Marcus Albert Reno was born November 15, 1834, the fourth child of James and Charlotte Reno in Carrollton, Illinois.
Young Marcus' decision to embark upon a military career motivated him to write the Secretary of War when he was only fifteen years of age to learn the qualifications to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Persistence and good luck enabled him to enter the plebe class of 1851. His tenure at the academy took precipitous twists and turns resulting in two year-long suspensions for breaches of discipline and excessive demerits. An average student, he was less diligent in the matter of deportment. Fortunate indeed to be twice reinstated, he graduated with the class of 1857, leaving for army garrison duty before being assigned to the Pacific Northwest as a commissioned second lieutenant.
The outbreak of the Civil War saw Reno rise rapidly to captain in the 1st U.S. Cavalry. With the Army of the Potomac he served in several pivotal battles. Viewed as a competent and courageous officer, he earned brevet promotions to major, lieutenant colonel,, and ultimately to brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers for "gallant and meritorious service".
In 1863 Reno wed Mary Hannah Ross of Harrisburg, PA. Their union produced one child, a son. With his rank returned to captain at war's end, his assignments were mostly administrative until promotion to Major, 7th Cavalry, in December 1868.
Transfer to the 7th meant serving under Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer. Duty with the regiment took a circuitous route through Spartanburg, SC, where Reno was sent to command the military post and won plaudits for his troops' handling of the Ku Klux Klan in the area. More administrative duty, escort command on a boundary survey, and personal tragedy delayed his opportunity to participate in the 7th's operations against hostile plains Indians.
It was during the boundary survey that Mary Hannah Reno died in Harrisburg. Denied permission to attend the funeral and settle her affairs, Reno took an extended leave of absence. He returned to active duty in the fall of 1875, in sufficient time to accompany Custer and the regiment against Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in a celebrated campaign that culminated at the Battle of the Little Big Horn the following June.
The death of his wife and separation from his son took a toll on Marcus Reno. A marked change in personality occurred. He was not in Custer's intimate circle of friends even though he enjoyed the position of second in command of the regiment. He grew quarrelsome, drank, had few true friends of his own, and as in his West Point days was not particularly well-liked.
Custer's prolonged absence allowed Reno to assume command at Fort Abraham Lincoln and prepare the 7th for the spring campaign. The regiment would be part of General Alfred Terry's column in a three-prong maneuver to drive in hostile Indians to their reservations. Shortly before the 7th marched, Custer returned to command it.
On June 10, 1876, Reno was assigned six companies of the regiment to make a reconnaissance of the Powder and Tongue rivers in search of hostiles. A large Indian trail was
discovered. Exceeding his orders, Reno elected to follow it in hope of gathering critical intelligence on the Indians' whereabouts. Days later his command rejoined Terry's with confirmation that the Indians were moving southwesterly across Rosebud Creek in great numbers.
While Terry appeared tolerant of Reno's actions, Custer did not. Reno's relationship with Custer to that moment had always been amicable, but surely Reno smarted under his commanding officer's reprimand. Since Reno had wanted to command the regiment he prepared, the relations of the two ranking officers might well have become strained before.
Armed with Reno's findings, Custer was ordered to march, following the Rosebud, then wherever the Indian trail led. It was fully expected the hostiles' village would be found in the Big Horn Valley. Custer was expected to reach that point by June 26th, if all went well, to cooperate with Terry's troops planning to arrive on that date.
Striking the Indian trail, Custer pressed on. The regiment was positioned south of the Big Horn Valley late on the 24th. Scouts reported sighting the village, and Custer hurried forward to confirm it. The events that followed resulted in the battle to become known as "Custer's Last Stand". The defeat of the 7th Cavalry would be a dagger in the heart of Marcus Reno's career.
Reno's actions in command of an element of Custer's forces the days of June 25th and 26th were called into question within days of the regiment survivors' return to Fort Lincoln. Now in command of the 7th, Reno had to deal with innuendoes and accusations, as well as his own personal demons.
The nation was in shock from the news of Custer's death and the crushing defeat at Little Big Horn. The press looked for someone to blame.
Reno's behavior did much to cement that he would become the scapegoat. Almost immediately, he brawled with a subordinate officer, escaped those consequences, only to await new ones at Fort Abercrombie after taking command of the post when relieved at Fort Lincoln.
In 1877 Reno was court-martialed for alleged improper advances on a fellow officer's wife and suspended from pay and rank for two years. During this exile he was publicly accused of cowardice and disobedience of orders at Little Big Horn by Custer's biographer Frederick Whittaker. Reno retaliated by requesting a military court of inquiry to clear his name.
Reno endured twenty-six days of testimony and appeared in his own defense to contest the charges. When the court found in his favor, it did little to alter the opinions of his critics. Once again, his personal conduct played into his enemies' hands.
Within a matter of months Reno fought with another junior officer, faced court-martial, peered inappropriately through a parlor window at the daughter of his commanding officer, then was dismissed from the service April 1, 1880. He had finally self-destructed.
For the rest of his life Reno struggled to gain reinstatement. Living on the earnings of a pension clerk after a failed second marriage, Reno died of pneumonia in 1889 following surgery for mouth cancer. His dismissal was reviewed in 1967 and the records were revised to reflect an honorable discharge. This was brought about by the efforts of a distant relative.
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