Put Down that Bat and Join the Cavalry

Amazing the number of people who’ve wandered into a baseball uniform, isn’t it? I have. Most of my friends have. Some very famous, or infamous, people have also done it. There have been a handful of peripheral historical figures who’ve played a little baseball in their spare time. You never know where you’re going to find one of those. Take, for instance, Fred Benteen.

Frederick Benteen was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1834. In 1849 the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Benteen became a painter (house variety, not portrait variety). He also developed an interest in baseball. By 1860 he was a member of the Cyclones of St. Louis, an amateur team that was considered both one of the finest teams in St. Louis, and also one of the finest in the entire area west of the Mississippi River. Benteen was a hitter with some power (for the day) and considered one of the best players on the team. Marrying a local woman in 1860, he seemed content to spend his life in St. Louis painting and playing ball.

Of course the next year the American Civil War broke out. Benteen, despite his Southern heritage, joined the Union cause (at some expense to his relations with his birth family), enlisting in the 10th Missouri Cavalry. He also brought his love of the game to the army. During the Civil War, Benteen fought in several major engagements in the West, notably Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, and Pleasant Hill. He won promotion to Captain in 1861, Major in 1862, and Colonel in 1864 (the latter two Brevets). He also ran the unit baseball team which was known to be the best in whichever command it was stationed.

After the war, Benteen, deciding he liked military life, remained in the army, being sent to Dakota Territory as a Captain (the Brevet made the ranks of Major and Colonel temporary). Assigned to Company H of the 7th Cavalry, he brought his game with him. He organized a company baseball team that won game after game against other teams at various posts in the American West. By the end of 1875, he was having trouble finding games against other service teams. It seemed by early 1876 that he was going to be known more for his baseball team than for his military service.

Then the Great Sioux Uprising of 1876 made him a national figure, if only for a short time. Commander of one of the three columns of the 7th Cavalry on the Little Bighorn, his unit suffered major casualties while his commander, George Custer, had his column massacred in what’s become known as “Custer’s Last Stand”. Unlike the commander of the third column, Major Marcus Reno, who was court martialed, Benteen managed to escape blame for the massacre and continued his army career. But after 1876, his career seemed to run aground at various times. I’m not a qualified shrink, but it seems he never quite got over his role in the Custer fiasco. He had a few run-ins with the authorities, including a drunk and disorderly complaint that cost him rank, but he managed to survive the incident and  stay under the radar until his retirement in 1888, never again appearing in the national spotlight. After his retirement he was Breveted Brigadier General (another temporary rank) and died in 1898 in Atlanta. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I was looking for information on something totally unrelated to baseball when I found a reference to the Cyclones of St. Louis. There was the name Benteen and I knew it from somewhere. A quick search told me where I’d heard it, and of course it had nothing to do with baseball. One of the joys of this blog is being able to pass along strange bits of info like this to readers. Who’d have thought that one of the major players in Custer’s Last Stand would be a ball player?

Benteen in 1865

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One Response to “Put Down that Bat and Join the Cavalry”

  1. William Miller Says:

    What a fabulous bit of American / Baseball history.
    If Benteen’s birth family had remained in Virginia, he probably would have fought for the Confederacy. And if he had, it is unlikely that he would have developed a love for baseball, since baseball at that time was still mostly a Yankee game! Damn Yankees, they always win the big ones.
    Great job, Bill

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