The Battles of the River Raisin
In the summer of 1812, the River Raisin Militia was called into service to build a military road which linked Detroit with Ohio. In July, General William Hull, Commander of U.S. forces in the Old Northwest, marched several thousand Ohio volunteers over that road to defend Detroit. Hull's plans to capture British Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Ontario, were dropped when the supply road between Detroit and the River Raisin was cut by hostile Indians. General Hull made three unsuccessful attempts to open the road. Confronted with a large army of British soldiers and Indians, Hull surrendered his entire army to the British at Detroit on August 16, 1812, almost without firing a shot.
The local militia on the River Raisin were expecting an Indian attack. They were shocked when a British officer arrived on August 17 with news of the surrender of Detroit and with orders from General Hull for them to surrender. After a brief British occupation, the settlement's fortified blockhouse was burned and the British left.
In November 1812, a small detachment of Canadian militiamen, armed with a small cannon, was stationed here to watch the advance of another American army. The new American army had been recruited in Kentucky in August of 1812, with the elderly Revolutionary War veteran, General James Winchester, in command. This army suffered on their march from the lack of winter clothing and food, yet arrived at Maumee, Ohio, on January 10, 1813, eager for a fight. After messengers from the River Raisin arrived pleading for rescue from the British and Indians, Winchester's army moved to strike at the enemy.
Over six hundred men, under the command of Colonels William Lewis and John Allen, were dispatched. They arrived south of the Raisin in the afternoon of January 18. Facing them were 63 Canadian militiamen and 200 Potawatomi Indians. The Americans were reinforced with 100 men from the River Raisin, and quickly routed the British and Indians and drove them into the woods a mile north of the settlement. The fighting continued, tree to tree, and log to log, until dark. The Americans won at the cost of 13 killed and 54 wounded. The British and Indians retreated north to Brownstown, across the river from the British base at Fort Malden.
The Americans set up camp among the homes on the north side of the river. General Winchester arrived with reinforcements three days later, bringing the number of American troops to 934.
The British counterattacked. On the morning of January 22, 1813, 597 British and Canadian soldiers, six cannons, and 800 Indians launched an attack. As they moved forward in the pre-dawn darkness, they were discovered by an American sentry. Although surprised, the Americans took positions quickly and returned fire.
The fighting had been raging for twenty minutes when the U.S. 17th infantry, camped on the right in an open field, was flanked by Canadian militia and Indians. Orders were given to retreat to the river and make a stand, and 240 more Americans were sent from the center lines to help. The retreat became a disastrous flight for Ohio. Of the 400 Americans who ran, nearly 220 Americans were killed, about 147 including General Winchester, were captured. Only 33 escaped to safety.
At the same time, the left wing of nearly 500 Kentucky militiamen were fighting from behind a puncheon fence. They successfully repulsed three British frontal attacks and drove back the British cannons with their rifles. These Americans, with only five killed and 40 wounded, expected the British to ask for a truce. They saw a British officer with a white flag, but were shocked to find he carried a message from General Winchester advising them to surrender. The Kentuckians reluctantly surrendered, after insisting on terms that the American wounded be protected from the Indians.
The British withdrew hurriedly, due to heavy casualties and news that more Americans under command of General Harrison were nearby. The American wounded were left behind in the homes of the settlers. On the morning of January 23, 1813, all of the British guards, who were supposed to be protecting the wounded, left. Indians returned to the River Raisin. They plundered homes and the wounded for valuables, and then killed and scalped Americans who could not walk. Bodies were tossed into burning houses that the Indians had set aflame. Those able to walk were claimed by the Indians and taken to Detroit where they were ransomed. Over 60 unarmed American wounded were killed. This was later known as the "Massacre of the River Raisin."
Americans in the west rallied to the flag. Eager for revenge, their battle cry became "Remember the Raisin!"
The River Raisin was a desolate, nearly abandoned settlement for eight months following the massacre. American dead lay unburied; many homes were burned and plundered. Most settlers fled to Detroit or to Ohio. Local citizens later supported the Americans at the seiges of Fort Meigs in Ohio, but could not stop Indians from using the River Raisin settlement as a base of operations and supply depot.
The River Raisin was liberated on September 27, 1813, when Colonel Richard M. Johnson's Kentucky cavalry, led by men from the River Raisin, rode into the settlement. Moving on, the Kentuckians quickly pushed the British and Indians deep into Canada and decisively defeated them at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.
Although the British and hostile Indians could not return, destruction was so severe that the River Raisin settlement remained destroyed and impoverished for five years after the battles.