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

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Interview -- Paul Hedren

Webmaster's Note: Historian and Friends member, Paul Hedren, talks with us about his new book "Great Sioux War Orders of Battle", his process with research and writing of history, and fascinating future projects. We wish to thank Mr. Hedren for also providing  his list of burial sites for the survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn, "Where Are They Now".

May 2011

Bob Reece: Your book, “Great Sioux War Orders of Battle” is a masterpiece in analysis of the frontier army at its most challenging times. This could not have been an easy book to research and write. What led you to your decision to tackle this subject and write the book as you did?

Paul Hedren: Your praise is deeply appreciated. I think there were actually several motives that drove this project. The whole thing started simply enough with the drawing up of one, and then a dozen, and ultimately twenty-eight orders of battle for this war. I had long been interested in such matter and particularly had wanted a definitive directory of the officers, regiments, and companies engaged, from first shot to last, and how they organized themselves, episode by episode (or deployment by deployment as I came to label them). I was curious, too, about the differences in the organizations and wondered whether there were similarities or consequences more than the painfully obvious. It occurred to me early on that I was assembling information that had mostly never been seen and assessed before and that, in turn, opened an opportunity to discuss and analyze the army more wholly. Your readers know well of my life-long interest in the history and culture of the Old Army and Great Sioux War and I saw a chance to address and correct some of the common perceptions and misperceptions held about this army. Readers contend with my assessments and conclusions in the essays that open and close the book, which I think are quite well grounded. I truly believe that this was a sound army in 1876, not flawless by any means, but much more competent and capable than some writers have contended, especially lately.

B.R. That is a rich subject that requires an abundance of research. Your due diligence is a great example of the correct way to examine a subject: 185 monthly regimental returns, primary reports, and diaries for example. How long did it take you to research the book and how long to write it?

P.H. This project was a good challenge. As I explained in the Introduction, this was a book sourced largely in the army’s myriad of monthly returns. Most but not all of these documents are microfilmed and I pestered many friends and institutions who I knew possessed some of the films and did what I could by loan. now has some of these primary sources on-line, too, and that site was of great importance. Ultimately, I still needed to spend time in the National Archives in Washington particularly examining infantry returns on film, and department returns in their original paper format. The department returns have never been microfilmed and are rarely used by researchers. I consumed six or eight months researching the book, and another six or eight months writing it. I had a marketable manuscript ready about two years ago and then it was another year and a half in press.

B.R. Thank goodness for the internet and sites like to help save some travel. Our readers, who have aspirations to become historians, would be interested in the processes you follow when writing such a book. How do you even begin to tackle such a project?

P.H. With a topic or subject in mind I’ll spend weeks combing my own library and research files pulling matter relevant to the project. I am reasonably diligent in maintaining order in the working papers and files gathered from previous projects and in fact have a calendar of papers for it all. As most of your readers know, my research and writing interests are relatively narrowly focused and papers and sources gathered for old projects have proven themselves useful again and again. Once I have a fair sense of what I have at hand, I’ll start working to augment those sources. Omaha has several fine college libraries that I use frequently, and the University of Nebraska’s Love Library with its several million volumes and the state historical society library are merely blocks apart in Lincoln, fifty miles away. I also long ago came to appreciate the remarkable library and archival collections at Fort Laramie National Historic Site and invariably my projects draw from there, too; this one did. And usually my projects require time in the National Archives chasing source matter unavailable from any other repository.

As I gather sources I am continually making notes on what I’ve collected and how I see it fitting into my story. Sometimes these working notes serve as the outline I’ll use when writing. And all along I keep a list of sources that I have somehow learned of but have not yet seen and through the course of the project will work that list over, too, until I have examined it all. Gathering and assessing sources is a never ending challenge. I hate the embarrassment of learning of something that I ought to have seen and perhaps used, and I do know that embarrassment.

B.R. Because of that extensive investigation, you make a strong case for why this frontier army was ready and able to win the war. Why do you think that has not been the mode of thinking in the past?

P.H. Quite honestly, I believe Custer, Reno, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn have much to do with this pattern of thinking, especially in light of the century and a quarter of introspection as writers have attempted to explain the army’s greatest defeat in the West. Rightly or wrongly, dimensions like leadership qualities, training, the adequacy of weapons, and strategy and tactics become perfect foils in this continuous churn, and there always seems to be enough superficial evidence in each aspect to build some manner of a case for or against an individual, element, or institution. These qualities and the larger story line, in turn, have lent themselves perfectly to commercial treatments, whether movies like the ever popular “Little Big Man,” the next History Channel exposé, or cycles of best selling books. It seems that to impugn the Seventh Cavalry is to impugn the cavalry and ultimately impugn the Old Army. Of course, reality is always much more complex and nuanced and therein lies the joy of careful study and well sourced facts, and what emerges is sometimes wonderfully revealing.

B.R. Well said. In your research, did you come across any documentation that explained how much training the frontier soldier had in marksmanship? How often did he get to fire his weapons in target practice?

P.H. Doug McChristian explored this issue thoroughly in his monograph, Army of Marksman, which I regard as definitive on the subject. I found no documentation that expands on this matter. The record is quite clear that the soldiers of the 1870s were not the relatively skilled marksmen they became in the 1880s, and especially in the 1890s. Certainly the loss at the Little Bighorn had much to do with influencing what became an obsession with army marksmanship. But this is not to suggest that the soldiers of the 1870s were entirely unfamiliar with their weapons and the simple skill of aiming and shooting, or that Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were any more skilled or unskilled with their weapons. But for Little Bighorn, the war’s relatively modest casualty counts suggest placing less importance on weapons and casualties and more on changing numerical superiorities, leadership skills, basic tactical elements, and perseverance to explain battles, campaigns, and the war’s outcome.

B.R. Mr. McChristian might gasp if he saw the current Amazon price of $571.00 for a used copy of his Army of Marksmen. In all your work reviewing the official documents, why didn't you include in your book the total number of soldiers, officers, and civilians within each deployment?

P.H. I did consider attempting to compute the total number of individuals involved in the deployments but found it an almost overwhelming challenge. Of the troops alone, it would have taken a minute inspection of muster rolls for every company in every reporting period, and that was an additional record group I didn't particularly want to tangle with. Regimental returns carried summaries but without the precise "who was actually present for duty" detail I would have wanted. I figured that to do justice to such an enumeration, I would also have had to examine the quartermaster rolls for civilian employees and that itself is quite a challenge and where nothing is microfilmed and accessing such documents at the National Archives is rather convoluted. There were civilians present in virtually every deployment, from a handful to dozens to hundreds. In all, this is a worthy challenge for another day, and without a doubt it should be undertaken.

B.R. That is a book in itself and explains why it hasn’t been done before. Your “Orders of Battle” is superb and filled with detailed analysis about the 1876 war. For the researcher, its appendices really shine. There, we find tables including each officer listing their background experiences, all the medical officers and contract surgeons in the war, officers killed or wounded, and a glossary of military terms. Appendix E is a beauty that lists the battles and skirmishes of the war and the casualties from each separated for officers, enlisted men, civilians, and Indians. Is there anything you wished to include in this book that you couldn’t, either due to resources or time or theme? If none of those were an issue, what would you have done differently?

P.H. Determining the precise numbers of individuals associated with each deployment (your question above) might have made a meritorious addition, but I chose not to devote time to it. I wanted a fold-out map with the book and the Arthur Clark Company favored me with what I think is the finest map of the Great Sioux War yet produced. Moreover, I think the Arthur Clark Company produces inordinately handsome books of which this is merely their latest. I think you see that I am quite satisfied.

B.R. You’re correct; the fold-out map is superb and adds value to the book. No doubt, Arthur Clark publishing makes wonderful books. Your book is ideal for Clark to be the publisher. Can you share with us any projects you have planned that we can look forward to?

P.H. This fall the University of Oklahoma Press will published my next book, After Custer: Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country, which is a careful examination of the northern plains in the decade or two following the Great Sioux War. I tell of the generals coming west in 1877, the manner which the army was redeployed after the fighting ended, the advance of the Northern Pacific Railroad to its completion in 1883, the killing of the northern plains buffalo herd, the Beef Bonanza, and the fate of the protagonists. It’s a powerful story and sometimes not very pretty but in the end I think quite uplifting. This summer I’ll submit my latest manuscript, “Ho! For the Black Hills: Captain Jack Crawford Reports the Black Hills Gold Rush and Great Sioux War,” to the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. The book, scheduled for release in mid-2012, presents the some forty letters Captain Jack wrote to the Omaha Daily Bee chronicling the rush in 1875 and ‘76 and his participation with Crook in 1876. I’ve added introductions, an essay on Jack’s famous ride from Slim Buttes, and an afterword. Crawford is an almost unknown original voice on the gold rush and battle at Slim Buttes. And this fall I will commence in earnest a new account of the Reynolds fight at the Powder River and the three courts-martial that followed in consequence. I’ve been collecting Reynolds sources for years, have much that is new, and am eager to get into it.

B.R. That is an impressive line-up of material which I look forward to. Regarding the Reynolds fight, I cannot think of anything published that focused on the courts-martials that followed that fight. Thank you for talking with us today and good luck on all of these future projects.


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