Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book: An Obituary for Major Reno

I don’t hold George Armstrong Custer in reverent regard as I might have been taught to as a boy sixty years ago. Hollywood’s revision of western history has taken care of that, not to mention modern-day military adventures of questionable merit.

But roaming the bluffs where the Seventh Cavalry suffered a mighty defeat along the Little Bighorn in 1876, you can be touched by feelings not easy to dismiss. Reading Richard Wheeler’s fine historical novel, An Obituary for Major Reno, has a similar effect.

Put as briefly as possible, the Seventh Cavalry was divided that June day into three separate forces. While all of them took casualties, it was only Custer’s companies that were wiped out. Second hardest hit were the companies commanded by Major Marcus Reno.

Separated from Custer, he was met by an overwhelming number of Sioux and Cheyenne and forced to retreat. After losing many men, he was joined on higher ground by the companies of Captain Frederick Benteen, where they lay under siege and continued to take casualties. It wasn’t until after the Indians withdrew the following day that they learned the fate of Custer and his men.

Wheeler recreates not only the entire Battle but the six-week journey preceding it from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory. As a result, you get a sense of the remote isolation of this place, where soldiers fought and died. You are also immersed in the Battle itself through the experience of one man, Major Reno.

Myth vs. history. In Wheeler’s novel, Reno is not just a name and a face among the many bewhiskered, stiffly posed military photos from the history books. He is a single human witness to an event that would be transformed into a national myth. And not just a witness, but fated in its aftermath to play a role he never deserved. He was soon blamed for the defeat and for the death of Custer by others in the military, the press, and Custer’s widow. It was a charge, arguably unfounded, that followed him to his grave.

Wheeler’s novel, among many things, is an account of how history was quickly overtaken by myth. Rivalry, loyalties, and personality conflicts among the commanding officers in the Seventh Cavalry began almost at once to account for “what really happened” that day.

From the start there was the wish to make a hero of the fallen Custer. To do that meant finding fault with the survivors. Reno’s retreat was a tactical error, some said, and after being joined by Benteen, the two men should have gone to the aid of Custer. Critics charged them with cowardice and not following orders. Thus the myth of the glorious Custer and the cowardly men who let him die was born, and history was for a long time written on those assumptions.

The aftermath. Benteen survived to complete and happily retire from his career in the military. Reno unfortunately fell victim to the myth. It was as if he walked up to the pit his enemies had dug for him and then willingly jumped into it. [Photos at right and below are of the battlefield. The stones here mark where Custer and his men fell. As usual, click image for larger view.]

Benteen, in Wheeler’s novel, remembers Reno as thin-skinned. He was a 42-year-old officer in mid-career, having served with many commendations during the Civil War. But he lacked the personal resources that might have helped him deflect the impact of the charges brought against him.

Something of a loner, he’d been devastated by the death of his young wife. His son grew up in the home of in-laws, and the two had become emotionally distant. He knew only the respect he’d earned as an Army officer, and when that was questioned, he seems to have begun to self-destruct. He drank and withdrew into himself, until alcohol, his moods, and his unwanted attention to the wife of one officer and the daughter of another got him charged and found guilty of conduct unbecoming.

From there it was a downhill slide until he was dishonorably discharged. Defending his honor and trying to recover his lost career, he exhausted what little funds he had in legal fees. He died penniless and in misery, unable to even speak in his own defense, because a cancerous growth on his tongue (after a lifetime of cigar smoking) had been removed.

History as fiction. I don’t know how a historian reads a novel like this one. History has its own rules and conventions of storytelling. Take Mark Lee Gardner’s To Hell on a Fast Horse. When Gardner says his book about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid includes nothing that is not a matter of public record, you believe that this is so. (A review of To Hell on a Fast Horse is coming here next week.)

The novelist has more freedom to select from the record and then fill in the blanks. Gary Dobbs’ A Policeman’s Lot (reviewed here earlier) makes an interesting example. In a story set in an actual Welsh town at a particular time in history, Bill Cody walks the streets with fictional characters, and someone who may be Jack the Ripper makes an appearance. In this case, historical fact is being used to serve what is essentially a fiction.

The historical novel lives in that uncertain ground between these two genres. And the liberties taken by the writer can be few or many.

Wheeler actually raises this issue in his book. A novelist, Frederick Whittaker, pens a worshipful account of Custer’s life, which is rushed into print soon after the battle. Novel writing, in Reno’s view, is “the most dubious of bastard professions, given to lies and fantasies, made-up worlds disconnected from reality” (p. 201).

One suspects that Wheeler is acutely aware of the risk fiction takes as it attempts (or even just pretends) to present history fairly and faithfully. His warts-and-all portrayal of Reno seems to be committed to both fairness and faithfulness. Yet at times, you wish he’d give the man more of a break. His fall from grace, which consumes half of the novel, makes for painful reading at times.

Until page 259, you can wonder what possessed him to make a novel of this material at all. Then in the fictional character of a journalist who’s writing the “obituary” of the title, he asks himself the same question, pondering a long list of the contradictions that made up the man. Reno, he concludes, “was plainly an enigma, a mystery, perhaps unfathomable.”

At the end, Wheeler provides a novel’s ending to the account of an ill-fated life. After interviewing Benteen and the general who commanded the Seventh Cavalry, now both retired, the journalist visits Reno’s grave. Hat in hand, he pays his last respects and in Wheeler’s movingly written paragraph explains to Reno what he intends to say in his obituary.

After recalling his notable service as an officer, he says he will make mention of Reno’s love for his wife. Then he will talk of how we are changed by tragedies that affect our lives. “And major,” he concludes, “I’m going to tell them that Marcus Reno was a gallant soldier and honorable and worthy of a better fate” (p. 316).

Somehow in the mouth of a fictional character, who has been a stand-in for the modern-day reader and a moral touchstone in the novel, these words are more deeply satisfying than the judgment of a historian. And therein may lie the difference between history and historical fiction.

Next time, I’m giving this space over to author Richard Wheeler, who has graciously agreed to make a few comments about the writing of An Obituary for Major Reno.

Further reading:
 Picture credits:
1) Major Marcus Reno,
2) Photos from the battlefield by Ron Scheer

Coming up: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid


  1. I have no real right to comment on things that pertain to the myth of what has become American history.
    But if you dont mind, I have a few observations?
    At the time this was happening, the whole concept of honour, hero`s and the New world, was being written. People didnt want failure, and with the advent of "Manifest Destiny", it would be a treasonous thing, if those who were claiming the land and eradicating those who owned it, failed, or worse still, sort to take the side of the Indios, and any other "softies".

    This was the case when Clive took the East India Company to its glory, and fortune. Or am I not seeing the picture here.
    "When the Legend becomes truth, print the Legend"?

  2. Based on your interesting review, I've just ordered a copy of this book. I'm also looking forward to your interview with the author, Richard Wheeler. This subject has always been of great interest to me.

  3. A lot of good folks have gotten steamrollered by the wheels of myth. One of the best fiction novels I read based on the Little Big Horn battle was by Will Henry: "No Survivors."

  4. Cheyenne, there had been other defeats in the Indian Wars (e.g. the Fetterman Masssacre), but it was the loss of Custer himself that hit the hardest. He was a celebrity figure with a lot of admirers.

    Walker, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I plan to read more of Richard's books set in the West.

    Charles, you'll have to tell me sometime about Will Henry's book.

    Thanks, everybody, for the comments.

  5. My impression, after reading several stacks of books on the battle, is that Reno was unfit for command. Sure, Custer acted like a jerk and put Reno in an impossible situation, but if Benteen hadn't come along to steady him I think he'd have lost every man on the hill.

    A novelist, of course, can sidestep the subjective opinions of historians and flesh out a character any way he likes. I'd say Reno is lucky to have someone as talented as Mr. Wheeler doing this for him.

  6. "When the legend becomes truth, print the legend." A line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance uttered by a newspaper editor and clearly despised by John Ford who shows us the truth. And the aftermath of misery for all concerned who live a lie.