History & Culture
The Battles at the River Raisin
During the summer of 1812, the River Raisin militia was called into service to build a military road which was to link Detroit with Ohio. In July, General William Hull, commander of the U.S. forces in the (Old) Northwest, invaded British-held Canada with the goal of capturing Fort Malden\Amherstburg, Upper Canada (today, Ontario). But the British and their Indian allies repelled the attack and Hull was forced to withdraw to Detroit. General Hull surrendered all of the Michigan Territory when confronted with a large army of British and Indians and knowing more Indians from the upper Great Lakes area were on their way (August 16, 1812).
The local River Raisin militia, along with other American forces, had gathered at Frenchtown to repel an expected Indian attack a few days before Hull's retreat. They were shocked to find out that Hull surrendered and that they had been included in the terms of capitulation.
In preparation for an expected American invasion, in November of 1812, a detachment of Canadian militiamen, armed with one small cannon moved into Frenchtown. In January of 1813, a few River Raisin French settlers left their village to inform the approaching American army of the British position and to request help.
More than 600 American men, under the command of colonels William Lewis and John Allen, were dispatched by General Winchester to the Raisin on January 18, 1813. The Americans quickly routed the 63 British/Canadian soldiers and approximately 200 Indian allies out of Frenchtown.
The Americans set up camp among the homes on the north side of the River Raisin and were reinforced by troops under the command of revolutionary war veteran General James Winchester, bringing the number of American troops to nearly 1,000. Meanwhile, the British and Indians prepared a counterattack across the Lake Erie ice at Fort Malden.
On the morning of January 22, 1813, nearly 600 British and Canadians and about 800 Indians attacked the sleeping American soldiers along the River Raisin. Although surprised, the Americans quickly returned fire.
In just 20 minutes, the right flank, where the U.S. 17th Infantry was stationed in an open field, was routed and forced to run across the frozen waters of the River Raisin towards Ohio. Of the 400 Americans who ran, about 220 were killed and 147, including General Winchester, were captured. Meanwhile, the American left wing, which included nearly 500 militiamen, continued to fight from behind the Frenchtown picket fence. Successfully repulsing British attacks, the Americans expected the British to ask for a cease-fire when they saw them waving a white flag. The Americans were shocked to find out that the British had instead carried a message of surrender from their General Winchester. After a short negotiation, the remaining American forces surrendered.
The British quickly withdrew due to heavy casualties and the expectation that the Americans were soon to be reinforced by General William Henry Harrison's troops, who were along the Maumee River near present-day Toledo. When the British departed, they left the Americans who were too wounded to walk in the homes of Frenchtown inhabitants under the guard of a small British detachment and Indians.
The morning after the Battle, Indians returned to the River Raisin plundering and burning homes, killing and scalping many of the remaining Americans, and taking others as personal property. Official U.S. estimates of the aftermath include a dozen named individuals killed and up to 30 more who were probably killed in this manner. British estimates put the number at about six.
Upon hearing the news, Americans throughout the country rallied to the flag with the battle cry "Remember the Raisin!"
The area where the River Raisin National Battlefield Park is located has been inhabited by many cultures. Located near the confluence of the River Raisin and Lake Erie, the broad expansive marshlands and rich soil, made it a natural place of settlement for the original Native American and later French settlers. Elements of the Pottawatomi, and Wyandot Tribes both called the area their home. When the territory was ceded to the British following the French and Indian Wars, the area was also populated by some British settlers, although French remained the principal language spoken. Following the evacuation of the Northwest Territory by the British in 1796, the area reverted to the United States. British and frontier settlers from Kentucky, Ohio and the Old Northwest Territory clashed during the War of 1812. Following the settlement of the conflict, the area was rapidly populated by many cultures during the period of Westward expansion.
Frenchtown was a desolate settlement for eight months following the battle. American dead were left unburied due to Indian threats; and more homes were burned and plundered. The River Raisin was liberated on September 27, 1813, when Colonel Richard M. Johnson's Kentucky cavalry, guided by men from the Raisin, rode into the settlement. The Americans continued their march north, liberating Detroit and destroying the British-Canadian-Indian coalition in the west at the battle of the Thames, or as Canadians call it, the battle of Moraviantown (near present-day Chatham, Ontario), on October 5, 1813. Though the lower Michigan Territory was liberated by the Americans in the fall of 1813, the settlement at the River Raisin remained impoverished for years after the end of the fighting.