Varnum, Reno and the Little Big Horn
by W. J. GHENT
Editor Winners of the West:
The article, "I Was There," in your March issue, purporting to give extracts compiled form the sworn testimony of the late Col. Charles Albert Varnum at the Reno Court of Inquiry (Jan. 13, Feb. 11, 1879) ought not go unanswered. This compilation contain a number of misquotations, errors of fact and omissions of vital parts of sentences. Moreover, it ignores the subject of the character of the testimony given there. Much of this testimony was, to say the least, uncandid, and some of it - particularly that of Benteen, Reno and Wallace - notoriously contrary to the facts. The officers generally (Godfrey and Mathey excepted) had been impressed with the duty of "upholding the honor of the Seventh," and they colored their testimony accordingly. The Recorder of the Court, Jesse M. Lee, in his summing up, twice referred to this influence of "exprit du corps," and at a later period, after years of study, wrote a letter in which he said that the Court had been imposed upon and that his own opinions were completely altered.
The late William M. Camp, that indefatigable searcher for the facts regarding the battle, said that an officer of the Seventh had told him that the testimony had been agreed upon beforehand; that the officers, meeting in Reno's room at the Palmer House, drinking the Major's whiskey and smoking the Major's cigars, made a compact as to how they should testify. The story sounds like De Rudio, but the name of the office was not divulged. Godfrey dismissed it as a fabrication and said that he had never heard of a compact. As for himself, he had repeatedly refused to go to Reno's room. The story illustrates, however, a feeling prevalent at the time among those who witnessed the trial. Mrs. Augusta Cooke, the heartbroken mother of Custer's adjutant, wrote Godfrey that she often thot of telling him of her gratitude for his testimony. "You were the only officer," she said, "that did not speak against Custer. The people outside said you were the bravest officer who gave evidence." Doubtless these people felt that Godfrey was courageously refusing to testify as the others wished.
Contradictions in the Testimony
What the officers on the hill said when the Terry-Gibbon command arrived was one thing. What they said to the Court was radically different. Gen. McClernand, with studied moderation, has written that criticisms of Reno were "heard on all sides from his subordinates when Terry arrived. Many of the criticisms were severe. Later before the Court of Inquiry that followed, many were toned down." Others who were there have told of this phenomenon in much more forcible terms. No suggestion of this fact appears in the article you have just published. Without an understanding of it, no excerpt from the testimony can have any value to the reader.
The Reno witnesses agreed on little else than those points thought to be favorable to the Major. Otherwise, generally speaking, the testimony was a wilderness of contradictions. For an instance, 15 witnesses were asked to state the distance from the Burning Teepee to Reno's first ford. Thirteen different answers were given, ranging form threequarters of a mile (Herendeen and Culbertson) to 4 1.2 miles" (Benteen) and "about five miles" (Hare.) A multitude of like instances can be cited. As an editorial in the Chicago Times, (Jan. 27, 1879) said: "The witnesses who saw the same precise thing saw it with such varying eyes that it is difficult to believe that they are describing the same thing in their testimony."
There were also self-contradictory statements by those who had said one thing at a previous time and who said the opposite thing on the stand. Benteen, in his official report, had said that from his march to the left he had returned to the trail in accordance with orders from Custer. On the stand he testified that the return was made in defiance of the orders. Reno and Benteen had collaborated on the document known as Reno's official report and therein had stated: "We heard firing in that direction (Custer Field) and knew it could only be Custer." On the stand both glibly declared that they had heard no firing. Wallace, who had been specially favored by the Custers, "threw in"with Benteen and Reno at the trial and out did his prompters in falsifying the situation. He minimized the number of soldiers present, exaggerated distances and difficulties, and made the absurd statement that the men and animals were worn out. There was to come a time, some years afterward, when "with tears in his eyes," as his friend, Major Henry R. Lemly declared, he told a very different story.
Reports of the Testimony
The testimony given at the trial is but little known to the public. Most of it was published day by day in the Chicago Times, but few copies seem to have been preserved. The official report, lodged in the War Department, has never been published, either in whole or part. About two years ago some half-dozen copies of it were made in type-script, but it is not likely that any one of these has left the War Department. For the public generally the only available report is that of the Chicago Times. Photostats from copies in the Chicago Library have been circulated to some extent, but the total is probably small. My own draft of the report is one of three copies of a transcript which I had made after carefully editing the photostat text, which contains numerous typographical blunders. Somewhat more than a third - perhaps two-fifths - of the official report is nothing more than a collection of clippings from the daily issues of the Times pasted on sheets of legal-cap paper. The remainder is manuscript. Parts of the Times text in my typescript I have compared with the manuscript portions of the official report, but have found few divergences. I have further made an analytical digest of the report, classifying under specific topics what each witness has said. I doubt if any other person, living or dead, has made a closer study of this interesting document that I have made. Furthermore, I doubt it but one other living person has given a closer and wider study to the whole range of documentation on the Custer controversy than I have given. The "other person" would be, of course, Col. Charles Francis Bates. I make these last two statements not pridefully but merely to certify to a certain degree of competency for dealing with the article you have published.
Varnum as a Witness
Varnum was a brave, energetic, tireless and skillful officer. He admired Custer and disliked Reno. After the spirited fight with the Sioux on the Yellowstone on August 4, 1873 when the remainder of Stanleys army had come up, some of the offices were "ragging" the young lieutenant as to what part he had taken in the scrimmage. Custer, near at hand, spoke up and praised him highly. At such praise from such a source the youth was transported with joyous pride. Doubtless he always remembered the incident and very likely til late in life he maintained a certain loyalty to the memory of his chief. In his latest days, played upon by some of the Custerphobian fraternity, he was induced to say things about men and books that were an utter negation of his earlier statements.
Though capable as a soldier, as a witness he was anything but ideal. His statements are often vague, and when clear are sometimes conflicting. Godfrey once wrote of him that he"seems never sure about anything." The late Capt. Robert G. Carter, a classmate of Varnum's, a noted Indian fighter under Mackenzie and a student of the Little Big Horn battle, wrote me after reading my typescript of the proceedings of the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry: "Varnum's (testimony) is of no value; was vague, confusing and not to the point." Varnum was, of course, in a difficult position. Apparently he wanted to tell the truth, but also he wanted to "uphold the honor of the Seventh." To uphold that honor he often had to be disingenuous.
His memory was variable. The compiller makes him say in regard to a letter alleged to have been written by Reno to Terry on June 26: "I am also very certain that it asked for medical aid and assistance." The quotation is correct, but it reveals a strange forgetfulness. I have a letter of Varnum's dated Nov. 9, 1927, in which he says that the story of sending for medicine is "pure rot." Continuing, he says: "We had the packtrain and in it was the medical stores and we had a medical officer with us. We had no sickness but plenty of wounds to dress and plenty of dressings or at least a good supply as Terry." Varnum's testimony is thus subject to many discounts when used in searching for the truth.
Compiles Mends the Text
The compiler of the article is not satisfied with the accepted text, and here and there, when he deems some change necessary makes additions and subtractions. A few instances will suffice for present purposes:
1. The compiler quotes Varnum as testifying regarding Reno "Certainly there was no sign of cowardice or anything of that sort." So far he has quoted correctly. He has, however, deftly cut out the qualifying words which immediately follow: "and nothing specially the other way. I didn't see anything special to say on either side." Also he fails to tell the reader that Varnum was reluctant to reply to Recorder Lee's question as to Reno's "courage, energy and efficiency." Varnum's first reply was, "I can hardly answer that question." Told that he would have to answer it, he used the words given above. He was trying to "uphold the honor of the Seventh" without too grossly violating his conscience, but his answer is equivocal.
2. The compiler quotes Varnum as using the phrase, "those three companies, numbering 112 men, that were under Major Reno." These are not the words of Varnum. What he actually said was that the command "consisted of three companies, with an average of about forty men each." Varnum meant, of course, enlisted men, and his answer was approximately correct. The number was 121, possibly 123. Apparently he was not asked about the total strength of the command, which was in the neighborhood of 150 men. There were, (counting the two surgeons who had officer rank) 11 officers, two white scouts, a white and a negro interpreter, two part-breed scouts eight Arikaras and two Crows. The total is 148, with a possibility of 150. All this force, except Dr. Porter, were armed. There is good testimony that Dr. De Wolf (whom I mentioned in a previous article as possibly unarmed) carried a carbine and vigorously used it up to the time of his death. The compiler, instead of quoting Varnum correctly, is really giving the substance of a perjured statement made by Reno on the stand. It is further to be said that these scouts and interpreters - red, white and black - were doubtless better Indian fighters than the average enlisted man. A George Herendeen or a Charley Reynolds would have been, in a real battle, the equal of any two or three of the soldiers.
The compiler, by the way, is something of an adept at whittling down the number of Reno's soldiers. In a letter in Adventure (July 15, 1932) he gives Reno 112 men, but says that 20 of them were Arikara scouts. 20 from 112 leaves 92 enlisted men. He mentions no other part of the force, but further minimizes the total by asserting that from 30 to 40 per cent were "raw, green recruits." This would reduce the effective total to about 60 real soldiers. So absurd a statement answers itself. As for the recruits, there were very few in the command. Some of the testimony given on this point is shamelessly false and was introduced solely to aid Reno. The regiment left Fort A. Lincoln with at least 700 enlisted men. Two authorities say, respectively, 749 and 750. It reached the battlefield with apparently not more than 590 enlisted men. Between 80 and 110 of the 700 men (the number has never been computed) marched as infantry all the way to the mouth of the Powder, where it was expected that horses would be found. No horses were there, and the unmounted men, probably 95 per cent, of whom were recruits, were left behind. Godfrey had but two recruits in his company, and despite all the perjury expended on this subject, it is unlikely that the other companies averaged much more than that.
3. Varnum is made to say of the fight in the valley: "My old company that I belonged to was in the line - Capt. Weir's troop - and I went back and reported to him." Here, where the urge to mend the text might legitimately have been followed, there is the only neglect. Neither Weir nor any part of his company was in the valley fight, nor did Varnum belong to that company. He belonged to Moylan's Troop A. The compiler has merely copied an obvious blunder of the stenographer's as printed in the Chicago Times.
Lost Indians Mysteriously Reappear
4. Varnum is made to say that when Reno halted in the valley he (Varnum) found that the Indian scouts had disappeared, but where he did not know. The compiler might profitably have noted the contradiction when he makes Varnum later say that on the evening of the 26th the Crows agreed to carry a certain message "if the Rees would also go." If the scouts had already fled to parts unknown how could they be with the besieged command on the bluffs? The story of the Rees' flight from the battlefield (20, 30 or 40 of them, according to various accounts) is sheer fiction. It originated as a part of the Reno defense mechanism, and was long accepted as fact. Even Godfrey, hearing no refutation of it, accepted it in his Century article. The truth is that most of the Indian scouts never crossed the river, and that but eight Arikaras and two Crows took part in the valley fight. All remained with the command. Three of the Arikaras were killed, and one Arikara and one Crow wounded. Here were five casualties among ten men - a fact that ought to show the real conduct of such of the scouts as took part in the battle.
5. Varnum is made to say: "As to his (Reno's) exercising the functions of a commanding officer directing the troops, the movements and positions of the men, in the presence of great danger, he certainly did that." In this and a score of other like instances, the words are not Varnum's but those either of Lee or of Reno's attorney, Lyman D. Gilbert, in asking a question to which Varnum replied with a mere "yes" or "certainly." An affirmation to a long drawn leading question does not make the utterance that of the responding witness, and implies no more than a general assent. Much of the language imputed to Varnum in these cases is such as he probably would not have used had the question been asked in a way requiring the witness to choose his own words.
This compilation thus reveals itself not as a contribution to history but as an exercise in Reno propaganda. Reno was not so attractive a figure as to awaken high regard on the part of any one, and all such propaganda must be looked upon with suspicion. Behind it is the thought that to exalt Reno is to debase Custer. Reno's career as a soldier was a rather sorry mess. There is nothing to show that he had the confidence or esteem of any of his fellow-officers. No informed person can doubt that Benteen looked upon him with contempt, even though, out of rancorous hatred of Custer, he made common cause with the man. An incident of the battle not generally known will throw some light on the matter.
Plans to Abandon Wounded
On the night of June 25, after the firing had ceased, Reno, still in a state of terror, went to Benteen and proposed that the company saddle up and break thru the Indian lines in an attempt to reach the Powder. "What will you do with your badly wounded?" asked Benteen. "We'll have to abandon them," answered Reno. "Never!" said Benteen. "I'll have nothing to do with the proposal." Reno then left. Later, on the same night, Weir, doubtless at the instigation of Benteen, came to Godfrey and asked him whose orders he would obey if a question arose between Benteen and Reno as to the command. Godfrey, who had already taken Reno's measure, replied, "Benteen's, of course." Reno, fearful of the Indians but realizing what would happen to him if he forced the issue, accepted the situacion, and nothing more was heard of the proposal.
On the morning of June 28, when Benteen and Godfrey were riding together on the way to Custer Field, the latter made some disparaging remark about Reno's conduct. "God," said Benteen, using Godfrey's nickname, "I could tell you things that would make your hair stand on end." "Tell me," replied Godfrey. Just then an orderly rode up, and Benteen would say nothing more than he would tell the story later. It was five years before he kept his promise. He had told it, however, in 1877, to the late Gen. W. J. Nicholson, then a young lieutenant at Fort Buford, pledging his hearer never to reveal it while he (Benteen) lived. Nicholson kept his vow long beyound the time agreed upon, relating the incident only after Godfrey had preceded him in telling it at the annual dinner of the Order of Indian Wears, Jan. 25, 1930.
Doubtless Benteen told it elsewhere. He was at times loquacious, especially when in his cups. Moylan had the story two years after it was given to Godfrey. "If what Col. Benteen told me at Meade in 1883 is true," wrote Moylan to Godfrey, Jan 17, 1892, "and I know of no reason to doubt it, then Reno ought to have been shot." Benteen reiterated the truth of the story to Godfrey in a letter of Jan. 3, 1886, thought he pleaded that out of pity for Reno Godfrey ought not to use it in his projected article. "But the greatest of these is Charity!" he wrote - a strange sentiment to come from one who for nearly twenty years had malevolently slandered Custer and for the following twelve years til his death was to continue his virulent abuse of his dead commander. Godfrey in his Century article, said merely that "the question of moving was discussed, but the conditions coupled to the proposition caused it to be indignantly rejected." He told the story, however, in strict confidence, to Mrs. Custer, about Dec. 1, 1885. Benteen again confirmed it, in a letter to Theodore W. Goldin, Jan. 6, 1892. It did not appear in print until published in the Boston Post, June 20, 1926.
It seems incredible that in those early years the story did not spread among the officers of the Seventh. If it did, there is no inkling of the fact available. The few who knew it kept silent. Had Weir lived to be a witness at the trial he would have wrecked the whole set-up of the Court of Inquiry. He would indignantly have broke up Benteen's carefully prepared staging of the occasion, and his disclosures would have finished the military career of Reno a year before the second court-martial brought it to an end. Weir, however had died in New York City in December 1876.
Reno and His Fellow-Officers
If Reno had any friends or admirers among his fellow-officers the fact is not known. There was Hodgson, of course, but that sunny-hearted youth liked everybody. Benteen, who virtually took command from Reno on the hill and who rebuked him for his proposal to abandon the wounded, had no regard for him except as a means of defaming Custer. French, in a letter to Mrs. Cooke, June 16, 1880, strongly condemned him and in a curiously worded sentence employs terms which mean, if they mean anything, that he (French) was tempted to shoot Reno when the order to flee was given and that he now believed that to have shot him would have been justifiable. Of Wallace I have already written. De Rudio, according to Mathey's testimony said in 1878 before a group of officers that Reno was a coward. If any protest was made by any of the others, the fact has not been revealed. Weir despised the man. Varnum appears to have been usually at outs with him. Godfrey is known to have regarded him as both incompetent and a coward. Til the time of the battle, says Godfrey, Reno had probably never seen a wild Indian. Gibson, in his conversation with W. E. Morris, a one time private in Company M, through protesting against the charge that Reno was a coward, characterized the man as arrogant and vicious and said that he hated the man more than he ever hated any one else.
It was natural that Moylan, who thought that Reno should have been shot, should justify the flight from the valley, since he agreed to it and took part in it, but he wrote Godfrey (in the letter previously quoted): "Of his personal conduct in the bottom or subsequently on the hill the least said the better." The mild-mannered Edgerly, who spent most of his life trying to keep out of trouble and who rarely ventured an opinion for fear that someone might be offended on two occasions at least condemned the conduct of Reno in the valley. One was when, in 1886, he gave his classmate, Major O. L. Hein, a brief commentary on what happened, and another was when, about 1894, he read to his fellow officers at Fort Clark a long and carefully prepared narrative of the battle. Dr. Porter, who for the time had officer rank, must have looked upon Reno with amused scorn. His testimony at the Court of Inquiry is withering in its effect, and though Reno's attorney tried to confuse him he stanchly held his ground. What McIntosh thought of him will never be known. McDougall, unfriendly to Custer was reticent as to Reno. Hare, like Varnum, always justified the flight, but what he thought of Reno is not known. In his last days he gave a signed statement that Benteen, after examining the position in the valley, declared to him that Reno should have held it, and when he (Hare) protested emphatically reiterated his opinion. Hugh L. Scott, who later joined the regiment, confessed that he "disliked the latter (Reno) intensely." (New York Times, Jan. 6, 1935.)
Reno's Military Record
For one who was inconsequential in himself and who has been generally used by his professed admirers merely as a stalking horse for the assault on Custer, Reno has had extravagant praise. Even the purely defensive attitude sometimes takes fantastic forms. A recent Renophile pamphlet assures the world that there was nothing blameable in the conduct of Reno in the valley except that at the critical moment he "lost his head." One wonders what was left that was of any service to his frightened and distracted followers. But the direct praise outsoars all bounds. A fatuous scribbler has published somewhere this amazing tribute: "No officer in the Civil War won a more brilliant record than Reno, he being brevetted by grades from a first lieutenant to a colonel for gallant and meritorious service."
There is no truth in the statement, and even if the reference to his brevetting were true, the fact would have none of the significance implied. Military ability in the Civil War was not shown by brevets, but by promotion and assignment to command. The brevet was a mere distinction, given loosely and lavishly to capable men and to incompetents, to fighting men at the front and to ease-loving men in Washington bureaus. The brevet system broke to pieces because of its injustice and its absurdity. Even so, excepting for the customary brevet of lieutenant given at that time to the cadet on his graduation, I find no record of a single brevet given to Reno before or during the war. On February 23, 1863, he was nominated for a brevet of major, to date from March 5, 1862, but the Senate Executive Journal shows that the nomination was not confirmed.
Nearly a year after Lee's surrender - that is, in March, 1866, three boards were formed by the War Department, to award these distinctions. There was one board to hand out the honors to brigadier and major generals, one for the infantry and another for the cavalry, artillery and staff. The volunteer officers had been liberally treated to honors, and it was not the turn of the regulars. Everybody understood that the awards were to be scattered with a prodigal hand. Lieut. Eugene Carter, recorder of the infantry board, told his brother, the late Capt. Robert G. Carter, that he himself could have had anything up and including a brevet of colonel, the highest rank the board could confer. Amused at the spectacle, he declined to accept anything.
More than 1,900 individuals in the regular army were then made the recipients of these honors. Some got five brevets, many got four, and three was probably the average, making the total of not less than 5,700. Some of the older officers, who had a couple of brevets left over from the Mexican War, could proudly claim as many as seven. In the report of the "miscellaneous" board, among hundreds of others, Reno was named for three:
Major, to date from March 17, 1863.
Lieutenant Colonel, to date from Oct. 19, 1864.
Colonel, to date from March 13, 1865.
In long lists these hundreds of names went from the War Department to the President and from the President to the Senate. Here they were presumably were read aloud, the Solons listening to names of persons most of whom they had never heard of before. Then the lists were referred to a committee and after a merely peerfuctory hearing were brought back again to the chamber. But the weary Senators had heard enough. There was no second (even if there had been a first) reading of the names. The lists were chopped up into sections, and each of those presented in the form, "Capt. P.Q. Smith and others," :Lieut. A.B. Jones and others," and so on. Confirmation was by groups on one of these lists, among a number acted upon in the lump, on July 27, 1866, Reno got his brevets. Cullum, in his "Biographical Register," gives him also a brevet of brigadier-general, but I find no reference to this, either in General James B. Fry's supposedly complete list or in the Senate Executive Journal.
As a matter of fact, Reno came out of the Civil War with no particular distinction. Graduating from West Point in 1857, he had the advantage of three years over Wesley Merritt, four years over George Custer and five years over Ronald MacKenzie. To paraphrase a saying of Napoleon's day, every West Point graduate of the time carried a general's epaulettes in his knapsack. All that he had to do was to show, by conspicuous daring and ability, his right to wear them. Merritt, Custer, MacKenzie and a score or more of others early proved their worth and rose to high command and to world-wide fame. Reno at the end of the conflict was an undistinguished colonel of the 12th Pennsylvania cavalry and temporarily in command of a brigade, in Northern Virginia, far from the seat of war. He had only Mosby to deal with - Mosby the poor old tiger whose claws had been clipped - while the others, with desperate onslaught night and day were pushing Lee's veterans to their last stand.
Merritt, under whom for a time Reno served, had a poor opinion of the man. To his onetime adjutant, Eben Swift, he told an incident of his having ordered Reno to make a personal reconnaissance of a part of the company's line. Reno neither went near the line [ ] returned to report. Merritt then sent another officer, who did his work with such a gallant disregard of danger as to draw the cheers of his enemies. When Swift asked how the Court of Inquiry could have rendered so astounding a verdict, Merritt replied: "Well, the officers wouldn't tell us anything, and we could do nothing more than damn Reno with faint praise."
The Man Reno
Reno, as said before, is not a happy figure to "heroize," and his professed admirers more or less recognize the fact. When, in falsetto, they praise Reno, they are striving to damn Custer. The Custerphobian frenzy is a strange thing. It stops at nothing. It drags Reno from oblivion, though realizing that the result is likely to prove disastrous to the memory of one they profess to honor. Within the brief period of three years he was twice dismissed from the army - at St. Paul, on May 1, 1877, and at Fort Meade, on April 1, 1880. Wirepullers induced President Hayes to modify the first sentence to a two-years suspension. He was still serving his term during the sessions of the Court of Inquiry, but an indulgent War Department authorized him to wear his uniform. In the second case, efforts to save him were futile. Both instances though the fact was kept from the records were "women cases." The fact has nothing to do with his conduct at the Little Big Horn though obviously it had much to do with the opinions of his fellow officers.
He was a hard drinker. At the battle he had a stock of whiskey in the packs and a flask in his pocket. A minister of high standing asserts that Reno confessed to him that he was drunk during the valley fight, but the confession is unconfirmed. Two packers, John Frett and B.F. Churchill, both reputable men, testified that on the night of June 25 he was in a dangerous mood, under the influence of liquor. Recorder Lee with honest indignation over Attorney Gilbert's effort to discre[ ] credit these men, said that "the evidence even of mule-packers as to matters of fact, such as words [ ] blows, threats to kill and the presence of whiskey, is as good [ ] that of any one, however exalted until it is contradicted. There is no material contradiction in this case, even by the testimony [ ] Major Reno, who gives evidence in his own behalf." Benteen's denial of the packers' testimony was obviously false and was disregarded by Lee.
The case of Reno is a case for [ ]pity rather than condemnation. He
was a natural weakling, in capable of conquering his weaknesses or of rising
to his opportunities. The Custerphobes, in their passion for defaming Custer
should let him rest in peace.