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100 Voices: Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, Arikara and American Eye-witness accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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Marcus Reno Court of Inquiry Findings
The Official U.S. Army Inquiry into the conduct of Major Marcus Reno at the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Letter of the Judge Advocate General submitting the 1,000-plus pages of tesimony before the Court of Inquiry, and the findings of the Court, March 11, 1879.
Here is Reno's account of the battle, written six weeks after it occurred.


Marcus Reno's charge at the beginning of the Battle of the Little Bighorn by David Humphreys MillerWar Department, Bureau of Military Justice, February 21, 1879.

Hon. Geo. W. McCrary, Secretary of War.

I have the honor to submit the record of the proceedings of a Court of Inquiry convened by order of the General of the Army, at the request of Major Marcus A. Reno, 7th Cavalry, "for the purpose of inquiring into that officer's conduct at the battle of Little Big Horn River, on the 25th and 26th days of June, 1876."

After daily sessions with scarcely an omission for twenty-six days, and the taking of much testimony, the Court arrived at conclusions which are set forth at length in the second volume of the record. The testimony taken by the Court has been examined with sufficient minuteness to justify, it is believed, an entire concurrence in the results so reached.

The statement of facts with which the Court introduces its opinion of the inexpediency of further proceedings in the case, is regarded as a very accurate summary of the testimony which described the movements of Major Reno's command from the time it was detached from the main column by Gen. Custer's orders, until its relief by the arrival of Gen. Terry in person, after the two days engagement with the Indians under Sitting Bull. I concur with the Court in its exoneration of Major Reno from the charges of cowardice which have been brought against him, and in its conclusion that no further action is required.

The object of Gen. Custer in detaching Major Reno is shown to have been to attack the Indians simultaneously on opposite sides of their encampment or village. Their number appears to have been far greater than Gen. Custer imagined, and very far in excess of the force under his command. On Major Reno arriving within striking distance, he appears to have attacked at once, but being met by overwhelming numbers, was compelled to fall rapidly back and intrench himself on the summit of a hill a short distance from the battlefield. This hill was four and a half miles by measurement from the point at which Gen. Custer lost his life. Faint firing from the direction of Custer's command was heard by some, but not by all, of Major Reno's detachment. But the testimony makes it quite clear that no one belonging to that detachment imagined the possibility of the destruction of Gen. Custer's troops; nor, had this idea suggested itself, does it seem to have been at any time within their power, fighting as they were for life under the attack of a body of Indians vastly outnumbering them, to go to his assistance. The common feeling was at the time, one of anger with Gen. Custer for sending them into so dangerous a position and apparently abandoning them to their fate. The suspicion or accusation that Gen. Custer owed his death and the destruction of the command to the failure of Major Reno, through incompetency or cowardice to go to his relief, is considered as set at rest by the testimony taken before the present Court.

It is respectfully recommended that the conclusions of the Court be approved.

(Signed) W. M. DUNN,
Judge Advocate General.

* * *


Washington, March 11, 1879.

I. 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 opinion, 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 F. W. 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 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.

Major Marcus RenoFourth. 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 moments to re-form his battalion. After re-forming, 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 halfway 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 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 DeWolf, 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 (30) or thirty-five (35) men belonging to the companies under Colonel Custer.

Sixth. After detaching Benteen's and Reno'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 (afterwards taken by Major Reno) where be 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. [Note: this is incorrect: according to the eye-witness record, Peter Thompson was the last Seventh Cavalry trooper to see Custer alive.] 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.


It is the conclusion of this Court, in view of all the facts in evidence, that no further proceedings are necessary in this case, and it expresses this Opinion in compliance with the concluding clauses of the order convening the Court.

II. The proceedings and opinion of the Court of Inquiry in the foregoing case of Major Marcus A. Reno, 7th Cavalry, are approved by order of the President.

III. By direction of the Secretary of War, the Court of Inquiry of which Colonel JOHN H. KING, 9th Infantry, is President is hereby dissolved.

E. D. TOWNSEND, Adjutant General.

Soldiers of the Plains by P.E. Byrne, Minton, Balch & Co., New York, 1926 p 221 - 226


Major Marcus Reno commanded one of Custer's three wings, and led the attack on the giant Indian village on the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. This account of the battle was written six weeks later, and published in the New York Herald on August 8, 1876.

Reno survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but actually the real battle for him didn't begin until the shooting was over. Custer's friends made Reno the scapegoat for Custer's debacle and forced him to spend the rest of his life fighting to clear his name.

As the Custer clique saw it, Reno (who charged into the huge Indian village) was somehow a coward, and Custer (who hung back and never provided Reno the support he promised) was somehow a brave heart. Custer apologists saw Reno (who managed to save a portion of his men) as incompetent, and Custer (who divided his troops and then lost his entire command) as a military paragon.

These arguments still echo faintly in the 21st century, but today no one seriously suggests that the responsibility for the American defeat at the Little Bighorn rests with anyone but George A. Custer. He must take the blame, and to try to shift it off on Reno as Custer loyalists like Seventh Cavalry survivor John Burkman does, merely diminishes Custer more.

The truth is that on June 25, 1876, Custer and the U.S. Army's Seventh Cavalry (a mercinary force largely made up of recent immigrants and the sort of disadvantaged individuals who have long populated America's volunteer armies) met a combined Sioux / Cheyenne army under Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, Crow King, Rain In The Face, Lame White Man, Two Moon and others that was superior in every way -- superior leadership, superior numbers, superior corps motivation, superior individual soldiers, superior horses and quite frankly, a superior cause. The Sioux were fighting to protect their families and their rightful homeland, while Custer's soldiers were an illegal invader force whose very presence on the landscape violated the Treaty of 1868, as does the continued presence of American invaders in the territory of the Sioux Nation today.

Furthermore, the charges against Reno (cowardice, drunkeness, etc.) were all aired at his subsequent Court of Inquiry, and he was found innocent on all counts, although that didn't undo the damage Custer's friends did to him and his reputation, or stop their attacks on him. As late as 1934, John Burkman branded Reno a "coward," but others like William Slaper painted a different picture. Slaper recalled how "I observed Reno several times during the fighting on the bluffs, and can well remember his walking about among the men through the night... I know it encouraged his fellow-officers as well as the troopers."

Perhaps the highest praise for Reno came from the Sioux. Even though Reno's men murdered Sioux women and children on Reno's initial charge at the Little Bighorn, Two Kettle Sioux war chief Runs The Enemy praised Reno's bravery, saying, "he only had a few soldiers and our camp was a great camp, and he came rushing into the camp with his few soldiers. In all the history of my great-grandfathers I have never known of such an attack in daylight."

For a somewhat candid glimpse of what Reno thought of Custer's performance at the Little Bighorn, see the conversation John Burkman overheard on the night of June 26, 1876 during the Seige of the Greasy Grass.

Nor was Reno alone in his scathing estimation of George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. According to Dr. H.R. Porter, who survived the Seige of the Greasy Grass with Reno, "during the two days we were surrounded by the Indians the inquiry among our men for Custer was loud, and that General's court-martial was freely speculated upon."

-- Bruce Brown
April 21, 2007
Updated June 25, 2010

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