I confess a weakness for Frederick William Benteen, the senior captain of the 7th United States Cavalry under Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer. I find him fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his marvelous wit.
His actions at the Battle of the Little Bighorn have been dissected minutely for nearly 140 years. Defenders say he acted appropriately when he was handed Custer’s final note, which read:
“Benteen, Come on, Big village, Be quick, Bring Packs, P.S. Bring packs”
Detractors say Benteen’s longstanding antipathy towards Custer led him to tarry. I’m not going to argue either side in this post. What is not in question was his subsequent bravery and leadership for the two days the Little Bighorn survivors spent defending themselves from thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne surrounding the Reno-Benteen area south of the Custer battlefield.
Many of the survivors credited Benteen with their having lived through the ordeal. He was all around the battlefield, encouraging, admonishing, directing, leading a charge, and exposing himself to a murderous fire from the Indians that some described as pouring in like hail. More than one of the men said they could not understand how Benteen did not get cut down.
In the words of Captain Myles Moylan, commander of A Company:
“I had no opportunity to see very much of anyone excepting Captain Benteen. His conduct for coolness and gallantry was perfectly superb, no other word would express it.”
When one soldier begged Benteen to take cover, he just laughed and said, “Mother [his wife, Kate] sewed some good medicine in this blouse.”
Frederick Benteen had a solid record in the Civil War. On February 27, 1864, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and commander of the 10th Missouri Cavalry, thus forever after being addressed as Colonel Benteen according to army etiquette. (He was breveted a brigadier-general in retirement for his actions at the Battle of Canyon Creek, as well as for his earlier actions at the Little Bighorn.) A Virginian, he had defied his father by enlisting in the Union army, earning him a fatherly wish that the first bullet should kill him.
On the Custer Battlefield
Benteen spent sixteen years in the 7th Cavalry after the Civil War. General Hugh Scott joined the 7th just days after the Little Bighorn disaster, as a lieutenant fresh out of West Point. He described Benteen as “the idol of the 7th Cavalry” and noted in his memoirs that Benteen was his model as a commanding officer. Benteen would rather suggest than dictate but his gravitas conveyed his that his suggestions were to be carried out.
When told by General Terry that Custer had been killed, Benteen blurted out, “I don’t believe it. He’s up on the Bighorn watering his horses.” Not the kind of thing you say to a general officer who just discovered five companies of his command have been wiped out. Benteen was detailed with his battalion to ride to the Custer battlefield and identify the dead. When he saw Custer’s body, he said, “There he is, God damn him, he will never fight any more.”
Clearly Benteen was not a one-dimensional idol. He admitted later “I am reckless as to whose feelings I hurt.” Once, a furious Custer told his officers that he was going to find out who had written a letter (published anonymously in the papers) that was critical of his Washita battle and personally whip that man. After stepping outside Custer’s tent and checking his revolver’s ammunition, Benteen calmly stepped back in and told Custer he was the man (although a friend had sent the letter to the papers, not Benteen). Custer merely sputtered, “Colonel Benteen, I’ll see you again!”
I recently asked retired Colonel French MacLean, who wrote a wonderful book about the 7th Cavalry’s M Company (Custer’s Best), what he ultimately thought about Custer as a commander. Among other statements, he said Custer should never have allowed Benteen to remain in his command. The two were at odds with each other and the sentiments in the command were clearly split.
Like many men in the post-war, frontier army, Benteen liked his whiskey. Though he did not appear to have the problems with it that Major Marcus Reno had (whose career was destroyed by alcoholism) Benteen more than once got himself into trouble while drinking and was eventually court-martialed for one instance of being drunk and disorderly. He was convicted and slated to be dismissed from the army. President Cleveland reduced the sentence to a one-year suspension.
Reno Court of Inquiry
From the first day that the world learned about the Little Bighorn disaster, speculation arose about what could possibly have gone wrong. Lt. Edward Godfrey recorded in his pocket diary that the newspapers were already speculating before the 7th Cav returned to Fort Lincoln in September, 1876.
Before 1876 was over, attention was focused on Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen. A biography of Custer by a dime novelist accused them both of cowardice and having caused Custer’s death.
Reno asked for an inquiry. Benteen never spoke of his role publicly.
In 1879, an inquiry was convened in Chicago to determine whether there were grounds to charge Reno with cowardice. Benteen’s actions were not under scrutiny. The transcripts of the Reno Inquiry are among the most important documents in American military history. A month of detailed testimony by survivors makes for fascinating reading.
By that time, memories had faded, discussion between survivors had consolidated some opinions, men still in the ranks were hesitant to make accusations about an officer, and other officers seemed unwilling to come out against Reno. But Benteen may have said it all when he was asked about Reno’s behavior at the Little Bighorn. He simply stated, “I think it was all right.” Thus damning Reno by very faint praise, Benteen summed up the attitude of most of the soldiers who fought there. Reno was not a coward but neither was he much of a commander there.
The issue of alcohol came up during the proceedings. When asked if he at any time saw Major Reno with whiskey, the sardonic Benteen replied, “If I had I would have been after some.”
The Old Soldier
Benteen retired from the army in 1888 and settled with Kate in Virginia. She had for years been the recipient of sexually-charged and humorous letters from her husband, another very human side of this soldier on the frontier. He never spoke publicly about the Bighorn battle nor would he be interviewed about it. He and Kate went to the 1886 anniversary of the Little Bighorn fight held on the battlefield, attended also by none other than Gall, one of the leading warriors who fought against him.
He once wrote to Theodore Goldin after his retirement that he never regretted a day in the saddle. This is a rather remarkable statement considering the horrors experienced in the Civil War, at the Little Bighorn, and in the fights with the Nez Perce.
But this curious, interesting man secured a legacy in history due to his participation in one of the seminal battles in our history. Although I must say I admire Benteen for his superb “coolness and gallantry,” it’s the human Benteen with whom I would love to have sat down over a glass or two of Jameson.
Read his testimony at the Reno Court of Inquiry in 1879.