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The New River Raisin National Battlefield Park Highlights One of the Bloodiest Conflicts of a Seldom Mentioned War
There was a time when the battle cry “Remember the Raisin!” packed a lot of emotional heat. In January 1813, a British and Indian force destroyed an American army on the north bank of the Raisin River in southeastern Michigan. Now a new national park will commemorate one of the bloodiest battles of the War of 1812.
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act that was signed into law on March 30, 2009, authorized the establishment of River Raisin National Battlefield Park at Monroe, Michigan. This is one of those go-aheads that will almost certainly puzzle most people who hear about it. Few Americans know much of anything about the War of 1812, and fewer still know about the devastating American defeat that occurred at the site this park will preserve.
Back in 1812, Ohio was already a state (since 1803) and the young American republic also held title to the other lands of the former Northwest Territory, a 260,000 square-mile region encompassing all of modern day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, plus the Arrowhead Region of northeastern Minnesota. Nevertheless, the British, despite having come out on the short end of the Revolutionary War, were still very much in business – the lucrative fur business, that is – in the Great Lakes region and upper Midwest. A powerful confederation of Indian tribes under the leadership of the charismatic Tecumseh was allied with the British. The Indians believed, rightly so, that the British would be less likely than the Americans to settle the frontier and drive them out of the homelands.
Americans controlled Kentucky and Pennsylvania, but if they went north of the Ohio River or west of Pennsylvania they had to fight with the British and their Indian allies to maintain toeholds on the Ohio frontier or to travel the waterway trade routes of the Great Lakes and its tributaries. It was humiliating for America to be unable to control a vast chunk of the Great Lakes region that it owned in fee simple, and it was dangerous for the frontier settlers and traders who lived in fear of being harassed, expelled, or massacred.
Detroit was a very important strategic prize in those days. Situated as it is on a key chokepoint of the Great Lakes waterway system, the narrow river corridor connecting Lake Erie to the Upper Great Lakes (by way of Lake St. Clair), Detroit offered a position from which to dictate what passengers, freight, and military wherewithal would be permitted to move between the upper and lower lakes. You couldn’t control Michigan and the Great Lakes region if you didn’t possess Detroit, and if you couldn’t control Michigan and the Great Lakes waterways, you couldn’t push the northwestern frontier further and further outward to exploit the region’s rich fur, land, and other resources. What happened in this part of the continent during the War of 1812 was demonstrably very important to the American cause.
Detroit was in American hands by mid-July 1812, but that didn’t last long. On August 16, the 2,500-strong American force garrisoning Fort Detroit was surrendered to a British & Indian force only half its size without a shot being fired. It was the American army’s sad misfortune to be commanded by Brig. General William Hull, an incompetent, faint-hearted commander who had just recently led a failed invasion of Canada and now chose to run up a white flag rather than defend Detroit. It was, to put it mildly, one of the more inglorious episodes in American military history.
Hull’s surrender of Detroit, inspired by his desire to save American lives (“I have saved Detroit and the Territory from the horrors of an Indian massacre,” he said), set in motion a sequence of events that ended with the blood of hundreds of American soldiers soaking the soil of a small community about 30 miles southwest of Detroit where the Raisin River flows into Lake Erie.
The onset of deep winter found the Army of the Northwest, a 2,000-strong force of mostly untrained regulars and militia commanded by Gen. William Henry Harrison, on its way from northern Ohio to retake Detroit. If successful, this mission would not only regain control of Michigan and the upper Great Lakes, but also open the way to another invasion of Upper Canada. There was, to be sure, a lot at stake.
By mid-January, a large detachment of American troops under the command of Brig. Gen. James Winchester was at Frenchtown (modern day Monroe) on the north bank of the Raisin River. There they were attacked by a force consisting of nearly all of the fighters, British and Indian, which British commander Colonel Henry Proctor could muster in the Detroit vicinity.
The series of brief skirmishes and pitched battles that took place around Frenchtown during January 18-23, 1813, yielded an unmitigated disaster for the American side. When the smoke cleared after the main battle on January 22, the British and Indian force was in charge of the field, Winchester’s detachment had been virtually annihilated, and Harrison was in full retreat with what was left of the Army of the Northwest.
The Battle of Frenchtown left the Army of the Northwest very thoroughly beaten. The American losses included 300-400 killed (estimates vary) and another 560 or so wounded or captured. Of the nearly 1,000 American troops committed to the battle, scant dozens escaped unscathed. The British lost a few dozen dead and around 160 wounded, while Indian casualties went unrecorded.
The American defeat at Frenchtown left the little settlements and isolated farmsteads of the Ohio frontier vulnerable to Indian attacks, and they were not long in coming. Many pioneer men, women, and children along the frontier did not live to see the end of the war and expulsion of the British from the region. Nevertheless, it wasn’t too long before the British saw their gains reversed.
After Frenchtown, Harrison went to a defensive posture, occupying Fort Meigs on the Maumee River near Toledo and repelling a British attack. By the fall, his army was once again ready to go on the offensive. Just as importantly, American victories in the Lower Great Lakes made the British positions throughout the Great Lakes untenable and cost the British the support of their Indian allies. The British had no choice but to abandon Detroit after American Captain Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie. This cleared the way for Harrison to invade Upper Canada, and on October 5, 1813, his troops won the Battle of the Thames and killed Tecumseh. Although the British were able to hang on to Canada, which many Americans had considered ripe for the taking, it was all over for them in the American-owned territory of the Great Lakes region.
Now that Congress has OK-ed a national park to preserve and interpret the River Raisin Battlefield, it will take a while before a national park emerges on the site and opens its doors to the public. Implementing a park authorization like this one typically takes about eight years. Finalizing a General Management Plan can be expected to take three years, and then around five years are needed for development. Arranging required funding, acquiring battlefield land, constructing visitor facilities, and related functions all entail the possibility of bothersome delays.
Putting the various parcels together will doubtlessly be a bit tricky, since the relevant military events occurred over an area that's five miles long and half a mile wide. The enabling legislation stipulates that the land for the park must be acquired by donation, too, and this means potentially complex dealings with landowners and intermediate parties.
Fortunately, the Park Service will not be operating in a hostile environment. Monroe’s River Raisin Battlefield Visitor Center, a cooperative effort of the Monroe County Historical Commission and the Monroe County Historical Society, has been in operation since 1990 and is a source of community pride. (The Park Service has already expressed interest in using this existing facility for the new park.) Locals have a generally positive view of the national park project, even though there’s scant prospect of a big tourist influx and corresponding growth in jobs, tax revenues, and other economic benefits. Realistically, the park can expect around 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a year, mostly people spending just a few hours on site.
Postscript: In the aftermath of the Battle of Frenchtown, Indians killed some wounded American soldiers, mostly Kentucky militiamen, that the British had left in their keeping. This cold blooded killing of helpless prisoners (estimates put the number at anywhere from 6 to 68) prompted Americans to refer to this sorry episode as the River Raisin Massacre. In subsequent battles fought in the region, “Remember the Raisin!” was a battle cry that heated the emotions of Kentuckians in much the same way that later cries of “Remember the Alamo!” fired-up Texians and “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” fired-up Union troops at Gettysburg.