Published on February 13, 2013 by Carol
The Battle of Frenchtown (Battle of the River Raisin in Monroe Michigan) was the largest battle fought on Michigan soil. This battle was a major defeat for the Americans and was one of the bloodiest engagements during the War of 1812. The massacre of some wounded solders the following day shocked and enraged Americans throughout the Old Northwest Territory. This incident soon became know as “The River Raisin Massacre” and the rallying cry was “Remember the Raisin”.
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After General William Hull surrendered Detroit to British Major General Henry Proctor on August 16th, 1812 without a prolonged siege, President James Madison placed General William Henry Harrison in command of the Army of the Northwest Territory. This decision placed Harrison over the not so popular Brigadier General James Winchester. Winchester was then placed second in command under Harrison. Harrison’s first plan of attack was to retake Fort Detroit during a winter campaign. (At the time Detroit was considered a critical outpost, and would allow the American forces to invade Upper Canada.) Harrison split his army into two columns, one of which he personally led to Upper Sandusky, while the other under Winchester pushed farther west. Winchester’s column, consisting of 2,000 untrained regulars and volunteers mostly from Kentucky, established a base camp at the Maumee River Rapids (today known as Perrysburg, Ohio.) Against Harrison’s orders, but at the request of the local citizens of Frenchtown whose village had been occupied by the British and Indians, Winchester sent a relief detachment to Frenchtown, under the command of Colonel Lewis. Lewis departed down the Maumee River to the frozen western shore of Lake Erie, going north to the River Raisin. In a sharp skirmish on January 18th, 1813 Lewis dispersed a small detachment of British and Indians.
General Winchester and 250 reinforcements joined Lewis at Frenchtown on January 20th 1813. When Winchester departed the Maumee Rapids he had left word for Harrison explaining his actions that “Nothing… but progressive actions” would encourage the mostly Kentucky volunteers as the following month their six month enlistments would be up. (Previous to Frenchtown, Winchester’s army had not seen any heavy action.)
Harrison, pleased with the success of Lewis, feared that the British might overpower Winchester’s forces before additional troops could reach Frenchtown. Harrison arriving at the Maumee Rapids the day Winchester left for Frenchtown, immediately ordered additional troops to leave at once. Harrison, however, did not order Winchester to return to the Maumee Rapids. Instead, he sent Captain Nathaniel Hart to the River Raisin with a message “to hold the ground… at any rate”.
When Captain Nathaniel Hart arrived in Frenchtown, he found Winchester’s forces ill-prepared for a British / Indian counterattack. Even after receiving reports from the local residents that a large British force was headed toward the Frenchtown settlement on the River Raisin, Winchester maintained it would be “some days” before the British “would be ready to do anything”. The over-confident Winchester spread his troops throughout the Frenchtown Settlement. Winchester had decided to put up for the night at an isolated home south of the river and west from the rest of his men (about 1 mile) well outside of the Frenchtown settlement, taking with him the army’s extra black powder supply. Because of this arrangement Winchester failed to provide adequate security for his troops.
Colonel Henry Proctor commander of the British forces in the Detroit River region organized a counter attack after learning of this take over of Frenchtown. He gathered troops from Fort Malden, consisting mostly of 597 British regulars from the 41st Foot and local militiamen, and 800 Indians led by the Wyandot Chief Roundhead and Walk-in-the-water, and six small cannons. Proctor crossed the Detroit River and proceeded to Stony Creek, bringing his artillery with him over the ice. The troops assembled the night of January 21st, 1813 only 5 miles north of Frenchtown, in readiness for the dawn attack. His total force numbered over a thousand, perhaps as many as 1,300 compared to Winchesters 934.
Before sunrise on the morning of January 22nd, 1813, the British and Native forces surprised the Americans who took their positions quickly and returned fire. American guards had been posted the night before but no one was guarding the road to the north. Was it too late to save Frenchtown?
“Only 20 minutes into the battle the US regulars under British artillery fire and flanked by Procter’s Indians, withdrew from the fencerow toward the river. Two companies of Kentucky militiamen rushed to stabilize the regulars but they too were overwhelmed. As the regulars retreated Captain James C Price and the fifty men in his Jessamine Blues sought to retrieve the American wounded. Price’s men quickly discovered that the Indians had encircled Frenchtown leaving a narrow road as the only avenue of escape. As the Kentuckians withdrew down the lane the Indians poured a withering fire into their ranks.”
Winchester was awakened that morning by artillery and gun fire and the sounds of Indian attacks. Jumping from bed and the comfort of the isolated farmhouse, he forgot his uniform coat. Minutes later Winchester arrived on the right flank just as it was crumbling. He tried to re-form the regulars on the opposite side of the river. This proved impossible. Winchester, his sixteen year old son and several aides were swept-up in the retreat, and were captured by Indians loyal to Chief Roundhead and taken to Proctor.
“During the rout, the US regulars broke into small groups and despite being outnumbered, continued to fight until overwhelmed. Lieutenant Ashton Garrett and about 20 men were surrounded and laid down their arms. Their Indian captors then began shooting them. Garrett was the only one to escape the massacre. Another group of Americans retreated about three miles before being over taken. About half of whom were shot or tomahawked. Some regulars removed their shoes so they could run through the snow in their stockings to leave deceptive footprints for the Indian pursuers. One of the men who employed this trick was Captain Richard Matson. He and about thirty others were the only regulars to escape death or capture.”
“As the Americans right flank collapsed, the Kentuckians in the picketed area on the left side of the line repulsed three British assaults with “coolness and intrepidity”. At one point during the battle, the Americans discovered that the British were moving to occupy a large barn 150 yards in front of the US positions. Ensign William O Butler volunteered to set the barn on fire. Carrying a firebrand in the face of steady enemy gunfire, Butler raced to the barn and set it ablaze. He then returned to the barn to place more straw on the fire. By the time the ensign safely returned to his lines his clothing was riddled with bullets.”
“Around 11:00 am the British fire slackened. The Kentuckians on the left flank suffered five killed and about forty wounded. British losses were a staggering one-third killed and wounded. One British observer later noted that if the Americans had left their fortifications and charged, Proctor’s right flank might have collapsed.”
“Unaware of the defeat of the US regulars, the Kentuckians’ confidence rose as a flag of truce advanced from the British line. However confusion replaced confidence when the volunteers saw that the bearer was Major James Overton, General Winchester’s aide. Colonel Proctor who accompanied Overton delivered a letter from Winchester suggesting that the Kentuckians lay down their arms .Proctor had convinced Winchester that if the Kentuckians did not surrender the town buildings would be burned and the Indians would kill the US wounded. Winchester later claimed that he recommended the surrender because he believed the men behind the palisades were in a state of desperation.”
Winchesters letter to surrender shocked the Kentuckians. The Kentuckians had vowed to fight to the end no matter what the consequence. Other members of the Kentucky Militia pleaded with other officers “they would rather die on the field” than surrender. Major George Madison (a distant relative to President Madison) looked to the other American officers for advice. Madison then asked Proctor if the Americans would remain safe if he ask his troops to lie down their weapons. Proctor then replied “Sir, do you mean to dictate to me?” Madison then indicated that his men would rather die in battle than be massacred. Proctor agreed that all American property and wounded would be protected. Madison then surrendered knowing he was short of ammunition and surrounded by British and Indians. The Kentuckian reluctantly laid down their weapons. It was shortly after the Indians began robbing the Kentuckians. Madison objected to their behavior and threatened to have his men shoulder arms if Proctor did stop the Indians. Proctor then replied “The Indians are fierce and unmanageable”, but when Proctor waved his sword the Indians stopped.
Fearing that General William Henry Harrison would be sending reinforcements to the River Raisin (Frenchtown) the British rushed through the surrender ceremonies. Proctor departed for Fort Malden late in the afternoon on January 22, 1813, with the British regulars, Canadian militia and the Americans that could walk because there were not enough sleighs for the American wounded. American casualties totaled over 300 killed outright, about 60 seriously wounded and more than 500 taken prisoner Proctor reported 24 British killed and 158 wounded. There no reports of the Indian casualties.
Did Proctor foresee the possibility of a counter attack? About 900 American reinforcements had already started the long exhausting march though rain, snow and mud. When they learned of Winchester’s defeat, Harrison’s officers recommended they return to Maumee. Harrison did send 170 of his “most active men” to help any of Winchester’s men that may have escaped.
Captain William Elliott and three interpreters, along with several volunteers and two US surgeons, John Todd and Gustave M Bower, stayed behind to care for and guard the wounded. When the Americans expressed concern that the two US doctors were not adequate medical support, they were told “The Indians are excellent doctors”. As the wounded watched their comrades march away, Proctor proclaimed that he would return the following day with more sleighs to transport the wounded to Fort Malden.
As light broke, the Americans prepared for the arrival of the British with sleds in tow, also looking south in hopes of seeing a relief column of troops arriving from the Maumee Rapids. But instead Dr. Todd witnessed the three interpreters leaving the Frenchtown Settlement. Captain Elliott also disappeared during the night.
It was 10:00am on January 23rd when Todd was approached by approximately 200 Indians who had entered the town. One of whom confronted Todd and asked why the wounded had not been moved to Fort Malden. The doctor explained that the sleds would return today the Indian referred to the British as “damned rascals”, and continued that the wounded would be killed.
Doctor Todd later recalled the Indians were seeking revenge for the lives lost from the previous day’s fighting, rather than drunk, as some have claimed. The Indians then invaded buildings that housed the wounded and began stripping them of their belonging. Some of the wounded that could walk were taken captive. Those more seriously wounded were murdered. Once the Indians began to set the building on fire one could hear the cries from the wounded that could not escape the burning building, those that managed to crawl to safety were tomahawked at the door.
The brutal massacre continued on. It was mid afternoon before the Indians and captured Kentuckians left the Frenchtown Settlement for Fort Malden. Those that were unable to keep up (according to one survivor) were inhumanly butchered. Elias Darnell remember, “The road was for miles strewed with the mangled bodies”. Estimates of the number of wounded who were actually murdered by the Indians on January 23rd range from half a dozen to 30 or 40.
This incident soon became know as “The River Raisin Massacre” and the rallying cry was “Remember the Raisin”.
The defeat at Frenchtown forced Harrison to cancel his projected winter campaign to recapture Detroit. Harrison instead took a defensive stand in Ohio and built Fort Meigs at the Maumee Rapids, known today as Perrysburg.