Custer's First Sergeant John Ryan
1996
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In 1996, Custer's First Sergeant John Ryan became one of my more popular titles. The book actually had to follow a somewhat complicated process to publication. That process began during the 1989 dig at Little Big Horn when I befriended western artist Ralph Heinz. He had just finished a painting depicting Ryan firing his specially made Sharps carbine at the Indians from the Reno-Benteen Defense Site. He mentioned that Ryan's grandson, Charlie Jepsen, had been instrumental in helping him to complete the painting. Recently appointed as the editor of Greasy Grass magazine by CBHMA, I suggested to Ralph that he write an article for the magazine; his painting could grace the magazine's cover. But Charlie lived in Florida, and Ralph, living in Montana, didn't want to make such a long trip. He gave me Charlie's contact information and I soon got in touch with Charlie. In the spring of 1990, I visited Charlie and stayed in his guest bedroom in his condo. The walls were covered with his Ryan photos, newspaper clippings and other artifacts. Charlie copied much of the material, including his grandfather's photos, for me. I began doing further research into Ryan's life, even though my Kellogg book remained unfinished. While I was giving my first talk about Ryan at the Order of Indian Wars conference in August 1991 in Great Falls, Mont., I sadly learned that Charlie had died in Florida. I made it a point to write an article for the 1992 Greasy Grass and realized too that Ryan might be a suitable topic for a book. In 1993, I visited Heather Corsini, Charlie's daughter, to re-view his materials. In October 1993, I was invited to speak in Newton, Mass., where a park was renamed in Ryan's honor. The park site was where the Newton Police Department of Ryan's day had stood.

Meanwhile, I submitted the Ryan manuscript twice to the University of Nebraska Press, but both times its reviewers suggested it required more work. The reviews were helpful and reworking the manuscript several more times enhanced the quality of both my research and my writing. A third time, in 1995, I submitted the manuscript, but was shocked when this reviewer recommended rejection because Ryan wasn't important enough to merit a book. What a foolish comment, I concluded! Rather than seek out another publisher--Dick Upton had expressed interest in publishing it sometime in the next two years--I decided to do it myself. I was about halfway through its production, when the Bismarck Tribune's editor called and offered me a contract to complete the Kellogg manuscript. That fall and early winter proved busy, especially since I was still teaching at Indiana State University. By December 1995, Ryan was completed and off to the printer's. Now I had about two months to complete Kellogg by the newspaper's Feb. 1 deadline. I actually completed the book by Feb. 7.

Ryan was published in 2,000 copies in April 1996 and Kellogg followed in June in 500 hard covers and 4,500 paperbacks. Kellogg's hard covers sold out in six months and by late 2000, the Ryans were gone. In July 1998, an acquisitions editor at Oklahoma Press contacted me about paperback rights to Custer's First Sergeant. I sent him a copy of the book, which received two favorable reviews and one negative--undoubtedly from the same person who rejected the book for Nebraska. Oklahoma's third reviewer decided that Ryan was an unsuitable character for a biography. That phrasing sounded familiar. That was despite at least a dozen favorable printed reviews and a near sell-out of the original print run. But the editor aid the Press required a unanimous vote to proceed. That rejection, however, proved to be the most fortunate decision in my professional life. For in 2000, Ryan's 600-page manuscript fell into my lap. If CFS had been republished by Oklahoma, I don't know that I could have proceeded with putting out Ryan's memoirs in two more books in the early 2000s. By the time Ten Years With Custer was ready, CFS was sold out; seven months later Campaigning with the Irish Brigade followed. Ten Years has been reprinted twice in paperback and Campaigning remains a steady seller in the Civil War market. CFS was a strong seller in the Indian wars market, but barely made a dent in the Civil War arena.

I'm often asked why I didn't just update CFS in a new edition. Well, marketing issues were uppermost in my mind, and subsequent sales of both books confirm the validity of my decision. Additionally, Ryan's memoirs had provided so much more insight into his life and career that I would have faced revising CFS completely. It was much easier to edit Ryan's memoirs into two books. With the discovery of Ryan's original memoirs and their subsequent publication in two new books, I decided to let this biography of Ryan go out of print, when our last copies sold.

CFS has long been out of print but it as well as the original Kellogg hard cover have become popular collectibles. I re-buy both books whenever I can for resale purposes. I still think of CFS as my "best" book. It had to be rewritten so many times that the book's quality improved with each go-round.

6 x 9, 284 pages, 69 illustrations and maps
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