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John Stuart Stuart-Forbes and the Battle of Little Bighorn

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

A scion of the wealthy Forbes of Pitsligo and Monymusk, John Stuart Stuart-Forbes (1849-1876) left Scotland to avoid scandal. Assuming the last name of his brother-in-law, “John Stuart Hiley” joined Company E of the 7th United States Cavalry. He fought and died under the command of General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. He is memorialized in St. John's Church on Princes Street in Edinburgh.

The Custer Fight, Charles Marion Russell (1903)

John Stuart Forbes was born on May 28, 1849 in Rugby, Warwickshire, England as the third son of Charles Hay Forbes of Canaan Park and Jemima Rebecca MacDonell. His father was the son of Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo and Monymusk (1771) and Williamina Belches Stuart. His grandfather Sir William was a self-made man who learned the banking industry at an early age and rose to become a wealthy and powerful banker. His father’s brother John, become the 8th baronet. However, Sir John died without a male heir and so the baronetcy passed to William, 9th baronet, elder brother to John Stuart Forbes.

His father Charles Hay Forbes continued the family business of banking and moved with two-year-old John to Edinburgh to live at Canaan Park, now an administration office for the Astley Ainslie Hospital. He received his initial education at Edinburgh Academy. When his father died in 1859, he and his mother moved to Yorkshire, England, to live with his sister Henrietta and her husband, Reverend Walter Hiley. He then bounced through three colleges: Cheltenham College (1860), Marlborough College, and finally Clifton College (1864). In 1866, his family’s name was legally changed to Stuart-Forbes when his uncle John, 8th baronet, died and his brother Sir William (now Stuart-Forbes) became 9th Baronet of Pitsligo and Monymusk.

Sir William Stuart-Forbes, 9th Bart, of Pitsligo & Monymusk

When he reached the age of 21, he received trust funds totally £2,000 from his late father. According to many accounts, he gambled away the money and caused a bit of scandal for the family. He fled to the United States in 1870, became a bank clerk in San Francisco, sailed for New Zealand to visit his brother William (later Sir William Stuart-Forbes, 9th Baronet, of Pitsligo and Monymusk), and moved to New York City in 1871. To avoid detection, he used the pseudonym John S. Hiley, the surname of his brother-in-law.

According to Peter Russell in his 36-page biography English By Birth, Scottish By Blood, “Why Forbes was serving under a false name is not known.” He conjectured that “People have said it was because of a gambling debt or that he had got a servant girl into trouble but none of that really rings true when you look deeply into his background, wealth and character. Whatever it was it must have been something that would have brought shame on the family so that’s why he enlisted under the surname of his sister’s husband.” (“The Scots Who Fought with Custer,” Scotland Correspondent, Issue 6, June 5, 2017)

Since Stuart-Forbes could still not return to Scotland, he signed up for a 5-year enlistment in the U.S. Army on January 20, 1872. Six-foot-tall Stuart-Forbes was assigned to Company E of the 7th United States Cavalry, “Grey Horse Troop,” under the command of General George Armstrong Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. The cavalry included mostly European migrants and Stuart-Forbes was one of 10 Scots assigned to the regiment.

In the summer of 1876, the U.S. military conducted a campaign to force the Lakota and the Cheyenne Native America tribes back to their reservations. General Custer decided to capture women, children, and the elderly at encampments on the Little Bighorn River in the Montana Territory. His strategy was to use these noncombatants as hostages to force compliance with U.S. government orders to relocate.

Custer planned a surprise attack against the encampment for the morning of June 25, 1876. He divided his 12 companies into three battalions among Major Marcus Reno, Captain Frederick Benteen, and himself. Stuart-Forbes and Company E remained under Custer’s direct command. He approached the village at noon, in full daylight. The Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes under the command of Crazy Horse and Chief Gall intercepted Custer’s forces in a decisive victory. This was to be known by the Native Americans as the Battle of the Greasy Grass and by the U.S. government as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. No account exists of the details of what was to become known as “Custer’s Last Stand” since few of his soldiers survived.

Stuart-Forbes died with over 200 soldiers and civilians of the regiment, only feet away from the body of General Custer. He was buried in a mass grave at the battlefield site. Lt. Charles De Rudio reported that after the battle, Army officers found a letter from his mother in Stuart-Forbes’s trunk. His mother wrote that his troubles had been resolved and that “he could then return home without molestation.” Even though the letter revealed his actual identity, he is listed on the 7th Cavalry Monument at the Little Bighorn Battlefield as “J.S. Hiley.”

His family memorialized him at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, a Scottish Episcopal church at the west end of Princes Street in Edinburgh. The church's main benefactors were his uncle Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo and Monymusk, and his father Judge John Hay Forbes. Just inside the nave, his mother Jemima Rebecca Stuart Forbes installed a small brass plaque:


7th Reg’t United States Cavalry.

Born at Rugby 28th May 1849.

Killed in Action 25th June 1876.

St James 4: 13-14-15. - Romans 8: 35-37

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