RENO, Marcus A. (1834-1889). Autograph letter signed ("M. A. Reno") to Ernest Heth, Headquarters 7th Cavalry, In the Field, 5 August 1876. 3 pages, 8vo, soiling on first page.
"CUSTER FROM SOME UNACCOUNTABLE REASON PERHAPS NEVER TO BE EXPLAINED...RODE INTO AN AMBUSCADE OF 2,000 WARRIORS"
A RARE AND DRAMATIC PARTICIPANT'S ACCOUNT OF CUSTER'S LAST STAND. Just six weeks after the massacre at Little Big Horn, a defensive Major Reno explains his own conduct in the battle, and criticizes Custer in this letter written while he was still in the field with the 7th Cavalry. A shocked American public immediately made Reno the scapegoat for the disaster, convinced that only incompetence or cowardice could explain the utter destruction of an American fighting force by Indian "savages." Here he thanks Heth for an article defending his actions and seeks to shift the blame to Custer. "I was the advance guard...I was ordered to cross and charge & I would be supported. I did cross & advanced, fighting & driving the indians about 2½ miles, which brought me within 200 yards of the village...Being the advance, [I] was the command to be supported by the Comdg. offr. of all the forces, & not the command from which any support could be expected...As I was getting near their tepees, they came out in swarms...I saw there was but one chance...& that was to get to the bluff across that river just in the principle of the man who puts his back to the wall when he is surrounded by foes on all sides. I never had any support...Custer from some unaccountable reason perhaps never to be explained, came down with the larger portion of the Regt. (his 5 comps.) to the ford at which I first crossed, but instead of following my trail thro' the bottom, moved down the right bank of the river...They had the time, as you say to drive me to the defensive & in his movement, he gave them an opportunity to get between us, an advantage they never gave up." Custer moved along the bluffs, "in sight of my first battlefield & saw us fighting altho I could not see him. It is possible he thought the indians were running from me and that he would strike a retreating enemy, but instead he rode into an ambuscade of at least 2000 warriors." Reno tried to move his force in the direction of "Custer's trail & to see what had become of him -- but I think by this time that he had been killed, for they showed in my front more than 10 times my strength. I at once dismounted & turned my horses and pack mules in a herd & was closely besieged for over 36 hours..."
Custer was part of a three-pronged force sent to drive the Sioux Indians back into reservation areas during the Great Sioux War of 1876. He thought he was facing a force of 800 warriors, but the number--as Reno notes--was closer to 2,000. Custer was shot through the heart, and his five companies destroyed in a running battle that lasted no longer than an hour. The Lakota and North Cheyenne warriors then turned back to Reno's stranded battalion, which managed to fend off the attackers through a hellish night and day of desperate fighting. Only General Terry's arrival on the 26th drove the attackers away. Reno requested an official inquiry in 1879 which absolved him of wrong-doing. But controversy continues to this day over Custer's decision to divide his forces as well as Reno's decision to retreat to the bluffs.
Contemporary manuscript testimony from the participants in the Battle of Little Bighorn is extremely rare.