The River Raisin Massacre – A Bloody Disaster

Written by Mysterious Michigan

A depiction of Fort Detroit in 1812


The Battle of Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor…the River Raisin Massacre?  These three attacks are not synonymous in U.S. history. In fact, on average, 10 out of 10 people have no idea what the River Raisin Massacre even was and when it happened.

This series of battles fought around Monroe, Michigan, were some of the bloodiest during the entire War of 1812 and afterward, inspired the battle cry, “Remember the Raisin,” for the remainder of the war. Some even think that the spirits of this event are still wandering the place they took their last breath. 

During the Siege of Detroit on August 15-16, 1812, the U.S. lost control of Fort Detroit because General William Hull was an idiot. He had 800 more soldiers than the British and their Native American allies, but he gave the fort up with barely a fight. Hull claimed he saw the infamous Nain Rouge grinning at him during his surrender. Yes…blame your failure on a legendary, magical creature. The government thought Hull was an idiot too and sentenced him to death for “military incompetence,” but President Madison ended up just kicking him out of the military because he had served during the American Revolution.

The Battle of Frenchtown or the First Battle of the River Raisin

The U.S. needed to retake Fort Detroit. After General Hull was dismissed, Major General William Henry Harrison took command and was like, “Guys, I got this. Half of you are going to go with that dude over there, James Winchester, US Brigadier General and second-in-command of the Army of the Northwest. The other half is going with me! Let’s do this! High five everyone!” 

General William Hull

Painting by James Sharples Sr. (1751-1811) via Wikimedia Commons

But Winchester said, “Naw guys. I got a different idea and it’s going to be awesome.” Without permission from his higher-ups, Winchester told Lieutenant Colonel William Lewis to lead a group of relatively untrained soldiers from Kentucky and some Michigan locals, across the frozen River Raisin and attack an encampment of 63 Canadian soldiers and 200 Potawatomi in Frenchtown, which is now the area of Monroe. It may have been stupid, but surprisingly, the attack forced the Canadians and Native Americans to retreat.

General William Henry Harrison became the 9th President of the United States in 1841, only to die 31 days later from pneumonia. He was the first President to die in office and served the shortest presidential term ever. Now you’re smarter. 

The Situation Gets Bad

And here’s where it all goes downhill for the U.S. with the “Second Battle of the River Raisin” on January 22, 1813. With confidence dials set to high from their Frenchtown victory, General Winchester didn’t get worried over rumors that the British were all fired up and coming with more troops. The U.S. figured they had some time before British Brigadier General Henry Procter and his 597 Canadians, 800 Native Americans and six cannons got close.

By sunrise on January 22, Procter and company were “within musket shot” of Frenchtown and the U.S. soldiers were taken by surprise when the British attacked.

About half of the American soldiers were killed and not just with bullets. Many were tomahawked and scalped to death, even men who had surrendered. General Winchester and 147 men were captured. After hours of fighting, the Americans surrendered. More U.S. troops were on their way, but they were still too far to sustain any hope.

General James Winchester

Painting by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl via Wikimedia Commons

The Situation Goes from Bad to Worse

Around 397 Americans were killed and over 500 taken prisoner during the battles. General Procter wanted to get these prisoners back to Fort Malden in Canada and had promised safe passage for the captured men. But Procter knew American troops were on their way, and rather than wait for help to arrive for injured prisoners, everyone was forced to start walking, leaving many injured behind and unguarded. They were told someone would come back for them the following morning.

The Massacre

On the morning of January 23, 200 Native Americans entered Frenchtown. It’s believed these men were looking to revenge the deaths of those who fell from their tribes in the battles. Buildings that housed the wounded were burned down with the men inside. The severely injured were murdered. Buildings and people were robbed.

Meanwhile, if the prisoners marching towards Fort Malden fell behind, they were killed, leaving a survivor to later report, “The road was for miles strewed with the mangled bodies.” The majority of men killed were from Kentucky. The horrific day spread through newspapers and the nation was horrified. It’s believed anywhere from 30 to 100 men were ruthlessly killed but the total is unknown. 

General James Winchester largely took responsibility for the failure of the battle and the loss of life due to his bad defense planning. Only 24 men on the British side were killed and 161 injured.

Men who took off their shoes and tried to escape in their socks were not tracked by the Native Americans because the tracks looked like moccasins. These were the only men who survived or were not taken prisoner. Remember this in case you are ever in this situation.

Do the Spirits of the Dead Linger?

This was the largest battle ever fought in Michigan and with its brutal history, it’s no wonder paranormal investigators have claimed experiences at this location. According to the National Park Service website, “Excavations of the battleground have yielded military relics, human bones, and the original foundations and artifacts from burned down homes.” Paranormal reports that have come from the battlefield are the standard issue types: the sounds of fighting, screaming, glowing lights and apparitions of soldiers have been witnessed by those seeking the departed spirits of the battles.

Battlefields are notoriously haunted because of the extreme emotions and tragedy that happened at them. Paranormal investigators are always drawn to these types of places for their historical significance and the belief that traumatic moments can cause places to be haunted or leave impressions behind that investigators try to pick up on. 

So whether you are the casual lover of Michigan or military history or an avid hunter of the paranormal, this historically significant location has everything going for it.

In 2009, the battlefield was upgraded to a National Battlefield, of which there are only four total in the U.S. and it’s the only one for the War of 1812.