Curtis Eriksmoen, Published August 24 2013
Did you know that: Capt. Weir and the Battle of Little Big HornOne of the more enigmatic characters involved in the Battle of the Little Big Horn was a 7th Cavalry officer who observed the killing of many soldiers who were under the command of Col. George Custer. Most historians agree that it was during the final moments of Custer’s battle that Capt. Thomas Weir reached a ridge (known today as Weir Point), three miles south of the fighting, and observed Indians finishing off the wounded soldiers.
Weir later wrote to Libbie Custer, the colonel’s widow, implicating cowardice on the part of the officer over him for not rushing to Custer’s aid at the time of the battle. That officer was Maj. Marcus Reno, who had reprimanded Weir for his drinking. Two months prior to the battle, Reno filed a formal complaint recommending that he be court-martialed. Was Weir correct in the cowardice claim, or was it an act of revenge against Reno, or as some have speculated, was it an opportunity to appeal to a grieving widow for whom Weir had affectionate feelings?
After overseeing Reconstruction in South Carolina and Alabama, Company D of the 7th Cavalry, under the command of Weir, was sent to Fort Snelling in early April 1873 to await new orders. On May 30, orders arrived from Gen. Alfred Terry that companies D and I were to assist Maj. Marcus Reno in providing protection to a team that would survey the 49th parallel separating the U.S. from Canada.
On June 5, the troops boarded a train in Minneapolis and arrived at Breckenridge, Minnesota, which was close to Fort Abercrombie. On June 22, Company D, under the command of Weir, and Company I, under Capt. Myles Keogh, began their 190-mile march to Fort Pembina. On July 2, they proceeded westward until reaching a point just beyond the Turtle Mountains, where the previous survey had finished the year before. By late fall, the survey team reached the Souris River, and the companies then went to Fort Totten, their winter headquarters.
Reno was on leave from Nov. 27, 1873 to May 25, 1874, to attend to his ailing wife and young son. After he returned, companies D and I set out from Fort Totten to begin their second year of escorting the boundary survey team.
On July 10, Reno received word that his wife had died. He left the survey and traveled to Fort Benton in Montana, where he sent word to Gen. Terry that he had turned his command over to Weir. On July 18, Reno received word from Terry that his leave request was denied.
The survey team completed its work by Sept. 1, and the companies under Weir arrived at Fort Totten on Sept. 14. Reno turned the command over to Weir and left the next day.
Later that year, companies D and I were ordered to rejoin companies A, C, and F under the command of Col. Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Since Custer was on leave, Maj. Reno arrived at the fort and was given command on Nov. 1. This did not sit well with Weir because Reno had often reprimanded him for his drinking. The rift between them widened at Fort Lincoln and came to a head on 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 complaint on the 16th, but Terry dismissed the charges.
In early May, as Terry was preparing his campaign to find and subdue the hostile Sioux Indians in Montana, Reno divided the 7th Cavalry into three squadrons commanded by Keogh, Frederick Benteen, and George Yates, leaving Weir out of the mix. On the 11th, Custer returned to Fort Lincoln, and the following day, replaced Reno as commander. “One of his first actions was to change the regimental assignments made by Reno.” He broke the 7th into four battalions headed by Keogh, Yates, Thomas French, and Weir. The companies of Keogh and Yates would comprise the “Right Wing” under the command of Reno, and the companies of French and Weir would make up the “Left Wing” under Benteen. On May 17, the 7th Cavalry began their journey westward.
On June 25, Custer launched his attack against the Indians. He led a detachment north toward the upper portion of the Indian camp and ordered Reno’s forces to attack the south end. Reno’s men found stiff resistance and were forced to retreat to a hilltop, where they were joined by Benteen’s men. Weir claimed that he could hear gun shots from Custer’s detachment and said “We ought to be over there.” Without orders, he left Reno and Benteen and made it to a ridge south of the fighting. However, he later fled as the Indians began to advance on his position.
Weir returned to Fort Lincoln on Sept. 26, and shortly after, he sent letters to Libbie suggesting that Custer and his men could have been spared if officers over him had gone to Custer’s defense. Weir soon began to drink more than usual. Some say it was because he witnessed many of his friends being killed, others say that it was because of the futility of serving under cowards and incompetents, and some even claimed it was because his advances were rejected by Libbie. He was assigned to recruiting duty in New York City, where he died on Dec. 14.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: email@example.com