What is it that motivates the common man to perform heroic deeds. Are they born that way? Are they just plain reckless? Are they seeking fame and glory. I would wager that if you were to ask any one who has been given the mantle of "hero" just what it was that made him perform, on his own, without regard to personal safety, the reply would be that at the time, it just needed to be done.
Such was it with the brave men on Reno Hill on the 26th of June 1876. Custer's command had been wiped out, although the men on Reno Hill did not know this. The late spring and early summer had been drier that usual that year, and the weather had been hot and dry, with a thick, choking dust filling the air with every movement of man and beast. The water from the canteens had long since been consumed on the day of the battle and throughout the night. The sick and wounded began to moan and cry out for water, especially those who had lost a considerable amount of blood. By the late morning of the 26th the water was gone. Edwin Pickard(Oregon Journal, July-AUG 1923) stated that "our throats were parched, the smoke stung our nostrils, is seemed as if our tongues had swollen so we couldn't close our mouths, and the heat of the sun seemed fairly to cook the blood in our veins." Some of the men sucked on pebbles dug out from the ground that gave the illusion of containing moisture. A few potatoes were handed out to the men to suck on. Those of weaker resolve had taken to sneaking into the supply packs and stealing canned fruits and vegetables to acquire the nectar that was packed therein. Add to this the fact that incessant sniper fire from the Indians in the nearby ravines and hilltops produced a vexing and sometimes deadly situation. This was especially becoming a problem at Benteen's position where H Troop was holding the perimeter. Benteen felt that with the increasing encroachment on his position by the Indians, that he might be soon facing a charge and a break in his line. He therefore informed Major Reno that he was going to make a "charge" from his position and clear the ravine and some of the hilltops of any hostiles and thereby secure his lines. Using the men of H Troop and with the support of some of the men from M Troop, Benteen personally led a charge forward from his line, into the ravine and the surrounding hills. This sudden activity startled the Indians, who up to this point clearly had the advantage. They quickly retreated towards the river. This then set the stage for the water detail.
Captain Benteen then called for volunteers to go down the hill to the river to secure as much precious water as possible for the unit. Nineteen men volunteered for this task. Four of the men, Pvt. Charles Windolph, Sgt. George H.Geiger, Henry Meckling(blacksmith), and Otto Voit(saddler)(all German immigrants as Windolph proudly pointed out in his story)were known sharpshooters and were positioned at intervals on the edge of the hill and overlooking the ravine and the Little Big Horn
River below. They of necessity had to expose themselves to enemy fire, but in turn could provide covering fire to the men as they descended the ravine and filled their containers in the river. The other volunteers were:
A call went out for all available canteens, pots and kettles. Anything that would be used to carry water. The distance from Benteen's line to the river was estimated to be about 600 yds. Fortunately, the ravine leading to the river afforded cover for the men who essentially could get all the way down to the river with out being detected or fired upon. Then came the more difficult task of dashing out into the open, exposed to heavy fire from the Indians in the thicket across the river, for the thirty or so yards to the bank of the river. They then had to endure extremely tense moments while the canteens and kettles were being filled and they could do nothing but serve as stationary targets. By some accounts, the water detail completed its mission in twenty minutes. They then scurried back up the hill with their precious cargo. Even though it is said that they did not get all of the water that they needed, the wounded were satiated and the rest of the men could have enough water to relieve their misery.
Miraculously, no one was killed. Six or seven of the men were wounded, the most notable being Peter Thompson who was shot through the hand but still filled and retrieved his water receptacles. All of these men were cited for their heroic act under fire and later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, the medal at that time was often awarded for lesser acts of bravery than it is now, and when a revision of the requirements for awarding the medal was made in 1911, many of the previously awarded medals were dropped. I am presently checking into this to find out if these brave men were officially maintained on the books as Medal of Honor recipients.