The battle of Frenchtown was a crushing British victory during the War of 1812. Detroit had been captured by the British in August 1812, and its recovery became the main aim of the American north western army. Overall command of that army was given to William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana. He was chosen instead of General James Winchester, a veteran of the War of Independence, and commander of a force of 1,300 Kentuckians.
Harrison hoped to launch an attack on Detroit over the winter of 1812-13, taking advantage of the frozen rivers. Accordingly he began to gather a powerful army on the Maumee River, to the west of Lake Erie. In January 1813 Winchester and his Kentuckians advanced down the Maumee to the rapids around twenty miles from the lake. There he received messages from the inhabitants of Frenchtown informing him that there was a poorly defended British supply dump in the town. Frenchtown was on the Raisin River, half way between Winchester’s base at the rapids and the main British garrison at Fort Malden at the southern end of the Detroit River. Winchester decided to seize the supply dump, and on 17 January dispatched 700 men to Frenchtown. They arrived the next day and drove off a force of Canadian militia and Indians. On the following day Winchester himself left the Maumee at the head of another 250 of his men. His army was now split in two, with 950 men at Frenchtown and the remaining 350 on the Maumee.
Winchester’s men were now in a vulnerable position. The left wing of his army was protected by picket fences, but Winchester himself and his right wing were camped in the open. General Winchester was relying on British inactivity for his safety.
The nearest British force, at Fort Malden, was a mixed bag. On 21 January Colonel Henry Proctor, the British commander in the area, crossed the frozen Detroit river at the head of a force of 273 regulars, 61 fencibles, 212 militia, 28 sailors from the Provincial Marine, and a large force of Indians, perhaps 600 strong. He also had three 3-pdr artillery pieces and a number of howitzers. If Winchester had fortified his position at Frenchtown, Proctor’s force would probably not have been strong enough to defeat him.
Winchester failed to take any precautions against attack. On the night of 21 January the British were able to camp undetected only five miles from Frenchtown. Proctor began his advance before dawn on 22 January. He was only detected while he was forming up in preparation for an artillery bombardment. By doing this he may have missed a chance to win an even more one-sided victory than actually occurred, but not by any great margin.
The American left wing, protected by their picket fences, was able to hold off the British attack, inflicting most of the 24 dead and 158 wounded Proctor’s men suffered during the battle. The American right was outflanked by Proctor’s militia and Indian allies, fell back, and then collapsed. Only 30 or 40 men escaped. General Winchester himself was captured during this stage of the battle.
Colonel Proctor then suggested that he would be unable to control his Indian allies if the fighting went on much longer. Winchester was apparently convinced by this argument, and ordered his left wing to surrender, ending the battle.
The battle became most notorious for its aftermath. Proctor withdrew to Fort Maldon with the unwounded prisoners, leaving the wounded at Frenchtown. On the day after the battle some of the Indians went on a drunken rampage, killing between 30 and 60 prisoners in what became known as the Raison River Massacre. “Remember the River Raison” would become a valuable recruiting call in Kentucky for the rest of the war.
In the aftermath of the defeat General Harrison pulled back from the Maumee and abandoned his plans to attack Detroit over the winter. When he learnt that Proctor had also pulled back, he returned to the rapids on the Maumee and completed the construction of Fort Meigs. The British launched an attack on the fort in April-May 1813, but retreated after eight days.
|The Incredible War of 1812, J. Mackay Hitsman. This is a revised edition of a classic work on the War of 1812, one of the more neglected corners of military history. The author writes from a Canadian perspective, but without distorting his material, and the American side of the war is well represented. This is a good clear account of what can be a somewhat confusing conflict. [see more]|