John Stuart Stuart-Forbes was born the eighth of nine children on May 28, 1849 in Rugby, England to banker Charles Hay Forbes and Jemima Rebecca of Canaan Park, Edinburgh. Jemima was the third daughter of MacDonell of Glengarry and therefore her oldest son William would become the 9th baronet. With access to good food and living conditions, John grew to a height of 6' 0" in a period where the average American male was only 5' 6" tall. Another distinguishing feature was a shock of blond amongst his light brown hair and hazel eyes.
After Rugby public school and prestigious Edinburgh Academy, he moved to Yorkshire, England and lived with his sister Henrietta and her husband, Reverend Walter Hiley. From here the story takes a twist, one to grant him black sheep status within an ancient Scottish family.
Some have speculated indiscretions with a servant girl. Or cheated at cards or stole money; any of which would make for a better story. But most historians believe he left due to deep and mounting debts associated with gambling. One source credits his younger brother with a gambling problem as well. Whatever the cause, John fled England at the age of 22, never to return.
Stuart-Forbes initially traveled to the United States, crossed the continent by rail and found employment as a bank clerk in San Francisco. He subsequently sailed to New Zealand where, among other events, he stood as godfather twice for relatives. He returned to the US in 1871 and made his way to New York City. He enlisted for a 5 year period in the US Army on January 20, 1872. He used the pseudonym John S. Hiley, adopting the surname of his brother-in-law.
He was assigned to the 7th Calvary Company E known as the "Grey Horse Troop" and stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. The “Plains Cavalry” was largely comprised of European migrants who joined the US Army to escape deprivation. Few of them could ride a horse and most were small and poverty-bred. Forbes was one of 10 Scots assigned to the regiment.
Gattling Gun Operators of the 7th Cavalry
No matter what he had done in a previous life, Stuart-Forbes served in a trustworthy and courageous manner. He remained loyal during a period when desertion was endemic. However he continued to participate heavily in "games of chance" with fellow troopers while there.
Stuart-Forbes was among the complement of soldiers and civilians who left the fort on May 17, 1876 and joined Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer on a journey which would eventually end at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Painting - Custer's Last Stand
At the Battle of the Little Bighorn Forbes was with Company E and fell with the 263 soldiers and attached personnel of the U.S. Army who died that day.
According to the initial battlefield maps prepared by the Army two days after the event, Forbes' corpse was found only feet away from the body of Custer. Stuart-Forbes was buried with the other enlisted men in a mass grave at the battlefield site.
Only after the battle was Stuart-Forbes's true identity was revealed.The Army appointed a board of survey inventory the effects left behind by the men who were killed.Lt. Charles De Rudio, who was the recorder of the board, recalled how Stuart-Forbes’ trunk was opened and a letter from his mother was found. The letter explained that almost all of his troubles had been resolved and her expectation he would be able to return to England soon. They also found a Faro set in his belongings. Faro was known as the 'king of Old West card games.'
LBH Battlefield Monument
Stuart-Forbes is listed on the monument at the Little Big Horn Battlefield under his enlisted name, J.S. Hiley.
Click on the photo to the right to enlarge and view the entry on the monument.
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The obelix at the Little Big Horn Battlefield is not the only memorial to his service. In 1905, his mother had a plaque installed in St. John's Episcopal Church; Edinburgh, Scotland. The 8 inch high by 2 foot 5 inch long brass plaque, complete with the family's coat of arms, is mounted in the north aisle of the church and reads, "In Memory of John Stuart Forbes, 7th Regt., United States Cavalry, Born 28 May 1849. Killed in Action 25 June 1876."
His family had a long association with military service. Forbes' great uncle was Lt. Colonel James MacDonell, the hero of Hougomont, during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. One of many mysteries is why Stuart-Forbes never sought promotion. He was within months of his discharge at the time of his death. But whatever the crime or scandal, Stuart-Forbes may have left England in disgrace, but he died a hero.
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The Society wishes to thank Adele Pentony-Graham of the Carterton, NZ Cemetery Taphophile Group and Bob Reece and the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield for assisting with this project.
The MHSoc's museum and office is located at 411 W Main St, Mandan, ND 58554 Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave message at (701) 751-2983