on March 3, 2013
I am re-reading To Hell With Honor for about the third time, and it is still an interesting read. I must warn the Custer neophyte, this is pretty advanced stuff. The more you know about the subject, the easier it will be to absorb and analyze Skelnar's conclusions. Some I agree with, some I cannot. The main thing is, it has some new theories and it never bores me! One thing about a work of this sort is what it takes to become fanatical enough to find new theories, new angles, a desire to reveal what can never really be revealed. It does turn you into somewhat of a fanatic, and your enthusiasms can blind you to views that you do not want to see. It makes for a great story, but never try to convert the evangelist! It will be a depressing waste of time.
One might wonder, So What? Does it really matter, what happened in Montana 140 years ago? If you have to ask that, you will never understand. Even those of us that bicker and feud over the incident- and I have nearly been punched when I argued with a fellow tourist at the Little Big Horn Battle site-(I forget what it was about now, but we were on the trail to Deep Ravine, near the bogus Sturgis marker) have a common bond here. It just won't let us go! I walk away from it, then come back and get crazed all over again. I re-read everything, form new opinions, and the fever takes me again. And, as we have just lost Evan S. Connell, author of Son Of The Morning Star, I will quote his take:
"More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past, but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope." How true.
As for Larry Skelnar, he has converted me to some of his findings. Most of it really is minutia, but that is important to a researcher because it all hangs together. The real problem with the primary sources, according to him, is due to the surviving accounts being purposely muddled or outright changed to place the blame for the defeat on Custer instead of the two real villains, Capt. Benteen and Major Reno. Myself, I always thought that the real problem was the scope of the incident. It was then, and still is, blown way out of proportion if you consider that it would be a minor skirmish during some of the bloody battles of the Civil War, that almost all of the Senior Officers of the 7th Calvary participated in. But popular sentiment turned it into a major event, and everybody wanted to get involved. Those that were there began to cloud things with hindsight, and confuse what they thought was happening with what they know knew happened. Indian testimony was confusing because they did not see time like we did, and the event was limited to what they saw and did. So, if you came onto the field late and participated for 30 minutes, that is how long it lasted. Gall, for instance, placed it at about that time, but he began his battle in the Valley Fight with Reno. Is he saying that the whole venture, from the first shots fired into the village to the death of those on Last Stand Hill, took this long, or was that the amount of time he spent later in that area? Troopers had the same problem. Skelnar noted that they tended to compress events, and use hindsight instead of hard facts. It is like the various native art relating to the battle- almost all of them drew the troopers with sabers, yet we know they did not carry them. But the saber is associated with calvary in the artists' mind, so there they are. Or, as survivor Theodore Goldin commented, the temptation for an old trooper to embellish was hard to resist. Since he may have done so himself, we must take that into account.
All LBH enthusiast have an agenda. For every sport there is a scoring system, and for Custerania, it comes and goes. Skelnar scored a few points for the Custer team, and some of his thoughts are compelling! He is over-the-top with some, right on with others, and really off the field with a few. Mind you, that is according to my agenda! Lets look at some of the things that I found very noteworthy.
Firstly, every drama needs a villain. We are fortunate to have two! Really, a villain and a jester. Marcus Reno was certainly lacking in many qualities, and a defense of the man requires a stout heart and lots of rose colored tinting on your glasses. Skelnar has a lot of fun with Reno, painting him as a cowardly drunk that nearly soils himself in terror as Custer departs for immortality, leaving him to fend for himself. Reno does alright for a while, wisely opting for a skirmish line and not a real charge. I don't think anybody really expected that to happen, as he was supposed to engage the enemy, and firing indiscriminate shots into a village filled with non-combatants is about as engaged as you can get. But Reno falters. Most give him credit for forming the skirmish line, and even relent on his move into the timber as being sound. Skelnar, however, has Reno trembling with fear, and hiding in the timber to save his neck and take a nip of whiskey, that he can't function without. Soon, he is joined by all 3 companies. He is talking to scout Bloody Knife, who is shot in the head, and then he seems to really lose it. Skelnar has him almost a parody of a terrified man, sort of like the ham acting in a silent movie- wild-eyed, frothing, and looking very much like an Edvard Munch painting. He flees out of the timber, leaving most of his command to fend for himself, and winds up totally demoralized on the hilltop. This is where the legend of Reno Marcus begins. A well-ordered retreat, with discipline and covering fire, would have been considered unwise, but not brash or cowardly. The action would have been debated, but not his courage. From here on out, he is the jester of the story.
Our villain is none other than that Virginia gentleman, Capt. Frederick Benteen. A good villain needs guts, and here he is! He may be soft-spoken, and rarely raise his voice, but he can be mean, impetuous, and as likely to put a bullet into you as anybody. His defense of his honor is almost ridiculous. You will never know why you wronged Benteen- in fact, you may never really know for a while that you have- but when you have, it is for life. Unforgiving, cantankerous, opinionated- but a first-rate officer according to many, and a stout fighter if you get him to the battle. He reminds me of Animal Mother from the movie Full Metal Jacket- all he needs is somebody to shoot at him all day, and he becomes a fine human being.
Benteen is a study, a true character among many. He is both admirable and despicable, a man of contradictions. He is accused of dawdling on his scout-to-the-left, of conspiring with Reno to abandon Custer to death, of twisting facts to hide their crimes. Really, though, most of that is debatable, and there are many good books that balance things out. Terrance Donovan, in Blazen Trumpet, attempts to show that Benteen didn't dawdle as much as we think, and his time was just a little slower than Clusters, considering the terrain. Unger, in Custer's' First Messenger attempts to prove that Sgt. Kanipe, who was supposed to have delivered the first serious summons to Benteen, was not a messenger at all, but a deserter to the rear. Clearly, Benteen was no ball of fire on his scout.. Skelnar has him in a grand funk, poking along and thinking dark, vile thoughts. Benteen said his horse set a fast pace, so maybe he let Dick wander along while he catalogued his list of wrongs and simply did not focus on his mission.
All that can be forgiven, but we are coming to his most heinous offenses soon. He arrives on the Hilltop, finding Reno unfit to command, and all in chaos. Reno begs for help, and this seems in character, if we are to believe Skelnar's assertion that Reno was scared to death and clearly not in command of himself or others. If he was that desperate for Custer to save him, he would have latched onto Benteen like a life preserver. Benteen stays with Reno until Weir, in either a fit of bravery or pointless bravado, sallies off to find Custer on his own. Weir is a Custer family friend and associate, so he has a personal interest, as well. Note that the others, such as Godfrey, claimed they did wonder at Reno's inability to make decisions, and thought that "Custer would be after him with a sharp stick."
Much has been made of Benteens'actions at this point. It is said that he and Reno conspired to abandon Custer and his men on purpose. A & E even had a special on this event, Betrayal At The Little Big Horn, purporting that they heard the gunfire and refused to help, claiming they never heard it. Proof is supplied by some guys standing on the Hilltop, straining to hear fire from Last Stand Hill. When they hear a faint bang, they have the proof that Reno and Benteen lied, and a conspiracy is hatched! Well friend, Benteen never said there was no gunfire. He said he heard no volley fire. Why the difference? Indians didn't volley fire, for one. Volley fire would have been proof that Custer was still fighting, and that they were in need. Well, maybe they did hear volley fire, and didn't respond. They most certainly heard fire, it was a battle! And, I would put more stock in that test if they also had mules, injured horses and troopers, and the other noise any large group makes when doing anything. At any rate, they did not make it to Last Stand Hill. Benteen has also been accused of being too passive at this point, just deferring to Reno so he doesn't have to make a decision. I say that the man who can fess up to Custer that he wrote a very disparaging letter about him that got published would have no such problems. It shows what bad condition Reno was in, and that he couldn't abandon Reno's wing. I think it put him in a very bad situation, wondering how to cope with the burden Reno had given him. Proof? When the pack train arrives, and Reno is a bit more stable, or at least better supported, he saunters off after Weir, ignoring Reno's frantic bugle calls to halt.
Benteen showed bravery on the Hilltop. He leads charges to fend off impending Hostile attacks, he inspires his men. He holds it together while Reno may or may not have been `drinkin' considerable.' When he hears that the rest of the Command is destroyed, he does not believe it, and has to see for himself. Over Custer's corpse, he is shaken, and says, "There he is, god damn him. He won't be fighting anymore." At this point, I think Benteen and Custer's feud is over. Faced with his own mortality- that could have been him. Almost was him! He lets the fight go, and says goodbye to his old nemesis.
His letters to his wife immediately after the battle have an unreal quality, almost as if he was reporting it second hand. He obviously sanitized some of it for her benefit- she knew these men- saying that they were as recognizable as they were in life. We know they were mutilated, and some almost impossible to identify. Some chide him for seeming not to care in these letters, but I don't see that. Like the others, he finds it hard to believe, and is struggling to make sense out of it all. Godfrey claims that these letters were written before there was any controversy, and therefore were closer to what Benteen really thought. If so, he, like the others, was caught in the beginning stages of survivors' guilt, happy to have survived but feeling guilty because they did. He had yet to need to spin the story, or have any defense of his actions. He and the others knew his leadership saved them on the Hilltop, and that was that. Many mistakes were made, but it all came out in the end. Didn't it?
Enter the first Custer Groupie, Frederick Whittaker. Taking Custer's own magazine articles, sprinkling some glowing accounts from friends, and innuendo from officers who did not want to be named, he cemented his Custer man crush by rushing his book to print in record time. In it he blames Reno of being a coward, and Benteen of goofing off and not rendering assistance to Custer. He eventually relents his persecution of Benteen- probably for the best, since Benteen was the Hilltop Hero- but persisted in his accusations against Reno. Reno insists on being tried, and there we have lots of perjury `For the good of the Service.' It is a fascinating read, that trial. Lots of misdirection, and, as I said earlier, lots of hindsight messing with the hard facts. And, it firmly establishes Benteen as a defender of Reno, something I am sure he found distasteful.
Now we come to Benteens' biggest crime, those bloody letters! Whittaker put him in a bad place, having to side with Reno. But he faced all that, and had some sport with it. He defended himself ably, scored some points, and all seemed well. But the battle had yet to begin in earnest. Benteen survived a lot in his life. The Civil War, Indians, a Commanding Officer known to be difficult at times, annoying writers- he faced them all. In the end he was beaten by a widow, Mrs. Custer. In her he found his real nemesis.
Libbie Custer kept the `General' alive in the public eye. She turned this earthy, living, vibrant man into an impossible saint. Even a rascal like Benteen couldn't attack a widow frontally- it just wasn't done. So he waged a war of pen and ink, seeking somebody to champion his cause by `exposing' the Custer myth. He poured out most of his venom to a private who had participated in the Hilltop fight, Theodore Goldin, hoping Goldin would write something that would tarnish the Custer Myth being fabricated by Libbie and Whittaker.. The fact that his accusations were mostly gossip and innuendo seemed unimportant to him, as he himself by this point believed anything detrimental to Custer. He reported that Custer slept with his black cook, with an Indian prisoner, had many shady deals going, etc. Didn't work, however. He was outgunned and outflanked. Worse of all, she outlived him, Reno, and most of the other detractors from that time period. He dies, never quite having gotten even.
A couple of things do puzzle me, as they are not seriously looked at by Custer experts. Most discount the rumor of Reno suggesting to Benteen on the evening of the 25th that those with mounts attempt to escape, leaving the wounded and unhorsed. Benteen is supposed to have said, "No, Reno, you can't do that." This is also the supposed reason that Godfrey, somewhat neutral on the various 7th Calvary factionalism, became a rabid anti-Reno crusader. Even Goldin said that this could not be true, yet he had a letter from Benteen that stated it was. Benteen did not mention the full context, so we don't really know that Reno meant to abandon the wounded and save his neck. I have also heard a statement that Reno had intended to stay with those left behind, but this is all apocryphal. Goldin says that it can't be true, as Benteen had little regard for Godfrey and would never have told him this. I say that Benteen only truly began to hate Godfrey as he seemed to move closer to the orbit of his enemy. Again, to love Custer, you needed to be a Reno hater. Also, before Godfrey wrote his article for Century magazine, he asked Benteen if he thought anything should be mentioned- as in, Reno's proposition- and Benteen said he thought Reno had been damned enough. Why this is never seriously considered is odd, as Reno bashing is a Custerania staple.
Another thing is the secrets Weir was supposed to be privy to, that he would not reveal to Whittaker, but if Libbie had him all alone, there in the dark, he just knew she could dig it out of him. What secret? Reno's idea to Benteen on the 25th? Reno's inability to command? Or, just maybe, there is an ulterior motive. Most writers curse Weir for kicking off before he revealed this tidbit, but I wonder. It is documented that at one point, Custer is warned that he needed to check up on Libbie, as somebody was getting a bit too close for comfort and needed sorting out. That somebody is Weir, and it is said Custer had him on the ground, begging for forgiveness. Sounds like a Benteen story, yet Benteen apparently didn't know this one. Weir was educated, and he and Libbie had lots to talk about that Custer, more a man of action than a literary critic, could supply. Is it not possible that Weir, in his drink-sodden brain, thought it might not be a good time to renew that old passion? And that his `secret information' isn't a secret now at all, but woven into every book on the subject?
Where does Skelnar change my thinking? Like many others, I had always taken it for granted that Custer did not have an idea for a battle plan. It did not seem odd to me, as we can surmise it had to be devised on the fly. How do you trap the best light Calvary in the world, when even the non-combatants can retreat in a disciplined manner in less that 30 minutes? A recon-in-force seemed the only way to bring them to battle. I do not count the Washita fight, as Black Kettle was where he was supposed to be, and was not anticipating any sort of problems. His village was attacked because warriors accused of attacking settlers were reported to be in his village.
What is odd to me is that some of his theories may be go against the grain of established behaviors. I am thinking of his analysis of Custer's actions near the end, where he has Custer actually thinking far beyond a mere attack, or responding by "Advancing like a fighting cock." Luck was with him for a while, but for all the wrong reasons. It then begins to swing back to the enemy, in a big way. In the book, you can actually feel the hope of success for a while, until the village comes alive and the numbers become overwhelming. Based on what he saw and knew up to that point, any decent Calvary leader would do the same. Benteen, for all his worries about splitting the command, suggests the same during the Nez Pierce campaign, and thinks his leaders are cowards because they do not allow him to charge off with the sort of escapades he always accused Custer of! Skelnar has Custer realizing all is lost, and sacrifices himself and his command to save the rest. Well, more of less....he has a Thinking Custer, a Thoughtful Custer, not the fellow that punched through a window to strike an antagonist on the other side. Is it really possible? Maybe so. A lot has been written about Custer acting differently, enough to puzzle his subordinates. Some thought he had a premonition of his demise. Perhaps he finally reached some sort of wisdom, an enlightenment. Sadly, it would make no difference, and his old self might have served him better on this campaign.
Custerphiles probably already own this book. If you have an interest, get it! There are some really good reads available, and some not so good. I gave it 5 stars for a reason, and that is even when I disagree, I like it when a writer breaks new ground and takes the time to find good supporting material. I think his portrayal of Reno is over-the-top, but probably not too far off. With Benteen, he is fairer than most. It is hard to really understand any of Benteen's motivations, and most don't even try. I do agree with him that the feud between he and Custer was a gradual thing, as nobody lends $100- what did a private get, $13 a month? -to a sworn enemy, and wait over a year to get paid back. Benteen's feud grows as the Custer Myth grows, and more and more old cronies get entangled. I also agree that they had strained, but fairly amicable relations until the Washita battle. To me, Custer seems very surprised by Benteens admission, saying, "Benteen, you?" That is the response of somebody taken totally off guard, not one that has been sniping with a subordinate on a regular basis. Basically, anybody not on Benteen's side becomes the enemy....and, that is also true of most Custer writers. Just read anything by John Carroll, who has put out a book and several booklets on Benteen's knavery. It seems it is still polarized, and a Custer man just can't do anything but hate Benteen and Reno. Answers become almost a script....Custer good, Benteen bad, Reno incompetent. Elaborate a bit, and you have the essence of many a scholarly tome.
But Skelnar has given us something to think about, and considering the mass of stuff already written, this is no small accomplishment in itself! I hope he inspires others to dig, to toss off preconceived notions and think outside that box! Or, in this case, outside that ring of dead horses on Last Stand Hill.