River Raisin National Battlefield Park

Location: Monroe, Michigan

Webpage: National Park

General Description: After the three failed attempts of the US Army to invade Canada at the outbreak of the War of 1812 in July, the British captured Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and Fort Mackinac.  In August, Brigadier General Hull surrendered Fort Detroit believing he was outnumbered.  At the time there were few roads through the wilderness of the Northwest Territory and Fort Detroit was dependent upon Lake Erie for supplies, which was firmly controlled by the British Navy.  After the dismissal of Hull, Major General William Henry Harrison was given command of the Army of the Northwest with his first goal to retake Fort Detroit.  Harrison divided his army into two columns, the other led by Brigadier General Winchester.  Meanwhile Brigadier General Proctor assembled all the British troops supported by around 500 native Americans led by Tecumseh.  While harsh winter conditions are generally not the best time for military engagements, Harrison reasoned that the frozen rivers and especially Lake Erie would outweigh the disadvantages as the British would not have support of their Navy.  Even then the two columns took three months to make the journey that normally would take a single month, largely because they built supply forts, opened up roads, and attacked all the Indians they found along the way, especially the Kentucky militiamen that made up over half of the army.  Rather then waiting for Harrison as ordered, Winchester sent a small relief detachment to Frenchtown to end the occupation of this small farming town from the British.  On January 18, 1813, this detachment of about 750 militiamen from Kentucky and Michigan, led by Lt. Colonel Lewis charged across the frozen River Raisin to attack the British and Indians in Frenchtown that consisted of 63 Canadians and 200 Potowatami Indians.  Although the running battle lasted over two hours, the Americans were able to drive off the Canadians and their allies.  By January 20, Winchester had arrived with the remainder of his column and Harrison ordered them to stay put and prepare for a counter-attack.  Winchester ignored the warning believing the British would be some days before they would be ready to do anything.  Without ensuring pickets and sentries were set, he retired to his headquarters set up in the Navarre House south of the river.  However, General Proctor wasted no time in moving his forces to counter and marched with 600 regulars and 800 Indians.  He was able to move within firing distance before dawn on January 22 without being noticed.  The American regulars were camped in a field outside of town without any defensive cover and were caught totally by surprise when the British opened fire.  They held for nearly 20 minutes before they broke and ran.  Upon hearing the gunfire, Winchester ordering 240 of the Kentucky militia to support the regulars.  However, they just became caught up in the mass retreat crossing the river.  A large group of Indians on horseback cut around the west side of Frenchtown and were able to get out in front of the fleeing soldiers, ambushing them and cutting them down in small groups.  Winchester was not able to rally his men and was eventually captured by the Indians.   Only 33 men were able to escape the battle and make their way to Harrison’s forces.  The Kentucky militiamen within the small community were successful in holding off the British taking a heavy toll on their artillerymen.  However, after repulsing three British assaults they were running out of ammunition and the British convinced Winchester to order them to surrender.  The militiamen refused and continued to fight for three more hours and finally surrender with the promise they would be treated as prisoners of war rather than being handed over to the Indians.  Fearing a counter-attack from Harrison, Proctor ordered a swift march back to Fort Detroit taking all the prisoners that could walk with him.  He promised to return the next day with sleds for the wounded and left.  On the morning of January 23, the Indians began robbing the wounded Americans.  Any that could still walk were herded off and the Indians then killed all the remaining wounded and any who could not keep up on the march.  This slaughter became known as the River Raisin Massacre and led to the rallying cry “Remember the Raisin!”

Brochure

Impressions:

1) This is one of the newest National Park sites, being established in 2009, and is thus still being organized.  The Visitor Center is in the local museum building with just a few exhibits about the battle.  They do have a film, of sorts, that provides the details of the battle using video of the lighted board that is itself so old that it no longer works.  Development of a new film about this very important battle is being planned.

VisitorCenter

2) Fortunately, much of the original town of Frenchtown and surrounding battlefield was the location of a large pulpmill.  This means the ground is largely undisturbed and open.  Especially since the town was burned following the battle and never rebuilt, there is nothing left of the buildings.  Archeological work and drawings of the town have identified the locations of the buildings and there are plans to reconstruct the town eventually.

3)  There is a gravel path that circles around the north side of Frenchtown to the draw used by the British to advance to within firing range.  There are even concrete platforms for interpretive signs along the path.  Unfortunately, there are not yet any interpretive signs so you just get to look at the open field and imagine what happened.