The Battle of River Raisin was actually a series of engagements that took place on Jan. 18 and 22, 1813 near Frenchtown, Michigan Territory during the War of 1812. The U.S. was six months into the war with few victories to show for it, especially within the territory bordering Canada. By January 1813, events made Frenchtown a strategic location for both the British and American armies.
Now known as Monroe, Michigan, the flat, lush farmland lay on the western end of Lake Erie, directly along a path between Toledo, Ohio, 17 miles south, and Fort Detroit, 40 miles north. Originally home to the Potawatomi people and a key trade route for French fur trappers, missionaries and settlers, Frenchtown would soon become the location of the bloodiest battle of the war.
The American Army of the Northwest was charged with the defense of Ohio and the territories of Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. In July 1812, its commander, General William Hull attempted to invade Canada and capture Britain’s Fort Malden. Despite having superior forces, Hull surrendered Fort Detroit, his troops, 33 cannon and all of Michigan Territory Aug. 16 to British Brigadier General Isaac Brock and his Native American allies after a two-day siege.
After the surrender, Hull and his 1,600 Ohio militiamen were paroled and escorted south until they were out of danger of attack from the Native Americans who were part of the First Nations confederation of 35 tribes led by Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh. Hull’s 582 regulars were sent to Quebec City as prisoners. As a result, American forces then headed south through Frenchtown and Toledo to regroup along the Maumee River near today’s Perrysburg, Ohio. Angry at Hull’s surrender, President James Madison replaced him with Brigadier General James Winchester for a short time before appointing Major General William Henry Harrison commander of the Army of the Northwest. Winchester became Harrison’s second. Hull would later be tried by court-martial and sentenced to death. However, that sentence was commuted by President Madison because of Hull’s service in the Revolution.
Now in command, Harrison was determined to retake Detroit. He began planning a winter campaign to take advantage of the transportation frozen rivers afforded, and he started gathering forces further south in Ohio. He split his army into two columns with Winchester, an unpopular veteran of the Revolutionary War, positioned on the Maumee River and commanding a force of about 1,000 mostly untrained regulars and volunteers from Kentucky.
By November, a small force of 63 Canadian militiamen, 200 First Nation allies and one cannon, under Major Ebenezer Reynolds, were sent south by British Brigadier General Henry Proctor to occupy Frenchtown. In January, some Frenchtown settlers traveled to see Winchester, informed him of the small garrison there and requested help. Against Harrison’s orders to remain within supporting distance of the main army which was on its way from the Upper Sandusky, Winchester sent 667 Kentucky volunteers and 100 French-speaking militiamen to Frenchtown under the command of colonels William Lewis and John Allen. The Americans crossed the frozen River Raisin north of town Jan. 18 and attacked the garrison pushing back the defenders over several hours before the British retreated north. American losses were 13 killed and 54 wounded, with estimated British casualties of 1 wounded, 15 killed and 1 captured.
On January 20, Winchester left word for Harrison that he was leading another 250 men to Frenchtown to reinforce it, and just missed Harrison’s arrival at the Maumee. Though displeased that Winchester disobeyed orders, he was happy at the initial success and wanted to capitalize on it, so he sent four green companies from the 17th and 19th U.S. Infantry under Capt. Nathaniel Hart in support with orders to hold the ground “at any rate.” Hart arrived to see an incomplete palisade, few pickets, low supplies and a force completely unprepared for a counterattack. Winchester assumed he had days before a British advance despite warnings from residents. The left wing of his army was protected by a six-foot fence, but his right wing was camped in the open among homes north of the river. His own headquarters was nearly a mile south of town.
In the meantime, Proctor had marched an army of 600 British regulars and militiamen from the 41st Regiment of Foot and Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, 800 First Nation warriors and six, 3-pound cannon across frozen Lake Erie camping just five miles north on Jan. 21. Proctor’s attack at dawn on Jan. 22 was swift with his six guns roaring to life and alerting all to the assault. Winchester then arrived and ordered 240 men to reinforce the right flank, but they couldn’t reach the main line before it collapsed after only 20 minutes. Winchester and nearly 400 men retreated across the river, during which 220 men were cut off and killed; either shot or tomahawked as they retreated in smaller groups. Winchester and 146 of his men were captured, with only 33 escaping.
Meanwhile, nearly 500 Kentucky militiamen, protected by the fences, repelled three British advances against the left flank. At 11 a.m., the Kentuckians saw a white flag and expected a ceasefire. Instead, it was the British sending a message from Winchester to surrender. The Kentuckians had only suffered 5 killed and 40 wounded. In all, 410 Americans were killed with 547 captured and more than 90 wounded. British forces suffered 24 killed and more than 160 wounded. Most British casualties were inflicted by the Kentucky militia.
The prisoners were marched toward Fort Malden, and those considered too severely wounded were left in Frenchtown with a small detachment to guard them and the assurance that sleds would return to transport them the next day. But during the night, the British abandoned the wounded, and the Native Americans robbed and killed them, or burned them alive in the buildings where they lie the next morning. They then marched other walking wounded toward Fort Malden and reportedly “butchered” those unable to keep pace. Reports range from 30 to 100 massacred troops. Word of the massacre swept the nation.
In the end, Winchester’s army was lost, and Harrison’s retaking of Fort Detroit would have to wait until the next fall. Many of Winchester’s troops remained prisoners until the end of the war. Winchester, himself, was a prisoner for more than a year.
Of the 2,200 men killed in action during the war, nearly 20% occurred during the Battle of River Raisin. The battle became known as the River Raisin Massacre, and “Remember the Raisin” became a rallying cry for all Americans and drove a surge of enlistments; especially from Kentucky.
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