Following Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s death the previous day in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Major Marcus Reno takes command of the surviving soldiers of the 7th Cavalry.
A West Point graduate who fought for the North during the Civil War, Marcus Reno was an experienced soldier and officer. Yet, despite having been sent west in 1868 as a major in Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Reno had never actually fought any Indians prior to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
On June 25, 1876, Custer’s scouts reported they had located a gigantic village of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians encamped nearby along the banks of the Little Big Horn River in southern Montana. Believing that his scouts must have grossly overestimated the size of the village, Custer immediately prepared to attack. He divided the 600 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry into four battalions, placing Reno in command of one of them. Custer and Reno led their two battalions down a small creek (later called Reno Creek) toward the Little Big Horn River. A third battalion commanded by Captain Frederick Benteen scouted the hills to the west, while the fourth stayed in the rear to protect the army’s horses.
About three or four miles from the Little Big Horn, Custer and Reno spotted a group of about 50 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Fearing that the village ahead was already fleeing, Custer ordered Reno and his battalion to give pursuit, promising “the whole outfit” would soon support him. Reno and his men quickly rode down the valley and crossed the Little Big Horn. As they charged toward the Indian village, they began to encounter growing numbers of warriors mounting a strong defense.
Uncertain of what lay ahead, Reno called a halt and ordered his men to dismount and fight on foot. Within minutes, he was under attack by a massive force of Sioux and Cheyenne braves. With no sign of the support Custer had promised, Reno decided he had no choice but to retreat and try to regain a defensible position on the high bluffs across the river. Some witnesses later said Reno panicked at this point and at least temporarily gave conflicting and confused orders. In any event, the retreat quickly became chaotic, allowing the Indians to easily pick off about one third of Reno’s troops before they reached the bluffs. There, Benteen and his battalion soon joined them.
Benteen had received a dispatch from Custer downstream ordering the troops to hasten forward, but there was considerable disagreement among the officers about what to do. Their battalions had been badly hurt, and they needed time to regroup. Finally, the officers led the troops downstream toward the sound of heavy gunfire, but the presence of many wounded slowed their advance. Unbeknownst to Reno and Benteen, by this point the Indians had already wiped out Custer’s battalion. The braves now rushed upstream to attack the advancing soldiers, forcing them to retreat to their entrenched positions on the bluffs.
The soldiers held off the Indians for another three hours of heavy fighting. When darkness fell, the Indians withdrew. The following day, June 26, Reno took formal command of the remnants of the 7th Cavalry, and he succeeded in fighting a holding action until the Indians decided to withdraw around noon. On June 27, fresh troops under General Terry arrived, and the soldiers began the grisly task of identifying and burying the dead.
In the postmortem of the disastrous battle, some refused to believe that the magnificent Custer could have been responsible and they blamed Reno. At Reno’s request, in early 1879 the army staged a formal inquiry into the battle. After more than 26 days of testimony, a panel of three officers exonerated Reno. They ruled that he had fought desperately and bravely to keep his own battalion from being wiped out during the battle, and he could not be blamed for failing to go to Custer’s aid. Some civilian critics labeled the ruling a whitewash, and Reno never managed fully to redeem himself in their eyes.