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Forsyth, James William
Birth Date: August 8, 1835
Death Date: October 24, 1906
U.S. Army officer and longtime staff officer for General Philip H. Sheridan. James William Forsyth was born at Maumee, Ohio, on August 8, 1835. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in 1856. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the 9th Infantry Regiment, he served for the next five years in the Pacific Northwest. Promoted to first lieutenant in March 1861, he spent most of the American Civil War (1861-1865) in important staff assignments, first with Major General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac and later as chief of staff for Major General Philip Sheridan, with whom Forsyth remained closely associated until Sheridan’s death in 1888. Forsyth was brevetted through the rank of brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers and in the regular service and, following the close of the Civil War, was elevated to the permanent rank of brigadier general of volunteers before mustering out in January 1866.
In the postwar army reorganization, Forsyth was appointed a major in the new 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the African American units recently authorized by Congress, but he rarely served with the unit. Instead he held numerous staff assignments, mostly with Sheridan, in the Department of the Gulf and the Department of the Missouri. In 1869 when Sheridan became commander of the massive Division of the Missouri, Forsyth stayed on as aide-de-camp and later as military secretary, serving until 1878. During that period Forsyth joined Sheridan when he represented the United States as an observer of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and toured much of Europe. Their return in 1871 coincided with a dramatic escalation of the Indian Wars, and Sheridan’s division included the most active area. Somehow Forsyth found time to conduct an exploration of the Yellowstone River and its tributaries in 1875.
After more than 15 years in staff positions, in 1878 Forsyth joined the 1st Cavalry Regiment with a promotion to lieutenant colonel and was active in suppressing the Bannock-Paiute uprising in the Northwest that year. In 1886 he assumed command of the 7th Cavalry, the regiment ravaged a decade before at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25-26, 1876). For three years he devoted himself to developing the Cavalry and Light Artillery School at Fort Riley in Kansas.
On December 29, 1890, Forsyth earned unintentional infamy when the 7th Cavalry ignited a tragic and unplanned battle while trying to disarm several hundred Lakota Sioux men, women, and children under Big Foot. The confrontation at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Agency left more than 150 Native Americans, including dozens of women and children, dead (although some estimates are much higher). Twenty-five troops died, and 39 others were wounded. The regiment lost additional troops in an ambush pursuing another band the following day. Outraged division commander Major General Nelson Miles blamed Forsyth for the disaster and relieved him from duty, only to be overruled by the secretary of war.
Forsyth went on to earn promotion to brigadier general in 1894 with command of the Department of California until his promotion to major general and retirement in 1897. He died in Columbus, Ohio, on October 24, 1906.
Written by David Coffey in The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607-1890: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, James Arnold, and Roberta Wiener, ABC-CLIO, 2011, page 280-281.