Setting The Stage
SETTING THE STAGE - THE WAR OF 1812
The Battle of the River Raisin was an important event of the War of 1812. This war was fought because of several issues which had not been settled by the American War for Independence. These issues concerned the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. They also divided European-Americans and Native-Americans.
Of major importance to the newly independent United States was international respect for its sovereignty and for the right to trade without interference from foreign nations. After fighting French privateers in the Caribbean Sea and Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, Americans now faced a British blockade of Napoleonic Europe. To make matters worse, the British were stopping American ships and "impressing" U.S. citizens into the Royal Navy.
Yet, it was not the New England seafaring states who pushed for war against the British. Rather, it was the frontier states, like Kentucky, which were on the leading edge of American expansion across the continent. For them, the issue was land, and who would own and control it. Kentuckians and other frontier settlers saw the British, Canadians, and Native-Americans as obstacles to the progress of peace and civilization. These obstacles could be overcome in a quick war in which the United States would seize Canada from the British and overawe the Indians with a display of military might.
The British, Canadians, and Indians, of course, saw things differently. They were natural allies against the Americans who wanted their lands. As a British colony, Canada could look for support from Great Britain's well-trained army and large navy. Unfortunately, the British were then engaged in a war against Napoleon in Europe and could not afford to send much in the way of help.
The Indians also looked to the British for support, but considered themselves allies, not subjects of the British crown. There was much debate between the tribes, and even within each tribe, over the best strategy to preserve their lands and cultures in the face of American expansion. Some chose to cooperate with the Americans, some to remain neutral, and others to join Chief Tecumseh's resistance movement.
The white inhabitants of the River Raisin Country were also divided. The vast majority were of French descent and had language and cultural differences with Kentuckians and other Americans. Nonetheless, they were American citizens and most of them believed American control would be the best guarantee for long-lasting peace and stability. They urged the Indians to remain neutral in any future war between the United States and Great Britain.
There were a number of dissenters, however. Many of these were engaged in the fur trade and had developed a good working and living relationship with the local Indian tribes, especially the Potawatomies. Many also had close kinship with the Canadians living just across the Detroit River. They did not relish the idea of fighting against their friends, business partners, and relatives who supported the British.
The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Although they outnumbered their enemies, American forces were poorly prepared to carry out their initial objective of invading and conquering Canada. On the Western Front, Brigadier General William Hull & his American army soon found themselves trapped in Detroit by a force of British regulars, Canadian militia, and Indians led by General Isaac Brock and the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. On August 16, Hull surrendered his army and all of Michigan Territory, including the settlement of Frenchtown, located on the River Raisin.
The militia of Frenchtown and the River Raisin District was surrendered as well. Once disarmed, the inhabitants of Frenchtown were at the mercy of marauding parties of British and Indians. The British authorities even threatened to burn the settlement, but this idea was opposed by the local Potawatomies and by Tecumseh himself. Nonetheless, many settlers believed that the only real security for themselves and their property would be if the Americans sent a new army to drive the British forces back into Canada.
In fact, a new American army was indeed on the way. General William Henry Harrison ordered Brigadier General James Winchester to advance as far as the rapids of the Maumee River. Once there, Winchester entrenched his force and waited for reinforcements. Hearing that a British force was occupying Frenchtown and gathering supplies, he decided to dispatch Colonels Lewis and Allen, with 600 volunteers, to retake the settlement.
Lewis & Allen led their men down the Maumee and across the ice on Lake Erie, pulling their supplies on small sleds. Landing at LaPlaisance Bay, they moved inland across Plum Creek and onto the open ground south of the River Raisin. By 3 p.m., they had formed their lines and were ready to launch an attack on the British and Indians across the river in the small village of Frenchtown. The stage was set for the Battle of the River Raisin.
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