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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Fort Vancouver’s connections to Little Big Horn

By Martin Middlewood for The Columbian
Published: August 28, 2022, 6:38am

It takes 16 hours to drive the 956 miles from Fort Vancouver to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. Yet past individuals who stayed at Fort Vancouver link the two places tightly. Likely, all but one of these people would have passed into historical oblivion if not for their connection to Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s defeat by Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn.

The 1850 census places Lt. Donald McIntosh, who died with Custer, at the fort with Richard and Charlotte (Anna) Covington. McIntosh was possibly their student, according to amateur historian Peter Russell of the United Kingdom, who is researching McIntosh’s life.

James and Fredrick Calhoun fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. Each lived at the barracks at different times, says local military historian Jeff Davis. Davis has extensively researched the Calhoun family with a focus on Fredrick. He explained that James spent time at the barracks as an enlisted man before the Civil War, adding that little is known besides his sergeant rank. After a promotion to lieutenant, James fell with McIntosh, Custer and other 7th Calvary men.

In the 1880s, Lt. Fredrick Calhoun lived in barracks housing with his wife, Emma, when James’ widow, Elizabeth “Maggie” Custer Calhoun, visited them for several months during 1885. Maggie lost not only her husband but three brothers — George, Tom and Boston — in the battle. Eventually, she married a New York contractor, John Maugham.

The most well-known of those who passed through Fort Vancouver who were at Little Big Horn, Maj. Marcus Reno, was infamously court-martialed for dereliction of duty, drunkenness and failing to assist Custer. His military career brought him to the Washington Territory twice — before the Civil War and after.

During Reno’s pre-war tour of duty, the lieutenant spent most of his time at Fort Walla Walla, where he served on his first general court-martial board and commanded Company E of the 1st Dragoons when his commander was on detached detail at Fort Vancouver. The Dragoons maintained safety for settlers headed for the Pacific Northwest.

In 1867, Reno was bucking for a promotion and a paymaster’s job. The army denied both. Instead, orders sent him to Fort Vancouver. He, Mary Hannah, his wife, and their son, Robert Ross, crossed the Isthmus of Panama to his new posting. He reported for duty in May, and the Army placed him on detached service on a general court-martial board.

In June, the army appointed Reno acting assistant inspector general, Department of Columbia, which allowed him to travel throughout Oregon and the Washington Territory to review the fortifications. In November 1868, an officer accused him of falsifying documents at Fort Owyhee (Idaho). However, the court-martial charges were dropped.

Returning to Fort Vancouver, he received a promotion to major and orders to join the 7th Calvary. The unit dealt with growing tensions between Indigenous tribes and settlers on the Great Plains.

Although his controversial court martial for failing Custer haunted him, another for making advances on a fellow officer’s wife cost him his Army career. In 1889, he died of tongue cancer complications. His great nephew convinced a military board to review Reno’s Little Big Horn court martial. The panel reversed the original decision in 1967.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.