Major Marcus Albert Reno


Major Marcus Albert Reno was born November 15, 1834 in Carrollton, Illinois, the fourth child of James and Charlotte Reno. He is most noted for his role at the Battle of Little Big Horn where General George Custer and a large number of the US 7th Cavalry perished.

At age 15, he inquired into the qualifications needed for entry to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Major Reno attended West Point from 1851 until 1857, graduating 20th in a class of 38. His tenure at the academy was extended by two one year suspensions for breaches of discipline and excessive demerits. As an average student, he was fortunate to be reinstated twice.

After the outbreak of the US Civil War, Lieutenant Reno rose rapidly to Captain in the 1st US Cavalry. Captain Reno was wounded at Kelly's Ford in Virginia on March 17, 1863, and was promoted to the brevet rank of Major for gallant and meritorious conduct. Major Reno fought at the battles of Cold Harbor, Trevilian Station and Cedar Creek. He was brevetted Lieutenant Colonel in October, 1864 after serving in a variety of staff positions. In December, Reno became brevet Colonel of the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry and on March 13, 1865, he was once again brevetted, this time to Brigadier General for "meritorious services during the war." After the conclusion of the US Civil War his rank returned to Captain, until receiving a promotion to Major, 7th Cavalry Fort Hayes, Kansas, in December 1868. Later, he was transferred to Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory.

In 1863 Reno married Mary Hannah Ross of Harrisburg, PA, who bore him a son, Robert Ross Reno. The Reno’s owned a farm near New Cumberland. When Mary Reno died in 1874, Major Reno was in the field in Montana and rode all night to Fort Benton to request leave to attend her funeral. Inexplicably the request to attend the funeral was denied, and Major Reno later took an extended leave of absence. It is said the death of Mary Reno and the long separation from his son, Robert, took a toll on Marcus Reno. Friends said his personality had changed for the worse. He had become quarrelsome, drank heavily, and had few friends

While at Fort Abraham Lincoln, he was not in the "Custer Clan", an intimate circle of friends, even though he was second in command of the regiment. On June 10, 1876 Major Reno took six companies of the 7th Cavalry for a reconnaissance of the Powder and Tongue rivers to search for Indians who had been declared hostiles for failing to go to a reservation. After finding a large Indian trail, Major Reno exceeding his orders, followed it in an attempt to gather intelligence on the Indian‘s location. Several days later, Major Reno rejoined General Terry's Troops with a confirmation that the Indians were moving toward the Rosebud Creek in great numbers.

While General Terry outwardly appeared only mildly irritated at Major Reno's actions, General Custer appeared to be more so. Major Reno's relationship with General Custer had always been reasonably amicable at best, and Major Reno was not pleased about receiving a reprimand from him. In addition, Major Reno had wanted to command the 7th on it’s trip to the Little Big Horn, further straining the relationship between the 7th Cavalry’s two ranking officers.

General Terry ordered General Custer to follow the Rosebud River, and then wherever the Indian trail led. After finding the Indian trail, General Custer pressed on hard. On June 24th, Scouts reported sighting the village, and Custer pushed on to confirm it. What followed become known as "Custer's Last Stand". The defeat of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn would forever stain Major Reno's career.

I won’t dwell on tactics and what I think transpired at the Little Big Horn here. I’ll present the known facts and keep this article on Major Reno’s career and life. Rest assured Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn will be posted on Custer Lives! later this year.

Major Reno with three companies, was to attack the Indian camp from the south, General Custer with five companies was to cross the Little Big Horn river farther north and attack the village, while Captain Frederick Benteen’s three companies were to move below the camp to prevent the Indians from escaping. Captain Thomas McDougall's troop was to accompany the slower pack train, burdened with ammunition and supplies. Major Reno’s attack was repulsed rather quickly and he was routed in an unorganized retreat, back across the river and to higher ground. Captain Benteen eventually came to Major Reno’s aid, along with Captain McDougall. General Custer and his five companies of Troopers were wiped out when they were overwhelmed by the attacking Braves from the village and the Indians who left the Reno battlefield.

It will be forever hotly debated why Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen did not attempt to aid General Custer. It is known that Captain Benteen’s D Troop commander, Captain Thomas Weir, grew impatient to aid General Custer in the battle going on a scant three miles away. Captain Weir led his men to a high bluff, now called Weir Point, where he witnessed the end of the events at Last Stand Hill. He soon came under heavy attack from the Indian defenders and was forced to flee back to Major Reno’s position

After defeating General Custer and pursing Captain Weir back to Major Reno’s position, the Indians occupied the terrain around Reno Hill and fired on the soldiers until dark. At dawn the fighting renewed and continued until late afternoon. After the Indians broke off the fight, the soldiers saw the camp being broken up and the Indians moving away. The following morning, on June 27th, the Troopers moved closer to the river, where General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon joined them and General Custer’s demise was discovered. An often forgotten and overlooked part of the Little Big Horn battle is that thirteen of Major Reno's soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery.

Major Reno's performance on June 25th and 26th at the Little Big Horn were called into question almost immediately upon the 7th Cavalry’s return to Fort Abraham Lincoln. Now in command of the 7th, a position he had coveted prior to heading out on the ill fated Little Big Horn expedition, Major Reno dealt constantly with innuendoes and accusations. Major Reno’s behavior at the fort didn’t help his defense at all, as after the crushing defeat at Little Big Horn, the press was looking for someone to be the scapegoat. Major Reno physically fought a subordinate officer, managed to escape without consequences, and was transferred to Fort Abercrombie.

Major Reno’s stint at Fort Abercrombie was full of strife. In December 1876, he was charged and nearly court-martialed for alleged improper advances on the wife of 7th Cavalry Captain James Bell, while Captain Bell was away from the fort. Episcopal minister Reverend Richard Wainwright, who was a guest of the Bells, had become so concerned about Major Reno's actions that he persuaded Captain Bell to file charges against Major Reno for immoral conduct. Major Reno had also appeared in public drunk on several occasions and denied Reverend Richard Wainwright permission to preach at the fort. It must be pointed out in fairness that on some of Major Reno’s drunken appearances he wasn’t alone, as some of the incidents occurred at parties and on holidays where other officers took part in excessive drinking. Major Reno was ordered to surrender command of Fort Abercrombie and report to a Board of Inquiry at St Paul. The Army Board of Inquiry recommended a court martial, but President Rutherford B. Hayes commuted his sentence to suspension from rank and pay for 2 years. During his suspension, Custer biographer Frederick Whittaker publicly accused Major Reno of cowardice and disobedience.

As a result of the public accusations, Major Reno asked for and was granted a Court of Inquiry. The Court of Inquiry took place in Chicago in January 1879, and most of the surviving officers who had been in the Little Big Horn battle testified. Many enlisted men later stated they had been coerced into giving positive statements for both Major Reno and Captain Benteen and if they refused, weren’t allowed to testify or were only able to answer questions rigged to cover up the events of the Little Big Horn. The court reporter, contacted General Nelson Miles, head of the Army, and wrote that the entire inquiry was a whitewash. The court found in favor of Major Reno. Later, public requests for the trial transcripts, found there were pages missing and the writing was in the hands of two different people and not the lone secretary.

In 1880 Major Reno was again court martialed for conduct unbecoming an officer. Major Reno fought with another junior officer , peered through a window at the daughter of his commanding officer, and was said to be excessively drinking on duty. He had the support of his commanders, but was convicted and dismissed from the service on April 1, 1880.

Marcus Reno moved to Washington D.C., and worked at the Bureau of Pensions as an examiner. He married a second time, to Isabella Ray in January 1884, however she left him after a few short months. When his son, Robert Ross Reno wed in Nashville TN, Reno wrote that he was too busy to attend the wedding. Reno, in reality, could not afford the train fare. Reno offered to write his memoirs, but was rejected by the New York Weekly Press. He submitted the portion of his diary concerning the Little Big Horn, and it was returned unpublished. Posthumously, it was published.

Major Marcus Reno died of pneumonia in Washington D.C. at the age of 54 on March 29, 1889, following surgery for tongue cancer. Major Reno was buried in an unmarked grave in Washington's Oak Hill Cemetery. Brought about by the efforts of a distant relative, a US Military Review Board in 1967, reviewed Major Reno's 1880 court martial and reversed the decision. His discharge status was changed to "honorable". His remains were moved to the Custer National Cemetery, on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, in 1967.

No matter what your feelings on Major Reno’s actions at the Little Big Horn (and mine are negative), like me, you must honor his US Civil War record and always honor his service as a soldier and combat veteran of the United States of America.


Major Marcus Reno

Major Reno's gravestone





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