Dakota Datebook

Major Reno

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Today is the birthday of an important figure in the Battle of the Little Bighorn; he survived the battle but unfortunately lived out the remainder of his life in a swirl of controversy.

Marcus Reno was born in 1834 and started his military career as West Point graduate. After serving in the Civil War, he was promoted to the rank of major and was transferred to the 7th Cavalry, first in Kansas, then at Fort Lincoln, where he served under General George Custer.

In 1876, the Sioux and Cheyenne were actively resisting white encroachment in Montana, and on June 17th, about 1,300 Crow, Shoshone and soldiers fought a six-hour battle against 1,500 Sioux and Cheyenne at Rosebud Creek. It was the first time that Native Americans had united to fight in such large numbers, and the Army’s response was immediate.

Nine days later, Custer and 655 men found the encampment of those who had fought at Rosebud Creek. Scouts estimated their numbers at about 10,000 men, women and children, but Custer didn’t believe them. Instead of waiting for the main army under General Alfred Terry to arrive – as he had been directed – he decided to attack. He divided his men into three groups: Captain Benteen was to move into the hills five miles from the village, Major Reno was to attack from the upper end, and Custer was going to strike further downstream.

Major Reno ran into immediate trouble and led a chaotic retreat to bluffs above the river, where he was soon joined by Benteen and his men. They heard shooting in the distance and knew that Custer must have engaged, so they started down the hills to back him up. But they were again overwhelmed, and again had to retreat to the bluffs. Showered by arrows from every direction, they dug in with knives, tin cups and whatever else they could find. Then the Indians tried to burn them out, but on the second day, General Terry and his men finally arrived, and the Indians retreated. Custer and 260 others were dead; 47 soldiers under Reno and Benteen had also died.

Even though he and his men were so pinned down that they couldn’t move, Reno was criticized for not going to Custer’s aid, and it was rumored that he couldn’t make decisions under fire. He felt vindicated when he inherited Custer’s post as commander of the 7th Cavalry, but Reno’s troubles were far from over. The following March, he was accused of making advances on a fellow officer’s wife and was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman. He was suspended without pay for two years.

Because Reno still couldn’t shake allegations of cowardice at Little Bighorn, he finally requested an official inquiry and was found innocent. Still, his past dogged him, and in 1880, he was found guilty of getting drunk on duty and striking a fellow officer. This time he was stripped of his rank and dismissed from the army for good. He was still trying to clear his name when he died of cancer nine years later.

In the 1960s, one of Reno’s relatives asked the army to re-examine the charges that led to his dismissal. The army agreed and concluded that Reno’s dismissal was unwarranted, and his rank was restored. His remains were exhumed in 1967, and he was re-buried with full military honors at Custer Battlefield National Cemetery in Montana.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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