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Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834-1898 Paperback – October 1, 2011
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“This is the one book to get for the fullest picture of a complex officer who rose to brevet colonel during the Civil War before joining the 7th Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1867. . . . Author Charles Mills largely sees Benteen as a flawed common man who became the hero of an American tragedy.”—Wild West(Wild West 2011-03-02)
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I first became interested in Benteen while at the battlefield itself. I was walking the route looking for the marker of Lt. Jack Sturgis- those in the know understand that this was rather bogus, as he was never found; it was marked for the benefit of his mother, who wanted to visit his 'gravesite'. I had not given much thought to the Reno-Benteen area, and planned to make a quick visit of the area, and move on. I wound up spending the better part of the afternoon exploring this site, and developed a new perspective of Reno, Benteen, and the others that managed to hold off the force that Crook could not, and survive where Custer did not.
The people involved here are as facinating as any you will read about in western history, and the story is compelling. At the head of the list is Benteen himself, a misplaced southern gentleman that happened to be on the scene at both the right and wrong times. Right, as his leadership enabled that force to withstand a seige while Reno was indecisive and virtually unable cope with the situation. Wrong, as his actions, regardless of how heroic, were criticised as anywhere from bumbling and reluctant, to outright conspiratorial in regards to the death of his commander and fellow troopers. Even a few years ago, A&E presented 'proof' that Reno and Benteen conspired to abandon Custer, by claiming they heard no firing that could have been Custer, and decided to get revenge on him by leaving him to his fate.
Everybody seems to have an opinion based enitrely on hindsight, something not available to Benteen as he wondered how to cope with the burden Reno had given him, and how to do it properly. Those that say Benteen should have simply galloped off to help Custer and left Reno on the hilltop have an ignorance of the military as well as the ground itself. Most timetables are based either on Boston Custer's ride, passing Benteen to join his family, or from the time it takes to get from here to there. Aside form the fact that Reno had no control over his men, the pack train was lagging behind, and nobody knew where to go, certainly, he could have joined his commander and been defeated in detail, adding to the body count. In short: division was the downfall, not timelyness. Also, did he have the right to leave Reno? Morally, are the troopers with Reno less valuable then those Custer took into the vally? Graham thought Benteen did what he was lawfully required to do, and he was with the JAG office, so it's hard to dispute that. Could he have relieved Reno? Even Custer,noted for being impetuous, would think long and hard about that one. No, he played what he had been dealt,and got broadsided for it. Did he hear gunfire? Well! On a battlefield, with lots of hostiles and in the middle of a rather untidy attack on an enemy village, wouldn't there be? And, as for the A&E special, as they strain to hear a single rifle shot, how about putting in such things as wounded men and animals, the normal noise a large group makes in simply moving, and other distractions. I am not saying they didn't hear anything, I am saying it didn't register because there were a lot of considerations at the time, and they were not attemtpting to dissect thier own fight but survive it.
The irony here is that Benteen was forced to not only defend his actions, but Reno's as well. He did not like Reno, but defended him all the more hotly even after Benteen himself was more or less forgiven by the likes of Whittaker, or at least put on the backburner while Benteen lived. Custer became a cultural icon, Benteen a cranky, broken-down soldier that sniped at a dead man and most of his old cronies. A lot of the survivors self-destructed, like Weir and French. Reno ruined himself with drink, as did Benteen. They were a confused bunch, and little I have read seemed to indicate they considered themselves blessed. Benteen, no longer able to ride out and meet his enemy according to his ideas of honor, is forced to battling with Mrs. Custer as she keeps the image of Custer alive as a perfect man. He cannot attack her directly, but isn't above using others,such as Goldin and Graham, as long as he is not implicated. He waits and watches...and dies as he lived, pretty much his own flawed man.
Every good tragedy needs a fallen hero, as well as a villain. Custer and Reno provide this in full. What role did Benteen play? Hard to say, really. We like our heroes exposed and flawed, somewhat like ourselves. With all sorts of fun, from the still debated 'scout to the left' to Reno's suggestion to abandon the wounded, Benteen provides still another flawed hero. All evidence to the contrary, we just can't forgive Benteen of the fact that he, of all the officers, had the best chance of aiding his doomed comrades- and didn't. He had the ability, he had the fighting spirit- all the things that make a calvaryman great. He may have cut a swath through the hostiles- or died without getting any closer to Custer than Calhoun hill. I forgive him his choices, but it would have been great if he had tried!
I found him quite human and if I was involved with him, would have endeavoured to become a friend. The fact he encouraged a baseball team which to me is a winner insofar as morale is concerned. One can also relate to his risque humour, his dry sense of humour for example when he describes the Italian De Rudio and also his directness when it came to assessing what was going on around him. To me he summed up the Little Big Horn fiasco superbly in a few lines quoted in this book towards the end. Most things were black and white with Benteen.
Finally, the fact there is no statue or anything commemorative of him in his country may be attributed to a number of issues. For example, the South would not be happy to see a statue of Benteen simply because he was a southerner who fought for the Federals. Personally I believe there should be a simple statue placed near the Little Big Horn battle site to commemorate this man who certainly through his leadership and bravery saved a great number of men including himself. I thoroughly recommend this book to all interested parties. Well written and researched.