By Jack Pennington
I have just finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, LAST STAND. I thought it was very interesting and well written from a literary standpoint, but from an analytical perspective it portrays the same accepted view of the battle. I do recommend it as required reading for the overall coverage and personnel highlights.
In my books and articles I have brought out the “cover-ups” that resulted from the Reno Court of Inquiry, and were necessary in protecting Major Reno, Captain Benteen, other officers and the Army. The main cover-ups could be listed under the headings of timing, sightings, and orders.
What is difficult for me to understand is how contemporary writers such as Philbrick can ride over the battlefield, read the books and articles he claims to have done, and still not question or make any essential connections. The following are examples related to one period of time:
(1) As Reno reached Ford A he sent a message to Custer which supposedly said the Indians were strong to his front. Reno starts down the valley, and Philbrick mentioned several times how Reno is unaware of the Indians because he can’t see their camp. According to the message Reno sent Custer, the Indians had to be aware of Reno’s troops, and we know if they were that there would be warriors harassing his troops all the way down the valley in order to protect and give time for their village to flee or prepare. This doesn’t raise a question to Philbrick or too many other writers whether the Indians coming down the valley could actually have been what Reno’s message was about. If writers put together Custer’s orders as reported by Reno’s orderly Davern and Custer’s orderly Martin, might they not assume that Reno’s message was more apt to have asked if he should wait for Benteen? Later, of course, he couldn’t say this, and so used a similar message to the one Girard said he sent in his attempt to trap Reno.
(2) Reno moves down the valley and he wasn’t able to see the village or any number of Indians coming to meet him. He realizes that the Indian camp is around the bend and he can see warriors and a great amount of dust being raised. Reno sets up a skirmish line. There are those that believe he should have attacked, but most believe he was wise not to. His reason was sound since he didn’t see any of his promised support coming. According to Reno he was looking for this support from behind and that it would be Custer. Shouldn’t the orders Custer gave as reported by Reno’s and Custer’s orderlies raise the question that Reno might have been looking for Benteen coming from behind, while hoping for some sign of Custer as he flanked the village?
(3) If Reno was waiting for Benteen and a sign that Custer had launched his flanking attack, why didn’t Reno say that was the reason he didn’t continue his attack and instead set up a skirmish line? Reno was right in waiting for the support or the rest of the attack to materialize, but he couldn’t say that for he knew it would mean that he knew there was a plan of attack. Reno and Benteen had to say they had no orders except for Reno to move against the village and he would be supported. Reno could have moved into the timber but he could not have justified fleeing the timber. This would definitely have been a court-martial offense. Any statement would also mean that Benteen would have been sent orders, undoubtedly carried by Sgt. Major Sharrow, and that Benteen should hurry to the Little Big Horn and enter the attack in support of Reno.
(4) Timing, as I have tried to bring out in my writings, was a major cover-up at the Reno Court. There had to be a timing cover-up because of the following: Major Reno’s report after the battle that he “charged” to the bluff and met Captain Benteen at 2:30 p.m. The accepted version as brought out by Philbrick is 4 p.m. I wish Philbrick and other writers would answer the question asked Reno by General Rosser. Rosser: “You do not state, but I have the impression from some of the accounts sent in from the field, that you began your skirmish with the Indians about half past twelve to one o’clock, and that you recrossed the river and occupied the bluff about two o’clock. Now, to the reporter of the New York Herald you state that you made a reconnaissance in the direction of the Custer’s trail about five o’clock. The Indians appear to have withdrawn from your front as soon as you recrossed the river. Why then could you not have gone in pursuit of Custer earlier?”
I have never been able to figure out how most writers know there were cover-ups at the Reno Court, but they will not accept Reno’s and Custer’s orderlies as to the orders Custer gave or Reno received, and by inference were sent to Benteen. No, they are enlisted men and Reno said his orders were only to attack the Indian village and he would be supported by Custer whom he thought would be following him. Benteen said he didn’t receive any orders except to go to some unknown valley, and I guess sit there after he got there. Davern had said Reno’s order was that Benteen would be on his left. Benteen should have reached the Little Big Horn valley south and west of Ford A and when moving to aid Reno would have been on his left. Martin said Custer in his order to Reno said he was going down to the other end and drive the Indians. The whole regiment would then be aiding Reno and in Custer’s circling movement Benteen would be in the center.
Shots were heard from the Custer field soon after Reno’s troops had reached the ridge. Could the 4 o’clock time have come about because Reno and Benteen could not justify a wait of two and one half hours while Custer’s men were getting slaughtered? Benteen had orders to come to Custer’s aid. The five o’clock time was too well known and accepted to change it to 4 o’clock, so the 2:30 time was changed to 4 o’clock. Going to check on Lt. Hodgson’s body would not have sufficed, nor would attempting to string out the time the packs arrived since there were too many reports that ammunition packs were not that far behind Benteen. However, changing the meeting to 4 o’clock, along with the need to take care of the wounded, waiting for the packs, and then moving at five o’clock, could be accepted. Changing the 2:30 time to 4 o’clock meant that earlier officer’s times had to be changed and enlisted men’s and Indians’ ignored.
Orders, timing, and sightings were cover-ups at the Reno Court of Inquiry that were necessary to prevent Reno and Benteen from court-martials, and protect the Army’s good name. I won’t get into the “accepted” picture of how the “attack minded” Custer, at a time when the Indian village was in a state of panic and the need to coordinate his attack with Reno’s was essential, is sitting around Medicine Tail Coulee, feinting at the Indians, waiting for Benteen, having conferences, and planning strategy.
I guess when I read accounts of the battle I’m still too concerned, and it is hard for me not to express my opinion. Although I have been critical of other writers, I know without their interviews and writings I could not have formed my views of the battle.