Monroe in the War of 1812

By Ralph Naveaux

Since the creation of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park, many more people have come to associate the city and county of Monroe, Michigan, with the War of 1812.    Few, however, are entirely aware of the strategic role played by our community during the war, nor of the complete devastation caused by years of fighting and occupation by enemy forces.

An offshoot of Detroit, the settlers, or habitants, set up narrow, ribbon-like farms for 12 miles along both banks of the River Raisin, from which the area took its name, and on the minor streams that fed into the marshy borders of Lake Erie.  As the last major French-speaking settlement to be established in Michigan in colonial times, it also came to be known as French Town.  Under the administration of Governor William Hull, it was designated the District of Erie; and by the outbreak of the War of 1812, it was the second largest community in Michigan Territory.

A host of grievances induced the United States to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.  The heavy-handed measures the British used to “impress” sailors into the Royal Navy and to interfere with American trade with Napoleonic Europe triggered outrage in Detroit, but the far greater issue for Michigan Territory concerned relations with Native Americans and British Canada.

Fighting had already broken out at the Prophet’s Town at Tippecanoe in November of 1811, when General William Henry Harrison dispersed an alliance of tribes gathered to oppose American seizure and occupation of Native American lands.  British agents were accused of aiding and encouraging the Indians from their Canadian base at Malden, which guarded the mouth of the Detroit River.  Thus, the stage was already set to immediately carry the war into Canada and eliminate the British and Indian threat once and for all.

This situation, however, proved a dilemma for the habitants of the River Raisin, who found themselves surrounded by British and Native American populations to the east, north and west, and cut off from U.S. bases to the south and southeast by the British-controlled waters of Lake Erie and the almost impenetrable Black Swamp of northwestern Ohio.

Moreover, the habitants owed the possession of their lands to deals they had made with their friends among the Potawatomies and Ottawas.  They also had friends, family, and business partners on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, who would be fighting for the British.  Fully aware of the problem, Governor Hull, bearing the commission of a general in the United States Army, proposed to build a road through the muddy morass of the Black Swamp in the late spring of 1812 and bring a powerful, 2,000-man army to secure Detroit and invade Canada once war was officially declared.

Colonel John Anderson and Lieutenant-Colonel François Navarre met General Hull on July 1, 1812, near the Maumee River, which was then the southern boundary of the District of Erie.  The two leaders of the 2nd Michigan Regiment of Territorial Militia assured the General that Captain Lacroix’s company of volunteers was already making progress on extending and upgrading the road to Detroit to permit the passage of Hull’s artillery and heavy wagons.

Hull’s army camped that night in an open prairie about 18 miles south of the River Raisin.  Early the following morning, a ragged and tired horseman came galloping in with a letter informing General Hull that the declaration of war had been passed.  The postmaster at Cleveland had noticed the official-looking letter in the regular mail and had dispatched Charles Shaler on a wild, harrowing, 5-day ride across a wilderness of rivers and swamps to find the General and his army.  Hull sent him on to warn Detroit, a further 40 miles to the north, where he arrived just as his horse fell dead from exhaustion.

The army proceeded onward to Otter Creek, where they met a band of friendly Ottawas who marched alongside them.  Establishing a fortified camp 3 miles south of the River Raisin, General Hull staged a grand review to impress the habitants.   Many of them came out to gaze at the spectacle and to offer their services as blacksmiths, hired hands, and purveyors of salt and hay.  A cannon was fired at sunset, which was plainly heard at the British base at Malden, only 18 miles away across Lake Erie.

On July 3, Hull left a guard detail with some of the army’s baggage at the River Raisin and moved the rest up to a black ash swamp on Swan Creek.  There, very near the shores of Lake Erie, they spent the night behind a breastwork of logs, fearing an Indian attack.

The 4th of July began with Hull’s army assisting Lacroix’s company in bridging the River Huron.  Their progress was observed by Tecumseh’s Indians and by the British from the deck of their 18-gun, 3-masted square-rigger, the Queen Charlotte, which was cruising the lake.

Once across the Huron, Hull held negotiations with the Wyandots of Brownstown.  After establishing camp, an extra ration of whisky was passed out to the troops to celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  The next day, the army continued on towards Detroit, leaving the Raisin volunteers to garrison their own settlement, which was now an important depot on Hull’s supply line.

Lacroix’s company and the River Raisin habitants strengthened the Wayne Stockade at the River Raisin and continued to patrol Hull’s Road and escort the mail.  Some even served as army scouts when the General launched his invasion of Canada later that month.  The invasion failed, however, and Hull’s army was soon isolated, especially after British and Indian forces cut his supply road at Brownstown.

The rest of Hull’s campaign then became a desperate attempt to reopen his supply line to the River Raisin.  On August 5th, he sent Major Thomas Van Horne with 200 Ohio militiamen to break through to French Town.  On the way, they were joined by 25 of Lacroix’s mounted militia who were escorting the mail.  Upon reaching Brownstown Creek, however, they were ambushed and defeated by Tecumseh and a small force of Indians.

A second try, this time with a larger force composed of 600 U.S. regulars, Ohio militia, and Michigan volunteers led by Lt. Col. James Miller, succeeded in defeating the British and Indians at Monguagon on August 9th.  Unfortunately, Miller was unable to continue his advance, and the road to French Town remained closed.  The mail was lost and the militiamen fled back to Detroit.

Knowing a supply column was waiting at French town, a third attempt was made by Colonels Duncan McArthur and Lewis Cass.  An advanced element reached the juncture of the Saline and Raisin, hoping to rendezvous with an escort sent out from French Town.  Failing in that, they returned to Detroit on August 16, only to find that General Hull had surrendered Detroit and all of the forces under his command to a British, Indian, and Canadian army under the command of General Isaac Brock and Tecumseh.

Upon news of the disaster, the Ohio supply column abandoned French Town, and the local habitants laid down their arms, becoming prisoners of war on parole, according to the terms of Hull’s surrender.  There followed a period of terror when the British and Indians descended on the settlement to seize supplies and destroy government property.  Most of the English-speaking residents, including Colonel Anderson, the whole amounting to perhaps a 10th of the population, left the River Raisin area at this time.  So, too, did Cornet Isaac Lee and his small detachment of Michigan cavalry.  They would join the remaining American forces and participate in a number of frontier battles, including the fight at Mississinewa the following December.

French Town continued to suffer under periodic occupations and raids by enemy forces through the fall and winter.  In September, a British expedition hired 47 well-armed and mounted habitants to escort a large herd of cattle.  The British and Indians were on their way to the Maumee River to oppose an advancing American force under General James Winchester, which had been raised in Kentucky for the relief of Detroit.  After skirmishing with the Americans near Defiance, Ohio, the British beat a hasty retreat.  The resourceful habitants took advantage of the resulting confusion to steal the cattle back and sequester this providential food supply in the forests around the River Raisin.

More rustling occurred in October, when Lt. DeWar arrived at French Town with some Wyandot warriors and Canadian militiamen, only to find that more than half the 50 head of cattle requisitioned or purchased there by the British Commissary Department had been stolen during a fake alarm instigated by the habitants.

Nonetheless, DeWar felt that a number of the habitants could be persuaded to join the British cause.  Wyandot chiefs Roundhead and Walk-in-the-Water sent a formal letter to the habitants, urging them to fight alongside their warriors, and threatening dire consequences if they did not.  There were few takers.

Although the River Raisin was a major source of food for the British, the general attitude of the habitants and the approach of General Winchester’s army persuaded Colonel Procter, commanding the British at Malden, that it might be best to destroy the settlement and disperse its residents.

When Winchester’s army reached the Maumee Rapids in mid January of 1813, the habitants quickly dispatched messengers asking for help.  On January 18, 1813, General Winchester sent over 600 American troops across the ice of Lake Erie to French Town, where they were joined by about a hundred habitants.  Together, they drove a smaller force of Canadian militia and Indians out of the settlement in a sharp, little engagement.

General Winchester brought up reinforcements to protect the settlers and the precious supplies that had been gathered there.  Lulled into carelessness by the comforts of a proper settlement, the Americans were surprised when they were attacked by Colonel Procter and Roundhead, with a large force of British, Canadians, and Indians in the pre-dawn darkness of January 22, 1813.

Winchester arrived from his headquarters at Navarre’s house, some distance away from his troops, just in time to learn that his right wing was isolated in open ground and in danger of being overrun.  Ordering the right wing to retreat to a safer position, the General soon found himself caught up in a disastrous route that terminated with his capture and the destruction of 40% of his army.

The remaining Americans held out behind the garden fences of French Town, until learning of the disaster that had befallen their general.  Low on ammunition, subjected to bombardment by British artillery, surrounded and despairing of any help, they agreed to surrender.  The British quickly rounded up their prisoners and herded them off to Malden, fearing that General Harrison might be on his way with another American army.  They left behind some of the prisoners who were wounded and could not easily be moved.

The next day, January 23, 1813, some of the Indians returned to French Town.  They set fire to some of the houses and killed or carried away the wounded Americans, an incident that became widely known as the River Raisin Massacre.

The Battle of the River Raisin marked the high tide of British fortunes in the Old Northwest.  American forces were placed on the defensive, trying to hold the line at Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson, while a fleet was being built at Erie, Pennsylvania, to challenge British supremacy on the Great Lakes.

The ensuing months also witnessed the continued destruction of French Town, with over half the population becoming refugees, fleeing to Detroit or Sandusky where, if they could not find relatives to support them, they became beggars or wards of the government.  Those who stayed behind lost their crops and property, and game was scarce, but they managed to survive the following year on a diet of fruit, melons, boiled hay, and muskrats.
A number of habitants under the leadership of Captain Antoine Couture formed a company of spies and scouts operating out of Fort Meigs.  In April, they fought a canoe battle with Indians on the Maumee River.  Other habitants joined Johnson’s Regiment of Kentucky Mounted Infantry, which was later stationed at Fort Meigs.

In June, guided by Peter Navarre, Johnson led 150 troopers to Otter Creek, where they ransacked the houses looking for British agents.  Most of the habitants fled.  Continuing on to French Town, they surveyed the habitants there about the movements of the Indians and buried some of the dead soldiers left on the field after the Battle of the River Raisin.  With the help of François Navarre, they arrested 5 British sympathizers.

After Commodore Perry captured the British fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813, Johnson’s Regiment departed Fort Meigs to liberate the River Raisin country.  To avoid an ambush, it was decided to prevail upon Lt. Col. François Navarre at the River Raisin to negotiate a peaceful passage of Johnson’s regiment along Hull’s Road.  Navarre was arrested, however, as a spy and taken to Malden, but he managed to escape within a few days, paddling home in a stolen canoe.

Nevertheless, no ambush was forthcoming, since Henry Procter, now a general in recognition of his victory at the River Raisin, had decided to abandon Detroit and Malden and retreat into the interior of Upper Canada.  On September 18, Lt. Griffith scouted the Raisin with some habitants and succeeded in capturing Misselemelaw, one of Tecumseh’s counselors.  Hull’s old road now appeared to be open.

The liberation of the River Raisin country, however, was not exactly a gloriously joyful promenade.  While encamped at Half Way Creek on the night of September 26, a sentry shot a horse thief.   As they rode sleepily into French Town on the afternoon of the following day, the place seemed eerily deserted.  Eventually they found a few habitants who were willing to show themselves.  John Anderson, who had ridden along with Johnson, was distressed to see his once rich and flourishing settlement now abandoned and overgrown with weeds and grass.

The bones of the Kentuckians slaughtered in the Battle of the River Raisin lay bleached white for 3 miles south of the river.  On the battlefield, the  bodies buried by the detachment sent by Colonel Johnson the previous June had been dug up by the Indians and scattered once more over the fields. After reburying the remains, the troops proceeded some distance upstream to Lasselle’s mill, where they found two families who offered them what meager food they had.

Johnson’s Mounted Infantry and a number of Raisin habitants participated in General Harrison’s pursuit of Procter’s retreating army and its destruction at the Battle of the Thames River on October 5, 1813.  Tecumseh was killed in that battle, and many of his warriors from the Detroit area subsequently surrendered.

Lewis Cass was appointed as the new governor of Michigan Territory and the Michigan Militia was gradually reactivated.  As British and Indian forces remained active in the northern and western portions of the territory, and there continued to be a danger of British incursions from the east, there were a series of alarms at the River Raisin throughout the following year. Some of the habitants participated in American raids and battles in Upper Canada, including those at Chatham, Port Talbot, the Longwoods, Oxford, and Brantford.

By January of 1814, four companies of militia, totaling 133 men, were numbered at the River Raisin, although the official notification of their release from British parole did not come until July.   In September, two civilians were killed by Indians at the Raisin, and in October General McArthur sent a detachment to locate a hostile village in the area.  Several Indians were captured, mostly women.
By the time news of the war’s end reached Michigan Territory in February of 1815, the only Michigan unit still on active duty was Captain Audrain’s company of rangers.  In all, the River Raisin habitants contributed greatly to the war effort.  About 83% of the men eligible for service fought for the American cause.

Peace not only brought an end to the hostilities, but also even greater challenges.  In July, Mackinac was returned to American control and Malden was restored to the British, starting a century-long process of border adjustments and demilitarization that would turn the United States and Canada into remarkably peaceful neighbors.  Unfortunately, for the Indians of the Great Lakes, such a peace meant continued dislocation and loss of their lands in the United States.

For the French Town habitants, peace also entailed a long period of rebuilding their devastated community and adjusting to the culture and economics of mainstream America.  In 1817, their settlement and the whole District of Erie was renamed in honor of James Monroe, the first American President to visit Michigan Territory.