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Tactics of the Battle of the River Raisin

Battle Map of the Battle for River Raisin (From

The Battle of the River Raisin was the bloodiest and largest battle ever fought upon Michigan soil. The massacre served as a rallying cry for future successes of the War of 1812. “Remember the Raisin” saw a surge in enlistments and aided Major General William Henry Harrison in the defeat of the British General Proctor at the Battle of Thames. The Americans, led by Brigadier General James Winchester, arrived at Frenchtown alongside Colonel Lewis in order to relieve the citizens of Frenchtown as the village had been occupied by the British and Native Americans. The Americans lost Frenchtown during a counterattack by the British, yet they would have been successful had the American general Winchester made appropriate decisions regarding defenses and his subordinate officers lackadaisical attitude towards British retaliation.

MG Harrison had been chosen over BG Winchester as the commander of the Army in the Northwest. He had ordered BG Winchester to keep himself and the 1,000 troops he commanded to remain in the area to serve as the supporting effort to the main force led by MG Harrison. BG Winchester ignored this, and moved 750 of his men towards Frenchtown in order to relieve the village from British and Native American Control. The village was garrisoned by approximately 260 British and Native forces.

The First Conflict

The initial battle of River Raisin was fought on the 18th of January 1813. BG Winchester had sent Colonel Lewis along with those 750 men. They were able to rout the British and Native troops after several hours of battle. Elias Darnell, a soldier involved in this conflict, was part of the force approaching Frenchtown. He claimed that the attitude of him and his fellow soldiers was that of “to conquer or die” (Captured). The American soldiers were willing to fight to the death in order to save their fellow man. This force of 750 men approached from Presque’Isle, which was a French settlement on the south side of the Maumee River. From Presque’Isle, they moved north towards Frenchtown. Darnell recalled in his journal that the British “saluted” with cannons, but inflicted no casualties to the American soldiers. The Americans then charged their defenses despite British gunfire attempting to deter them. The British had cycled through several defensive positions prior to their retreat to the north. The Natives and British fled north into the woods and were pursued for about half a mile until the brush became too thick (Captured).

After the conflict died down, the American soldiers returned from their pursuit at the loss of “eleven killed and fifty wounded” (Captured), however, it appeared as though the enemy had lost a considerably larger amount at nearly 60 killed and over 100 wounded according to a Frenchman fighting with the Americans, and the battlefield showed signs of blood from many more casualties that were not officially documented. The British fled before they could collect their food and whiskey, which was valuable to the Americans and raised their spirits and morale.

The Calm Before the Storm

To set the scene for the battlefield, one needs to understand the location of Frenchtown and the station of troops around the perimeter. The River Raisin itself runs west to east along very level ground, there weren’t rapids to prevent the ability to cross, and Frenchtown is on the north bank of the river about three miles west of Lake Erie. The American troops set up on the outskirts of the town to the north behind wooden palisade. Hull’s Road ran north from Frenchtown and served as the western limit of advance for the American defenses. The British would later approach from the north and set up several artillery pieces pointed towards the front of the American defenses, and several additional artillery pieces and natives pointed at the west flank on Hull’s Road.

BG Winchester arrived with an additional 250 men two days later on the 20th of January. The troops moved to the north side of Frenchtown and set up defensive positions along the few buildings on this side of the village. There were incomplete defenses, as the wooden palisade wall only covered the left wing of the American troops. The right flank was forced to set up without any cover. Though there was concern over the possibility of the British coming south to mount a counterattack, BG Winchester decided it was not necessary to reinforce the right flank because he did not believe that the British were ready to counterattack. This was not for a lack of materials to construct the defenses, rather the officers had a careless attitude and deemed it too late to begin defenses and that they would move the next day as well as have more daylight to set up proper defenses. The right flanked camped in the open without any cover, BG Winchester had assumed the British were in no condition to mount an immediate counterattack and held a very carefree attitude towards the defenses.

BG Winchester was wrong. A French courier arrived late in the evening on the 21st to report that General Proctor was forming a large force of British and Native Americans at Fort Malden across Lake Erie. There was doubt in the reports among the commanding officers, however, they were drunk off the whiskey left behind by the British which likely impaired their judgement. There was also apprehension amongst the troops, as they feared the worst having an unfortified flank. They believed the worst was to happen because of the lackadaisical attitude towards their troops defenses. General Winchester also built his headquarters almost half a mile away from the nearest part of the American encampment in Frenchtown (River Raisin Journal).

After hearing of the British defeat at Frenchtown, Proctor began moving his troops across the frozen Detroit River. His force consisted of nearly 1400 troops and 6 light artillery carried on sleighs. However, an Ensign was sent to bring in any American troops out of quarters and happened upon two British Officers. These officer insisted that there was no imminent counterattack, playing it off as if they were not part of the British army. The ensign reported back and Colonel Lewis accepted the report at face value, likely a very grave mistake (River Raisin Journal).

The British Counterattack

On the morning of the 22nd of January, the British troops opened fire on the American forces. A recount of Reverend Dudley claims the reveille was just arousing the troops, which occurs at daybreak, when the first gun was fired by the British upon the Americans (Dudley). They were caught very much by surprise as they did not quickly set up a defensive line to repel the British forces.

The British fired grape shots and other explosive rounds towards the American defenses, but they were of little effect. The British artillery had been placed pointing south towards the north flank of the American troops. This was a huge tactical advantage for the British as they were aimed towards the center of gravity of the American forces, a tactic that would be well supported by Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz.

The left flank of the American forces fought valiantly from behind their wooden palisade and were able to repel several advances of British troops. The right flank, however, fell within twenty minutes of the British opening fire on the Americans. General Winchester called for the retreat of the right flank towards the banks of the River Raisin. He believed that they would be able to find cover against the onslaught of British troops. Darnell wrote of the disorder of the retreat and the inability of the right flank to be able to reform and retaliate against the British troops (Captured). The Native American troops pursued the retreat ruthlessly. They were able to surround the retreating Americans and either slayed them there or took them prisoner. The British forces were in fear of an American reinforcement as was recounted by Reverend Dudley when he claimed the British were in a “hurry in removing the prisoners they had taken” (Dudley). BG Winchester was captured and arranged a surrender. The British forces sent a flag accompanied by the aid to General Winchester demanding a surrender, with the stipulation that “in the event of refusal to surrender, [the British] would not restrain their Indians” (Dudley).

The left flank only accepted the surrender once General Proctor promised the “prisoners should be protected from the Indians, the wounded taken care of, the dead collected and buried, and private property respected” (Captured). The battle was over, but the massacre had not yet begun.

The Massacre

The British troops headed back to Fort Malden that night, but claimed that they needed to tend to their own wounded and bring them back to the fort first prior to taking any of the American prisoners there. They claimed it was “out of their power to take our [wounded] before morning” and that the British forces would “leave a sufficient guard, so that they should not be disturbed by the Indians” (Captured).

It would soon be seen that these were empty promises, and that the British would actually do little to care for the American prisoners still present at Frenchtown. Before the British had even left with their own wounded and a few prisoners, the Native Americans entered the American camp and ransacked their belongings including personal effects of the wounded that were in the camp. The British officers were indifferent to the plight of the Americans and confessed that no guard was necessary and the native Americans would be returning to their camp by the end of the night, but noted it “was a pity… for the Indians would burn the house” when Elias Darnell complained of the Native American breaking into his house and plundering his food and ammunition (Captured 2). This gave the entirety of the American wounded the apprehension that their town was to be burned during the night.

That night “the Indians went into the cellar and rolled out many barrels, forced their heads and began drinking and yelling” (Dudley 3). It was obvious that the Native American forces had no intention of returning to their camp and instead were going to continue to ransack and consume alcohol to the point of intoxication.

The Native Americans set fire to a house full of wounded American soldiers. The wounded, who previously had not even been able to get out of their beds on their own accords, attempted to escape the flames of the building. The few that were not consumed by the flames and escaped the house were soon descended upon by the savageness of the Native Americans. They were shot, stabbed, and scalped. Those that weren’t killed were marched towards Fort Malden, but were massacred along the way due to an inability to move at a pace deemed appropriate by the Native American forces. This was later known as the River Raisin Massacre.

The ruthless treatment of the American forces was a result of the inability of a commanding officer to make the necessary defense appropriations during a lull in conflict. Had General Winchester paid more attention to the defenses of his troops, it is likely that they would have held out longer and been able to defend against the British onslaught. It was the hubris of General Winchester that would lead to the massacre, as he believed there was no cause for alarm and the British weren’t able to mount a counterattack quickly enough.

The men of the left flank, who had proper defenses, had been in a state of confusion at the call for surrender and the capture of General Winchester. It was evident, that with proper defenses of wooden palisade and sufficient preparation time, it was likely that the Americans would not have been routed as easily as they were with the fall of the right flank.

Primary Sources:

(1) Dudley, Thomas P (January 1813). Battle and Massacre at Frenchtown, Michigan. Western Reserve Historical Society. August 1870.

(2)Drimmer, Frederick. Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870. New York: Dover, 1985.

(3)Darnell, Elias. A journal, containing an accurate and interesting account of the hardships, sufferings, battles, defeat and captivity of those heroic Kentucky volunteers and regulars, commanded by General Winchester, in the years 1812-13. Also, two narratives, by men that were wounded in the battles on the River Raisin and taken captive by the Indians. Paris, KY. 1813

Secondary Sources:

(4) Rickard, J. Battle of Frenchtown, 22 January 1813. 20 November 2007

(5) Grassley, Dave. Battle of FrenchtownRiver Raisin Battlefield. 2010.

(6) Hickman, Kennedy. War of 1812: Battle of Frenchtown (River Raisin) Education. 2015.

(7) National Park Services. The Battles at the River RaisinRiver Raisin National Battlefield Park. 2015.

Further Readings:

(8) War of 1812. The History Channel.

(9) An American Perspective on the War of 1812. PBS.