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Interview -- Roger Williams

Webmaster's Note: Historian Roger Williams discusses his decades of research and writing his new book Military Register of Custer's Last Command, how his work to document the over 600 members of the 7th Cavalry continues, and his first visit to Little Bighorn Battlefield in 1952. Jump here to read the review of the book.

November 2009

Bob Reece: Is the publication of your book the end of your research or does it continue?

Roger Williams: The book is pretty much trail’s end, but like a Monday morning quarterback, I would welcome an opportunity to make a few revisions…deletions and re-wordings here and there.

B.R. If it continues, what are you working on now? At this minute. What is on your desk that is bugging you; that you need to find the answer to.

R.W. Most of the bugaboos were gradually put to rest over the years with inspired research, the results collated (if that word fits) into this volume, the labor and frustrations indiscernible. However, I still wonder if more Walter Camp material will surface. Did he have a file on Isaiah Dorman, in whom he evidently had a keen interest; and what of his interview notes with Tom Finnegan?

B.R. Have you moved onto a completely different subject leaving Custer behind?

R.W. No other interest ever developed to the level of Custer’s Last Stand / Little Bighorn. An area of the Custer battle saga that still offers a challenge is a study of the annual travels and research activity of Walter Camp. I have a preliminary schedule, but I think a more youthful effort is needed.

B.R. You conducted the majority – if not all – of your research the old fashioned way; by foot and in libraries or at the battlefield. Have you incorporated the use of the internet in your research? If so, has it made any difference in your ability to garner material and in what way?

R.W. The internet was very useful during the final years, particularly e-mail, which greatly enhanced communications and no doubt expedited the conclusion of my efforts. Also, proved a substantial benefit.

But two things trump all in that final period; (1) my experience from umpteen trips hither and yon; and (2) copies of inventories of records at the National Archives. The latter now appears available on the internet.

Of course, nothing beats the personal hands-on approach to historical research. I recall vividly my first few visits to the archives, believing myself well prepared, and yet, upon informing the archivist that the records sought were in a particular Record Group, the response was always, “Whats the entry number?” A very helpless moment as I stood baffled that such an important detail was not included with the citations. I have endeavored that others should not experience the same frustration.

B.R. What one or two aspects of Military Register are you most proud of and why?

R.W. I am proud that I finished the project after so many years, and that it was accepted by one of the premier publishers of western Americana. There were times I was ready to throw in the towel, but knowing the defeat would haunt me the rest of my days, I managed to continue. Thus the inspirational verse opposite page seven.

B.R. What in your book are the one or two most fascinating discoveries for you?

R.W. There were many, but perhaps the single most rewarding moment was seeing an official report that mentioned the number of 7th Cavalry men at Powder River, a rounded number though it may be, but it was the missing piece to the puzzle that had caused me no end of consternation for many years. Finding the Rosetta Stone could not have been more exciting.

B.R. You write about your first visit to the battlefield in 1952 with your parents. The book includes a wonderful photo of your mother standing alone beside white marble markers of Custer’s soldiers. What do you recall of your first experience there?

R.W. In the summer of ’52, the new visitor center opened about the time of our visit, the week before or week after? It was a sunny morning and I remember running down hill along the fence by the last stand and not stopping until near the Company E ravine. My dad and brother stayed up by the monument while, surprisingly, my mother followed right behind me and I snapped her photo by the two markers near the bottom of the hill. The original print, from a Tower box-type camera of Sears & Roebuck, did not enlarge well. 

The road to Reno hill was gravel, and barely wide enough for 1 3/4 cars. The signage was basic, with one near Weir Point affixed to two wooden boards in concrete footings, and another at Reno hill positioned behind a three strand barbed wire fence. The small monument at Reno hill was surrounded by the usual black wrought-iron fence. The exhilaration of that day, of being on the actual site of all I had read about for four years, was quite an experience.

B.R. You state that the photo of your mother did not enlarge well, however I love the look of the image which is mysterious just like the place she is standing. When was the last time you were able to visit the battlefield?

R.W. I last visited the battlefield in 1988 and learned first-hand that nothing stays the same. Movement on the field was severely restricted and confined. Nevertheless I went down by the deep ravine to take video with my camcorder. I no sooner pressed the button when I heard a voice calling in the distance. It was a ranger yelling and waving me to come back. I complied and was berated and threatened with a ticket for disregarding signs and wandering off limits. Very different from earlier visits.

B.R. In those days, the Deep Ravine Trail was closed. It is reopened now so if you can revisit, you will be able to walk to the end of the trail without interference from the ranger staff.

Custer and his troops consumed most of your free time for decades. When you need a break from it, what do you usually do to clear your head?

R.W. Breaks from my Custer project mostly resulted from family functions or household chores, there being only 24 hours in a day. I tried to stay focused, knowing I was not getting any younger. Retirement allowed more time but also the realization that my mass of material was in serious need of organization. That effort, combined with keeping up with on-going correspondence, continued to put a premium on time, almost as before.

Actual relief came from a little baseball activity with my son; also occasional trips to the driving range to hit out a bucket of balls, followed by a stop at the nearest White Castle. Twenty mile morning bike rides through the forest preserve, on my 3-speed Schwinn Cruiser with “knee-action,” were especially invigorating.

B.R. What do you like to read when you’re not reading about Little Bighorn?

R.W. Having immersed myself too long in writings of yesteryear, I now enjoy reading about more current events, though the modern information overload can be a mite overwhelming. Television provides a dose of escapism, especially the movies of my youth, the fast paced comedies, and of course the westerns of John Ford.

B.R. Nothing better than the westerns of John Ford. It’s been a pleasure to hear your stories of how you accomplished a truly magnificent contribution to the study of the 7th Cavalry and the soldiers that made it. I appreciate your modesty in discussing your important body of work in Military Register of Custer's Last Command. Thank you for your generous time with us today.

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