River Raisin’s Bloody Banks

Remember the River Raisin? If you’re talking about the almost 200-year-ago battle between Americans and a combined force of British soldiers and their Indian allies — and not the polluted river that today flows through downtown Monroe and into Lake Erie — then not many folks do. Fought in January 1813 in and around the settlement then known as Frenchtown, it remains the bloodiest battle ever waged on Michigan soil. Of the 934 Americans engaged in the fighting, all but 33 were either killed or forced to lay down their muskets.
Illustration by Sonia Roy

What made the Battle of River Raisin unforgettable, at least in its time, was the wholesale massacre of scores of prisoners — most of them Kentucky militiamen — who were too seriously wounded to be moved from Frenchtown. Despite British assurances to the surrendering Americans that these men would not be harmed, the Indians had other thoughts. Once the British left, the captives were stripped, tomahawked, and in some cases, burned alive in their beds as buildings were put to the torch. There were other brutal acts too gruesome to tell here. The few who were unharmed were ransomed off in Detroit. Some were never seen again.

The Niles Weekly Register called it “the most horrid assassination and cold-blooded butchery ever committed, or suffered to be done, by civilized man.” The atrocities caused avenging Americans throughout the Old Northwest Territory to rally to the cry “Remember the Raisin!” as they defeated the British and killed Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames nine months later.

River Raisin “certainly was one of the most controversial episodes of the War of 1812,” says Ralph Naveaux of Monroe, director emeritus of the Monroe County Historical Museum and author of a study on the battle. “The British had taken Detroit the previous year and an entire army brought up from Kentucky to recapture it was instead destroyed. You don’t hear much about it today. But then, the whole War of 1812 is a kind of a forgotten war — a small war sandwiched between the American Revolution and the Civil War. It’s not really well known.”

A study currently being conducted by the National Park Service (NPS) may soon help change that. Thanks to the influence of longtime U.S. Rep. and history buff John Dingell, along with U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, the NPS has been directed by Congress to explore the feasibility of adding the River Raisin battlefield to the National Park System. The NPS owns or administers nearly 400 physical properties around the country, ranging from simple historic homes and monuments to sprawling military parks and cemeteries. Michigan currently has four NPS parks: The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks, Keweenaw Historical Park, and Isle Royale.

The Battle of the Thames, which took place on Oct. 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, was revenge for the slaughter at River Raisin. Americans defeated British and Indian forces. The Americans included angry Kentucky Mounted Riflemen; many of those massacred at River Raisin were Kentucky militiamen. National Guard Heritage Print by Ken Riley, courtesy of National Guard Bureau

Ruth Heikkinen, a study team coordinator at the NPS regional office in Omaha, Neb., is overseeing the study as project manager. “Last October, we had a couple of public meetings in Monroe, and I was very impressed by the large number of people who came each night, and by their passion,” Heikkinen says. “Nearly everybody was for the idea.” That kind of support is “very heartening” — and important, as the cash-strapped NPS is always looking for local partners to share costs, resources, and site management.

The proposed 40-acre park basically centers on the intersection of Dixie Highway and Elm Avenue. Currently, a team representing a variety of private and public agencies is using grants and loans to clear titles, transfer property, and conduct archaeological digs and environmental studies. The last of the abandoned paper mills that stood on the site has been torn down.

If approved by Washington, the Raisin River Battlefield Park can take one of many different forms, largely based on funding. “I’d like to see the site restored to its natural state,” Naveaux says. “This was farmland at the time of the battle, so bringing in grasses and plants consistent with the period would be appropriate. A railroad runs through the area now, so it’d be nice if we could somehow screen that off so visitors get a visual landscape of what the battlefield actually looked like.” Enthusiasts are realistic, however. A fully staffed state-of-the-art interpretive museum, while highly desirable, costs considerably more than self-guided walking tours.

Local motels and restaurants stand to gain from any influx of battlefield tourists, as do the inevitable purveyors of Tecumseh bobbleheads and “I (heart) Frenchtown” hoodies. But, overall, the economic impact — while welcomed — will probably not be significant. Moreover, it won’t be felt for the several years that it typically takes to get a park up and running.

A draft of the findings — analyzing costs, benefits, and environmental impact, as well as options and recommendations regarding the interpretation and staffing of the park — should be ready for public comment this fall. Heikkinen expects the finalized study to be sent to Congress by early 2010. She stresses that the intention is not to somehow “save” Monroe, but rather salvage an overlooked slice of history. “We feel it would fill a gap in people’s understanding of the war,” she says. “There’s the Perry Memorial in Ohio, which commemorates Admiral Perry’s victory on Lake Erie in 1813. But that was fought on water, so there’s no battlefield to walk across.”

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