Whatever Happened to Captain Frederick W. Benteen, One of George Armstrong Custer's
Main Subordinates at the Battle of the Little Big Horn?
The following is by Bob Foster, author of the upcoming historical novel, Fort Zion(see review following article.)
Most history buffs are very familiar with events at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on a scorching Sunday in 1876. Five companies of United States Cavalry, about 225 officers and troopers, commanded by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, fought desperately but hopelessly against Native Americans, many times their number. When the guns fell silent and the smoke and dust of battle lifted, no soldier survived.
Custer's principal subordinates were Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen. While neither officer cared much for the other, they were linked first by their mutual dislike of Custer and then by the necessity of defending their conduct in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Both men considered Custer highly overrated as a military leader and laid the blame for the defeat squarely on his shoulders.
Custer's total command numbered 31 officers and 566 enlisted men, 35 Indian scouts--Arikaras, Sioux and Crow, a dozen packers, guides and other civilian employees. With so many well equipped men, eager for battle, how could the Custer debacle have occurred? The question reverberated up and down the army chain of command and quickly spilled over into newspapers and public journals. It was the subject of a court of inquiry that raked over Major Reno's every act and decision without finding the answer (or charging Reno). And it has echoed through history to this day!
The simple answer is--the Indians won and the army lost! So the army had to find a scapegoat in blue. The search for one began at once and has been diligently pursued for more than a century. In turn, Terry, Gibbon, Crook, Custer, Reno and Benteen were indicted, and not capriciously. For the blame must fall entirely on the army, all bear more or less responsibility.
To load so much blame on military officers is to do a disservice to the Indians. They fought extremely well that fateful day. Perhaps no U.S. Army strategy or tactics could have prevailed against Sitting Bull's powerful medicine!
That being said, I often wondered whatever became of one of Custer's main subordinates, Captain Frederick Benteen--mainly because he ended up his career in Utah Territory--now the state of Utah, where I live.
Frederick Benteen was eventually promoted to major. In 1886, ten years after the Custer Battle, he commanded seventy five black buffalo soldiers of the 9th Cavalry and was ordered to the Utah Territory to build a fort at the confluence of the Duchesne and Uintah Rivers. Benteen and his men traveled 650 miles from Fort McKinney, Wyoming, part of the distance by train, the rest by horseback. Riding at the head of black troops B and E, Benteen and his men arrived at the preselected fort site on August 23, 1886.
Benteen's orders stated he was to build a fort and try to quell unrest among hostile Ute Indians on the Ouray Reservation, about 145 miles east and south of Salt Lake City. Fort Duchesne was constructed and the buffalo soldiers did an admirable job of bringing peace to the region. The Utes greatly respected the buffalo soldiers and also feared them, should battle become necessary.
Major Benteen did not like African Americans! He disliked nearly everyone else too, regardless of color! He absolutely and unequivocally hated the white Mormon inhabitants of the Uintah Basin of eastern Utah. His language became extraordinarily abusive and foul when referring to Utahns! He said, "some think I came here to fight Indians, but I came here to fight Mormons!" Every time he met a Mormon man he would say, "Mormons are a set of goddamned sonsofbitches," and try to entice them into a fist fight. Once, in a drunken rage (he was nearly always drunk) he pulled a pistol on Sterling Driggs Colton, Mormon Sheriff of Uintah County, and would have shot him dead, had not First Lieutenant George R. Barnett, Benteen's only friend on post, interceded and took the pistol from his hand. No reason has been given for his hatred of Mormons except that he was from Missouri, and many Missourians of that era disliked Mormons. During the Civil War Benteen fought for the Union, against the wishes of his family, who upheld the southern cause. They disavowed him, and never spoke to him again.
Benteen was a most difficult man to work for, abusive to everyone, especially his buffalo soldiers. He was drunk and disorderly most his time at Fort Duchesne. He was arraigned on six counts of drunkeness between September 25 and November 12, 1886, and conduct unbecoming an officer, when in the presence of others, took off his clothes and urinated on his tent. Benteen pleaded guilty. Yet he continued to quarrel with everyone. A special army investigator was summonded to Fort Duchesne to investigate the Major's odd conduct and behavior and bring formal charges. I dare not print the foul names Major Benteen called that special investigator!
The buffalo soldiers were "silently" but absolutely delighted at the proceedings, while Mormons and non-Mormon civilian employees were more verbal, shouting their jubilation, knowing that a new commanding officer would soon be appointed and Benteen relieved of command.
At his court martial Benteen was found guilty of all charges and ordered dismissed from the service. But his powerful friends in Washington interceded because of his thirty years of "honorable" military service. He was allowed to retire with all pay and allowances. Some years later, on May 28, 1894, he was appointed a Brigadier General by Brevet in the U.S. Army.
Frederick W. Benteen, Brevet Brigadier General, died from paralysis on June 22, 1898.
For full, comprehensive details of Benteen and the 9th Cavalry in the Utah Territory you may want to check out the February 2000 issue of Wild West Magazine and its feature article "Buffalo Soldiers in the Utah Territory" by Robert L. Foster. Robert regularly publishes articles in Wild West and other national western magazines.
Robert Foster’s, Fort Zion, (2005) is an inspiring novel about a secret Wagon Train sent by Joseph Smith from Nauvoo, Illinois in 1844 to the Great Basin. The mission of the volunteers was to scout out the route for the inevitable mass migration of Mormons who were forced from their homes in Nauvoo. In recounting the history, the author stated that, “the Mormon migration west was one of the most interesting and fascinating events in western American history. Not since Moses led the Children of Israel from Egypt has such a forced migration taken place.” But besides using one of the most colorful incidents in the history of the American West in which to weave his story, the author also believes that he is relating a message. “The main message is that Mormons of the Nauvoo, Illinois era (1840's) were very much like Americans everywhere--Christians, lovers of freedom, dreamers, hard workers, honest, with passions and expectations. On occasion they exhibited human frailties as well as the highest qualities of Christianity.”
Robert Foster’s, Fort Zion, is intended for young adult as well as adult readers and in many ways accomplishes what the early chu
rch leaders mandated. “Write and keep and a regular history”, directed the leaders of the Church of Latter- day Saints (Mormons) to their followers. The goal was to provide a teaching tool for future generations of believers by recording historic achievements of those who fought to preserve their faith and their communities in the tumultuous anti-Mormon environment of the mid-nineteenth century America. And writing down their history is certainly what the faithful did. From Joseph Smith’s revelations of Faith in New York in the 1820s to the founding of Kirkland Ohio (1830-1839), to Nauvoo Illinois (1839-1844), and to the mass migration to the Great Basin in present day Utah (1847), Mormon writers have chronicled the lives and work of the pioneers who struggled to maintain community during a time of great hostility and aggression toward the Mormon people and their faith.
Robert Foster’s Fort Zion follows in the wake of successful Mormon fiction of Jack Weyland and historical fiction of Gerald Lund, whose books have made a significant impact on the American reader and have been very successful at promoting historical fiction about the American West as an acceptable genre. Novels about the history of the Mormon migration to western America provide some of the most interesting history and some of the most fascinating characters who ever participated in the great saga of western expansion.