Title: Military Register of CUSTER'S Last Command
Military Register of Custer’s Last Command, Hidden Springs of Custeriana Series – X1V by Roger L. Williams. The Arthur H. Clark Company, Norman, Oklahoma (an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press) 2009, pp. 429, preface, introduction, appendices, bibliography, hard cover, $95.
I first became acquainted with Roger Williams in 2004 when he responded to my request for information about Custer’s Quartermaster Sergeant, Thomas Causby. Based on the excellent quality of the material he provided it was with eager anticipation that I awaited the publication of Military Register of Custer’s Last Command and I was not to be disappointed.
Williams tells us in the opening lines of the Preface that the seeds of this long-awaited book were sown over half a century ago when, confused by the glaring disparities in the reputed number of the participants in the battle and inspired by a print of the famous Anheuser-Busch painting, he set out with youthful enthusiasm “to determine with certainty the exact status” of all members serving with the 7th US Cavalry on 25 June 1876. However, after many years of meticulous research he was reluctantly forced to accept that owing to the absence of so many pertinent records it was highly unlikely he would ever be able to fully achieve his original objective, although this obvious personal disappointment in no way detracts from the immense value of his scholarly work. In many respects Military Register is the most comprehensive reference to date of the men who were with the regiment at the time of the Battle of the Little Big Horn although it certainly does not totally eclipse the recently updated and much improved edition of Men With Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry, CBHMA, inc., 2010, edited by Ronald H. Nichols with Daniel H. Bird. Williams generously acknowledges the pioneering efforts of Walter Camp and made full use of the latter’s material to complement his own research.
The fact that Military Register contains neither any illustrations nor an account of the action at Little Big Horn suggests it was written with the more discerning Custer buff in mind, which this reviewer believes was the right decision in view of the plethora of battle-related material readily available elsewhere. The contents are divided into four main sections, namely, sketches of all those who served with the 7th Cavalry on 25 June 1876; the Indian scouts; four comprehensive appendices and an extensive bibliography.
Clearly Williams was faced with a real challenge of how best to present what proved to be over 800 biographies and condense this wealth of information, and much more, into one reasonably-sized book. Initially I was somewhat taken aback by the large number of abbreviations used in the text but found the vast majority were easy to read and, on reflection, decided that in principle at least it was a wholly acceptable format for what is essentially a book of reference not intended to be read as a continuous narrative. Also, the title leaves the reader in no doubt that it is indeed a ‘register,’ i.e., a formal or official recording of items, names, or actions, and this is precisely the approach the author has taken. That being said, I would have preferred to see the number of abbreviations significantly reduced and all given and place-names written out in full, and modernized where appropriate, but suspect Williams chose to retain the style found on the battlefield monument and in most records of the day to retain more of the flavor of the period.
The depth of information relating to each soldier’s military career will be of inestimatable value to all students, irrespective of their level of knowledge, whose interests lie in the men who served with Custer. I feel slightly less confident, however, when it comes to other aspects of their lives as by default or design new recruits in the Frontier Army were notorious for giving spurious personal details on enlistment. It would have been helpful therefore if the author had addressed this particular issue under ‘Format of Entries in the Register’ in the Introduction. I refer mainly to dates and places of birth, which in most cases, though not all, are taken directly from Army records and in my personal experience are often at odds with more reliable evidence found in external sources, such as church registers, census returns and civil registration – a criticism that could equally be levelled at Men With Custer and other publications. It is plainly an area where more research remains to be done.
As a rule I am not in favor of reading copious notes, as I believe that as far as possible the information they impart should be incorporated in the main body of the text, but the complete opposite is the case with Military Register. Here Williams refreshingly reverts to normal prose and introduces a whole host of interesting facts that not only put flesh on the bones of many of the sketches but enhance the overall value of his work. I discovered that the attempt by Private James Pym, Co. B, to enter the coach of Benny Hodgson, to visit his sweetheart (a servant for one of the officers) which resulted in Hodgson threatening to shoot him, was the root cause of Lt. Donald McIntosh placing the young second lieutenant under arrest while travelling by train en route from Shreveport, LA to St. Louis in April 1876; that Sergeant Major William Sharrow absconded in disgrace – “a fugitive from justice” – from his employment as a civilian clerk at Omaha, NE, before his first enlistment in the 7th Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, KS, a few days later on August 12, 1869; and Sergeant Frank Lloyd, Co. G, was appointed Acting Post Sergeant Major at Fort Abraham Lincoln from May 17 to November 4, 1876 while the greater part of regiment was in the field ‘chasing Indians.’ These are just three of the many such fascinating tidbits that can be found in the notes which follow each listing throughout the book.
The next section is devoted to the Indian Scouts and arranged in the alphabetical order of the most commonly accepted English form of an individual’s tribal name. Here there is much less use of abbreviations and the author relies heavily on Custer in 76: Walter Camp’s Notes on the Custer Fight, edited by Kenneth Hammer and The Arikara Narrative, by Orin J. Libby.
Appendix A is a roster of the regiment’s Field, Staff and Band, all 12 Companies, Varnum’s Detachment of Indian Scouts and Civilians, which denotes those who ‘probably did not’ participate in the battle, the names of those killed in action or were wounded, and the 235 signatories to the famous Reno petition. Appendix B, entitled “Recapitulations of Enlisted Men and Horses, compiled from monthly Regimental Returns, and Company Returns, and Bimonthly Muster Rolls,” tabulates statistics regarding the status of both men and horses during the period January-August 1876 which is complemented by a number of relevant notes. Appendix C gives interesting information about the dismounted detachment, the horses and the pack train, much of which was previously unknown to this reviewer. Lastly, Appendix D deals with Army rates of pay and reveals that, in monetary terms at least, the Chief Musician was considered almost three times as valuable as the regiment’s Sergeant Major!
As a testament to Roger Williams’ five decades of research the Bibliography extends to 31 pages and includes particularly useful archival sources at National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., and lists an incredible number of newspapers, periodicals, books and pamphlets, as well as single articles.
At the published price of $95 Military Register of Custer’s Last Command may appear to be rather expensive but having had time to study the data at length I personally believe it represents extraordinarily good value for money. It contains sufficient information from all sources whereby the interested reader can determine to their own satisfaction where each soldier was likely to have been on the day of the battle, or indeed at virtually any time during his military service. Roger Williams has thus ensured that no other individual need ever again spend a lifetime searching for the answers, and for this we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Reviewed by Peter G. Russell