Indian War Veterans: Memories of Army Life and Campaigns in the West, 1864-1898 details soldiers’ experiences throughout the trans-Mississippi West. It is the first comprehensive collection of veteran reminiscences, presented in a series of recollections written by the veterans themselves. Sarah Keeney of Savas Beatie LLC recently discussed this new book with author Jerome Greene.
: Thanks for speaking to us about your new book. What drove your interest in the Indian war veterans?
JAG: Thank you, it’s my pleasure. I’ve always had a fascination with army veterans, something stemming, I think, from my youth when I learned that the last living Union veteran—a G.A.R. man named Albert Woolson—was from my hometown of Watertown, New York. I was thrilled to find G.A.R. memorabilia still around when I was a kid, and as I began studying the Indian wars of the American West. I read Don Rickey’s classic, Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay, much of which was based upon Rickey’s interviews with surviving Indian war veterans during the 1950s. I knew Rickey very well, and his respect for these old guys and their personal histories rubbed off on me. There was something about the contrast of periods that their lives spanned that intrigued me then, and continues to intrigue me now.
: You mentioned the Grand Army of the Republic, whose members fought for the Union during the Civil War. Did Indian war veterans have a similar organization?
JAG: Yes, but the Indian war veterans groups were very small compared to the G.A.R. As I started learning about the different groups, I also began to collect members’ recollections of their service. Many of these were originally published in the National Indian War Veterans Association’s tabloid Winners of the West, which was published from the 1920s to the 1940s.
: Was it while gathering these recollections that you realized you had the makings of a manuscript?
JAG: Basically, yes. As I continued to read these fascinating accounts, I decided to collect the remembrances for publication. Years ago I wrote a small monograph about the organizations that listed all of the bodies, but it lacked the veterans’ voices. Indian War Veterans fills that void. It gives a fuller account of these groups and also allows the veterans to speak of their service in the West during the period of the major Indian conflicts.
: Is there a specific account that was invaluable as you continued collecting information?
JAG: Yes. I continued collecting accounts and as the pile grew and grew I knew that I wanted to prepare a book honoring these little-known veterans, but data about the various bodies was hard to locate. About twenty years ago I acquired a collection of scrapbooks that belonged to a man named Albert Fensch, who had been a hospital corpsman with the army in the West. Fensch had been involved in two of the principal Indian war veteran associations, and his scrapbooks contained a tremendous amount of information about them. I decided that one day I would pull all of this data together into an account that comprehensively addressed the history of the veterans’ groups together with the interesting recollections of the former soldiers themselves.
: It sounds like a wonderful resource. Beside Fensch’s collection, where else did you find the accounts featured in the book?
JAG: All of the veterans’ accounts have appeared in print before, but in very remote newspapers and magazines that are difficult or nearly impossible for the average person to find today. Most of those in the book are from Winners of the West. Others are from The Veteran and The Oregon Veteran, which occasionally published reminiscent accounts by these old soldiers. Others are from various newspaper sources that I’ve researched in or collected through the years.
: Why did you decide to print the veterans’ recollections in their entirety, instead of incorporating them into your own writing?
JAG: Personal accounts add immeasurably to the descriptions of what happened at a battle or during a campaign, and I’ve always integrated them into my writing. The accounts presented in Indian War Veterans are among the best that I’ve come across and that have not been overused before. None have seen wide circulation before. The men bring a sense of feeling and immediacy to their writing, and very often they impart new information and new details affecting something in history. I felt it was very important to include the original statements by people who were there and who were able to recollect what they saw or did. The accounts have been organized chronologically within geographical areas for easy reference and logical, orderly reading.
: What will Indian War Veterans add to the Indian wars literature already available?
JAG. I think the book offers new and personal perspectives on an array of topics regarding the Indian wars and the army’s prosecution of the campaigns. It presents the voices of the former soldiers and their individual points of view, as well as recollections of the service in which they were involved. In most cases, the memories are distinctly personal to a given soldier. . . .
: So is it fair to say that viewpoints of the same basic events were different soldier to soldier and that your book reflects that?
JAG: Yes, exactly. One soldier’s views on a topic might differ from those of another man who wrote on the same subject, or who was on the same campaign. Thus, there is new information gleaned from men who recalled the Fetterman Fight, Washita, the Lava Beds, Palo Duro Canyon, Little Bighorn, Big Hole, Bear’s Paw, Punished Woman’s Fork, the Geronimo Campaign, and Leech Lake, to mention just a few.
: Beside the campaigns, the book also covers the day-to-day life of the veterans. I imagine a lot of readers will be interested in that information as well.
JAG: Yes, I believe so. The book also provides some new perspectives of garrison life—life inside the frontier forts, and helps round out our knowledge of these men who served for months or years in the West during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. In preparing this book, I’ve provided brief overviews of the areas in which the soldiers served, but I’ve relied on them to bring it to readers in a direct and personal manner. For people interested in raw history, this approach is hard to beat and adds a variety of individual viewpoints to current literature about the Indian wars. In addition, the book offers the first major integrated history of the different Indian war veteran organizations, together with a first-time presentation of badges and memorabilia related to those groups.
: That brings me to my last question. The memorabilia presented in the color gallery is a wonderful addition to the book. I was rather surprised how lovely those ribbons and medals are. How did you gather all these beautiful medals and awards?
JAG: That section of the book came out wonderfully, and really adds something to the book. I’ve been a collector of this stuff for many years. Because of the small size of the Indian war veterans organizations compared to the G.A.R. or United Spanish War Veterans (U.S.W.V.), Indian war veteran materials are rarely encountered. I have a pretty good collection, but it has taken me nearly thirty years to bring these items together. They’re an important part of understanding the history of the bodies themselves, how and why they assembled (regionally or otherwise) and where they assembled. The color gallery offers a brief catalog of the types of veterans’ memorabilia that should benefit museum curators, historians of material culture, and collectors.
: We have already had a lot of positive feedback about the color gallery. In fact, several readers have told us they purchased the book because of that section alone!
JAG: I can understand why, because it is a valuable addition if you study this sort of thing. I am glad it was included.
: Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Greene. And I hear congratulations are in order on your recent retirement from the National Park Service! I hope you will continue writing?
JAG: Yes, I plan to continue writing and speaking at various events. I am presently researching a book on the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Also, early next year my book, Stricken Field: Little Bighorn, 1876-2003, will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
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