Sunday, 6 July 2014

Captain Benteen's orders

Benteen during the Civil War
Captain Frederick Benteen of the US 7th Cavalry took stock of the situation that was before him and was forced to make a decision, a decision that he has been criticised for since that fateful day on 25th June, 1875 on the banks of the Little Big Horn river.

He decided to disobey orders from his direct superior, Lt Col George Armstrong Custer, the CO of the regiment, and not advance to meet him and instead hold position with the embattled Major Reno.

The action definitely saved Benteen's three companies and the Ammunition train but also saved Major Reno's survivors from annihilation, but some argue doomed Custer's forces to death.

Custer's whole approach towards the Indian village was flawed from the beginning, it worked on the assumption that they would be rounding up women and children and that the braves would be out fought by the brave soldiers of the 7th Cavalry or flee before them. Custer was impatient and would not wait for the infantry column, nor would he take a battery of heavy Gatling guns because they would slow his advance. His aim was to move as quickly as possible living on the run like the  Native Americans did and the Gatlings, which required four horses each would slow down the advance and he wanted to catch the tribes before they dispersed. He also turned down assistance from the 2nd Cavalry believing that his men were the best and could defeat anyone.

There is some merit in his not taking the Gatling guns as they were prone to jam and as his unit would travel at thirty miles a day, average, they would have indeed impeded his advance. The arm chair tactician and many fellow officers at the time agree that having the ability to have a battery of guns that could fire 350 rounds a minute would have been devastating if deployed against a charging enemy.

On approaching the hostile country Custer's lack of intelligence and knowledge of the lay of the land or his enemies numbers or dispositions became evident and he began to divide his forces to scout them out and to give himself warning. Benteen's three companies were deployed on the far left to scout through rough terrain and make sure there would be no surprises for the rest of the column.

The rest of the command moved forward and sighted the Native encampment that his Crow scouts had reported as the biggest village they had ever seen. Custer believed that he was only going to face 800 warriors and the majority of the village were women and children. He divided his forces again to try and stop the Natives fleeing to the south, Custer's lion's share of the regiment would swoop in from the North as Reno struck from the South catching the them in a Hammer and Anvil manoeuvre that would force the natives to surrender (to avoid fighting amongst their Women and children) and submit to escort back to the reservation. He also believed that most of the braves were asleep in their tepees and would be caught out.

His hand was then forced when his scouts arrived to tell him that native riders had picked up his trail and were following him and that they had been sighted on the bluffs above Custer's position. If he didn't strike now, the initiative would be lost and the natives would disperse into smaller groups and flee which would be impossible to catch.

Reno's men advanced towards the village from the south with their flank covered by thick foliage and their view of the village likewise blocked and his men charged full speed abreast until they came around the river bend and were suddenly met with the enormity of the Native encampment. Had his forces been armed with Sabres they could have cut through cutting and slashing as they went causing chaos. As it was Custer had forbidden the 7th from carrying sabres. Reno's only hope was that if he formed a tight knit firing line and hoping that massed rifle fire would stop a counter charge and provide the anvil that Custer had wanted. Standard procedure was for the troopers to form into groups of three riflemen and a fourth to hold the horses in case they needed to break. He held a good position with the river to his front and the impassable brambles on the right and they began regular volley fire. Then it all started to go wrong as the Natives began to respond, they saw his vulnerable left side and began to attack it and even setting fire to the long grass forcing the men to withdraw. Their superior numbers began to tell and Reno would later testify he believed they were five to one. Finally when one of his Arikara interpreters, Bloody knife, was killed and his blood and brains covered the major's face. Reno's nerve broke and he called out to his men;

All those who wish to make their escape follow me!

There followed a rout as Reno led his men backwards towards the bluffs at their rear in complete disorder.

The exact nature of Custer's movements are unknown but as the 210 men approached the village, possibly trying to ford the river at Minneconjou ford at the centre of the village but were repulsed by a handful of sharpshooters. The native oral history makes claim that Custer was killed her as an officer in buckskin next to a standard bearer was shot dead into the water. Custer's body was found further north with the rest of his troopers so it is unlikely but someone certainly fell here.

Cooke's written order with Benteen's translation on the top.
 Custer took stock of the situation and the numbers of natives who were aligned against him and passed an order to his adjutant, the Canadian 1st Lieutenant William W. Cooke. The order was written hurriedly and thrust into the hands of sergeant Giovanni Martino, one of the buglers to deliver directly to the hands of Captain Benteen.

It read simply: Benteen come on. Big village, bring packs. W. W. Cooke. P.s. bring packs.

Knowing the pack mules were following behind slowly and not knowing what action was facing him ahead Benteen ordered his men to rest and water the horses for twenty minutes before advancing. Again he has been criticised for this decision but it is a reasonable action for a cavalry officer expecting action for you'd want fresh horses to face a charge. He claimed at the Reno enquiry that he asked Trumpeter Martin about what was ahead and he said that the "Indians were skedaddling"1 and saw no rush to follow up at speed.  He eventually moved off and arrived at Reno's position by complete coincidence and made that fateful decision.

As he approached he saw a fire fight up on the bluffs and thought it was the whole regiment and began to advance towards them, suddenly seeing a group of Tribesmen he charged with his orderly before finally recognising them as Crow scouts - they told him it was not going well, fearing that the force on the bluffs was the whole regiment having been whipped he moved to join forces and assess the situation.

The situation was bleak, the ammunition pack train was about an hour and a half away, natives were firing on Reno's position and they had taken losses in the disorderly flight. At the Reno hearing he described that Reno's men were in good order and that Reno had regained his composure, his men were still scattered around the bluffs for individual preference for firing but in relative good order, the nearest natives were about a mile away and there were some 900 Indians circling nearby but out of range.

Reno told Benteen that he had no idea where Custer and his 210 men were, they had followed the orders that had been issued with the understanding that Custer would support them as they advanced. That was the last order he had received. Benteen showed him the order he had received but then decided that he would be better placed to defend Reno's shattered forces. His men joined their tired and wounded comrades and began digging rifle fire pits to better protect the men and keep their firing rate up.

Captain Thomas Weir requested permission to ride towards the sound of volley fire stating they had a duty to try to reach the rest of the regiment and support their Commanding officer. Reno and Benteen refused to budge and Weir, without orders, charged forward with his troopers but they only managed to push forward for a mile before they were forced to retire again by large numbers of tribesmen. All that they could see of Custer's men was swirling dust and gunfire. It was already too late.

Benteen believed that they were under attack from up to eight thousand Natives and the fire became more lively, so much so that; You only had to show a hat or a head or anything, to get a volley toward it. 2 As Custer's men were firing their last shots the Sioux turned and headed in full force against Reno. Benteen's account describes a harrowing evening and night with the Natives shooting at anything that moved followed by heavy fire the next day. Rudimentary breast works were dug and Benteen led a charge to clear the enemy from the ravine before retiring back towards the summit of the bluffs and they dug in and waited around their horses and the ammunition train.

So did Benteen make the right decision? Should he have followed his orders without question towards Custer?

In short, I think he made the right decision to disregard the order. Had Benteen ignored Reno's position and forced their way towards Custer they would have been destroyed too. Reno's forces were shattered and short of ammunition and could not have moved out in any sense of order and without attracting the fire from below. Captain Weir's advance took place only thirty minutes after Benteen arrived and they were forced to withdraw quite quickly and that was before the ammunition mules had arrived. Benteen had no knowledge of what was ahead of him nor the exact position of Custer nor the number of enemies he was facing. The situation was totally untenable and without the information or the ammunition he could go nowhere. Had he advanced it would have been likely that his three companies would have been caught out on the trot and met the same fate as Custer leaving the Sioux able to cut what was left of Reno's forces to shreds.

Two men did leave the ammunition train, Boston Custer (the colonel's brother) and Henry Reed (his nephew). They went at full speed to Custer's side where they were killed.

Benteen's three companies could not save the lives of Custer's 210 men but they did save the lives of Reno's as well as their own.