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.
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.
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.
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).
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'.
Captain Benteen still commanded Company H of the Seventh Cavalry regiment during the 1876 expedition to find the Lakota and Cheyenne and force them into reservations. On June 25, 1876, still searching approximately 12 miles from the Little Bighorn River, Custer divided his force into three battalions. He assigned Benteen command of a battalion comprising Companies H, D and K tasked with searching on the left flank and securing any possible escape route. Benteen searched fruitlessly through rough ground for about two hours before returning to the trail of the main column. He was in no apparent hurry. Coming upon a marsh, he stopped twenty minutes to water the horses. Some of his officers were concerned with the delay: one asked, "I wonder what the old man is keeping us here for." Just before leaving, they heard the sound of gunfire in the distance. Captain Thomas Weir was already mounted at the head of the column. Pointing ahead, he said of Custer's companies, "They ought to be over there." and started his company forward. Benteen ordered the rest of the battalion to advance.
As they approached the river, Benteen was met by a messenger from Custer, soon followed by another, both saying that a big village had been found and that Benteen should immediately come up. A note delivered to him read: "Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs." The slow pack mules, carrying reserve ammunition and guarded by Company B, had now reached the marsh and were slaking their thirst. After first deciding to wait for the pack train, Benteen decided to move on without them.
Meanwhile, the battalion made up of companies M, A and G and led by Major Marcus Reno had attacked the southwest corner of the large village further down the Little Bighorn River and had been routed with heavy casualties. The tattered remains of the battalion struggled to cross the river and climb the bluffs, pursued by many warriors. Approaching the river, Benteen could now see the panicked men in full retreat. Reno rode up to Benteen and called out "For God's sake Benteen! Halt your command and help me! I've lost half my men!".
Shortly afterward, they were surprised that the pursuing warriors began to turn away from them and head north. Two miles back, Captain Thomas McDougall, marching with the pack train, heard gunfire, "a dull sound that resounded through the hills". The troops with Benteen and Reno- even Lieutenant Edward Settle Godfrey, who was deaf in one ear- also heard it. Both Reno and Benteen claimed they never heard it. Further, they did not at once advance to find out, which would later gave rise to charges that they had abandoned Custer.
Not waiting for orders, Captain Weir rode north about a mile towards the sound of gunfire to the present-day Weir Point, followed by his company. There they could see a cloud of dust and smoke some three miles farther north. They first assumed it was Custer. As they watched, however, they saw warriors emerging from the smoke, heading towards them, "thick as grasshoppers in a harvest field."
Just then Benteen arrived. Looking at the situation, he realized this was "a hell of a place to fight Indians." He decided they must retreat back to their original position, now called the "Reno-Benteen defense site". Here Benteen quickly established a horseshoe-shaped defensive perimeter on the bluffs near where he and Reno had met earlier. They were attacked immediately and throughout the rest of the day.
As night fell the attack slackened off, while the village was alive with celebration. About 2:30 A. M., two rifle shots signaled a resumption of the attack. Whatever his reluctance earlier, Benteen took on leadership of the force, leading at least one, perhaps three, charges which drove the Indians back just as it seemed the soldiers would be overrun. Cool and calm (at one point he lay down for a nap), Benteen walked among his troops encouraging them. When his men urged him to get down, he replied that he was protected by some charm his wife had sewn in his uniform. He was wounded in the thumb, and the heel was shot off one of his boots.
Attacks on the soldiers slackened off by the afternoon of June 26, 1876. By 4:00 P. M., gunfire had stopped altogether. By 5:00 P. M. thick smoke obscured the village. The smoke cleared by sunset, revealing the entire village moving away "two to three and a half miles long and from half a mile to a mile wide... as if someone was moving a heavy carpet over the ground." moving south. Overnight stragglers given up for dead wandered in. Finally, during the morning of June 27, 1876, the survivors could see a cloud of dust downriver. It turned out to be Generals Terry and Gibbon. It was over.
When General Terry and his staff reached him, Benteen asked if he knew "where Custer had gone." Terry answered, "To the best of my knowledge and belief, he lies on this ridge about four miles below here with all his command killed." Benteen could not believe it. Later on they rode to the battlefield, where Benteen identified Custer's body."By God, he said, "that is him."
In the aftermath of the battle, Benteen's decision to remain with Reno, rather than continuing on at once to seek Custer, was much criticized. One veteran of the battle said:
"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.
While stationed in Missouri in 1856, Benteen met with Catharine "Kate" Louisa Norman, a young woman recently arrived in St. Louis from Philadelphia. They were married on January 7, 1862 at St. George's Church in St. Louis. He and Catherine had five children, four of whom died in infancy: Caroline Elizabeth, born in July 1863 at St. Louis, Missouri died before her first birthday; Katherine Norman, born in December 1868 at Fort Harker, Kansas died a year later; Francis "Fannie" Gibson Norman, born in April 1872 at Nashville, Tennessee died at eight months; Theodore Norman, born April 1875 at Fort Rice, North Dakota died that winter. Their fourth child, Frederick Wilson, born March 27, 1873 at Atlanta, Georgia died July 20, 1956. Like his father, he pursued a military career, rising to Lt. Colonel.
Frederick Benteen died in Atlanta, Georgia on June 22, 1898, leaving his widow Kate and son Frederick. He was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, his pallbearers included Georgia Governor William Y. Atkinson and Atlanta mayor Charles Collier. Benteen's remains were later reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Benteen Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia is named for Frederick Benteen's son, Frederick Wilson Benteen.