The Trial of Major Reno
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Frederick Whittaker

Frederick WhittakerBorn in London, Frederick Whittaker immigrated to the United States with his family in 1850.

His ambition was to become an architect, but this was not to be. He began to consider other ways by which to earn a livelihood. His flair for writing resulted in sale of an article to a respected publication. Being imaginative and able to express himself well in the medium, he decided on a literary career.

His plans were interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted as a private in the Sixth New York Cavalry, participated in many major engagements, and was wounded in the lung during the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness. He rose though the ranks to second lieutenant, being discharged in August 1865.

With the war behind him, Whittaker turned to teaching. An inheritance permitted him to marry and purchase a home in Mount Vernon, NY, where once again he turned his talents to writing. He sold several articles and poetry to magazines and periodicals before becoming a prolific spinner of nickel and dime novel fiction for Beadle and Adams, a leading publisher in the field. This enterprise produced a steady income, if not respect as a serious author.

During the war Whittaker had served in the Army of the Potomac, but had not met George Armstrong Custer, the celebrated "Boy General" of that command. The meeting would happen in the winter of 1875 - 76 in the offices of Whittaker's publisher, when Custer appeared to discuss the possibility of publishing his Civil War memoirs.

Whittaker deeply admired Custer for his fighting reputation and swash. Custer's death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn a few months after their acquaintance was a devastating blow. After penning a stirring eulogy to his fallen hero, Whittaker set about in earnest to produce an extensive Custer biography. He turned hopefully to Custer's widow in search of first-hand information.

Whether Libbie Custer provided his needs is unknown. She denied it, but might well have commissioned the work. It is conceded that much of Whittaker's material would have been difficult to come by through any other source.

Six months after Little Big Horn, Whittaker's epic A Complete Life of General George A. Custer went into publication. It borrowed generously from Custer's own book My Life on the Plains, his Civil War memoirs, letters, articles on the general, and memoirs of other officers. Whittaker elected to canonize his idol, ignoring Custer's flaws, presenting him as a dashing and brilliant military leader abandoned to his fate by disloyal, cowardly subordinates of his final command.

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Whittaker's biography was laced with errors and misstated facts, leading to critical drumming for its inaccuracies and flowery prose. Nonetheless, it became an immediate best seller.

By 1878 sales of the book dwindled. Custer's memory remained malleable in the public mind, and Whittaker refused to leave the issue alone. In the biography he brazenly indicted Major Marcus A. Reno, the regiment's second in command, as a coward; likewise, Captain F.W. Benteen for his failure to act upon Custer's last urgent message to "come quick" to his assistance.

Whittaker sincerely wanted Custer exonerated for the disaster at Little Big Horn. In his hurried research he had interviewed survivors of the battle and came away convinced his charges were well-founded. He turned in writing to W. W. Corlett, congressman from Wyoming, accusing Reno openly and demanding a congressional investigation of the Big Horn debacle. Newspapers came into possession of the Corlett letter. Reno responded by requesting a military inquiry to "make the truth fully known".

In January 1879 Whittaker and Reno confronted each other in Chicago, Illinois before an army tribunal called to session to investigate Reno's alleged conduct at Little Big Horn. Whittaker was invited to attend but could not take an active role in the proceedings. Whittaker's charges would not be the sole basis of the inquiry. The army wanted closure to the Custer issue, be Reno adjudged guilty or acquitted.

Well into twenty-six days of testimony, Whittaker became incensed that little had come out to discredit Reno. He presented a list of incriminating questions he wished to ask a particular witness he felt would label Reno a coward whose actions led to Custer's death. The court took the questions under consideration, but refused to allow Whittaker to ask them.

The findings of the inquiry left a bitter taste in Whittaker's mouth. He continued to rail for justice, condemning the army in the press for its handling of the matter and what he considered a whitewash of those concerned. The public soon lost interest. Whittaker fell silent and returned to his literary pursuits.

In 1889 Frederick Whittaker was victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound when he fell down a flight of stairs at home with a loaded pistol in his hand. He died some hours later, leaving a widow and three daughters to mourn.

Whittaker's masterwork and the fleeting recognition gained from the Reno Court of Inquiry allowed for the posthumous release of several unpublished works and reprints of his previous short prose. Over time his writing style faded from favor and his collection disappeared from America's bookstores. He is remembered as Custer's first biographer, even though the accomplishment contains the stigma of an effort lacking accuracy and objectivity in its revelations about George Armstrong Custer and his extraordinary life.

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