MONROE, Mich. -- A War of 1812 atrocity committed in eastern Michigan haunted a Monroe man all his life and maybe led to his death in one of the most famous military engagements of the 19th century, the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The man was George Armstrong Custer. He grew up in Monroe, married the judge's daughter, and from an early age absorbed the story of the Battle of the River Raisin. The battle had taken place in January 1813, 26 years before Custer was born, but its aftermath -- a massacre by First Nations warriors allied to the British -- still struck a raw nerve there.
"Custer grew up with the legend and there's no doubt it coloured his opinion of Indians," says Dan Downing, chief interpreter at the Raisin River National Battlefield Park.
Custer's perception -- shared by many Americans at the time -- was that Native Americans were bloodthirsty savages, so it was no surprise he became the U.S. Cavalry's most determined commander in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century. Many historians believe his egotistical quest for glory led him to attack a massive army of native warriors at Little Bighorn in Montana in June 1876. His Seventh Cavalry was wiped out.
Some 3,000 km east of Little Bighorn, I'm standing in what was Frenchtown, on the outskirts of Monroe. This is the site of the Battle of the River Raisin and markers record the various engagements of Jan. 18-22, 1813. Two days of events to commemorate the 200th anniversary are planned for Jan. 19-20 .
The British, with their Canadian militia and First Nations allies, won the battle after initial setbacks. This forced the Americans to scrap a winter campaign to recapture Detroit, 65 km to the north, which had fallen to the British.
This was significant enough, but it's what happened next that still stirred passions in Custer's day. As a video in the visitor centre explains, the Americans retreated after their loss, leaving their wounded in the care of the British in houses in Frenchtown. But the next morning, Jan. 23, the First Nations warriors went on a rampage, breaking into the houses, and killing and scalping the wounded soldiers. Dozens were massacred: Estimates vary between 30 and 100.
"The cry, 'Remember the Raisin,' became a recruiting tool for the United States," Downing says. Ten months later, U.S. troops shouted the slogan as they defeated the British in the Battle of the River Thames in what is now southern Ontario.
Custer never lost touch with Monroe, never forgot the River Raisin. In 1872 he took a break from the Indian Wars to return.
"He came to a reunion of War of 1812 veterans and read the roll call," Downing says.
Then the young lieutenant-colonel -- he had been a brevet (temporary) general in the Civil War and his admirers call him general to this day -- went back west to continue avenging the events of Jan. 23, 1813.
NEED TO KNOW
-- River Raisin Commemorative events on Jan. 19-20 include a battle reenactment, flag raising, lectures, musical remembrances and a church service. See riverraisinbattlefield.org/events. The site is the only National Battlefield Park in the U.S. dedicated to the War of 1812. It is 430 km from Toronto, via Detroit, and less than 1 km west of Michigan exit 14, off Interstate 75, an easy side trip for visitors heading south along that route.