Who Was Marcus Reno?

It was called “Custer’s Last Stand.” But it could easily have been “Reno’s Retreat.”

Almost 150 years later, there is still controversy about whether Maj. Marcus Reno betrayed Gen. George Custer during the Battle at the Little Bighorn against Sioux and Cheyenne with a retreat or flat-out cowardice.

Marcus Reno became a major in the U.S. military after serving in the Civil War and then spent 10 years following the war in various parts of military justice, as an inspector general, judge advocate and in court-martial duty at Fort Hays. He joined the 7th Cavalry in South Carolina in 1871 before joining a consolidated regiment at Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1875.

Shortly thereafter, Reno became a senior officer under Gen. Custer’s command as the 7th Cavalry reached the Little Bighorn River in Montana to set up an attack on a village that housed Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Custer ordered Reno to take three companies and attack the village to the south from a wooded area, while Custer kept five companies on bluffs to the north; a third group was left to block the Indians’ escape route to the south, and a fourth had the job of protecting the horses.

When the cavalry arrived at the village, it was much larger than Custer thought (though reportedly his scouts told him accurately). Yet, Custer split up his 600 troops into four groups and Reno posted his group in the woods on the opposite side of the river from Custer. While in wait, however, a large number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors came out of hiding in the woods and attacked Reno’s detachment, killing Reno’s scout as he sat behind Reno on his horse.

Based on who was testifying, Reno either gave an order to retreat or he panicked and gave conflicting commands, leading to a chaotic retreat back to the bluffs where Custer was.  Reno essentially led the Warriors to Custer, who was eventually overrun and killed, leaving Reno in charge of the remaining soldiers the next day, though at least one-third of the cavalry was killed.

Reno was eventually court-martialed in 1879 for his efforts at the Little Bighorn, mainly after an outcry that Custer was to be blamed for the humiliating defeat. Several supporters of Custer, including Custer’s widow, pointed the finger at Reno as the one to blame. After a 26-day court-martial, Reno was exonerated of cowardice and drinking for his conduct at the Little Bighorn.

He faced a third court-martial of his career in 1880, due to drinking and “conduct unbecoming” while at Fort Meade, finally being dismissed permanently (after a previous suspension) in April of 1880. After that, he spent the rest of his life fighting for the restoration of his military reputation, which did not work out. Custer’s loyalists were able to successfully tarnish Reno forever.

Reno died in 1889, buried in an unmarked grave in Washington D.C., where his body remained until a family member in 1967 requested his body moved to the Custer National Cemetery in southern Montana, and the request was granted.