War of 1812: Battle of Frenchtown (River Raisin)

james-winchester-large.jpg
Brigadier General James Winchester. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Frenchtown - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Frenchtown was fought January 18-23, 1813, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815).

Armies & Commanders

United States

  • Brigadier General James Winchester
  • approx. 1,000 men

Great Britain & Native Americans

  • Brigadier General Henry Proctor
  • Roundhead
  • Walk-in-the-Water
  • 1,397 men

Battle of Frenchtown - Background:

In August 1812, British forces under Brigadier General Isaac Brock succeeded in capturing Fort Detroit from Brigadier General William Hull.

  Following the former's death at the Battle of Queenston Heights that October, command of British forces in Upper Canada passed to Brigadier General Henry Proctor.  Consolidating his position around Detroit, he pushed a force south to the River Raisin and occupied Frenchtown.  Devastated by the defeat in August, American forces regrouped to the south along the Maumee River.  Command of the Army of the Northwest initially went to Brigadier General James Winchester, but his unpopularity and political considerations led to him being replaced by Major General William Henry Harrison.  Eager to retake Fort Detroit and end the British threat to the Michigan Territory, Harrison commenced planning a winter campaign.

Battle of Frenchtown - The First Battle:

Retained in the army, Winchester, a veteran of the American Revolution, received command of a force of around 1,000 inexperienced men.  Though Harrison directed his subordinate to remain within supporting distance of the main army, Winchester instead advanced a force of around 750 Kentucky volunteers and French-speaking Canadian militia north towards Frenchtown.

  Led by Lieutenant Colonel William Lewis, this force arrived at the River Raisin opposite the town on January 18.  Moving across the frozen river, Lewis' men attacked Frenchtown's garrison which consisted of around 260 Essex militia and Native Americans under Major Ebenezer Reynolds.  Though pushed back, the defenders offered stiff resistance for several hours and moved through multiple defensive positions before slipping away to the north.

  In the fighting, Lewis suffered 13 killed and 54 wounded while British losses are not known with certainty.

Battle of Frenchtown - Both Sides Respond:

Advancing the rest of his command to Frenchtown on January 20, Winchester established a new position.  Though his subordinate had acted without orders, Harrison was pleased with the success but concerned that Proctor might move south and overwhelm the forces at Frenchtown.  As a result, he dispatched three companies from the 17th US Infantry and one from the 19th US Infantry to reinforce Winchester.  Though regular units, both were relatively green.  Arriving at Frenchtown, they found that the town's palisade was incomplete and they were forced to camp outside its walls.  In addition, despite repeated warnings from locals about the British moving south, Winchester failed to ensure that pickets and sentries were posted as well as allowed his units to camp throughout the area.

Learning of Reynolds' defeat, Proctor took immediate action.  Forming a force of 597 regulars and around 800 Native Americans, the latter led by Roundhead and Walk-in-the-Water, he prepared to move against the Americans. To supplement this column, he added six light guns which were dragged on sledges.

  Reaching a point approximately five miles above the River Raisin on January 21, Proctor paused to prepare for battle.  Advancing during the night, his men were in place to attack before dawn the next day.

Battle of Frenchtown - The Second Battle:

Striking at sunrise, the British and Native Americans caught Winchester's men by surprise.  The Americans' lack of preparation quickly became apparent as it took some time for a defensive line to form.  This ultimately saw the Kentucky volunteers defend from the town on the left while the regulars attempted to hold a position in open ground to the right.  Coming under fire from the British artillery, the regulars held for around twenty minutes until British and Native American forces worked around their flank.   Hearing firing, Winchester raced to the field from his headquarters in the rear and directed Colonel John Allen's 1st Kentucky Rifle Regiment to provide support.

  This failed to rescue the situation as the regular's position started to collapse and they began retreating towards the river.  Though Winchester attempted to rally the American right, his efforts failed.  Fleeing south, around 220 were killed while another 147, including Winchester, were captured.  Only 33 were able to escape.

On the American left, a very different battle developed.  Fighting from behind a six-foot high fence, the Kentuckians maintained a steady defense and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.  From this position, they repelled three frontal assaults and caused severe losses among the British artillerymen.  As the fighting raged, Ensign William O. Butler repeatedly ran out from the defenses to burn a barn the enemy was using for cover.  Brought before Proctor, Winchester was asked to have the Kentuckians surrender.  Negotiations ensued between the two generals with Proctor insisting on unconditional surrender and threatening to burn the town.

Around 11:00 AM, the British waved a white flag and a message from Winchester was delivered to the town's defenders asking  them to surrender.  This came as a shock as the Kentuckians were unaware of the regulars' defeat and capture.  Though short on ammunition, many urged their officers to continue the fight as they feared massacre by the Native Americans.  After further discussions, Major George Madison, speaking on behalf of the defenders, succeeded in exacting a promise from Proctor that they would be treated fairly as prisoners of war.  This secured, the Kentuckians surrendered.

Battle of Frenchtown - River Raisin Massacre:

Unprepared for dealing with a large number of prisoners, Proctor immediately became concerned as he feared that Harrison, who was on the move, would arrive.  As a result, he ordered that uninjured prisoners be immediately marched north to the Detroit River and then moved across to Fort Malden.  Lacking transport for the wounded prisoners, Proctor began withdrawing his troops north while indicating he would send sleds to gather them the next day.

  Departing, Captain William Elliott and a small detachment were left to guard the prisoners while American surgeons John Todd and Gustave Bower tended their medical needs.

During the night, Elliott and his men slipped away.  Around 10:00 AM on January 23, Native American forces returned and began plundering the wounded and the houses in Frenchtown.  Those wounded who could walk were taken north to be ransomed while the remaining were killed. Several died when the buildings there were housed in were set aflame.  In the course of their actions, the Native Americans killed 30 to 100 of the wounded.  Moving north, those injured who could not maintain the desired pace were also struck down.

Battle of Frenchtown - Aftermath:

The Battle of Frenchtown effectively saw Winchester's command destroyed as an effective force as the general reported 547 captured.  As only 33 of the remainder escaped, the rest were considered killed or lost.  The defeat ended Harrison's hope of mounting a winter campaign to liberate Detroit and outrage soon spread regarding the River Raisin Massacre.  Cries of "Remember the Raisin" became common and led to a surge in enlistments.  Many of these new soldiers would play a key role later in the year when following Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry's victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, Harrison invaded Canada and crushed Proctor at the Battle of the Thames.

Selected Sources