The Scots who fought with Custer

JUST inside the nave of St John the Evangelist church in Edinburgh a small brass plaque pays tribute to a soldier of a foreign army killed in one of the most famous battles in history.

The memorial to John Stuart Stuart Forbes commemorates his death on 25 June 1876 alongside General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

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Despite the plaque being the only one of its kind in Scotland there were a number of Scots in the 7th Cavalry at the time of the battle, of which three were killed alongside Forbes with Custer.

Now, a new book published to mark the 140th anniversary of the massacre, reveals the true story of how the son of a minor Scottish aristocrat ended up thousands of miles from home, fighting as a lowly cavalryman under an assumed name. ‘English by Birth, Scottish by blood’, by Peter Russell and Leslie Hodgson, tells the detailed story of how Forbes became a victim of Custer’s last stand.

John Stuart Stuart Forbes was born in Rugby on 28 May 1849, the son of a wealthy Edinburgh banker. He returned to Edinburgh, aged two, and was educated at Edinburgh Academy before moving to Cheltenham aged 10 with his widowed mother.

Over the next few years he attended a number of English private schools, never staying longer than a couple of years at each one.

Other Scots who took part in the battle

Alexander Brown from Aberdeen was a Sgt in G Company and on the day of the battle he was detailed to escort the pack mules. He was involved in the hilltop fight but survived the battle. He died on 7 April 1884.

Andrew Hamilton from Port Glasgow was a blacksmith in Company A. Aged 23 when he enlisted in 1872 by the time of Little Big Horn he was an experienced soldier, having taken part in two previous military campaigns.

He was involved in the fighting which took place in Big Horn Valley and on the hilltop. He survived the battle and was discharged as “a blacksmith of excellent character” at Fort Rice, Dakota Territory on 17 April 1877. His fate after leaving the army is unknown.

James Hill from Edinburgh was First Sergeant with Company B at the time of the battle. At 37-years-old he was an experienced soldier, having been a veteran of the 71st Highland Light Infantry. He survived the hilltop fight and eventually died at his home in Wooster, Ohio, on 18 November 1906.

William McMasters from Glasgow was a Private detailed to escort the Pack train of mules and was involved in the hilltop fight. He survived the battle and was discharged from the army in December 1879 only to rejoin in January the following year and served until 1890. His fate after that is unknown but he may have returned to Scotland.

David McWilliams from Edinburgh should have been in the battle but on the way to Little Big Horn he accidentally shot himself in the leg while hunting. He continued to serve until 1882 until he was invalided out of the army as a result of his wound. He died from an overdose of the painkiller laudanum in September 1882.

William Moodie from Edinburgh was a Private in A Company. He was killed aged 35 in the retreat from the valley on the first day of the battle.

Charles Scott, a Scot whose birth town is not recorded. He enlisted on 20 November 1873, aged 25, giving his previous occupation as Cook. He was killed on Last Stand Hill, along with all of the soldiers of Custer’s Column.

Peter Thompson from Markinch in Fife had a narrow escape. He should have died with Custer but his horse dropped-out from exhaustion on the way to the Little Bighorn.

Unable to rejoin his own company he later climbed up the bluffs and joined Major Reno’s command. While pinned down by enemy fire he made several trips outside the lines to obtain water for the wounded resulting in him being wounded also.

Thompson survived the battle and in recognition of his bravery he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

And finally…

George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer

About eight weeks before he died Custer got a letter from an Orkney businessman, James Cursiter, saying he thought they were related.

Custer wrote to his wife days later saying that he now believed his family may have originated in Orkney. Unfortunately there is no evidence to back that up. It is far more likely that Custer was of German descent but it is very possible he went to his death believing he had Scottish heritage.

By the age of 21, having inherited £2,000 from his late father and his brothers’ love of gambling, he left Britain for New Zealand via New York sometime around 1871. Whatever happened over the next few months nobody knows but it’s believed he was involved in a scandal big enough to prevent him going home.

What is known is that on 20 January 1872 Stuart Forbes enlisted as a Private in the United States Army under the alias of John S. Hiley, the married surname of his sister, Henrietta.

“Why Forbes was serving under a false name is not known,” said Mr Russell, 77, a semi-retired financial adviser from Bexleyheath, Kent.

“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”

Although the black sheep of his family Stuart Forbes appears to have been a model soldier. Despite being highly educated, in comparison to his peers, he never rose above the rank of Private.

Stuart Forbes finally met his end on 25 June 1876 at Custer’s last stand at the Little Bighorn River in Montana along with more than 200 other soldiers of the 7th Cavalry.

On the morning of the battle Custer, who had started out with little more than 600 men, divided his force. He divided his 12 companies into three battalions and three companies were placed under the command of Major Marcus Reno who was ordered to enter into the Big Horn Valley.

Three other companies were assigned to Capt. Frederick Benteen who was ordered to hold the bluffs at the end valley to stop any of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors escaping. Five companies remained under Custer’s immediate command while the 12th company, under Capt. Thomas McDougall, was detailed to bring up the rear with the mule train carrying supplies.

The series of engagements that followed took place over three distinct but related actions which have collectively come to be known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Reno and his men were pinned own in the valley and had to fight their way to cover on a nearby hilltop, where they were besieged by hostiles for two days, while Custer’s Last Stand took place further up the valley.

“How Stuart Forbes died and exactly where we will never know,” said Mr Russell. “His body was never formally identified but it’s likely to have been in Deep Ravine, where most of the men were killed, but it could equally be anywhere on the battlefield between the Little Big Horn River and Last Stand Hill.

”On the monument to the fallen, which was erected some time after the battle, he is listed as J.S. Hiley. His real identity was only discovered after the army appointed a team to take an inventory of the dead soldier’s belongings.

Among the items in Private Hiley’s trunk they found a letter from his mother which revealed his real name. Ironically, it also revealed that “the matter of some trouble he had gotten into in his native country was soon to be settled up and he could then return home without molestation”.

Almost a year after the battle his family were given permission to erect a plaque in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Edinburgh, the only memorial to any member of Custer’s command in Scotland. It reads simply:

In Memory of JOHN STUART STUART FORBES 7th Reg’t United States Cavalry. Born at Rugby28th May 1849. Killed in Action 25th June 1876.St James 4: 13-14-15. Romans 8: 35-37

4 comments

  • Overall an accurate and well-presented piece. Thank you for publishing it.
    Strictly speaking the pack train (not usually described as a ‘mule’ train) was under the command of Frenchman First Lieutenant Edward Mathey and comprised of several privates and one NCO from each company. Captain Thomas McDougall was commanding Company D, which was assigned as escort to the pack train.
    The Orkney businessman who wrote to Custer eight weeks before the battle was John Cursiter, not James Cusiter.
    Lastly, although Stuart Forbes’ true identity was known just a few months after the battle and the Cavalry Memorial not erected until 1881, the name ‘J.S. Hiley’ is correctly inscribed on the monument as that is the form in which this trooper swore an oath of allegiance and enlisted in the United States Army.
    For further details on Scots who served with the 7th U.S. Cavalry in June 1876 follow the link – http://www.menwithcuster.co.uk

    • Paul Kelbie

      Thanks for the comments and spotting the typo of Cursiter’s name. We have corrected it. The person responsible will be dealt with accordingly!

    • Frederic C. Wagner III

      Peter, Captain Thomas Mower McDougall was the commanding officer of Company B, not Company D. Captain Thomas Benton Weir commanded D. And I find this article and your small booklet on JOHN STUART STUART FORBES superb. What a pleasure it is to read such fine work. Very best wishes, Frederic C. Wagner III.

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