Two hundred and ten years ago today, the bloodiest battle ever fought on Michigan soil came to a close, resulting in the United States' worst defeat of the War of 1812. Here we dive into the battle that forever stained the fields of River Raisin National Battlefield Park.
It's 7:30 in the morning, and you're laying in a freezing canvas tent. A far cry from milder Kentucky winters spent sleeping next to your hearth, and for a brief moment you doubt every decision that brought you to camping next to a frozen river, during the dead of winter, in the inhospitable frontier known as the Michigan territory.
As you rub the sleep from your eyes, your wits follow suit and you start to remember why you volunteered for the Army of the Northwest. You recall your mother's stories of suffering under the British Crown, which supplement your father's tales of glory during the War of Revolution. Your serotonin levels rise further and you remember the brief thrill of battle that you experienced just four days earlier, when you charged across the frozen River Raisin and forced the British and Native American alliance to abandon their positions. You smile as you remember the sight of those red coats ducking into the woods, running for their lives. These thoughts and the slight sound of the gently flowing river bring you some comfort in the midst of this inhospitable environment.
The mirage abruptly ends when you suffer a terrifying realization. Your eyes frantically search for your musket. Your sword. Anything.
That sound isn't water. The river's frozen. That sound is approaching men.
Seconds later and your worst fears materialize as British guns and Native American war cries shatter the calm of a mid-winter morning. Musket balls start to rip through your tent before you can even get your boots on. You fall to the ground as canon fire rains down on your position.
The Battle of River Raisin - the worst American defeat of the War of 1812 and bloodiest battle ever to be fought in Michigan - has begun. And you're not even out of that freezing canvas tent.
GROUND ZERO: MONROE, MICHIGAN
Let's fast forward now to Monroe, Michigan, circa January 2023. Re-named in honor of President James Monroe in 1817, the city straddles the River Raisin as it makes its final approach towards Lake Erie. The past two hundred years shaped the city into a manufacturing hub, mecca of paper production, regional energy producer, and destination for small town recreation and community enjoyment. Monroe provided a peaceful home for several notable Americans like General George Armstrong Custer, as well as household name companies like La-Z-Boy.
Monroe also become home to several parks and outdoor recreation destinations, including its litany of beautiful parks along the River Raisin, Munson Park, and William C. Sterling State Park. Monroe's "River Walk" trail, opened only during the warmer months, guides residents and visitors alike along the northern and southern banks of the Raisin, criss-crossing from Saint Mary's Park, through downtown, and finishing at Soldiers and Sailors Park. Intrepid small tourists should continue down E Front St. until reaching Hellenberg Park and its bridge to Sterling Island. Potentially stepping in geese poop will be your only concern as you explore this peaceful, scenic route down the Raisin River.
As you get to the bridge to Sterling Island, however, we encourage you to stop. Resist the urge to keep hiking and turn north to look across the Raisin. Today's snowfall (finally) resembles exactly how the banks of the Raisin appeared on that fateful morning, save a thoroughly frozen river. Filled with people - no, let's make them soldiers. Screaming and running for their lives.
That's what you would have seen 210 years ago today from that exact spot: a military disaster unfolding into the worst massacre in Michigan's history. That's what occurred in the overgrown field, trash-dotted creek, and woodland patches comprising of River Raisin National Battlefield Park.
That's the story that we want to dive into now to better appreciate the experience that our fictional "sleeping solider" actually lived through on that fateful morning.
THE BATTLE OF RIVER RAISIN
January 22, 1813
Paradoxically, Southeast Michigan's sole national park site should have never existed. In the wake of the humiliating surrender of Fort Detroit to the British on August 16, 1812, President James Monroe charged Brigadier General (and future president) William Henry Harrison with the task of recapturing Detroit and securing the United States' control of the Great Lakes. Despite Detroit constituting the end goal, General Harrison explicitly forbade General James Winchester from advancing beyond the Maumee River Rapids in Northern Ohio. General Harrison envisioned the "Liberation of Michigan" as an incremental, calculated, and tactical recapturing of sovereign American territory from the British and Canadian occupiers.
Then General Winchester received a hot tip: the British and their Native American allies from the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Chippewa, Delaware, Miami, Winnebago, Creek, Sauk, and Fox tribes were camping on the outskirts of a budding community called Frenchtown, just north of the River Raisin. Only a few days' march from the Maumee River.
General Winchester couldn't resist; one order later and the Americans were marching north.
The initial Battle of River Raisin on January 18th, 1813, consisted of little more than a skirmish.
The British and Native American force of roughly 200 soldiers stood little chance to approximately 800 eager Americans, who charged across the frozen River Raisin just north of Sterling Island. Following a sporadic fight lasting just a few hours, the British and Native American force retreated north towards Detroit. Frenchtown - for the time being - was American once more.
The following days produced several deadly miscalculations. General Winchester had neglected to pack in requisite ammunition and other necessary supplies from the Americans' main encampment at the Maumee River. No orders were given to strengthen the rudimentary barrier walls surrounding Frenchtown, which the U.S. infantry were largely encamped outside of. Last, and most dangerous of all, General Winchester assumed that it would be "some days" before the British "would be ready to do anything." In other words, the Americans had plenty of time for reinforcements to arrive, walls to be built, and positions on the northern bank of the River Raisin to be solidified.
Spoiler alert: the Americans didn't have time for any of that.
On January 19th, British Colonel Henry Procter mobilized a joint British, Canadian, and Native American force of roughly 1,400 soldiers to move against the Americans. Before dawn on January 22nd, Colonel Procter's men crept towards the American encampments and opened fire while the majority of the American infantry still remained in bed. General Winchester's soldiers could only withstand the onslaught for 20 minutes, which broke abruptly when British artillery devastated what remained of the American lines.
The morning only got worse for the Americans as the lines broke in a chaotic sprint south towards the frozen River Raisin. The American retreat prompted an attack by the Native American warriors, which descended upon the U.S. Regulars and inflicted numerous casualties during hand-to-hand combat. While General Winchester shortly surrendered to the overwhelming force, a large segment of surviving Kentuckian volunteers retreated west towards Frenchtown and held out for several hours before surrendering.
When the muskets finally fell silent, 24 British and 359 Americans lay dead. A further 575 Americans lay wounded, most of which writhing under the guard of a British musket or Native American tomahawk. One hundred of those wounded American soldiers would meet their demise at the hands of their Native American captors the following day during the "River Raisin Massacre," but for now they were lucky to be alive.
The cries slowly faded. The odor of gun powder gradually relented in the freezing winter air.
The bloodiest morning in Michigan's history had finally ended.
STATE OF THE MODERN BATTLEFIELD
While we were researching this article, two profound sentiments struck us:
1. The Battle of River Raisin overwhelmingly constituted one of the most historic days, if not the single most historic day, in Michigan's history; and
2. Hardly anyone knows about it.
Don't worry, we're not here to point fingers. There are several rationales for why this battle and historical park lacks the fame of other famous National Battlefield or Military Parks like Yorktown, Gettysburg, or Horseshoe Bend.
You could blame it on the lack of educational attention that's afforded to the War of 1812, especially when compared to the unfathomable hours of coursework dedicated to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II. Perhaps Michigan's allocation of historical relevancy is way too concentrated on the development of the automotive industry. Maybe the national narrative of significant North American military conflicts occurring on the east coast or out west doesn't lend well to highlighting a major historical engagement in Southeast Michigan - against Canada, of all potential foes.
Or - most damning of all - maybe most people simply don't care about recognizing the significance of the Battle of River Raisin.
That would be a hard pill to swallow, and unfortunately there's some evidence for it. Which is exactly why we wanted to write this article.
Starting on a brighter note, the fact that the powers that be elevated River Raisin National Battlefield Park from a Michigan Historic Site to a National Park unit in 2010 was a very, very good development in the battlefield's history. With the legal protection afforded by the National Park Service, River Raisin NBP will forever benefit from the vast wealth of the federal government's conservation resources. In other words, the visitor experience to the battlefield will always have an opportunity for improvement to a world-class standard. The very recent improvements to the park's pristine Visitor Center evidence the power of conservation at work for public benefit.
That's a great start. Truly. But friends, we believe that much more could be done to honor the blood spilled on the banks of the Raisin - especially given the vast resources at our disposal.
My trail pup Lucy and I recently hiked the one mile historical trail at River Raisin NBP. The trail starts from the picnic area off of Elm Avenue, marking that location of the American encampment that our "sleeping solider" would have slept at. A paved historical trail - dotted with historical markers providing fascinating information regarding the battle - comprise of the first 0.2 miles of the trail. Take your time reading each and every historical marker to fully appreciate the grounds that you are hiking on.
The vast majority of the trail circumnavigates the field where American and British-Canadian lines formed and engaged one another. For any non-Monroe visitors, the size of the battlefield may surprise you. It's very, very small, but that is actually exceptionally common for most historic battlefields (for example, the famous Battle of Lexington that ignited the Revolutionary War occurred within Lexington's minuscule central town park). The trail starts behind the rudimentary barricades that designate the American line of defenses before venturing 0.1 of a mile north to the British-Canadian and Native American line. Note the benches that accompany the trail - the backrest of each contains additional historical information regarding the battle.
Part of both the beauty and terror of River Raisin NBP is that literally every natural feature surrounding the trail was used by predominantly the British alliance to decimate the Americans. The little trash-filled ditch running just north of the British line? That's actually Mason Run, and the British and Native Americans used its steep banks to conceal themselves as their forces finalized preparation for their rout. The 0.2 miles of rolling woods on the eastern side of the field? The Native Americans and Canadian frontiersmen militia utilized their backwoods hunting and stalking experience within the trees to get within yards of American tents unnoticed. A topography of horror.
Lucy and I were the only visitors on the trail that Saturday afternoon. In fact, we were the only ones in the park, other than a couple utilizing the main battlefield as an ample training space for their bird dog. I couldn't believe that we had such a historical destination all to ourselves, but the apparent lack of care given the extensive litter surrounding the trail gave me cause for serious concern. Hence, this article.
Friends and family, we as representatives of Detroit's outdoor community have to be the first to recognize the significance of our region's outdoors. Frankly, River Raisin NBP should be the easiest outdoor recreation space in our entire region to maintain in an immaculate, inviting, and respectful condition. It's small. It's powerfully historic. It's the beneficiary of federal funding. How can such a destination be so under-recognized and under-appreciated by its surrounding community?
And if River Raisin NBP of all places has suffered from such neglect, what about our other, less objectively significant yet beautiful outdoor destinations?
Apologies for pontificating, but we at Expedition Detroit care deeply for the exploration, celebration, and protection of our outdoor recreation opportunities. If we don't recognize the value of our wild, historic, and fragile environment, then no one else will. We are immensely grateful for institutions like the National Park Service and Department of Natural Resources for their immensity of conservation work, but we as an outdoor community can and should do more to support their efforts.
Here are a few quick ways to do so, relating specifically to River Raisin NBP:
Read Up on the Battle. We've provided a brief overview here, but we strongly encourage you to dig a little deeper and conduct your own research. Especially if you are a Monroe resident, learning more about the overwhelming historical significance of your backyard could serve as an inspiring, humbling, and pride-inducing experience.
Visit the Park. This is the fun part, especially since visiting the actual battle location is free. Go for a hike or run along the historical Battlefield Trail. Take your time reading the historical markers, imagining all along what an average American, British, Canadian, or Native American soldier must have experienced on that fateful day over a century ago. Be sure to visit the state-of-art Visitor Center as well.
Pack In a Trash Bag. As you're hiking on the trail, don't be afraid to leave the trail better than you found it by picking up some trash along the way. This action goes beyond the "Leave No Trace" principles that all outdoor enthusiasts should aspire to; in fact, you will be "paying it forward" by actively creating a more welcoming, pristine, and respected environment for others to enjoy. Trust us, karma points add up.
Share Your Experience. This final action item provides both the most critical and easy item to complete. If the apparent neglect of River Raisin NBP has resulted simply from lack of awareness of the park's significance or existence, then don't hesitate to speak openly about your time spent within the battlefield's hallowed confines. Historical facts, trail conditions, recommended activities, and ideas for future improvement are all fair game for discussion.
On this 210th anniversary of the Battle of River Raisin, we would like to end this article by honoring the soldiers who fought and died in that pivotal battle. We would like to thank the National Park Service, the River Raisin National Battlefield Park Foundation, Friends of the River Raisin Battlefield, City of Monroe, and the Wyandotte Nation for the countless hours of service that such organizations and institutions have dedicated to the preservation of the battlefield.
Last, we want to thank you for taking the time to read about this momentous battle, visit the park, and participate in the expansion and sustainability of Detroit's outdoor recreation community.
We'll see you on the trail.