Battle of the Little Big Horn scapegoat Marcus Reno had local ties

2013-11-03T19:00:00Z Battle of the Little Big Horn scapegoat Marcus Reno had local tiesJoseph Cress, The Sentinel The Sentinel
November 03, 2013 7:00 pm  • 

When Marcus Reno learned his wife had died, he was on a boundary survey in Montana far away from New Cumberland where the couple owned a farm.

The career Army officer rode all night to Fort Benton where superiors denied his request for leave to attend the funeral of Mary Hannah Ross Reno.

Historians say they believe her death combined with the long separation from their son Robert soured his personality and set Marcus Reno on a slippery slope.

The Civil War veteran with ties to the Midstate became quarrelsome, drank heavily and had few close friends, but the blackest mark for Reno came with being the most senior officer to survive the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

That clash between the Sioux nation and the 7th Cavalry Regiment claimed the life of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 262 other soldiers. Being second in command, Reno made the perfect scapegoat for the June 1876 disaster that became known as Custer’s Last Stand. November is Native American Heritage Month.

Born in Illinois in 1834, Marcus Reno graduated from West Point in 1857 and served as a Union cavalry officer with the Army of the Potomac, local historian Larry Keener-Farley said. He explained how, during the summer of 1863, Reno was assigned the job of mustering officer at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg while recovering from a wound.

In that capacity, Reno was in charge of a team of clerks tasked with processing the necessary paperwork to recruit and discharge soldiers through what became the largest training camp of the war, Keener-Farley said. “Reno was a paper shuffler. He was an officer doing necessary work. It was rather inglorious, but somebody had to do it.”

During his time in Harrisburg, Reno was also in charge of administering the oath of allegiance to several hundred of the more than 300,000 Union soldiers who were ultimately processed through Camp Curtin from April 1861 to November 1865.

Close to 30,000 militiamen were called into service to defend the Midstate during the 1863 invasion by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Reno probably had some role in helping to process those emergency soldiers for duty, Keener-Farley said. “He was in Harrisburg the whole time.”

It was not all work for Reno. While in the area, he met and married Mary Hannah Ross at the Pine Street Presbyterian Church in 1863.

“She was the granddaughter of Jacob Haldeman, founder of New Cumberland,” local historian James Schmick said. He explained how Haldeman had named the town after his Cumberland Forge, which once operated there.

The town became “New” Cumberland after mail for its residents was getting mixed up with mail bound for Cumberland, Md., Schmick said.

For a period of time, the couple lived in the home at 223 N. Front St. in Harrisburg. A historical marker placed across the street reads that the home was built by Haldeman and for a time, the Ross branch of the family lived in New Cumberland.

Reno Street in New Cumberland is named after Marcus Reno, Keener-Farley said. “He did have a good Civil War career ... certainly enough to get him an honorary promotion as brevet brigadier general.”

After Reno recovered from his wound, Gov. Andrew Curtin assigned him to command the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment, Keener-Farley said. Reno remained in the Army after the war and was assigned as a major to the 7th Cavalry Regiment on the frontier. The website details what happened next.

Denied permission to attend his wife’s funeral, Reno took an extended leave of absence before returning to active duty in the fall of 1875.

Though second in command, Reno was not part of Custer’s inner circle nor did his personality and heavy drinking earn him close friends. On June 10, 1876, Reno was assigned to lead six companies of the regiment on a reconnaissance of the Powder and Tongue rivers and came across evidence of a large band of Indians moving southwest across Rosebud Creek.

Reno reported the finding to his commanding officer Gen. Alfred Terry, who ordered Custer to pick up the trail in the Big Horn Valley. The events that followed led to the battle that became “Custer’s Last Stand.” Reno was in command of a battalion of the 7th Cavalry that managed to survive the massacre of June 25-26, 1876.

Within days of his return to Fort Lincoln, his actions were called into question. The nation was shocked by Custer’s death and the press was looking for a scapegoat for the disaster.

Reno’s behavior didn’t help, according to Almost immediately, he brawled with a subordinate officer, was relieved of duty and transferred to Fort Abercrombie where he allegedly made improper advances on a fellow officer’s wife. In 1877, Reno was court-martialed for that conduct and was suspended from pay and military rank for two years.

During that time, Custer’s biographer Frederick Whittaker accused Reno of cowardice and dereliction of duty at the Little Big Horn. This prompted Reno to request a military court of inquiry be held to clear his name.

Though the court sided with him, the ruling didn’t change the opinion of his critics and once again, Reno became his own worst enemy. Within months, he had a fight with a junior officer, faced a court-martial and reportedly peered inappropriately through a parlor window at the daughter of his commanding officer.

Eventually, Reno was dishonorably discharged from service and spent the rest of his life trying to be reinstated. His second marriage failed and he died of pneumonia in 1889 following surgery for mouth cancer.

Reno would later be cleared of the charge, restored to rank and buried in the national cemetery of the Little Big Horn battlefield in 1967, Keener-Farley said.

Copyright 2015 The Sentinel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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