History & Culture

The River Raisin settlement during the January 22, 1813 Battle

Painting by Tim Kurtz

BATTLES OF THE RIVER RAISIN

Fall of the Michigan Territory 1812

May and June 1812: The River Raisin militia was called into service to build a military road linking the post of Detroit with Ohio.June 18, 1812: U.S. Congress declares war with Great Britain.

July 5, 1812: Brigadier General William Hull, commander of the U.S. forces in the (Old) Northwest accompanied with 1,200 Ohio militia and 200 regular soldiers, arrived in Detroit. Upon learning that artillery shots were already fired by his troops, Hull ordered the preparations for the planned invasion of Canada.

July 12, 1812: Brigadier General William Hull invaded British-held Canada with the goal of capturing Fort Malden\Amherstburg in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario). Hull’s forces, even short the 200 Ohio militiamen who refused to invade, were able to capture Fort Malden but were unable to hold it for long. When the British and their Native allies counterattacked, Hull was forced to withdraw back to Detroit.

August 16, 1812: After surviving a British siege and knowing that Detroit was cut off from any American support assembling at the River Raisin, Hull surrendered the fort in Detroit and the entire Michigan Territory to British Major General Isaac Brock. Detroit was surrounded by a large army of British and Natives Warriors and knowing more Native Warriors from the upper Great Lakes area were on their way.The local River Raisin militia, along with other American forces, gathered at the settlement in preparation to repel an expected Native ally attack, were shocked to find out that Hull surrendered Detroit and the entire Michigan Territory and that they were included in the terms of capitulation.

November 1812: A detachment of Canadian militiamen, armed with one small cannon, moved into the River Raisin settlement in preparation for an expected American invasion.

First Battle at the River Raisin, January 18, 1813

In January of 1813, American forces were assembling along the Maumee Rapids (present-day Toledo) for a winter campaign to retake Detroit. Revolutionary War veteran, General James Winchester arrived first with his forces and was waiting for General William Henry Harrison’s forces to join him when he received word from River Raisin settlers that their settlement was under British control and requested help.

General Winchester dispatched over 550 from the 1st and 5th Kentucky Volunteer Regiments, under the command of colonels William Lewis and John Allen to the River Raisin. American efforts to outflank the allied Canadian militiamen and Confederacy Warriors proved unsuccessful, and the fighting dissolved into a series of fierce skirmishes through the dense woods to the north. Fallen timbers offered protection for a fighting retreat, which was now aimed toward making a successful escape to the Wyandot village of Big Rock (Brownstown) while forcing the Kentuckians to pay as dearly as possible for their ensuing victory. In “the woods the fighting became general and most obstinate,” as one Kentuckian described this part of the battle, “the enemy resisting every inch of ground as they were compelled to fall back.” Over the course of two miles the slow-moving battle continued until darkness fell, with the retreating forces taking cover to fire on the pursuing Kentuckians, then dashing to another protected area before the pursuers could regroup or return accurate fire.

This part of the battle brought the most U.S casualties totaling 13 killed and 54 wounded. Records for the Canadian Essex Militia are spotty, no written accounts were recorded for Native losses, but the Canadians suffered as least one casualty. Native Warrior casualties were greater, but the numbers were not clear. Since Kentucky militiamen boasted of mutilating and scalping at least a few Native ally corpses, there were certainly some killed. Traces of blood were found along the paths taken by retreating Native Warriors, either from wounded individuals or the bodies of dead fighters who were taken away by their comrades.

The victorious Kentucky Volunteers setup camp within the protection of the puncheon fence and French habitant homes. Upon word from his forces that Frenchtown was liberated, General Winchester assembled four additional companies and proceeded to the River Raisin on January 20, 1813, bringing the number of American troops close to 1,000. Upon arriving, the 17th Infantry set up camp 300-400 yards outside the puncheon fence line on the Reaume farm in the bitter cold and deep snow.

Meanwhile, the British and Native Warriors prepared a counterattack across the frozen Lake Erie at Fort Malden in Canada. British Colonel Henry Procter assembled 595 soldiers at Fort Malden and proceeded to the Big Rock (Brownstown) to join the Native Confederation. At the Big Rock, around 800 Wyandot, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Odawa, Ojibwe, Delaware, Miami, Winnebago, Creek, Kickapoo, Sac, Fox and other Native Nations’ Warriors assembled.

Second Battle at the River Raisin, January 22, 1813

Arriving before dawn on the 22nd and unnoticed by the American sentries, the allied forces, 600 British Canadians and 800 Native Warriors gathered into their battle positions about 250-350 yards to the north of the settlement. Arrayed in an arc along the wooded stretch of Mason Run, the allied forces were organized into three large groupings. The British regulars and artillery were positioned in the center by Mason Run. About 200 yards to the British right (west) was a somewhat dispersed clustering of Native Warriors made up mostly of Anishinaabeg (Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi) and Miami and accompanied by some Canadian militia. Around 250 yards to the east of the British center position was a large number of Native Warriors represented mostly by the Wyandot and Shawnee in the forward position, with Canadian militia and artillery to their rear.

Just as the British forces in the center readied their attack, reveille sounded on the U.S. side and soon after a sentry spotted the British in the dim pre-dawn light. He fired a shot into the forward line that killed the lead grenadier, and the report of his musket sent the just-awakened 500 U.S. forces scrambling for their battle positions. Almost immediately, the British opened up with their artillery and the infantry pushed forward from their center position. As they drew within range of Frenchtown, they fired a powerful volley at what, in the still dark distance, had seemed to be a line of soldiers on the opposite end of the field of battle. Assuming they had the advantage, the British then made a fierce charge toward Frenchtown, but the target of their fusillade proved to be the puncheon fence behind which the protected Kentuckians could fire at will. With the British artillery overshooting the mark, and the puncheon fence providing ample protection, the Kentuckians were unscathed and unrelenting. After twenty minutes the British were forced to retreat, leaving a number of fallen comrades behind who were shot by Kentucky marksmen as they tried to crawl away.

Matters were quite different on the American’s right flank (East). There the Canadian militia quickly adjusted the aim of their artillery, and soon wreaked havoc on the exposed position of the U.S. 17th Infantry. As canon fire tore through the encampment and shattered breastworks, the exposed U.S. regulars also had to contend with militiamen and Wyandot fighters that had taken possession of some nearby buildings from which they could fire at will into the American encampment. The U.S. regulars struggled to hold their ground, but eventually faltered when mounted warriors came around their right flank. An attempt was made to send a few companies of Kentucky militiamen to the aid of the 17th Infantry, but the effort ultimately proved disastrous.

General Winchester, who had just arrived from his headquarters, ordered the infantrymen to fall back to the north bank of the river where they could rendezvous with the Kentuckians. Together they made a brief stand, but were soon overwhelmed by the pursuing Canadian, Wyandot and Shawnee fighters. After a frantic retreat to the south side of the river, where some forces made another futile stand, the American position disintegrated entirely, all within 20 minutes. All were swept up in the ensuing chaos, including Winchester and several officers. Fleeing pell-mell toward the south, many were run down and killed in fairly short order. Others managed to continue for a mile or two along Hull’s Road, but few managed to escape their pursuers—who now included a large contingent of Native Warriors that had swept around the west and south side of Frenchtown. Of the approximately 400 U.S. forces that were caught up in the rout, about 220 were killed and another 147 were captured. Of the total American forces at the River Raisin, only thirty-three managed to escape and return back to the Maumee River.

The actions to the east and south of Frenchtown were barely perceived by the British regulars and the Kentuckians still entrenched behind the fence lines. Instead they remained locked in what seemed to be the main battle area. Over the course of two hours, the British regrouped and made two more frontal attacks, but the Kentuckian position was too strong. The third and last attack proved the most costly, and brought the total British casualties among the 41st Regiment of Foot and Provincial Marines to 182 (24 killed and 158 wounded), a number that was perhaps four times greater than the total losses suffered by the entrenched Kentuckians.

As the British pulled back and evaluated their weakening situation, many of the Kentuckians took a simple breakfast in the midst of a relative lull in the fighting. Procter soon pressed his opposite for outright capitulation, but Winchester averred—since he was now a prisoner and could not give orders to those still engaged in battle. When told that his men would otherwise be burned out of their position, and attacked by a much larger force of Native Warriors, General Winchester agreed to send a message encouraging the Kentuckians still within the pickets of Frenchtown to surrender. When they received the message, the Kentuckians balked. Feeling themselves on the verge of victory, they still believed the battle could be won. As Private Elias Darnell later recalled, “Some plead[ed] with the officers not to surrender, saying they would rather die on the field!” These were brave words, and Major George Madison of the Kentucky 1st Regiment was committed to holding out long enough to influence the terms of surrender. After some back-and-forth with the British over the disposition of prisoners, protection from Confederacy Warriors, and care of the wounded, Madison formally surrendered.

While Colonel Procter viewed Winchester’s surrender as unconditional on all forces under his command, Madison’s terms were unremarkable and entirely in accord with Procter’s expectations. In either case, the Kentuckians’ position was dire. Their ammunition was low, they were completely hemmed in on the south, British artillery was in position to fire volleys of gunfire through their defensive lines, and Confederacy Warriors were firing into the heart of Frenchtown while preparing to set it on fire. In short, Madison had two choices: to surrender to the British or, as he put it, “be massacred in cold blood.”

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 Natives.The battle was costly for the British regulars and Canadian militia, whose combined losses of 24 killed and 161 wounded amounted to nearly a third of all the forces under Procter’s command at Frenchtown. For the U.S. forces, however, their loss was an unmitigated disaster. Of the 934 who heard the morning’s reveille, all but the thirty-three who managed to escape to the Maumee Rapids were either dead, wounded, or prisoners of war.

National Calamity

The morning after the Battle, Native Warriors 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 60 more who were probably killed in this manner. British estimates put the number at about six.

The event that became known as the “River Raisin Massacre” was not a sudden burst of collective violence. Rather, it began as a somewhat incredulous confirmation that no U.S. forces had arrived. It then progressed to a fairly deliberate taking of valuables and able-bodied captives, that was later punctuated by the killing of the most severely wounded survivors of the previous days’ battles. According to witness accounts from habitants and prisoners, in the first hour or so after daybreak the number of Native Warriors that had come in to the settlement was fairly small—with the few who spoke English engaging with some of the men who were taking care of the wounded. As Dr. Gustavus Bower later described the morning, “They did not molest any person or thing upon their first approach, but kept sauntering about until there were a large number collected, (one or two hundred) at which time they commenced plundering the houses of the inhabitants and the massacre of the wounded prisoners.”

Even then, the killings followed a method that—however brutal—might be described as utilitarian. The wounded who could not travel were the primary victims, and they were killed with a suddenness that betrayed little or no emotion. The same could be said of the looting, the taking of able-bodied prisoners, and the burning of buildings and structures—behaviors that Dr. John Todd, a surgeon with the Kentucky 5th Regiment Volunteer Militia later described as a kind of “orderly conduct.” A sense of deliberate order did not diminish, and perhaps intensified, the sense of horror that many survivors would later describe. Indeed, the most vivid recollections related to the systematic nature of the killings and resulting treatment of the remains.

The Battle ended in what was described as a "national calamity" by then General William Henry Harrison, and later President of the United States. The River Raisin remained a desolate settlement for eight months following the battle. American dead were left unburied due to Native Warrior 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 Battle of the Thames, October 5, 1813

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. The battle cry, "Remember the Raisin!" inspired a massive U.S. victory at the Battle, which sealed the War of 1812 in the western theater for the U.S., claimed the life of the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh, and resulted in the end the American Indian Confederation.

The Aftermath

The Aftermath of the Battles resulted in the implementation of Indian removal from the Northwest Territory at the conclusion of the War of 1812, an aftermath that continues to influence the United States today.

From 1826 – 1830, Michigan’s second Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass, wrote and published a series of four papers to discredit what he called “grave accusations and virulent invective” on the United States that purported inhumane treatment of indigenous nations. Governor Cass used the papers to catapult himself into the national debate over the proposed Indian Removal Act. In the eyes of many American politicians, Cass was successful in discrediting the numerous individuals who were sympathetic to Native Americas and opposed to their removal. Through self-promotion, Governor Cass became the U.S. authority, and one of the leading national advocates, on removing Tribal Nations to “west of the Mississippi” to separate them from growing colonial settlements.

In 1827, the North American Review published his paper on the “Service of Indians in Civilized Warfare.” In the paper, Governor Cass uses the Battles of the River Raisin as his most talked about and prominent illustration that for “two centuries” Native Americans have “demonstrated, that in all their battles with the whites, when resistance ceases the slaughter begins. Man in his strength, women in her weakness, and infancy in its innocence, are alike devoted to destruction, and frequently with circumstances of atrocity, to which no parallel can be found in other ages or nations.” In Governor Cass’s last paper, in 1829, he again stated, “Some of the most unprovoked aggressions and atrocious barbarities have been committed within a few years; and nothing but the absence of foreign aid, and the impression of our strength, prevents the renewal of the scenes at Fort Mimms [sic], at the Maumee, and at the River Raisin.”

In 1831, Governor Cass was rewarded for his promotion to remove Native Americans “west of the Mississippi” by being appointed as the United States Secretary of War by President Andrew Jackson. As the new Secretary of War, Lewis Cass was personally responsible for the implementation of the Indian Removal Act throughout the continental United States.

The Aftermath of the Battles of the River Raisin directly influenced the forced removal and relocation of every Native Nation in the United States and continues to impact Tribal Nations today through the lingering impacts of forced removal and relocation. Governor Cass’s attacks on technical aspects of those advocating humanitarian approaches to working with Tribal Nations during the colonization of the United States fall short when objectively viewed today. Being removed nearly 200 years from the time Governor Cass wrote his compelling papers allows for a clearer multi-perspective view of the events surrounding the passage of the Indian Removal Act. History now demands a new examination into the elements that lead to the capstone of America’s longest standing social justice issue. The verdict will be rendered by the next generations approach to complex challenges facing Tribal Nations in the continuing Aftermath of the Battles of the River Raisin.

Cultures

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.

Last updated: May 19, 2021

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