- Feb 2017
Points taken. I can only imagine the shocking impact of Bloody Knife's death. I still think Reno's order to halt the charge and form a skirmish line was an act of indecisiveness. A decision to make a cautious approach should have been made earlier. A number of Indians thought that, had the charge been carried through, it would have been devastating. The village was surprised. Reno's halt gave the warriors time to gather and prepare for battle.Reno was erratic and indecisive - after he got a faceful of Bloody Knife's blood and brains. Before that, Reno was neither.
Reno was sent against a force which was both larger and more willing to fight than Custer had expected. Rather than charging into a force that vastly outnumbered him, Reno formed a skirmish line. When the Indians attempted to flank him, Reno recessed his flank. By this point, firing was intense enough some soldiers reported difficulty in hearing commands or even bugle calls. Reno conferred with an officer covering his flank with both concluding that maintaining position would result in their being cut off, surrounded, and overwhelmed by the Indians. There was no sign of Custer coming to support them, so Reno ordered a fallback to the woods, which was accomplished in decent order. Falling back to better defensive positions was a logical and reasonable action, not an act of cowardice or indecision. Custer attempted the same when he realized how badly he was outnumbered.
Reno’s fallback position was not as safe as he had thought. He asked the scout, Bloody Knife, what he thought the enemy would do next, when a bullet struck Bloody Knife in the head, splattering blood and brains in Reno’s face. Let me try to convey some of what Reno experienced in that moment.
Reno was facing Bloody Knife, probably leaning close, trying to hear and be heard over the din of battle. Bloody Knife may not have been a friend, but Reno respected his opinion. Then half of Bloody Knife’s face disappears, leaving a horror of torn flesh and glistening bone. Reno may feel shards of tooth or bone embed in his cheeks. He definitely feels gobbets of flesh and brain, splashes of blood strike him in the face. It’s in Reno’s hair. It’s in his eyes. It’s in his open mouth. Reno doesn’t just see Bloody Knife’s death, he hears it, he feels it, he smells it, he tastes it. But the horror is not over – Bloody Knife is mortally wounded, not instantly dead. The catastrophic brain injury sends random nerve impulses to Bloody Knife’s muscles, which spasm in a grotesque mockery of dancing before he collapses. If Reno is lucky, Bloody Knife doesn’t collapse into Reno’s arms. If Reno is lucky he’s in enough shock he doesn’t register the way Bloody Knife’s body continues to twitch until it finally gives up its hopeless struggle for life or hear the noises that come from the dying man’s mouth. If Reno is lucky, it’s not until later he realizes the bullet that hit Bloody Knife must have missed Reno’s own head by inches.
It’s an experience Reno will never be able to forget, something that will give him nightmares for the rest of his life. It would drive many past their breaking point into numb immobility or helpless weeping or uncontrollable screaming or shooting themselves to make the horror go away. Reno was pushed near to his limit – he was dazed and confused, impaired enough that some thought he was drunk.
The wonder is that Reno was functioning at all. He fell back hastily and in some disorder, but Reno did not totally collapse. The retreat had an objective – a defensive position on high ground, and it stopped there. About a third of Reno’s men died in the retreat, but when some of Custer’s forces tried to withdraw from Calhoun Hill to Last Stand Hill, only about one in six made it.
Philbrick does say that "Given the immense size of the village, it only made sense to wait for reinforcements before initiating the attack." Yet Custer had 80 to 90 more men than he'd ordered Reno to attack the village with.
If Custer delayed 45 minutes then Benteen might have been able to join Custer if Benteen abandoned Reno and the pack train in the face of the enemy.
In 1919, White Man Runs Him said "Custer moved slowly, taking lots of time and stopping occasionally. He did not leave that place until Reno had started fighting." and "Custer had come down Medicine Tail Creek and was moving toward the river. The Indians saw him there, and all began running that way. There were thousands of them. Custer tried to cross the river at the mouth of Medicine Tail Creek, but was unable to do so."
Also in 1919, White Man Runs Him said "Custer's men did not fire at all on this side. Custer believed that Reno's command was all killed because they were retreating into the bluff and the dust was flying. The scouts believed that Reno's outfit was all killed. It was hard to tell because the dust was flying and they were retreating so fast. I know for sure that Custer went right to the river bank. I saw him go that far. The Sioux were right across the river. Then Custer fired. That was the first firing Custer did." and "Custer was reckless. Instead of Custer going ahead and starting at the same time as Reno, Custer held back and did not start until he saw Reno fighting. That was poor generalship."
In 1916, Hairy Moccasin said "Custer yelled to us to stop, then told us to go to the high hill ahead (the high point just north of where Reno later entrenched). From here we could see the village and could see Reno fighting. He had crossed the creek. Everything was a scramble with lots of Sioux. The battle was over in a few minutes. We thought they were all killed." and "When we met Custer he asked, "How is it?" I said, "Reno's men are fighting hard." We went with the command down into a dry gulch where we could not see the village."
Some time before 1920, Goes Ahead was summarized as saying "Custer rode to the edge of the high bank and looked over to the place where Reno's men were, as though planning the next move. When they had arrived at about the point where Lieutenant Hodgson's headstone was placed later, the three Crow scouts saw the soldiers under Reno dismounting in front of the Dakota camp and thought that the enemy were "too many." Custer's command went down the draw toward the lower ford on the run. "
All three scouts accounts indicate that Custer did not hurry - until he saw Reno was losing, at which point Custer quickly advanced towards the river. None of these accounts support the idea that Custer dawdled for 45 minutes.
According to Philbrick, Custer's supposed waiting around for 45 minutes comes from three Crow scouts who said they were with Custer at the time. White Man Runs Him "scolded" Custer for not descending to help Reno and reported Custer's reply: "No, let them fight, there will be plenty of fighting left for us to do." As I indicated above, I doubt the testimony but it is testimony and I think Philbrick rightly presents it. (p207, "Last Stand")