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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Interview -- Jerome Greene

Webmaster's Note: Historian and Friends member, Jerome Greene, talks with us about his new book Stricken Field: Little Bighorn Since 1876 (Stricken Field), his career as a historian, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield today and in the future.

February 2008

Bob Reece: I very much appreciate your taking the time to discuss Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn since 1876, along with other aspects of your career for our members and website visitors.

On behalf of the board of directors for the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, I’d like to state that we are excited about this first time publication, in partnership with the University of Oklahoma Press, of the limited edition of Stricken Field. I cannot think of a more appropriate subject for such an undertaking. Stricken Field was originally a study you conducted for the NPS while you were still a historian in the Denver Regional Office. What was the purpose of this study?

Jerome Greene: The original purpose of the project was to provide an updated treatment of the administrative history of the park since publication of Don Rickey’s History of Custer Battlefield in 1967. In discussions with Neil Mangum and others, it was agreed that it made more sense to revisit the older period, as well, now that we had more access to records from that time, as well as more materials. So it was decided, essentially, to research and write a full and comprehensive history of the park to include all the new material that had come to light about the early years, as well as the history that had transpired there since the 1950s, when Rickey’s study largely ended.

B. R. How does this report help with administration at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (LIBI)? In other words, how should they use it?

J. G. Hopefully, the superintendent and staff will read the study and gain a better knowledge of the history of the place, particularly the administration under the War Department and the National Park Service. That perspective should help and guide them in making decisions that might be made routinely in a day-to-day sense, as well as in important decisions affecting modern policy considerations for the long-term future of the park. It will also provide a perspective on past problems and how they were dealt with by past administrators, as well as offer clues to dealing with problems in the future as they affect, say, the situation regarding the existing land base.

B. R. Did you make any changes for this publication from the original report, if so what were some of the changes?

J. G. There have been few changes, mostly regarding terminology and words that were changed editorially while the book was in press. Reviewers of the manuscript suggested that I speak out more definitively regarding the future protection of the battlefield resource as well as the surrounding landscape, and I responded because I believed that it was fully warranted to comment on behalf of the future of this perennially threatened resource.

B. R. Even though 95% of Stricken Field is not about the battle, but about the administrative history of the battlefield, there is no doubt in my mind that the most ardent student of this subject will be amazed with what they learn from this study. Would you give us an example of a surprising item you discovered while researching this project?

J. G. I had not known that the project to recover the officers’ remains in 1877 proceeded (initially, at least) rather secretly and as something of a cover-up. It was Samuel F. Staples, whose son died with Custer, who protested to his congressman the blatant favoritism shown officer remains over enlisted remains. Staples’s obviously angry complaints to Representative William W. Rice got the ball rolling that ultimately got General Sheridan’s attention and resulted in the place being declared a National Cemetery in 1879. There were other surprises, too, but that was very significant in the early history of the site and was likely the key development to what became Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, ultimately Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I think that Mr. Staples deserves appropriate recognition for what he did.

B. R. Stricken Field is not the first book to look at the history of the battlefield. Don Rickey wrote the first one. But, for the first time, we have the opportunity to follow all the changing arcs in administering the battlefield into the 21st century. What, in your opinion, is the most important change to occur at the battlefield from its administration?

J. G. Without question, it was the construction and dedication of the Indian Memorial. This at once made the park (and story) more inclusive and at last reflected the maturing of American society respecting this site and, at long last, commensurate recognition and acknowledgement of the Indian participants by the federal government.

B. R.  What do you hope readers of Stricken Field gain from the book?

J. G. They’ll gain an understanding of the history and the problems that have beset the place through decades, but also of how the park reflects the times and how change occurs, albeit slowly. Readers (as well as administrators) should also take away an appreciation that this very small, delicate plot of land is constantly buffeted and must be treated well and intelligently if it is to survive in any recognizable way for future visitors to study and enjoy.

B. R.  In Stricken Field you report on the challenges and difficulties the NPS has faced over the years with attempts to expand the current boundaries. Do you ever see the Monument’s boundaries stretched and what will it take (besides Congressional action) to make it happen?

J. G. It will take a combination of fortuitous circumstances and special visionary individuals coming together to provide benefits for all parties and all the people. I feel that members of the Montana congressional delegation could lead the way if they truly wanted to act to benefit the site and all people. At the least, a productive and hopeful dialogue on the part of NPS and the Crows, looking to include congressional representatives when a positive juncture arises, could help ease the logjam. However, as I said, I think it will take very special individuals with remarkable diplomatic skills, working almost daily on these issues, for anything positive ever to happen.

B. R.  In your opinion, what critical issue(s) does the NPS face in managing the battlefield over the next 25 years?

J. G. Virtually the same ones propounded in the last several master/general management plans regarding land base, maintenance/development, view shed, and soaring visitation. Interpretation, however, has made incredible strides, thanks in large part to the Indian Memorial.

B. R. Let’s change the subject a bit and look at your career as a historian. What happened in your life that made you interested in history?

J. G. Actually, I started out to become a ventriloquist. Can you imagine how that might have turned out? Seriously, I think I became interested in stamp collecting when I was in grade school, and I really took a liking to historical commemoratives. As a kid, I also became passionately interested in Indians, and my parents bought me books and kits to make headdresses, dance bustles, breechclouts, and leggings, etc. I even had a wig to wear as I raced around the neighborhood battling imaginary foes in Watertown, New York. I’m sure our neighbors thought I was completely nuts—especially in the winter. And then I read a book about Custer—and that confirmed that I was nuts. My love of Indians has been a thread through my life, into and out of college (I taught Indian history to Indian students at Haskell College in Kansas). An interest in military history easily accommodated my love affair with Indian history and I became fascinated by the conflicts between Indians and the army in the West.


Jerome Greene (age 11)  & Chesty

B. R.  Why did you decide to make history your career?

J. G. Fortuitous circumstances. I wanted to teach history, but when the job at Haskell collapsed in the wake of the BIA takeover in 1972 (I think), NPS offered me a position as Research Historian in the Denver office. Bob Utley and Merrill Mattes (two legends even back then) made it happen in July, 1973, and I couldn’t have asked for a better career tailored to my interests. I became, essentially, a site historian, which meant that I had to evaluate historic places around the country—including Indian wars sites in the West—and research and write narrative studies of some of the momentous military encounters in our history. I felt like Brer Rabbit being tossed into that briar patch. I could not have asked for a better position, and I’m eternally grateful to Utley and Mattes for making it happen.

B. R. Where did you get your education?

J. G. When I got out of the army, my interest in Custer, Little Bighorn, and the Black Hills motivated me to attend Black Hills State College in Spearfish, South Dakota. I received a B.S. Ed. there in 1968 (after which I came as ranger-historian to Custer Battlefield, serving there in the summers of 1968, 1970, and 1971). I received my M.A. from the University of South Dakota in 1969 (with a thesis on—what else? Little Bighorn! Part of that evolved into my first book, Evidence and the Custer Enigma: A Reconstruction of Indian-Military History, which drew favorable notice). I then attended the University of Oklahoma on an assistantship for two years working toward a doctorate in History. I was fortunate to have as professors Donald J. Berthrong, Arrell M. Gibson (both leading names in Indian and western history), and Savoie Lottinville--Lottinville was the director of the University of Oklahoma Press who also taught a remarkable course on "Historical Writing and Editing"--one of the best I ever had. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw from OU when my G.I. Bill ran out—I had kids and needed full-time work. Hence my job at Haskell, which eventually led to the NPS. (I’ve always regretted not finishing my doctorate, and have flirted with notions to return and get it in retirement.)

B. R. What processes do you undertake with developing a project and bringing it to publication?

J. G. I spend considerable time thinking a project through, formulating it—what I want to do, determining the nature of the information I’ll need and where I’ll need to go to find it. Then I’ll read everything in my possession (my private library) bearing on the topic at hand, then visit the appropriate repositories for data. I read all I can on the topic before starting the fieldwork. I then visit the properties and familiarize myself fully with the sites about which I plan to write. Any outlining I do is in my head. I figure out an approach, then proceed. It’s worked now through about fourteen or fifteen books (plus many unpublished NPS studies), and I hope I’ve still got a few more left in me.

B. R. What gives you the most satisfaction when doing research?

J. G. I think that the research phase is the most challenging and personally rewarding part of writing history, especially when I am able and fortunate enough to uncover new sources and find new information. Also, feeling that I’ve been thorough and interesting in my treatment of a subject, and that I’ve done the best I can on a topic that is important to me—important in an objective sense when dealing with Indian-army history, gives certain satisfaction. I try to find and explain the Indian side as fully as I do the army side, and I like to merge the stories when appropriate. I’m really fascinated by first-person Indian accounts of their struggles with the army, and I’ve always striven to incorporate them in my work. When I feel I’ve treated all such accounts (army and Indian) honestly and fairly, and when readers tell me that they like what I’ve done, then I feel a great sense of personal satisfaction.

B. R.  You told me that a current long term project you’re researching is the Wounded Knee fight. A lot has been covered on that subject so what do you hope will come from your work?

J. G. That’s a good question. Bob Utley’s book (Last Days of the Sioux Nation) is the best and is still my favorite Indian wars book. I think that there are new soldier accounts about that affair that I’ll try to integrate along with new Indian accounts that have turned up over the past few decades. Again, it’s a fascinating topic and I enjoy plumbing new materials about it. At this point, I’m not certain where my study is headed. It’s all pretty new to me at this point.

B. R.  Are there other projects that you can share with us?

J. G. I have a few articles in the works—one a diary of a soldier in the Nez Perce War, another piece about Chief Gall’s surrender at Poplar River, Montana, in 1881. Another book manuscript is on the publishing horizon, but it’s yet too early to discuss in any detail.

B. R.  If a young adult came up to you and asked you for advice on what they should consider before becoming a historian, how would you respond?

J. G.  I’d say, simply, “Pursue your heart, pursue your interests, and tailor your education to those ends. If your future indeed lies in history, you’ll gravitate there despite all. In the meantime, read all you can about all periods of history and about everything else. It all plays together in the end.”

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