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Did you know that: Officers of the northern boundary escort expedition ill-fated

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Did you know that: Officers of the northern boundary escort expedition ill-fated
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By the middle of April 1876, five of the six top officers who provided escort for the men surveying the international boundary between the U.S. and Canada gathered together at Fort Abraham Lincoln to prepare for a large-scale assault on Sitting Bull’s camp.

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The former officers of the boundary escort expedition assigned to Fort Lincoln included Maj. Marcus Reno, who was second in overall command to Col. George Custer; and Capt. Myles Keogh, commander of Company I, along with his assistant, 1st Lt. James Porter; and Capt. Thomas Weir, commander of Company D, along with his assistant, 1st Lt. James Bell.

First Lt. George Lord had been at Fort Lincoln, but he was transferred in August 1875 to Fort Buford to be the medical officer of the 6th Infantry.

From the outset, Custer and Reno did not get along because of the colonel’s domineering personality. In March 1876, Reno received a reprieve from his commander’s dominance when Custer went to Washington, D.C., to testify against the Secretary of War at an impeachment hearing.

The person most disappointed with Reno now being in command was Weir, who was frequently reprimanded by Reno for his drinking when they were together on escort duty.

The rift between them widened at Fort Lincoln and came to a head April 13, 1876, when Weir did not show up for the battalion dress parade and Reno claimed he flaunted it to the enlisted men by sitting on the porch of the officers’ quarters. Reno filed a formal complaint on the 16th, but Gen. Alfred Terry dismissed the charges.

In early May, Reno divided the 7th Cavalry into three squadrons commanded by Keogh, Frederick Benteen and George Yates, leaving Weir out of the mix. Custer returned on the 11th and replaced Reno as commander the following day.

He broke the 7th into four battalions headed by Keogh, Yates, Thomas French and Weir. Keogh and Yates were to serve under Reno, and French and Weir were to serve under Benteen. May 17, the 7th Cavalry, minus Bell, who was sent on recruitment duty, left Fort Lincoln on their journey westward.

Lord left Fort Buford with a battalion of the 6th Infantry on the same day. June 11, at the mouth of the Powder River, the 6th Infantry rendezvoused with the 7th Cavalry, and Lord was informed that he would replace Capt. John W. Williams as the chief medical officer accompanying Custer.

On the 23rd, Lord became ill, and it was difficult for him to keep up with the regiment. When they arrived at the Little Big Horn on June 25, Custer suggested to the doctor that he remain with the rear guard, but Lord objected. Sitting Bull’s encampment along the Little Bighorn River was discovered on June 25. Disregarding Terry’s orders for a coordinated assault, Custer decided to attack.

Fearing that some of the Indians who had spotted the regiment might report the soldiers to Sitting Bull, Custer split his regiment into three units. He ordered Reno to attack the Indian village from the south, while Custer would attack the village from the north.

Reno and his men rushed toward the Indian village, but were met with unexpected resistance. The number of Indians Reno’s soldiers encountered was greater than anticipated, and the soldiers were forced to dismount and form a line.

Reno’s men were soon being outflanked, and his troops were forced to fall back into the wooded area along the river. As the pursuing warriors rushed the soldiers, Reno’s men scrambled across the river to get to higher ground on the other side.

By the time Benteen, Weir and their companies arrived, Reno had lost one-third of his soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Indians launched a coordinated attack on Custer. Because of the massive numbers, Custer’s soldiers were soon overwhelmed.

Weir rushed with his company to a ridge south of the fighting. He later fled as the Indians began to advance on his position. With Custer, Keogh, Lord and most of the other soldiers dead, it was reported by surviving Indians that Porter mounted his horse to attempt an escape. When he realized it was futile, he turned his revolver on himself and committed suicide.

On the morning of the 26th, the Indians turned their attention toward Reno and Benteen’s soldiers, but in the afternoon, forces under Gen. Terry and Col. John Gibbon arrived and the Indians fled.

The surviving members of the 7th Cavalry, including Reno and Weir, were ordered to return to Fort Lincoln. There, they were joined by Bell, who recently had been promoted to captain. He was put in charge of Company F, formerly commanded by Yates, who was killed at the Little Bighorn.

Rumors began to circulate that the defeat of Custer was largely because of Reno acting cowardly in not coming to the assistance of his commander. Much of this rumor was attributed to Weir, who had sent letters to Custer’s widow, Libbie, attesting to that claim.

It was widely speculated that Weir had a fascination with Libbie, and when his advances were not reciprocated, he became depressed and his alcohol addiction worsened. Weir died Dec. 14, less than six months after the battle.

To clear his name, Reno demanded that a Court of Inquiry. The inquiry convened in Chicago and Reno was cleared of all charges, but his troubles were far from over. Other charges followed.

Reno was assigned on Dec. 17, 1876, to take command of Fort Abercrombie, where Bell was stationed. Soon after Reno’s arrival, Bell was granted leave to visit his ailing father. Reno is alleged to have made “unwanted advances” toward Bell’s wife while her husband was gone.

When Bell returned to the fort, he filed charges against Reno for “immoral conduct.” Reno was court-martialed, convicted and dismissed from the Army. He died March 29, 1889, a disgraced and broken man.

The only ranking officer of the boundary escort expedition to survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its aftermath was Bell, who later rose to the rank of brigadier general.

We will examine his fascinating military career next week.

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