“Remember the Raisin!” “Remember the River Raisin!” Some nine months after the battles of the River Raisin and echoing this famous rallying cry, the Americans defeated the British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames. The earlier American defeats in the River Raisin battles around Frenchtown, now Monroe, Michigan, and the massacre of the survivors by the Indians allied with the British were disasters for the Americans. What happened at River Raisin had a significant effect on the War of 1812 Great Lakes campaign laying waste to Frenchtown and exposing the Ohio frontier to attacks by the British and their supporters, Tecumseh's alliance of American Indian tribes. The American defeat and those who died also inspired Americans to fight on to victory in the War of 1812, as they rallied with the battle cry "Remember the Raisin!"
In the summer of 1812, the River Raisin militia received an assignment to build a military road linking Ohio and Detroit. River Raisin is geographically almost directly in the middle, and local volunteers were crucial to the successful finishing of the road. Upon completion of the road, General William Hull marched several thousand Ohio volunteers up the road to Detroit with the intention of attacking Amherstburg in Ontario, Canada. After Indians unexpectedly took control of the road and cut off supplies to the Americans, General Hull launched three unsuccessful attempts to reopen the road. Trapped between hostile Indians blocking the road and a large British force descending on Detroit from Amherstburg, Hull surrendered. The River Raisin forces received word on August 17, 1812, to follow suit the day after Hull’s surrender. For a short time, the British occupied River Raisin but soon left, burning the fortified blockhouse in their wake.
In November, a small contingent of Canadian militiamen, allies of the British, returned to the site to monitor the advancement of an American force of Kentucky volunteers led by General James Winchester. Winchester’s army, severely weakened by the harsh winter and inadequate supplies, arrived at Maumee, Ohio on January 10, 1813. When messengers from Frenchtown, the home of the local River Raisin residents, pleaded for rescue from the British and Indians, Winchester sprang into action, deploying over 600 men to descend on River Raisin. On January 18, Winchester’s men reinforced by 100 locals drove 63 Canadian militiamen and 200 Potawatomi Indians northward and out of River Raisin, an action known as the First Battle of River Raisin. Winchester then withdrew into Frenchtown, the small town protected by a stockade and fortifications, on the River Raisin. Two days later, 250 men from the US 17th Infantry Regiment arrived and set up camp just outside the town reinforcing the Kentuckians’ position. With the locals, Kentuckians, and the 17th, the American force numbered just under 1000 men.
On January 22, 1813, the British retaliated, launching a counterattack known as the Second Battle of River Raisin. 525 British and Canadian soldiers, over 800 Indians, and 6 cannons advanced on the American forces. Taken by surprise, the 17th attempted a stand, but the Indians quickly decimated the unit. Only 33 men escaped death or capture. The protection of the stockade afforded the Kentuckians a better chance, but after heavy casualties, depletion of ammunition, and the capture of General Winchester, they surrendered to British troops. The British forced those not badly wounded to march to Canada as prisoners, a meager 150 men. The rest of the survivors and the severely wounded, totaling roughly 100 men, stayed in Frenchtown unable to make the trek. In the terms of surrender, the Americans asked for protection for their wounded from further attack by the Indians. Granting these terms, the British quickly moved back to Canada leaving behind a small contingent of British soldiers to guard the wounded. The next day the remaining British soldiers left. Exposed and unprotected, the wounded American troops became the targets of vengeful Indians who had sustained heavy losses of their own in the battle. Entering the Frenchtown stockade, the Indians killed at least 60 of the remaining soldiers and many others, including French townspeople, and set fire to several houses in use as hospitals. Quickly dubbed the “Massacre of River Raisin,” this event became a standard for Americans to rally behind for the remainder of the War of 1812.
The brutal killing of these men became more than a lost battle. Frenchtown was technically still under British control. Bones of the deceased at Frenchtown were left unburied for nearly eight months; some were still being found in underbrush as late as 1820. Eventually most of the dead were placed in mass and scattered individual graves, but archeological digs have shown that human remains were left in nearly every part of today’s River Raisin National Battlefield Park.
Recent excavations of the battleground have yielded military relics, human bones, and the original foundations and artifacts from burned down homes. Some of the artifacts, original weapons, miniature dioramas of the battle, artwork, full-size British and American soldier replicas, and a fiber-optic map presentation that geographically shows each side’s military maneuvers are available for viewing at the Battlefield Visitor Center. Visitors are offered guided tours or they can set out on their own using the 18 historic markers to guide their experience. Driving tours lead visitors through three different routes of River Raisin history. River Raisin Battlefield is also the site of several special events. In January on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of the battle (January 18-23), an annual memorial service honors the service of the Americans, Muskrat French, British, Canadians, and the diverse American Indian tribes who fought in the War of 1812. Locals and visitors to River Raisin participate in quarterly War of 1812 roundtable discussions (call for more details).
Despite the heavy casualties and the American defeat, the two battles and subsequent “Massacre of River Raisin” helped motivate and unify American troops. Shouts of “Remember the Raisin” paid homage to those who died and inspired Americans to win the War of 1812 to preserve their independence from the British. River Raisin National Battlefield Park’s significance transcends the losses the Americans incurred at the battles and speaks to the brutality of warfare and the dramatic heroism that occurred.
River Raisin National Battlefield Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1403 East Elm Ave. in Monroe, MI. River Raisin Battlefield Visitor Center is open from 9:00am to 4:30pm 7 days a week but is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. The grounds remain open year round. Admission is free. For more information, visit the National Park Service River Raisin National Battlefield Park website or call 734-243-7136.