Marcus Reno was born at Carrollton, Illinois, on 15th November, 1834. After attending West Point he was commissioned a second lieutenant of the 1st Dragoons in July, 1857. He served on the frontier in Oregon before joining the 1st Cavalry on the outbreak of the American Civil War. He fought with the Army of the Potomac and ended the war with the rank of captain.
In 1866 he was sent to Fort Vancouver. The following year he served as acting assistant inspector general of the Department of Columbia (June, 1867 to 15th June, 1869).
Reno was promoted to the rank of major and in December, 1868, joined the 7th Cavalry based at Fort Hayes, Kansas. Later he was moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, North Dakota and accompanied General George A. Custer on his Sioux campaign in 1876.
In 1876 the Sioux and Cheyenne attempted to resist the advance of white migration in Montana. On 17th June 1876, General George Crook and about 1,000 troops, supported by 300 Crow and Shoshone, fought against 1,500 members of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. The battle at Rosebud Creek lasted for over six hours. This was the first time that Native Americans had united together to fight in such large numbers.
General George A. Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate the villages of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. An encampment was discovered on the 25th June. It was estimated that it contained about 10,000 men, women and children. Custer assumed the numbers were much less than that and instead of waiting for the main army under General Alfred Terry to arrive, he decided to attack the encampment straight away.
Custer divided his men into three groups. Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to explore a range of hills five miles from the village. Reno was to attack the encampment from the upper end whereas Custer decided to strike further downstream.
Reno soon discovered he was outnumbered and retreated to the river. He was later joined by Benteen and his men. Custer continued his attack but was easily defeated by about 4,000 warriors. At the battle of the Little Bighorn Custer and all his 264 men were killed. The soldiers under Reno and Benteen were also attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and his army.
Rumours began to circulate that Reno had lacked "the ability to make decisions under fire". Others criticised him for not going to Custer's aid during his last stand. However, this did not stop Reno replacing George A. Custer as commander of what was left of the the 7th Cavalry.
In March, 1877, Reno was accused of making improper advances to the wife of Captain James. M. Bell. Reno was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman and it was recommended that he should be dismissed. President Rutherford Hayes disagreed and instead suspended him without pay for two years.
Rumours continued to circulate about Reno's failings at the battle of the Little Bighorn. Reno requested an official inquiry into these charges. The Court of Enquiry report published in March, 1879, concluded: "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 from this Court."
In 1880 Reno was accused of striking a junior officer and being drunk on duty. Although he gained the support of General Philip H. Sheridan and General Alfred Terry Reno was found guilty and dismissed from the army on 1st April, 1880, for "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline".
In his last years Reno made strenuous efforts to clear his name but this campaign was unsuccessful. Marcus Reno died of cancer at Providence Hospital on 1st April, 1889.
In the 1960s a relative of Marcus Reno asked the army to re-examine the charges that led to him being dismissed in 1880. The army agreed and eventually came to the conclusion that Reno had been improperly dismissed and he was restored to rank. In 1967 his remains were exhumed and reburied at Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, Montana with full military honours.
Reno took a steady gallop down the creek bottom three miles where it emptied into the Little Horn, and found a natural ford across the Little Horn River. He started to cross, when the scouts came back and called out to him to hold on, that the Sioux were coming in large numbers to meet him. He crossed over, however, formed his companies on the prairie in line of battle, and moved forward at a trot but soon took a gallop.
The Valley was about three fourth of a mile wide, on the left a line of low, round hills, and on the right the river bottom covered with a growth of cottonwood trees and bushes. After scattering shots were fired from the hills and a few from the river bottom and Reno's skirmishers returned the shots.
He advanced about a mile from the ford to a line of timber on the right and dismounted his men to fight on foot. The horses were sent into the timber, and the men forward on the prairie and advanced toward the Indians. The Indians, mounted on ponies, came across the prairie and opened a heavy fire on the soldiers. After skirmishing for a few minutes Reno fell back to his horses in the timber. The Indians moved to his left and rear, evidently with the intention of cutting him off from the ford.
Reno ordered his men to mount and move through the timber, but as his men got into the saddle the Sioux, who had advanced in the timber, fired at close range and killed one soldier. Colonel Reno then commanded the men to dismount, and they did so, but he soon ordered them to mount again, and moved out on to the open prairie.
The command headed for the ford, pressed closely by Indians in large numbers, and at every moment the rate of speed was increased, until it became a dead run for the ford. The Sioux, mounted on their swift ponies, dashed up by the side of the soldiers and fired at them, killing both men and horses. Little resistance was offered, and it was complete rout to the ford. I did not see the men at the ford, and do not know what took place further than a good many were killed when the command left the timber.
Just as I got out, my horse stumbled and fell and I was dismounted, the horse running away after Reno's command. I saw several soldiers who were dismounted, their horses having been killed or run away. There were also some soldiers mounted who had remained behind, I should think in all as many as thirteen soldiers, and seeing no chance of getting away, I called on them to come into the timber and we would stand off the Indians.
Three of the soldiers were wounded, and two of them so badly they could not use their arms. The soldiers wanted to go out, but I said no, we can't get to the ford, and besides, we have wounded men and must stand by them. The soldiers still wanted to go, but I told them I was an old frontiersman, understood the Indians, and if they would do as I said I would get them out of the scrape which was no worse than scrapes I had been in before. About half of the men were mounted, and they wanted to keep their horses with them, but I told them to let the horses go and fight on foot.
We stayed in the bush about three hours, and I could hear heavy firing below in the river, apparently about two miles distant. I did not know who it was, but knew the Indians were fighting some of our men, and learned afterward it was Custer's command. Nearly all the Indians in the upper part of the valley drew off down the river, and the fight with Custer lasted about one hour, when the heavy firing ceased. When the shooting below began to die away I said to the boys 'come, now is the time to get out.' Most of them did not go, but waited for night. I told them the Indians would come back and we had better be off at once. Eleven of the thirteen said they would go, but two stayed behind.
I deployed the men as skirmishers and we moved forward on foot toward the river. When we had got nearly to the river we met five Indians on ponies, and they fired on us. I returned the fire and the Indians broke and we then forded the river, the water being heart deep. We finally got over, wounded men and all, and headed for Reno's command which I could see drawn up on the bluffs along the river about a mile off. We reached Reno in safety.
We had not been with Reno more than fifteen minutes when I saw the Indians coming up the valley from Custer's fight. Reno was then moving his whole command down the ridge toward Custer. The Indians crossed the river below Reno and swarmed up the bluff on all sides. After skirmishing with them Reno went back to his old position which was on one of the highest fronts along the bluffs. It was now about five o'clock, and the fight lasted until it was too dark to see to shoot.
As soon as it was dark Reno took the packs and saddles off the mules and horses and made breast works of them. He also dragged the dead horses and mules on the line and sheltered the men behind them. Some of the men dug rifle pits with their butcher knives and all slept on their arms.
At the peep of day the Indians opened a heavy fire and a desperate fight ensued, lasting until 10 o'clock. The Indians charged our position three or four times, coming up close enough to hit our men with stones, which they threw by hand. Captain Benteen saw a large mass of Indians gathered on his front to charge, and ordered his men to charge on foot and scatter them.
Benteen led the charge and was upon the Indians before they knew what they were about and killed a great many. They were evidently much surprised at this offensive movement, and I think in desperate fighting Benteen is one of the bravest men I ever saw in a fight. All the time he was going about through the bullets, encouraging the soldiers to stand up to their work and not let the Indians whip them; he went among the horses and pack mules and drove out the men who were skulking there, compelling them to go into the line and do their duty. He never sheltered his own person once during the battle, and I do not see how he escaped being killed. The desperate charging and fighting was over at about one o'clock, but firing was kept up on both sides until late in the afternoon.
When we got to the timber we rode down an embankment and dismounted. This was where the channel of the river changed and was probably several feet lower than the level of the prairie. We dismounted in haste, number four of each set of four holding the horses.
We came up onto higher ground forming a skirmish line from the timber towards the bluffs on the other side of the valley and facing down stream in the direction of the Indian camp. This was our first view of the Indian camp from the skirmish line. Some of the men laid down while the others knelt down.
At this particular place there was a prairie dog town and we used the mounds for temporary breast works. We got the skirmish line formed and here the Indians made their first charge. There were probably 500 of them coming from the direction of their village. They were well mounted and well armed. They tried to cut through our skirmish line. We fired volleys into them repulsing their charge and emptying a number of their saddles.... Finally when they could not cut through us, they strung out in single file, lying on the opposite side of their ponies from us, and then they commenced to circle. They overlapped our skirmish line on the left and were closing in on the rear to complete the circle.
I mounted my command and charged through the reds in a solid body. As we cut our way through them, the fighting was hand to hand and it was instant death to him who fell from his saddle, or was wounded. As we dashed through them, my men were so close to the Indians that they could discharge their pistols right into the breasts of the savages, then throw them away and seize their carbines, not having time to replace their revolvers in their holsters.... Our horses were on the dead run with, in many instances, two and three men on one animal. We plunged into the Little Big Horn and began the climb of the opposite bluffs. This incline was the steepest that I have ever seen horse or mule ascend.... In this narrow place (the ford) there were necessarily much crowding and confusion and many of the men were compelled to cling to the horses' necks and tails for support, to prevent their being trampled to death or falling back into the river. Into the mass of men and horses, the Indians poured a continuous fire and the Little Big Horn was transferred into a seeming river of human blood.
All during June 1876, events and Custer's own mistakes conspired against him. Experience in the plains wars indicated that the problem in fighting the Indians was not so much defeating them as it was getting them to stand and fight at all. This was one of Custer's major worries. Moreover, he had been led to believe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs not to expect more than 800 hostile braves; in fact he was probably confronted by over 4,000. Finally, he was not aware that many of his future foes were armed with Winchester repeating carbines, whereas his own men were equipped with single-shot Springfields. Thus of the three major aspects of military intelligence - the number of the enemy, their willingness to fight, and their armament - Custer was ignorant and unprepared.
Some thought Reno lost his head, and Custer with it: some thought he should have marched at once to the sound of the guns, without waiting for the ammunition packs. But those most critical of his conduct in the valley were not with him in the valley; and those who held that he should have marched at once ignored his lack of ammunition.
But when these same men took the witness stand and swore to tell the truth, all, as good soldiers, even the more experienced Benteen, to whom Reno himself looked for advice and counsel, recognized and acknowledged that it was Reno and not one of them who was the Commanding Officer; that it was he, not they, upon whom rested the duty and responsibility of decision.... And not one of them, not even the unfriendly Godfrey, was able to put his finger on any act that he was willing to stigmatize upon his oath, as cowardice.
Having been called upon to prepare the biography of the late Brevet Major General George A. Custer, U.S.A., a great amount of evidence, oral and written, came into my hands tending to prove that the sacrifice of his life and the lives of his immediate command at the battle of the Little Big Horn was useless, and owing to the cowardice of his subordinates.
First: Information coming to me from participants in the battle... is to the effect that gross cowardice was displayed therein by Major Marcus A. Reno... and that owing to such cowardice, the orders of Lieut. Col. Custer, commanding officer, to said Reno, to execute a certain attack, were not made.
That the failure of this movement, owing to his cowardice and disobedience, caused the defeat of the United States forces on the day in question; and that had Custer's orders been obeyed, the troops would probably have defeated the Indians.
That after Major Reno's cowardly flight, he was joined by Captain Benteen... and that he remained idle with this force while his superior officer was fighting against the whole force of the Indians, the battle being within his knowledge, the sound of firing audible from his position, and his forces out of immediate danger from the enemy.
That the consequences of this second exhibition of cowardice and incompetency was the massacre of Lieut. Col. Custer and five companies of the Seventh United States Cavalry.
I think I owe it to myself to put you more fully in possession of the facts of the late operations. While at the mouth of the Rosebud I submitted my plan to General Gibbon and to General Custer. They approved it heartily. It was that Custer with his whole regiment should move up the Rosebud till he should meet a trail which Reno had discovered a few days before but that he should not follow it directly to the Little Big Horn; that he should send scouts over it and keep his main force further to the south so as to prevent the Indians from slipping in between himself and the mountains. He was also to examine the headwaters of Tullock's creek as he passed it and send me word of what he found there. A scout was furnished him for the purpose of crossing the country to me. We calculated it would take Gibbon's column until the twenty-sixth to reach the mouth of the Little Big Horn and that the wide sweep which I had proposed Custer should make would require so much time that Gibbon would be able to cooperate with him in attacking any Indians that might be found on that stream. I asked Custer how long his marches would be. He said they would be at first about thirty miles a day. Measurements were made and calculation based on that rate of progress. I talked with him about his strength and at one time suggested that perhaps it would be well for me to take Gibbon's cavalry and go with him. To this suggestion he replied that without reference to the command he would prefer his own regiment alone. As a homogeneous body, as much could be done with it as with the two combined and he expressed the utmost confidence that he had all the force that he could need, and I shared his confidence. The plan adopted was the only one that promised to bring the Infantry into action and I desired to make sure of things by getting up every available man. I offered Custer the battery of Gatling guns but he declined it saying that it might embarrass him: that he was strong enough without it. The movements proposed for General Gibbon's column were carried out to the letter and had the attack been deferred until it was up I cannot doubt that we should have been successful. The Indians had evidently nerved themselves for a stand, but as I learn from Captain Benteen, on the twenty-second the cavalry marched twelve miles; on the twenty-third, thirty-five miles; from five a.m. till eight p.m. on the twenty-fourth, forty-five miles and then after night ten miles further; then after resting but without unsaddling, twenty-three miles to the battlefield. The proposed route was not taken but as soon as the trail was struck it was followed. I cannot learn that any examination of Tullock's creek was made. I do not tell you this to cast any reflection upon Custer. For whatever errors he may have committed he has paid the penalty and you cannot regret his loss more than I do, but I feel that our plan must have been successful had it been carried out, and I desire you to know the facts. In the action itself, so far as I can make out, Custer acted under a misapprehension. He thought, I am confident, that the Indians were running. For fear that they might get away he attacked without getting all his men up and divided his command so that they were beaten in detail. I do not at all propose to give the thing up here but I think that my troops require a little time and in view of the strength which the Indians have developed I propose to bring up what little reinforcement I can get. I should be glad of any that you can send me. I can take two companies of Indians from Powder River and there are a few recruits and detached men whom I can get for the cavalry. I ought to have a larger mounted force than I now have but I fear cannot be obtained. I hear nothing from General Crook's operations. If I could hear I should be able to form plans for the future much more intelligently.
The valley of the creek was followed toward the Little Big Horn, Custer on the right of the creek, Reno on the left of it, Benteen off still farther to the left and not in sight. About 11 o'clock Reno's troops crossed the creek to Custer's column and remained with it until about half-past 12 o'clock, when it was reported that the village was only two miles ahead and running away.
Reno was directed to move forward at asrapid a gait as he thought prudent and to charge, with the understanding that Custer should support him. The troops under Reno moved at a fast trot for about two miles, when they came to the river, crossed it, halted a few minutes to collect the men, and then deployed. Not seeing anything, however, of the subdivisions under Custer and Benteen, and the Indians swarming upon him from all directions, Reno took position dismounted in the edge of some timber winch afforded shelter for the horses of his command, continuing to fight on foot until it became apparent that lie would soon be overcome by superior numbers of Indians. He then remounted his troops, charged through the enemy, recrossed the river and gained the bluffs on the opposite side. In this charge First Lieutenant Donald Mclntosh, Second Lieutenant B. H. Hodgson and Acting-Assistant-Surgeon J. M. DeWolf, were killed.
Reno's force succeeded in reaching the top of the bluff, but with a loss of three officers and twenty-nine enlisted men killed and seven men wounded. Almost at the same time that Reno's men reached the bluff, Benteen's battalion came up, and a little later the pack-train, with MacDougall's troop escorting it. These three detachments were all united under Reno's command, and numbered about 381 men, in addition to their officers.
1. The Court of Inquiry of which Colonel John H. King, 9th Infantry, is President, instituted by direction of the President, in Special Orders No. 255, Headquarters of the Army, Adjutant General's Office, November 25, 1878, on the application of Major Marcus A. Reno, 7th Cavalry, for the purpose of inquiring into Major Reno's conduct at the battle of the Little Big Horn River, on the 25th and 26th days of June, 1876, has reported the following facts and opinions, viz:
First. On the morning of the 25th of June 1876, the 7th Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel G. A. Custer commanding, operating against the hostile Indians in Montana Territory, near the Little Big Horn River, was divided into four battalions, two of which were commanded by Colonel Custer in person, with the exception of one company in charge of the pack-train; one by Major Reno and one by Captain Benteen. This division took place from about twelve (12) to fifteen (15) miles from the scene of the battle or battles afterwards fought. The column under Captain Benteen received orders to move to the left for an indefinite distance (to the first and second valleys) hunting Indians, with orders to charge any it might meet with. The battalion under Major Reno received orders to draw out of the column, and doing so marched parallel with and only a short distance from, the column commanded by Colonel Custer.
Second. About three or four miles from what afterwards was found to be the Little Big Horn River, where the fighting took
place. Major Reno received orders to move forward as rapidly as he thought prudent, until coming up with the Indians, who were reported fleeing, he would charge them and drive everything before him, and would receive the support of the column under Colonel Custer.
Third. In obedience to the orders given him by Colonel Custer, Captain Benteen marched to the left (south), at an angle of about forty-five degrees, but, meeting an impracticable country, was forced by it to march more to his right than the angle above indicated and nearer approaching a parallel route to that trail followed by the rest of the command.
Fourth. Major Reno, in obedience to the orders given him, moved on at a fast trot on the main Indian trail until reaching the Little Big Horn River, which he forded, and halted for a few minutes to reform his battalion. After reforming, he marched the battalion forward towards the Indian village, down stream or in a northerly direction, two companies in line of battle and one in support, until about half way to the point where he finally halted, when he brought the company in reserve forward to the line of battle, continuing the movement at a fast trot or gallop until after passing over a distance of about two miles, when he halted and dismounted to fight on foot at a point of timber upon which the right flank of his battalion rested. After fighting in this formation for less than half an hour, the Indians passing to his left rear and appearing in his front, the skirmish line was withdrawn to the timber, and the fight continued for a short time - half an hour or forty-five minutes in all - when the command, or nearly all of it, was mounted, formed, and, at a rapid gait, was withdrawn to a hill on the opposite side of the river. In this movement one officer and about sixteen soldiers and citizens were left in the woods, besides one wounded man or more, two citizens and thirteen soldiers rejoining, the command afterwards. In this retreat Major Reno's battalion lost some twenty-nine men in killed and wounded, and three officers, including Doctor De Wolf, killed.
Fifth. In the meantime Captain Benteen, having carried out, as far as was practicable, the spirit of his orders, turned in the direction of the route taken by the remainder of the regiment, and reaching the trail, followed it to near the crossing of the Little Big Horn, reaching there about the same time Reno's command was crossing the river in retreat lower down, and finally joined his battalion with that of Reno, on the hill. Forty minutes or one hour later the pack-train, which had been left behind on the trail by the rapid movement of the command and the delays incident to its march, joined the united command, which then consisted of seven companies, together with about thirty or thirty-five men belonging to the companies under Colonel Custer.
Sixth. After detaching Benteen's columns Colonel Custer moved with his immediate command, on the trail followed by Reno, to a point within about one mile of the river, where he diverged to the right (or northward), following the general direction of the river to a point about four miles below that (afterward taken by Major Reno) where he and his command were destroyed by the hostiles. The last living witness of this march, Trumpeter Martin, left Colonel Custer's command when it was about two miles distant from the field where it afterwards met its fate. There is nothing more in evidence as to this command, save that firing was heard proceeding from its direction from about the time Reno retreated from the bottom up to the time the pack-train was approaching the position on the hill. All firing which indicated fighting was concluded before the final preparations were made in Major Reno's command for the movement which was afterwards attempted.
Seventh. After the distribution of ammunition and a proper provision for the wounded men, Major Reno's entire command moved down the river in the direction it was thought Custer's column had taken, and in which it was known General Terry's command was to be found. This movement was carried sufficiently far to discover that its continuance would imperil the entire command, upon which it returned to the position formerly occupied, and made a successful resistance till succor reached it. The defense of the position on the hill was a heroic one against fearful odds.
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 from this Court.
(1) That he, Major Marcus A. Reno, Seventh Regiment of Cavalry, being in command of the military post of Fort Abercrombie, Dakota, garrisoned in part by Company F, Seventh Regiment of Cavalry, under command of Capt. James M. Bell, did, during the temporary absence from the post of the said Captain Bell, in disregard of his honor and duty as commanding officer, visit the quarters of the said Bell, and then and there, take improper and insulting liberties with the wife of the said Captain Bell, by taking both her hands in his own, and attempting to draw her person close up to his own. This to the scandal and disgrace of the military service, at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota, on or about the 18th day of December,1876.
(2) That he, Major Marcus A. Reno, Seventh Regiment of Cavalry, being in command of the military post of Fort Abercrombie, Dakota, garrisoned in part by Company F, Seventh Regiment of Cavalry, under command of Captain James M. Bell, did, during the temporary absence from the post of the said Captain Bell, in disregard of his honor and duty as commanding officer, visit the quarters of the said Bell, and while the wife of said Bell was passing through the stormscreen connecting said quarters with the adjoining set of quarters, take improper and insulting liberties with her, by placing his arm around her waist. This to the scandal and disgrace of the military service, at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota, on or about the 21st day of December, 1876.
(3) That he, Major Marcus A. Reno, Seventh Regiment of Cavalry, being in command of the military post of Fort Abercrombie, Dakota having alone of all the officers of the garrison, failed to receive an invitation to a social gathering held by invitation of the wife of Captain James M. Bell, Seventh Regiment of Cavalry, during the absence from the garrison of the said Bell, did say to Mr. John Haselhurst, post trader at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota: "This means war! Mrs. Bell has thrown down the gauntlet, and I will take it up. Perhaps these people do not know the power of a commanding officer," referring thereby, and intending to be understood to refer, to Mrs. Bell's purposely excluding him from the list of her invitations, and did further say: "I will make it hot for her (meaning Mrs. Bell), I will drive her out of the regiment," or words to that effect, thereby dishonorably and maliciously threatening to use his power as commanding officer of that post to revenge himself upon the said Mrs. Bell for her failure to invite him to the social gathering as aforesaid. This to the scandal and disgrace of the military service, at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota, on or about the 25th day of December, 1876.
Major Reno's conduct towards the wife of an absent officer, and in using the whole force of his power as commanding officer of the post to gratify his resentment against her, cannot be too strongly condemned; but after long deliberation upon all the circumstances of the case, as shown in the record of the trial, it is thought that his offenses, grave as they are, do not warrant the sentence of dismissal, and all its consequences, upon one who had for twenty years borne the reputation of a brave and honorable officer, and has maintained that reputation upon the battlefields of the rebellion and in combats with Indians. The President has therefore modified the sentence, and it is hoped that Major Reno will appreciate the clemency thus shown him as well as the very reprehensible character of the acts of which he is found guilty.