of Indians that are nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t until we arrived on those bluffs back there that I saw your retreat across the valley. I haven’t seen the general since he sent me off.”
“There was nothing we could do. Custer promised his full support and then never came. I don’t know what his plan was,” Reno said.
Under his breath and only loud enough for Reno to hear, Benteen spoke. "If you ask me, I was sent off on a wild chase while Custer knew all along nothing was to be found.”
Reno eyed the country around him, his eyes never meeting Benteen's face. "Custer’s a foolish bastard." Finally looking at the colonel, the major cocked his head to the side. "You’re still commanding D, H and K, right?"
"Yes. I think we marched about eight miles over this godforsaken land,” Benteen said. “We didn’t see any Indians, so I turned the men back. We eventually came upon the trail you had apparently made earlier. I see you’ve found plenty of these savages.”
Reno laughed dryly. “Well, right now I’ve got A, G and M who are presently digging in on this hillside so we can hopefully wait for Custer's return in one piece. I keep waiting to see his sorry face come riding over that bluff."
"Any idea where the general is located?" Benteen asked.
Reno only shook his head in response. The major was too content on watching a warrior who proceeded to stick his head up now and then from behind a large sagebrush on the slope.
Benteen wiped his forehead and locked eyes with the major. "Perhaps we should send out a small detachment. One of the private’s with Custer brought me this note from Cooke. I’m supposed to hurry to the general and speed up the pack train."
"If you'd like you can send your own men. I'm not placing mine in anymore danger. Why, we were cut down on the flat land next to the river. I must have lost thirty men, including Lieutenant McIntosh."
"McIntosh? He was a damn fine soldier.” Benteen hesitated before changing the subject. “Where is the village?"
Reno pointed in the northern direction of the lush tree line nearly two miles distant. "We barely got in sight of the village when we were entirely overwhelmed. It tires me to even think about relaying all the details to you at this very moment." Reno continued to set his eyes on the horizon. "So are you going to?"
"Am I going to what?" asked Benteen.
"Send a battalion to find Custer."
"Not if you as the senior officer give orders otherwise.” Benteen smiled.
Reno was technically the officer in charge as long as Custer was absent. Why embark on a difficult journey over unknown lands in pursuit of someone whose location we’re unaware of?
"Come on," Benteen said, slapping the palm of his hand on the major's back. "There's work to be done."
The men were making progress with the rifle pits. They would provide at least some cover for the men. Reno walked unharmed around the perimeter of the new camp. Minutes would go by without a shot being fired and then suddenly everyone was on guard to see how long the harassment lasted. He still looked for Custer but wanted to pretend he didn’t care whether he showed up or not.
“Do you hear that?” asked a nearby trooper who had stopped digging.
“Hear what?” asked Reno.
The blonde haired soldier looked northward up the valley. “Gunfire.”
“Well, yes, we’re still being fired upon, boy.”
“No, major, it’s farther away. It’s unmistakable.”
Reno listened and, yes, there it was. It had to be coming from miles away.
“Do you think they’re still violating our dead?” the trooper asked.
They would have no excuse to. The Indians have had time to scavenger around the dead. Why, they probably have all the money too. I mean, after all, the men were just paid after we left Fort Lincoln.
Move Toward Weir Point
Reno blinked a few times then looked upon one of the captains. “Yes?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a detachment and see if that isn’t the general in need of our assistance.”
“Yes I mind. You’ll do no such thing. We need all the help we can get here.”
“But sir. . .”
“Don’t tempt me, captain. I said no.”
The young officer pivoted on his foot and stormed away.
I hope it is Custer. Then he can ride on up here and see what a mess he left us in. While he’s at it maybe he can gather up my men who are dead and bloating on the valley floor. Reno turned his back to the retreating captain and unbuttoned the top of his shirt.
“Did you give the captain permission for a reconnaissance?” Benteen asked, when he came up beside the major. The colonel pointed in the direction over Reno’s right shoulder.
The major turned to see the captain he had just spoken with leading a gathering of troopers north. A smaller detachment soon followed.
“Where is he going?”
“He asked if he could go searching for Custer, and I directed him to stay here where he was needed.”
“Well, I’m sorry to say this, but if it is indeed Custer having a skirmish with the Indians we don’t want the first help he sees to be the captain riding to his rescue. That’ll make us, the senior officers, look like fools,” spoke Benteen. “We better follow.”
“We can’t very well leave the wounded behind,” Reno uttered. “And I thought things couldn’t get any worse.”
An hour later the command was unhurriedly following their comrades and the captain that led them in search of Custer. It took four men to carry one of the wounded cavalrymen from the hilltop position and gathering them had proven difficult. Each injured trooper laid upon a gray blanket of which the ends were grasped by the men who assisted in caring them. The battalions were a long line of slow moving men and horses. Those on horseback rode at the head of the column near Reno, while the men on foot vigilantly carried their comrades. Bringing up the rear, additional mounted men protected the flank of the regiment.
As they followed the trail of dust that the disobedient captain and his troop were kicking up, Reno’s thoughts turned to the river. The men and horses were in desperate need of water. The horses and mules frothed at the mouth from lack of hydration. The major thought of what would happen if they were forced to stay upon the hilltop for longer than a couple of days. The notion of eating the mounts made Reno’s stomach churn.
Hearing a galloping horse, the major twisted around to see who the rider was. Moylan reined his horse in alongside Reno and saluted him.
“Sir, I cannot keep up. I have too many wounded and our progress is slow.”
“Do not worry, captain. Just keep along as best you can. I’ll send another troop to help you.”
The movement of the horses and troops were disrupted by shouts and gunfire, which brought Reno’s attention to the front of the command. What the hell is it now? Could just one damned thing go right? “Ride ahead and see what’s taking place,” he ordered, looking at the adjutant.
Reno wiped at a bead of sweat that trickled down his face. He felt his shirt sticking to his back. What I wouldn’t give for a nice dinner and a change of clothes. Okay, shift your mind to other things, Marcus. Don’t tease yourself. You’re probably not even likely to get out of this hell hole and back to Fort Lincoln. Worry about eating dinner then.
Retreat Back To The Hilltop
“Well?” Reno asked, bringing his attention to the adjutant who had just returned.
“The Indians are meeting the two lead troops with increasing force. We won’t be able to hold this ground. The cavalry is moving back this way as I speak.”
The major uttered an oath. “Now we have to get the whole command shifted back the other way. Quick, ride to the end of the column and tell Moylan to head back.” Reno scratched at his temple and felt the urge to punch something. That would make me feel a lot better. And I know damn well who I’d like to hit.
Reno now faced south, the direction the cavalry had just ridden from. The firing increased in intensity and became closer to the command. Reno wondered if the men in front of him could move any slower. “Hell!” The major swung his horse out of line and urged him forward. “Come on, men! Let’s go! I don’t want to leave anyone behind. Those savages are right behind you,” he said as he rode beside his men.
Reno couldn’t tell if the soldiers quickened their horses, but they all seemed to arrive back at the original site sooner that he expected. The men went back to the daunting task of lugging the dead mules and horses in front of the pits. They stacked whatever they could find that would provide the best possible defense. The pack train, with the loaded down mules, was arriving when Reno and the six companies tore into the camp. The troopers immediately threw hard tack boxes, saddles and empty ammunition crates onto the ground to use as shelter.
“Good job, men. Keep it up,” the major said encouragingly from horseback.
The last two companies entered the defensive position, bringing with them a shower of lead. Men stumbled over one another as each sought refuge in or around the pits.
“They’re coming right behind us!” someone shouted before throwing himself behind a crate.
Reno watched as the Indians swept to the right and left, going down the hillside to seek protection. The Sioux and Cheyenne were like an army of ants, each one following the other in an orderly fashion. As soon as they were secure the Sioux and Cheyenne opened a raging fire. The sound was deafening. The major jumped from his saddle and laid flat on the ground, the gun held tight across his torso. He was scared to even breathe heavily for fear that the rising of his chest would attract a bullet.
Reno rolled over onto his stomach to get a better view of his surroundings. If he looked straight out he could see for miles and knew that if he crawled forward a few paces he’d be able to look down the bluffs they had climbed earlier. From what he could tell, most of the men lay in clusters of two or three. How many made it back? How many did we leave behind? Water. We’ve got to get down these bluffs to the river.
The cavalrymen remained unmolested for the majority of the early evening after a forty-five minute siege with the Indians. Now that the pack train had arrived, the rations were quickly distributed among the men. They now were supplied with more ammunition, tools and shelter. Reno watched his men devour the hardtack and dry biscuits after the boxes were feverishly opened. Some of the men slept while others continued the work on the pits, which would be of great use in the morning as they sought protection from the Sioux and Cheyenne. The troopers were on their hands and knees digging into the hard earth with their fingers and in some instances, tin cups. Only a few spades were available and Reno had told them to work with whatever they had.
The major cautiously walked around the boundary of the defensive position to make sure things were in order. He had assigned each troop to a specific area around the perimeter so that no enemy activity would go unnoticed. He worried about the spirits of the men. He worried he wouldn’t live to see tomorrow, and he worried that Custer was already on his way back to meet General’s Terry and Gibbon. Reno exhaled deeply and sat down, bringing his knees to his chest. The Indians continued to fire at random. There was no pattern to their onslaught.
Reno looked up to see Colonel Benteen standing in front of him.
“Get down sir or you could be shot where you stand.”
Benteen ignored the suggestion. “We’re getting whipped on the southern edge. I need more troopers over there. The damn savages are practically crawling right up the ravine to get to the men.”
Reno nodded his head in confirmation and looked over his shoulder before standing. “I’ll send one of the companies, or at least part of one, right over.”
The colonel barely smiled in acknowledgement before turning away.
As the sky turned black, signaling the end of the day, the major was disappointed to find the moon not visible in the heavens. But of course, could anything go right? He worried the enemy would sneak upon the command during the night. Nothing would surprise him at this point. With his head upon his jacket for comfort he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Around him the camp grew quieter until the only sounds were those of the horses and mules noisily chewing the dry Montana grass.
Defense Of The Command
A light rain fell just before dawn, and the drops made small thuds on the dry ground. Tin cups were shaken to remove any dirt and turned upright to catch what rainfall they could. The coolness of the raindrops didn't last long, and Reno thought he heard the muffled sound of crying. He brought his tongue to the roof of his mouth and it stuck there. He knew how the mournful soldier felt. Water was needed if they were to survive any more time on the bluff. The horses were also in desperate need of water having not been to the river since yesterday afternoon before the advance was made on the village.
With the first pink hues appearing in the eastern sky the enemy opened fire with a fierce onslaught of bullets. Around Reno, the sleeping troopers were immediately woken by the sound of gunfire and scrambled to secure their rifles. The soldiers returned the fire but Reno realized they were once again wasting precious ammunition. The Sioux and Cheyenne jumped up from the ravines and waved their carbines in the air in order to draw the bullets of the troopers. The enemy was safely on the ground before the cavalry bullets met their mark. Smoke filled the air and hung thick on the already warm morning. The gunfire exchange was deafening and didn't cease for nearly an hour.
Reno rolled over on his back and stared at the sky. A solitary bird flew high overhead, and the major longed to be that free--free of the hell he’d been in since yesterday, and free of the nagging thoughts in the back of his head. No, I refuse to die here on this barren land. Besides, Washington is going to hear about what their favorite boy has done. Reno shook his head while keeping his pistol flat across his chest. Stop. Stay focused. The major jumped as the trooper next to him uttered a shrill scream. An arrow jutted out of the man’s thigh.
“Private, can you make it to the field hospital?”
The young man writhed on the ground, a look of fierce pain upon his face.
“Private, can you make it to the field hospital?” Reno asked again.
“I think so,” the injured trooper barely uttered. Pushing himself on his backside and hands he moved downhill.
Upset with the advantage of the warriors, Reno crept around the hillside to address each officer. "Tell your men only to fire when they are absolutely certain of their mark. If we keep this up we'll be borrowing bullets from the damned friends of Sitting Bull," he grumbled.
Two hours into the fight the firing once again diminished significantly, which brought relief to the weary troopers.
"Must be off to a late breakfast," one soldier joked. He was met with a stare from Reno and went silent.
The major crept over to where Benteen stood. Wrapping a wound on his left hand while standing fully upright, the colonel acted as if he was unaware of any pressing danger.
"All right there, colonel?" Reno asked.
"Just a ricochet I think. No matter."
"That was simple compared to yesterday's rout. I’d have taken another hour of that if it meant erasing Sunday."
"Those savages are bright as hell," commented Benteen. "I thought my company and I would have to push ourselves farther onto the ridge thanks to the slyness of the Indians. They continued to move upon us until they were about a stone's throw away."
"Who knew they could be so clever?" asked Reno in an attempt at humor.
When a bullet struck the soil near Benteen's boot, the colonel barely flinched. He only turned his eyes in the direction from which the shot was fired and aimed his own pistol. When the warrior rose from the ground, Benteen fired his gun and the Indian fell to the earth with a grunt.
Water For The Wounded
"Excuse me sirs."
Both men turned to face the fatigued doctor.
"Forgive my bluntness but we desperately need water for the wounded and we need it now."
Reno traced his thumb and forefinger around his mouth. "The canteens?" he asked.
"Empty, major," confessed the doctor.
"I see. Thank you, doctor; I'll do what I can."
The medical officer turned and half walked, half crawled back to the field hospital, taking every precaution not to become an easy mark.
If we’re going to do this, we have to do it now. We have no choice.
"Colonel, gather some men to make a break for the river. Tell them to carry as many canteens as possible. You and I along with the rest of the command nearest the river will cover the water carriers."
"Major Reno, I think this will be more than a break," spoke Benteen out of line as he rushed off to his men lining the southern end of the ridge.
Within a half hour the selected men were loaded with the canteens and ready for a hurried trip to the river. No resistance was met with as the twelve men fled towards the cool waters of the Little Bighorn. Lining the ridge were at least twenty troopers, rifles cocked and ready. The blue June sky filled up the space behind them and the sunlight glinted off the metal of the guns.
"I can't believe they're actually…" Major Reno's words trailed off as one of the water carriers was shot through the chest.
"Come on, come on," he heard a nearby soldier slowly say as he lined up the fallen soldier’s killer with the barrel of his gun. He pulled the trigger and the Indian fell into the river.
As the brave troopers made their way back across the two hundred yards that separated them from the river each step they took was more promising. Enemy bullets hit the ground around the retreating soldiers' boots but found a home in the head of one of the cavalrymen. The carriers reached the protection of the bluff when another piece of lead made contact with a sergeant's leg near the thigh. Blood gushed openly from the wound and soaked into the sergeant’s uniform. The trooper fell forward into Major Reno who assisted the man to the ground. Another water carrier fell to his knees at the injured man's side. Despite the effort of applying pressure to the wound and tightly securing a tourniquet there was no hope for the valiant soldier.
"Hold me up!" the dying military man insisted. "I want to see my boys before I go." He smiled as though it took great effort on his part. As the last breath exited from the sergeant’s mouth, Reno gently allowed the dead man’s body to fall back and rest on the ground.
Reno stood and brushed the dirt from his knees before running his hands through his hair. His eyes were wide and his breathing heavy. The major’s successful military career during the Civil War wasn’t evident out here on the scorched Montana prairie. The command cannot likely survive another day entrenched upon this hill. Any moment now the Sioux and Cheyenne could run into our camp and annihilate every last one of us. Custer will be sorry then! Reno sat down hard and rested his head in his hands. What’s next? What in God’s name is next?
Published by permission of the author, all rights reserved.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022