Frederick W. Benteen

Brevet Brigadier General, United States Army


I've been a loser in a way, all my life by rubbing a bit against the angles--or hair--of folks, instead of going with their whims; but I couldn't go otherwise--'twould be against the grain of myself.--Frederick W. Benteen, in a letter to former 7th Cavalry Private Theodore W. Goldin.
Picture: Benteen as Senior Captain of the Seventh Cavalry.Benteen as Senior Captain, Seventh Cavalry

Frederick W. Benteen was born on August 24, 1834, in Petersburg, VA. The Benteen family had emigrated to America from Holland in the eighteenth century, and settled in Baltimore. The family was prosperous, and so conservative that it remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution. The American victory in the revolution did not affect the family's fortunes very much; the Benteens were prosperous music publishers, who boasted Stephen Foster as an early client. Benteen's father, Theodore C. Benteen, moved to Virginia early in the 1830's; by the time of the 1840 Census the family was prosperous enough to own two slaves.

In 1849 the elder Benteen moved his family to St. Louis, Missouri, where Fred lived until the Civil War. The 1860 Kennedy's City Directory for St. Louis has listings for Theodore Benteen (as a paperhanger), and Frederick Benteen (as a painter). In 1860, Fred Benteen married Catherine Norman in St. Louis.

Picture: Benteen in 1861Benteen in 1861

The advent of the Civil War split the Benteen family, as Fred announced his decision to serve in the Union Army. His father, who remained loyal to the Confederacy, denounced Fred, and expressed the wish that Fred be killed by the first bullet, preferably fired by a Benteen who remained loyal to the South. Undeterred by his father's sentiments, Fred accepted a commission as First Lieutenant in Bowen's Battalion on September 1, 1861. This unit later became the Tenth Missouri Volunteer Cavalry.

As is often the case in wartime, Benteen rose rapidly in rank, being promoted to Captain in October of 1861. In August of 1862, while the Tenth Missouri was operating in Arkansas, Captain Benteen and his company participated in the capture of a number of Confederate steamships then plying the Mississippi, including one known as the Fair Play. While most of the Fair Play's crew were released shortly after the ship's capture, Captain Benteen arranged with friends for the continued imprisonment of the ship's chief engineer, one Theodore C. Benteen--Fred's father! It is generally believed that Fred arranged his father's prolonged imprisonment in order to insure his father's safety for the remainder of the war.

Benteen saw action with the Tenth Missouri in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. In December of 1862 he was promoted to Major in the regiment, and in February of 1864 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and took command of the regiment. His rapid promotion was due in large part to his outstanding combat leadership, and his service record is studded with citations for gallantry in eighteen major actions, including Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge. He also saw service at the siege of Vicksburg.

After the war, Benteen was mustered out of the Tenth Missouri in 1865, and shortly thereafter appointed to the rank of Colonel and commander of a colored regiment, the 138th U.S. Colored Volunteers, with which he served from July, 1865 to January, 1866. With the support of a number of important persons, including the Mayor of St. Louis, the Governor of Missouri, and Generals S.R. Curtis, W. S. Rosecrans, Alfred Pleasanton, Emory Upton, and Clinton Fisk, Benteen won appointment to the Regular Army, and a commission as captain in the newly organized Seventh Cavalry in September 1866. From then until 1882, excepting periods of leave and detached duty, Benteen commanded Troop H of the Seventh. On January 29, 1867, Benteen met George Armstrong Custer, the Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment. Benteen disliked Custer almost immediately, finding him vain, arrogant and egotistical.

I'm only too proud to say that I despised him.--Frederick W. Benteen, on his feelings towards George Armstrong Custer.

Benteen saw action with his regiment the next year, participating in the 1868 Kansas campaigns. He was brevetted to the rank of Colonel for gallantry in action at Saline River, Kansas, in August of 1868, and he was a participant in the Battle of the Washita on November 27, 1868. It is quite probable that it is at the Washita where Benteen's dislike of Custer turned into bitter hatred. A detachment of troopers led by Major Joel Elliott had detached itself from the main body of the Seventh, chasing a band of Indians which were apparently escaping. Towards the end of the day's action, Custer ordered the Seventh to return to its supply camp without sending any patrols to search for the whereabouts of Elliott and his command. Benteen, and many others in the Seventh, were very critical of Custer for his withdrawal from the battlesite without ascertaining the fate of Elliott and his men. The Seventh revisited the Washita battlefield several months later, and then found the dead and mutilated bodies of Elliott and his troopers. Benteen later wrote a letter critical of Custer and his handling of the Washita incident to a friend, and this letter was later printed (without Benteen's permission) in a St. Louis newspaper. One of Custer's friends sent Custer a copy of this letter. Custer was enraged, and threatened to horsewhip the man who wrote it. Benteen admitted authorship, after which Custer dismissed him with a curt, "Colonel Benteen, sir, I'll see you later!" Custer never carried through on the threatened horsewhipping.

Benteen remained with the regiment, and participated in the 1873 Yellowstone campaign, the 1874 Black Hills expedition, and the 1876 Sioux campaign, during which he was one of the major participants of the most famous incident of that campaign, the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Prior to the battle, Custer gave Benteen command of a battalion composed of three companies of the Seventh, and ordered him to scout roughly south of the march of the main body of the regiment, to search for Indians in that vicinity. Some commentators have speculated that Benteen was sent on this scout specifically to remove him from the battle that Custer was expecting to find at the Little Bighorn. Benteen followed Custer's orders as far as practicable, when excessively hilly country prevented any further progress in the direction he was ordered to scout. Benteen led his troops back to the trail that Custer and the Seventh followed earlier, and arrived within sighting distance of the Little Bighorn battlefield in time to see the retreat of Major Reno's battalion (another three companies of the Seventh) to the hill now known as the Reno-Benteen entrenchment. Benteen took his battalion, and immediately rode to where Reno and his men were putting together a hasty defense. It is agreed by most commentators that, while Reno was nominally the senior officer present, it was in fact Benteen who took effective command and organized the defense of the survivors on the hilltop. Benteen further distinguished himself the following year during the Nez Perce campaign, and was cited for gallantry at the Battle of Canyon Creek.

Picture: Benteen at his retirementBenteen at his retirement from active duty

Through most of this period Benteen was widely admired in the post-Civil War army as the almost ideal cavalry troop commander, who made H Troop one of the consistently best troops in the Seventh Cavalry. Lieutenant (later General) Hugh Scott, who in his own time would become Chief of Staff of the Army, once wrote "I found my model early in Captain Benteen, the idol of the Seventh Cavalry on the upper Missouri in 1877, who governed mainly by suggestion; in all the years I knew him, I never once heard him raise his voice to enforce his purpose."

Unfortunately, Benteen's career did not end on the same high plane on which it started. Promoted to Major in the Ninth Cavalry in 1882, he was given command of Fort Duchesne, Utah in 1886. In 1887, he was tried by court-martial for a number of charges of drunkenness on duty and conduct unbecoming an officer. He was convicted of most of the charges against him, and sentenced to dismissal from the Army; however the general commanding the Department of the Platte, Brigadier General George Crook, forwarded the proceedings to the President with a recommendation for clemency. President Cleveland agreed, and remitted the sentence to one year's suspension from rank and duties at half pay. Shortly following his reinstatement the following year, Benteen retired from active service and settled in Atlanta, where he was a minor celebrity, although he refused requests for interviews about his service in general, and about the Little Bighorn in particular. In 1890 he was brevetted to the rank of Brigadier General for gallantry at the Little Bighorn and at Canyon Creek. He died on June 22, 1898, of a stroke. Benteen is buried in Arlington National Cemetary.

Benteen was Custer's bitter and outspoken enemy. Not even death served to change his attitude; to the day of his own passing he never abated his hatred. But his known character and the habit of his entire life refutes the imputation that at any time or in any circumstances he failed in his duty as an officer and a soldier. He fought as he had lived, fearless, uncompromising, and grimly stern. Benteen was one of the best soldiers the United States Army has ever possessed.--W.A. Graham, The Story of the Little Big Horn
There are no monuments to Frederick William Benteen today. He remains as he lived: a rather obscure supporting actor who appeared briefly on center stage in a well-known American history drama and then quietly faded away. It was his misfortune to live largely unknown and to die largely misunderstood.--Charles K. Mills, Harvest of Barren Regrets: The Army Career of Frederick William Benteen, 1834-1898

Benteen Gravesite. Includes pictures of Benteen's headstone. Courtesy of The Arlington National Cemetary Website (private site; not associated with the U.S. Government).

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Last modified: November 26, 2000