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|Frederick William Benteen|
Frederick Benteen circa 1865
August 24, 1834|
|Died||June 22, 1898
|Place of burial||initially Atlanta, Georgia
later reinterred in Arlington Cemetery
|Allegiance|| United States of America
|Service/branch||United States Army
|Years of service||1861–88|
|Rank|| Brevet Brigadier General
Major (Regular Army)
|Commands held|| 10th Missouri Cavalry
138th U.S. Colored Volunteers
'H' Company 7th U.S. Cavalry
Frederick William Benteen (August 24, 1834 – June 22, 1898) was a military officer during the American Civil War and then during the Indian Campaigns and Great Sioux War against the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne. Benteen is best known for being in command of a battalion (Companies D, H,& K) of the 7th U. S. Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in late June, 1876.
While scouting the area, Captain Benteen received an urgent note from his superior officer George Armstrong Custer ordering him to bring up the ammunition packs and join him in Custer's surprise attack on a large Native American encampment. Benteen's failure to promptly comply with Custer's orders is one of the most controversial aspects of the famed battle. The fight resulted in the death of Custer and the complete annihilation of the five companies of cavalrymen which comprised Custer's detachment.
Benteen subsequently served in the U.S. Cavalry another 12 years, being both honored by promotion and disgraced with a conviction for drunkenness by a military tribunal. He retired for health reasons in 1888, and lived a further decade until his death by natural causes at age 63.
Early life and career
Frederick Benteen was born August 24, 1834, in Petersburg, Virginia to Theodore Charles Benteen and his wife Caroline (Hargrove) Benteen. Benteen's ancestors had emigrated to America from the Netherlands in the 18th century, settling in Baltimore. The family had moved to Virginia from Baltimore shortly after the birth of their first child, Henrietta Elizabeth, in October 1831. Frederick Benteen was educated at the Petersburg Classical Institute, where he was first trained in military drill. His family moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1849. In 1856, he became acquainted with Catharine "Kate" Louisa Norman, a young woman recently arrived in St. Louis from Philadelphia.
The election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President in 1860 polarized the country. Theodore Charles Benteen, an ardent secessionist, vehemently opposed his son's associating with Unionists. A family crisis was ignited when Frederick joined the Union Army on September 1, 1861 as a first lieutenant in the 1st Missouri Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, although Len Eagleburger's book places Benteen at the Battle of Wilson's Creek in August 1861. The 1st Missouri Volunteer Cavalry was often referred to as "Bowen's Battalion." It was later redesignated the 9th and then merged into the 10th Missouri Cavalry. Frederick married Catherine Norman on January 7, 1862 at St. George's Church in St. Louis. In July 1863, Catherine Benteen gave birth to the couple's first child, Caroline Elizabeth, but the daughter would die before reaching her first year.
Benteen participated in numerous battles during the American Civil War, for which he was awarded the brevet ranks of major and then lieutenant colonel. Among his engagements were Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, Vicksburg and Westport. On February 27, 1864, Benteen was promoted to lieutenant colonel and commander of the 10th Missouri Cavalry. Benteen was mustered out at the war's end in the spring of 1865, and shortly thereafter was appointed to the rank of colonel as commander of a "Buffalo Soldier" regiment, the 138th U.S. Colored Volunteers. He led the regiment from July, 1865 to January, 1866, when it was mustered out. Later that year, he was appointed a captain in the 7th U.S. Cavalry. Meanwhile, the Senate finally approved awards of brevets to distinguished veterans of the Civil War. Benteen received brevets of major for the Battle of Mine Creek and lieutenant colonel for the Battle of Columbus (1865).
7th Cavalry service under Custer
In January 1867, Benteen departed for his new assignment with the 7th Cavalry Regiment and its field commander Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. This would be Benteen's regiment for 16 years. Until 1882, except for periods of leave and detached duty, Benteen commanded Troop H of the 7th Cavalry. On January 30, 1867, Benteen made a customary courtesy call to the quarters of Custer and his wife Elizabeth. Benteen said later that he regarded Custer as a braggart from their first meeting (and his dislike deepened throughout his years of service under Custer) Meanwhile, on March 27, 1867, Benteen's wife gave birth to a son in Atlanta.
Following the Civil War, the Cheyenne Indians represented the greatest threat on the Kansas frontier. In late July 1868, Benteen led an expedition to provide security for the Indian agents near Fort Larned. On August 13, Benteen, commanding 30 troopers, encountered a Cheyenne raiding party along the banks of Elk Horn Creek near Fort Zarah. He charged into a force of what appeared to be about fifty warriors. To Benteen's surprise, he then discovered more than 200 Cheyennes raiding a ranch. Benteen pursued the Cheyennes without rest until dark, engaging them throughout the day without respite. This first undisputed victory of the 7th Cavalry brought Benteen a brevet to colonel and the adoration of the settlers of central Kansas.
On October 13, Benteen and his men went to escort a wagon train loaded with weapons and ammunition meant for the regiment. They reached the wagon train just as a war party began to attack. Benteen drove off the warriors, saving the wagon train from capture. Later, the trail of the raiding party would lead the 7th Cavalry to a Cheyenne encampment on the Washita River in the Indian Territory.
In response to the continued raids, General Philip Sheridan devised a plan of punitive reprisals. His troops would respond to Indian attacks by entering winter encampments, destroying supplies and livestock, and killing those who resisted. It would include the cavalry moving in the dead of winter through a largely uncharted region and required daring leadership. Sheridan turned to Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who was brought back early from his court-martial and given the mission. Sheridan trusted only Custer with such a deed, and in November 1868 Custer returned to his regiment under special orders from Sheridan.
On November 23, 1868, Custer left Camp Supply with the 11 companies of the 7th Cavalry, heading towards the Washita River. On November 27, the 7th surrounded a Cheyenne encampment at the river. Just before dawn, Custer launched a four-pronged assault on the village.
Benteen, as captain of H Company, led a squadron of Major Elliott's command during the attack. His horse was shot from under him by a son of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle. The boy was about fourteen years old and was armed only with a revolver. Benteen called out that the boy's life would be spared if he dropped his weapon. Benteen made the peace sign. In reply, the boy aimed his revolver at Benteen and fired. The bullet missed, so the boy fired again, the bullet passing through the sleeve of Benteen’s coat. The boy then fired a third time, as Benteen continued to make friendly overtures. This bullet hit Benteen’s horse, killing it and pitching Benteen into the snow. When the Indian boy raised his pistol to fire once more, Benteen finally shot him dead.
Custer in his battle report to Sheridan made little reference to his own casualties. This was because during the action itself, the 7th lost only one man killed (Captain Hamilton) and seven wounded. However, shortly after the actual battle, Major Elliot and 19 men had pursued escaping warriors up the river and had yet to return: as such were posted as missing. It later emerged that Elliot (who rode off with the cry 'Here's for a brevet or a coffin') had been surrounded and wiped out by the Cheyenne, along with all his men.
Benteen decided that Custer had abandoned Elliot and wrote to a friend criticizing Custer over this. The letter was passed to the St. Louis Democrat newspaper without Benteen's permission. On its publication Custer called the officers together and threatened to 'horsewhip' the author. Without revealing that the letter had been published without his knowledge or permission, Benteen admitted authorship, albeit with a hand on his pistol. Custer did not attempt a whipping but dismissed the matter with a curt 'Mister Benteen, I will see you later'.
During the Little Bighorn (“Sioux”) expedition in 1876, under Custer, Captain Benteen again commanded Company H. Approximately 12 miles from the Little Bighorn River, he was assigned command of a battalion comprising Companies H, D and K. Although Custer was uncertain of the exact location of the Indians, he assigned Benteen the task of defending the left flank. Benteen searched fruitlessly through rough ground for about two hours before returning to the trail of the main column. As he advanced toward the river, he was met by a messenger from Custer, soon followed by another, indicating that a big village had been found and that Benteen should come ahead. A note delivered to him read: "Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs." Custer seemingly meant for Benteen to unite his companies with the slow pack mules (which were bringing up the rear and guarded by Company B) and then ride on to link up with Custer's five companies. These packs contained the regiment's ammunition reserve. Benteen, however was in no apparent hurry and even spent 20 vital minutes watering his horses at a ford. (Re: April 2010 Wild West Magazine: "... as any good cavalry officer would do seeing they had been pushed to exhaustion in the drive to their commanded location). Hearing gunfire ahead, however, Benteen spurred his command to a gallop.
"Benteen has been criticized by some military analysts because he failed to obey (Custer's) instructions. He received the note, he read it, he thought enough of it to tuck it in a pocket, but he did not get the ammunition packs and rush forward to Custer's aid. Instead, as he approached the battleground after his scouting trip he saw Major Reno's demoralized men attempting to organize a defensive position on the bluff and he chose to join them. This decision assured Custer's death. It would seem, therefore, that Benteen must be condemned; yet if he had tried to carry out the order it is possible his three companies would have been hacked to pieces en route. Then Reno's weakened command surely would have collapsed, and when General Terry arrived he would count every single man of the Seventh Cavalry dead.
Benteen explained to the 1879 Court of Inquiry why he did what he did, and his reasoning is equally clear from subsequent remarks. He thought it impossible to obey; to do so would have been suicide. "We were at their hearths and homes," he said, referring to the Sioux, "their medicine was working well, and they were fighting for all the good God gives anyone to fight for." "— Evan S. Connell in Son of the Morning Star, pg. 281
A battalion made up of companies M, A and G and led by Major Marcus Reno had attacked the southwest corner of a large Indian village along the Little Bighorn River and had been routed with heavy casualties in its attack on the Sioux village, and the tattered remains of the battalion struggled to cross the river and climb the bluffs. As Reno's units were still under fire and low on ammunition, Reno ordered Benteen to share his battalion's ammunition with him.
Within a few minutes, loud firing was heard by the men on the bluffs, and the Sioux began to turn away from the Reno/Benteen units and head back into the village and continue towards the firing. These volleys signified that Custer was engaged, but to what extent, Reno and Benteen had no idea. They did not at once advance to find out, which would later create a controversy regarding an alleged abandonment of Custer (General Nelson A. Miles made an accusation to that effect).
Captain Thomas Weir rode north about a mile towards the sound of the shots to the present-day Weir Point, eventually followed by men of his company, Benteen and Reno. At Weir Point the view of Custer's location, some three miles further north, was largely of a cloud of dust and numerous Native American warriors in command of the battlefield.
The Lakota and Cheyenne quickly destroyed Custer’s battalion and then turned their attention to Reno and Benteen, driving them back to their original position now called the "Reno-Benteen defense site". It was a horseshoe-shaped perimeter on the bluffs near where Reno and Benteen had met. Benteen led two charges which drove the Indians back just as it seemed the soldiers would be overrun. Cool and calm, Benteen was seen walking amongst his troops encouraging them and leading by example. He was wounded in the thumb, and the heel was shot off one of his boots.
Benteen was later criticized[who?] for his slow travel between the time he was sent to secure the left and the time he reached the bluffs overlooking the river.
His decision to remain with Reno, rather than continuing on at once to seek Custer, was criticized by a veteran of the battle.
"Reno proved incompetent and Benteen showed his indifference – I will not use the uglier words that have often been in my mind. Both failed Custer and he had to fight it out alone."
Private William Taylor, Company M, 7th cavalry, veteran of Little Bighorn. Letter of 21 February 1910
Benteen participated in the Nez Perce campaign in 1877, later being brevetted brigadier general on February 27, 1890 for his actions at the Battle of Canyon Creek, as well as for his earlier actions at the Little Bighorn. He testified at the Reno Court of Inquiry in 1879 in Chicago. Benteen was promoted to major, 9th U.S. Cavalry, in December 1882. In 1887, he was suspended for drunk and disorderly conduct at Fort DuChesne, Utah. He was convicted and faced dismissal from the Army, but President Grover Cleveland reduced his sentence to a one-year suspension. Benteen retired on July 7, 1888, citing disability from rheumatism and heart disease.
Frederick Benteen died ten years later on June 22, 1898, leaving his widow Kate and a son Frederick. He was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, his pallbearers included Georgia Governor William Y. Atkinson and Charles Collier, the mayor of Atlanta. Benteen's remains were later reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Monuments and memorials
Benteen Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia is named for Frederick Benteen's son, Frederick Wilson Benteen.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (1996). Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 17–18. ISBN 0-684-81043-3.
- Connell, Evan S. (1984). Son Of The Morning Star. San Francisco, California: North Point Press. p. 281. ISBN 0-86547-160-6.
- Barnett, Louise (1996). Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc. p. 311. ISBN 0-8050-3720-9.
- Sklenar, Larry, To Hell with Honor, p.260
- Frederick Wilson Benteen Elementary School page on Atlanta school system site. Retrieved March 9, 2012.
- Evans, D. C. Custer's Last Fight Volume I, Battle of Little Big Horn. El Segundo, CA: Upton and Sons, 1999
- Graham, W. W. The Custer Myth Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986
- Hammer, Kenneth, edited by Ronald H. Nichols, Men with Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry June 25, 1876, Hardin, MT: Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, 2000.
- Mills, Charles K., Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834-1898, Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1985. ISBN 0-87062-160-2
- Eagleburger, Len. The Fighting 10th: The History of the 10th Missouri Cavalry US (Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks), 2004. ISBN 1-4140-1644-1
- Frederick Benteen Oath of Office as Captain in the 7th Cavalry, 1866 Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- Complete transcript of the Reno Court of Inquiry
- "Frederick Benteen". Find a Grave. Retrieved 2008-02-10.
- Atlanta Public Schools