Sometimes, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
A rider pulled up in front of Captain Benteen with a communique from the commander. “Come on,” the note read. “Be quick.” Benteen could hear the sound of gunfire and a battle taking place somewhere before him, and he knew that the men out there needed ammunition and supplies. But the pack mules carrying the provisions had only then arrived at the watering hole, and the Captain wanted to give them a chance to slake their thirst before riding on ahead.
Benteen had seen plenty of action during the American Civil War and was thus no neophyte. From Missouri, Frederick Benteen had gone against the wishes of his secessionist father and joined the Union Army early in the war. He had distinguished himself in several battles, rising to the rank of brevet Lt. Colonel for his bravery and leadership at such battles as Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, and Westport among others. After the war, he even led a regiment of African American infantry until they were mustered out.
In the late 1860s, on orders from new President U.S. Grant, the army appointed Benteen to be part of General Phil Sheridan’s attempts to pacify the native tribes on the plains of the mid-west. In this capacity, Benteen found himself under the command of another Civil War general, and it was his note that Benteen read on that hot summer day in 1876. He felt he had hesitated enough and needed to press forward even if the animals had not gotten their fill of water on that hot day.
But something was amiss. The battle sounds seemed to be moving towards him and his men and the pack animals rather than away from them. That could mean only one thing: The enemy was winning. Benteen ordered his men to take defensive positions. He rode out with a scouting party and was met with not only retreating American soldiers but also some advancing natives. He ordered his men back to the original defensive position near the watering hole. Soon, they were joined by some stragglers from another part of the command right when the enemy attacked.
The attack lasted for more than half a day, and it even ran sporadically through the night. During this time, Benteen later said that he thought of those other fellows who had been fighting earlier and of his commander who had told him to hurry up with the supplies. He wondered what had happened to them.
By 5pm the next day, and with his supplies of ammunition almost out, the enemy retreated. And then, through the haze of smoke and heat, some more stragglers came in to the American lines. “Where is the General?” Benteen asked them. The men shrugged. They pointed towards a ridge about four miles away and said they assumed he was there, that he and his entire command lay dead.
It would not be until the next day that Benteen and the others made their way towards the ridge where, indeed, they found the bodies of their comrades killed in the battle. In later months, a court of inquiry convened to determine what, exactly, happened and why.
Many questioned Captain Benteen’s decision to not immediately ride into battle with the pack animals. “Coward!” some called him. “Murderer!” others charged. Benteen was eventually found to be innocent of any charges, but his reputation had been tarnished already.
Still others pointed out that to have immediately rode forward into the battle would have assuredly meant that he and all his men—and not only General George Armstrong Custer’s troops—would have died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.