Battle of Little Bighorn: 53 – Major Marcus Reno

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

Major Marcus Reno

Major Marcus Reno returned from his scouting trip on June 20, after having exceeded his orders. General Terry had ordered him only to advance up the Powder River, then down the Tongue River. When Reno reached the Tongue he found Indian trails leading westward indicating that there was a hostile camp established on the Little Bighorn. Instead of returning to base camp at this point, Reno continued to follow this trail cross-country until he reached the Rosebud. He then marched down that creek back to the Yellowstone—then returned to the Tongue River. Terry was furious, to say the least.

Custer was also furious with Reno, but for a different reason. Custer complained that Reno had cut loose (a term and action that seems have been common with Custer) as he had done the same thing previously and, as he had stated, fully intended to do it again during the upcoming battle. But even more, Custer was irate because Reno had passed up a chance to attack the hostiles and passed it by. [Custer would probably have been even more angry had Reno attack the hostiles and won. Custer would surly have felt that that job and opportunity should have been his.]

Lt. Col. George Custer

Custer “chewed Reno out in no uncertain terms.” He wrote about the incident to Libbie, saying he intended to take up the trail where Reno had left it. He doesn’t mention whether he intends to do it with, or without, Terry’s blessing. Then he adds, “I fear that failure to follow-up the Indians has imperilled (sic) our plans by giving the village,” knowledge that the Army is in the area looking for them. “Think of the valuable time lost.”

Actually, no valuable time was lost but Terry and Custer didn’t know this. Nor did they know that the Indians were already aware that the Army was in the area. The Indians had already clashed with General Crook and fully expected that more soldiers were either in the area or soon would be.

Custer, to perhaps settle the score, or more likely, in case the Indians now escaped the three-pronged attack and the entire operation was bungled, made sure the press had the full story of Reno’s misadventure. This was done through Mark Kellogg, a reporter of the Bismarck Tribune who accompanied this expedition.

The truth of the matter was that Terry and Gibbon, as well as Custer, wanted the distinction of putting the hostiles down. Each was certain that no matter how large the number of hostiles their own individual command could do the job. It should be remembered than no one, yet, had the slightest notion of the actual number of fighting warriors they would be coming up against. Another truth was that this was assumed to be the last big Indian fight on the Plains and that the victor would go down in history as the hero of all times. Custer may, also, have seen it as the final rung on the ladder to the presidency.