Blood on the Ice: Remembering the Battles of Frenchtown
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 Second Battle of Frenchtown - 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 SECOND BATTLE OF FRENCHTOWN
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 First Battle of Frenchtown 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.