General William Henry Harrison’s winter campaign to recapture Fort Detroit ended in defeat at the Battle of Frenchtown (Raisin River).
After the surrender of Fort Detroit on August 16, 1812, General William Henry Harrison replaced General William Hull as commander of the Army of the Northwest. General Harrison’s first strategic decision was to recapture Fort Detroit.
During a winter campaign, he marched half of his army north along the Sandusky River, while the second half, led by Brigadier General James Winchester, marched northeast from Fort Defiance along the Maumee River. Both armies struggled through deep snow. General Winchester had orders to stop at a location known as the Maumee River Rapids and wait for General Harrison and the remainder of the army to join him.
General Winchester Disobeys General Harrison’s Order
Arriving at the Maumee River Rapids on January 10, 1813, General Winchester and approximately 2,000 Kentucky regulars and militia set up camp. Over the next few days, while they waited for General Harrison and his army to arrive, armed patrols searched throughout the nearby countryside for hostile native tribes.
Between January 12 and January 16, several local settlers arrived at the American camp from Frenchtown (now Monroe, Michigan). Situated on the northern banks of the Raisin River, Frenchtown was about 40 miles north of General Winchester’s camp, They informed the American soldiers that a force of Wyandot (Huron) warriors were near Frenchtown, and the townspeople feared for their lives and property. Later, another settler reported that British forces had arrived and were intending to burn Frenchtown within a few days.
Although his orders were to wait at The Maumee River Rapids until Harrison arrived, General Winchester believed quick action was necessary to save Frenchtown. On January 17, he advanced a force of approximately 700 men toward the Raisin River. Led by Colonel William Lewis, the detachment chased the British and their allied warriors out of Frenchtown on January 18 with few casualties.
After securing Frenchtown, Colonel Lewis requested reinforcement in order to defend the settlement. General Winchester sent Colonel Samuel Wells with another 300 regulars marching north and then traveled to Frenchtown to oversee the defenses personally.
The Americans Make a Defensive Blunder
The Frenchtown settlement included a row of twenty houses surrounded by a picket fence. Colonel Lewis positioned his Kentucky soldiers behind the fence and had them cut holes through the base. During the ensuing battle, the troops would lie on their stomachs and fire their muskets through the holes. It was a strong defensive position.
General Winchester arrived in Frenchtown on the afternoon of January 21, followed soon after by Colonel Wells and his reinforcements. There were too many troops to position behind the picket fence, so General Winchester ordered the newly arrived regular troops to make camp to the right of the fence, in an open field.
Despite reports of a large force of British regulars and tribal warriors heading towards the Raisin River, the American officers decided they could wait until the following day before constructing defensive works across the field. General Winchester then left the settlement and spent a comfortable night at a local resident’s home, almost one mile away from Frenchtown on the opposite side of the river.
The Battle of Frenchtown (Battle of Raisin River) Begins
Reveille sounded before dawn on the morning of January 22. Within minutes, American sentinels fired warning shots alerting the camp of a British surprise attack. The sentinels’ warning gave Colonel Lewis and his Kentucky soldiers time to assemble behind the picket fence. Colonel Henry Procter assaulted Frenchtown with a force of approximately 600 British redcoats from Fort Amherstburg in Malden, six 6-pounder cannons, and 600-800 warriors from various tribes led by the Wyandot (Huron) Chief Roundhead. The British fired their artillery and then charged the fence but were repulsed.
The indefensible right-wing of the line held for about thirty minutes but inevitably collapsed as the U.S. regulars were forced to retreat. Two Kentucky militia units under Captain Price left the safety of the picket fence and attempted to give support, but the withering fire from tribal muskets in the surrounding woods forced these troops to withdraw as well.
General Winchester Attempts to Rally His Troops
The sound of battle awakened General Winchester, sleeping a mile away. He hurried to the battle and arrived just as the right flank began retreating. The general and Colonel Lewis tried unsuccessfully to rally the men on the south side of the Raisin River, but the retreat had become a rout. Vengeful warriors hunted down groups of fleeing soldiers and butchered most, including men trying to surrender. Only 33 Regulars escaped being killed or captured. Chief Roundhead’s men even captured General Winchester and Colonel Lewis, who were then delivered to the British Colonel Procter.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky troops behind the picket fence were successfully defending their position. They withstood several attacks and eventually forced the redcoats to retreat into the nearby forest, except for two cannon that were too far away to be affected by musket fire. Some experts believe that if the Kentucky soldiers had climbed over the fence and charged, the battle would have been an American victory.
General Winchester Surrenders Frenchtown to the British
Without any targets, the unconquered force in Frenchtown relaxed. They had only suffered 5 killed and 25-30 wounded while inflicting hundreds of casualties on their opponents. When a white flag suddenly appeared on the battlefield, they assumed it meant the British were requesting a ceasefire while they collected their dead and wounded.
Instead, the Kentucky soldiers were appalled to hear that General Winchester and Colonel Lewis had been captured while trying to rally the right wing. Colonel Procter had deceived General Winchester into believing that the town was about to be overrun and that the frenzied tribesmen would massacre everyone inside the picket fence.
Similar to the way William Hull had surrendered Fort Detroit a few months earlier, General Winchester surrendered his men and their strong defensive position to the British. The next day, wounded American soldiers were slaughtered by native warriors in an atrocity known as the River Raisin Massacre.