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Frederick Benteen's Story of the Battle #2
STATEMENT OF CAPTAIN F. W. BENTEEN
I SUPPOSE we had better begin with the formation of the battalion from the point where the battalions were formed. I was sent with my battalion to the left to a line of bluffs about five miles off, with instructions to look for Indians and see what was to be seen, and if I saw nothing there to go on, and when I had satisfied myself it was useless to go further in that direction to join the main trail. After proceeding through a rough and difficult country, very tiring on the horses, and seeing nothing, and wishing to save the horses unnecessary fatigue, I decided to return to the main trail. Before I had proceeded a mile in the direction of the bluffs I was overtaken by the Chief Trumpeter and the Sergeant Major with instructions from General Custer to use my own discretion, and in case I should find any trace of Indians at once to notify General Custer. Having marched rapidly and passed the line of bluffs on the left bank of a branch of the Little Big Horn River, which made into the main stream about two miles and a half above the ford passed by Colonel Reno's command, as ordered, I continued my march in the same direction. The whole time occupied in this march was about an hour and a half. As I was anxious to regain the main command, as there was no sign of Indians, I then decided to rejoin the main trail, as the country before me was mostly of the same character as that I had already passed over, without valley and without water, and offering no inducement for the Indians. No valleys were visible, not even the valley where the fight took place, until my command struck the river. About three miles from the point where Reno crossed the ford I met a sergeant bringing orders to the commanding officer of the rear guard, Captain McDougall, Company B, to hurry up the pack trains. A mile further I was met by my trumpeter, bringing a written order from Lieutenant Cook, the adjutant of the regiment, to this effect: "Benteen, come on; big village; be quick; bring packs." and a postscript saying, "Bring packs." A mile or a mile and a half further on I first came in sight of the valley of the Little Big Horn. About twelve or fifteen dismounted men were fighting on the plain with Indians charging and recharging them. The body numbered about 900 at this time. Colonel Reno's mounted party 'were retiring across the river to the bluffs. I did not recognize till later what part of the command this was, but it was clear that they had been beaten. I then marched my command in line to their succor. On reaching the bluff I reported to Colonel Reno and first learned that the command had been separated and that Custer was not in that part of the field, and no one of Reno's command was able to inform me of the whereabouts of General Custer. While the command was awaiting the arrival of the pack mules a company was sent forward in the direction supposed to have been taken by Custer. After proceeding about a mile they were attacked and driven back. During this time I heard no heavy firing, and there was nothing to indicate that a heavy fight was going on, and I believe that at this time Custer's command had been annihilated.
The rest of the story you must get from Colonel Reno, as he took command and knows more than anyone else.
The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custerania, written and compiled by Colonel W.A. Graham, The Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, PA 1953, p 227
Capt. Frederick Benteen commanded one of Custer's three wings after Custer divided his troops on June 25, 1876. Custer's famous "last order," carried by John Martin, directed Benteen, his best battlefield commander, to "Come on. Big village. Be quick."
Benteen was responding to Custer's order when he found Major Marcus Reno -- who led the attack -- and his badly mauled troops fighting for their lives on the east side of the river. Half of Reno's men were already dead or missing, and Reno beseached him, "for God's sake, Benteen, halt your command and wait until I can organize my men."
Benteen halted, providing Reno the support that Custer had promised but never provided to the point man on the American attack. White Man Runs Him said Reno's reninforcement by Benteen and McDougall (both of whom had been summoned in Custer's last order) saved all their lives. "If those soldiers [Reno's men] hadn't turned back and been reinforced by the pack train they would all have been killed. The Sioux were coming up fast."
After "Wier's company was sent out to communicate with Custer" and was quickly driven back by an "immense body of Indians," Benteen, McDougall and Reno entrenched together in the bluffs above the Little Bighorn, where Benteen's coolness under fire was remarked upon by many during the Seige of the Greasy Grass. William O. Taylor said Benteen was "one of the bravest acting men of our entire command."
Here's Private George W. Glenn's account of Benteen exhorting his men along the battle line, and here's Trumpeter John Martin's account of Benteen's quintessentially American response to having the heel of his boot shot off by the Sioux, possibly the Oglala Sioux marksman White Cow Bull, who described a similar incident. Please note: this detail was NOT in Benteen's letter to his wife!
Seventh Cavalry surgeon Dr. H.R. Porter spoke for many when he said, "Although Reno was ranking officer, Colonel Benteen was really in command, and to his coolness and bravery those of us who were saved owe our lives."
Another quality of Benteen's -- writ as large and plain as his personal bravery and effectiveness as a battlefield commander -- was his hatred of his commanding officer, Col. George A. Custer, whom Benteen had once publically attacked for abandoning his men at the Washita Massacre. "I'm only too proud to say that I despised him," Benteen said of Custer.
Yet in the margin of the July 4, 1876 letter to his wife, Benteen scrawled with grief overflowing the normal bounds of the page: ". . . Boston Custer and young Mr. Reed, a nephew of Genl. Custer, were killed, also Kellogg, the reporter..."
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Here is another account of the battle by Frederick Benteen, as well as his letter to the St. Louis Democrat concerning the Washita Massacre that made George A. Custer so angry.
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