Title: English by Birth, Scottish by Blood

St John the Evangelist, Lothian Road, Edinburgh, next to the spired parish church St Cuthbert and the castle in the background. (Author's collection)

  • English by Birth, Scottish by Blood: The Story of John Stuart Stuart Forbes, alias Private John S. Hiley, 7th Cavalry Regt. U.S. Army, by Peter G. Russell and Leslie Hodgson. Published by The English Westerners’ Society, London, 2016.
  • The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most celebrated episodes in the annals of U.S. military history. The fact that there is a direct connection between this battle and St John’s fascinates any U.S. visitor to our Church.  Now comes a booklet co-authored by our own long-time and much-loved Sunday verger Leslie Hodgson, telling the story of the man who embodies that link, John Stuart Forbes.
  • Underneath the Forbes family window in the north aisle of St John’s is a brass plaque in memory of ‘John Stuart Stuart Forbes, 7th Regt., United States Cavalry’. John was the black sheep of the Forbes family, and his schooling (at the Edinburgh Academy, Cheltenham, Marlborough and Clifton in quick succession) suggests he was allergic to school. He developed an early addiction to gambling. At age 22 he set off from Britain to visit his two brothers in New Zealand, and was never to return. He moved on to New York in 1871, but by this time a “fall from grace” had occurred, and he was advised by his mother that it would be unwise for him to come home. On 2 February 1872, therefore, he took the drastic and fatal decision to enlist with the 7th U.S. Cavalry, soon coming under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. It is unclear what John had done to so damage his reputation. Hodgson and Russell tend to dismiss the usual suggestions of an unsettled gambling debt or the impregnation of a servant girl, and believe the evidence points to something ‘of a much more serious nature’. After all, enrolling in a foreign army was a drastic step. He even enlisted under a false name, John S. Hiley.
  • The U.S. government had sent out an ultimatum to Indians to report to designated reservations by 31 January 1876, but resistance to this was inspire by Sitting Bull, and the Great Sioux War ensued. On 17 May 1876 the 7th Cavalry rode west out of Fort Lincoln to deal with the Indian resistance, and on 22 June  Custer’s cavalry was detached to search the headwaters of Rosebud Creek in Montana. On 25 June Custer, moved along the rolling hills alongside the Little Bighorn River to engage what they had been led to expect were about eight hundred Indians. Custer was confident of dealing with any resistance and had even rejected two separate offers of reinforcements. He was in for a shock. The hills ahead concealed thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, many armed with repeater rifles as well as bows and arrows, while the Seventh had only single-shot carbines.
  • The last stages of this battle are baffling to the historian, since all 210 men in Custer’s column, Forbes included, were killed and none returned to tell the tale. This crushing defeat at the hands of native Indians, a fearful setback at the time, was later re-christened “Custer’s Last Stand,” and under this name, it was launched into the realm of myth. The idea of the Last Stand forms a potent and romantic image in the history of war – a tradition going right back to the Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., dying gallantly, vast out-numbered, in defence of their country. Custer was a bit different, but it was the fact that he and all his men were killed that made this battle become an iconic event.

The plaque erected by Jemima Rebecca Stuart Forbes in memory of her son, John, (aka Private John S. Hiley) in St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Edinburgh. Photograph courtesy of M. J. Richardson

  • The poignant postscript came when among Forbes’ property found after death was a letter written by his mother. This showed, first, that his real name was Forbes, not Hiley, and it told him that the trouble he’d been in was now settled up and he could safely come home again. It was too late. The best way his widowed mother could express her grief was by putting up a brass plaque two years later in her church, St John’s.
  • Leslie Hodgson and Peter Russell have done a fine job in researching and telling this moving story. Their booklet can be bought at St John’s Office, price £5.
  • Robert Philp
  • First published in Cornerstone, by St John the Evangelist Episcopalian Church, Edinburgh, October & November 2016.

 

  • What others say:
  • “I just wanted to let you know that I read English by Birth, Scottish by Blood from cover to cover and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Congratulations to you and Leslie.  I was of course aware of this story, but not in such detail, and have photos of the plaque.” (Tom F. Cunningham, author of Your Fathers the Ghosts: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Scotland)
  • “I must tell you, English by Birth, Scottish by Blood it is exactly what I would have expected.  Not only informative, but to me, definitive and magnificently researched.  My faith in you and your work is once again: confirmed.” (Frederic C. Wagner III, author of Participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn and The Strategy of Defeat at the Little Big Horn)
  • “I just wanted to drop you a short note to congratulate you and Leslie Hodgson on English by Birth, Scottish by Blood. This was a well researched, informative and interesting read. In fact, I could not put it down.” (Neil Gilbert, Custer Association of Great Britain)

 

& The Small Print

© Men With Custer 2013. Author Peter Groundwater Russell. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peter Russell and the ‘Men With Custer’ website with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Men With Custer