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The American Attack at Frenchtown
on the River Raisin, January 18, 1813

by Robert Henderson 

Village of Frenchtown on the River Raisin looking north (National Parks Service)

            When two residents of Frenchtown (modern day Monroe, Michigan) arrived on January 13, 1813, American Brigadier-General James Winchester was busy directing his men  to gather provisions from abandoned corn fields around his camp.  Pounding devices were already set up to turn the parched corn to meal for baking.[1]   It was with some relief that his men worked.  After spending months plagued with disease and hunger while encamped at Fort Defiance in Ohio, the snow-covered shores of the Maumee River proved better suited for the health Winchester’s advance force of a thousand soldiers.   The supply of new clothing from Kentucky had also helped. However another danger had increased.  A skirmish with native warriors two days previously had awoken the enemy in the region to their presence.[2] 

            With the help of a translator, the francophone settlers from Frenchtown painted Winchester a bleak picture of the situation in their community.  After the surrender of Detroit, Frenchtown had become an advance post for the British and Canadian militia were frequently stationed there.[3]  Situated on the banks of the River Raisin where it joins with the Lake Erie, Frenchtown was aptly called since it was populated primarily by unilingual French Canadians.  It was an awkward situation for Frenchtown’s residents.  They were American citizens in a territory controlled by the British, and surrounded by native settlements allied with Tecumseh against the United States.  They also had family and cultural connections with the settlers on the Canadian shores of the Detroit River.    Stripping away conflicting nationalities, often the principle concern of most settlers on the frontier was for the preservation of their lives and property. While some took up arms for the United States, many stayed neutral.  

            On January 16, another resident arrived at the American camp reporting that Frenchtown was about to be destroyed by the two flank companies of Canadian militia stationed there.  This fear was unjustified.  The day Winchester first met with the settlers on the 13th, the British commander of the occupied territory, Colonel Henry Proctor, wrote to his superior about his desire to protect the neutrality of Michigan territory’s residents:

Mature reflection on the reading within my reach had determined one against demanding the military service of the inhabitants of the ceded Territory.  I dread the consequences of their account solely, of the enemy entering into the Territory.  No commands or influence of mine will be of sufficient weight to preserve the property and I doubt the lives of most of the inhabitants, in the event of it.[4]

In addition Proctor recommended immediately attacking Winchester on the Maumee River.  No plan to destroy Frenchtown was being contemplated.  However whether real or imagined, the report from his visitors from River Raisin had provided Winchester with a reason to advance and engage the enemy.

Map of Region (R. Henderson)

            While his superior Major-General William Harrison had ordered him to wait for reinforcements, Winchester felt the distance between him and Harrison allowed him to act as an independent command.  Permitting commanders to make decisions in the field without being micromanaged from afar is an important element to successfully waging a war.  However Winchester’s decision was coloured by his competition with Harrison for overall command in the Western theatre.  Sixty-year-old Winchester felt he was the better candidate for the job because of his service in the American Revolution and that he held a Brigadier-General’s commission in the regular Army.  The fact he was captured twice by the British in the Revolutionary War seemed not to have affected the impression of him being a seasoned and successful veteran.   In the end, popularity forced the hand of the government in Washington.  Kentuckians wanted Harrison and viewed Winchester as somewhat of a dainty, who had little in common with the average frontiersmen that he wished to lead into battle.  After all Winchester was the first in his community (to become Memphis, Tennessee) to install a ballroom in this house.[5]

Brigadier-General James Winchester, 1817 (Historic Craigfont Mansion)

            After a war council with his senior officers, Winchester ordered 570 Kentucky Volunteers of the 1st and 5th Regiments, under the command of Colonel William Lewis, to capture Frenchtown from the Canadians.   After crossing the Maumee River, Lewis had his men set up camp.  That night an additional 110 men of the 1st Rifle Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers under Lt Col John Allen[6] caught up with Lewis and joined the expedition.   Conflicting reports flowed in about enemy troop movements.  One suggested that the Canadian militia and Natives had pulled back out of Frenchtown and were eighteen miles north at Brownstown.  Another suggested a relief force from the Canadian side of the Detroit River was preparing to cross the ice and move towards River Raisin. Neither were true. Early the following morning Lewis broke camp and hurried his force forward using the frozen coast line of Lake Erie as a road. “We proceeded on with no other view than to conquer or die” noted one Kentuckian.[7]

            Waiting for the arrival of the Americans was fifty men of the Essex Militia, [8] under the command of Major Ebenezer Reynolds, and anywhere from one to two hundred Potawatomi warriors.[9]   Born in Detroit, Reynolds had moved across the river with his family to the Canadian garrison town of Amherstburg when Michigan was handed over to American control in 1794.  His father, Thomas Reynolds was the local fort’s commissary until his death in 1810 and Ebenezer had taken up residence further west in Colchester before joining the Essex Militia.   On January 18 Major Reynolds also had at his disposal a small 3-pdr artillery piece manned by militia volunteers, under the direction of Royal Artillery Bombardier Kitson. The sole British soldier present, Kitson had trained the Canadians well in the quick operation of the 3-pdr.  Stationed there since November 1812,[10] the Essex Militia had become quite familiar with the village and the surrounding area.[11]  

            At Reynolds side was Adjutant William Duff.  In the first months of the war Duff had seen action in three engagements: Brownstown, Maguaga and the taking of Detroit.[12]  At the Battle of Maguaga, some of the Essex militiamen present adopted not only native warfare tactics, but also their attire.[13]  Unfortunately, however experienced some of his men had become in the war, Reynolds was short on troops.  Both Captain William Elliott’s (1st Essex) and Captain Alexis Maisonville’s (2nd Essex) flank companies had only 25 effectives present.   These two flank companies were well suited for interacting with the local population since they were almost entirely composed of French Canadians.  Only Elliott’s company had a sprinkling of Anglophones in it.[14]  Trying to keep warm in his hemp linen tent[15] was Ensign Joseph Eberts from Maisonville’s Company.  An employee of the North West Company, Eberts had lost almost everything when his house was pillaged by invading American troops in July 1812 near Sandwich, Upper Canada.   In charge of NWCo. trade in the Wabash area, Joseph had a good working relationship with the native allies present at River Raisin.  With him on that cold day was his fifteen-year-old brother William Henry, who was serving as a private in Maisonville’s Company.[16]

Description: Militiaman, Lower Canada Sedentary Militia, 1813

French Canadian Militiaman, 1813 by G.A. Embleton (Parks Canada)

            Dressed in white winter capots, the Essex Militia looked no different from most of the local population, except that their blanket coat hoods were edged with black.[17]  Ordered the previous month, the addition of the black edging was critical in helping native allies differentiate between friend and foe during chaotic bush fighting.   Their knee-high moccasins gave the Essex men both warmth and good footing on the ice and snow. While most of the French Canadians wore tuques, Anglophones like Reynolds seemed to have had a preference for fur caps.  The officers dressed in civilian attire like the men. One description of a local Canadian militia officer in 1812 noted his “rank as an officer was only distinguishable from the cockade surmounting his round hat, and an ornamented dagger thrust into a red morocco belt encircling his waist.”[18] Being at the end of the supply line, standard military dress was slow in coming for the militia. However on that January day the Essex Militia’s winter attire offered a degree of uniformity and camouflage against the snow. The flank companies were armed with the standard 3rd model brown bess and had infantry accoutrements, although captured American arms and equipment may have been issued to some.

            Word quickly arrived of the American column approaching from the south and Major Reynolds set about positioning his men behind the houses and fences of the village.  Natives likewise positioned themselves behind cover, although fighting in such an open space was not conducive to their method of warfare.  For his part, Bombardier Kitson ensured his 3-pdr gun had a clear view of the southern shore of the River Raisin from behind a picket embrasure.[19]  Frozen solid, the river would provide little deterrent to an advancing enemy.  Outnumbered four to one, the little force at Frenchtown would need a brilliant stroke of luck to successfully defend their post.

            At 3:00pm the Kentuckians appeared.  As Colonel Lewis formed his three regiments into line, Kitson’s artillery piece opened fired.   Dividing into three, the American line began crossing the frozen River Raisin.  The ice proved tedious and the men slipped and slided trying desperately to gain surer footing.[20]  The slow advance gained speed after Lewis ordered his troops to ditch their cumbersome knapsacks.   Mocked by the Americans as “large enough to kill a mouse”, Kitson’s small-calibre artillery piece popped away without effect.  When they reached the other side of the River Raisin one Kentuckian remembered the troops around him “raised a yell, some crowing like chicken cocks, some barking like dogs, and others calling ‘Fire away with your mouse cannon again’”.[21]    

            Ordered to close with the enemy, the 1st and 5th Infantry Regiments of Kentucky Volunteers, making up the left and centre of the line, advanced “under an incessant shower of bullets”.  Both Battalions quickly moved to outflank and dislodge Reynolds men from the security of the village. Leading the advance was Captain Bland Williams Ballard, who had a reputation as a fierce native fighter.  Allen’s Riflemen, composing the right of the line quickly join the push.  Endangered of being encircled, the Essex Militia and natives pulled back out of Frenchtown and darted across the open fields to the edge of the forest to the north and reformed.  A Kentucky rifleman described the advantageous spot Reynolds had positioned his men: “after pursuing them to the woods, they made a stand with their [artillery piece] and small arms, covered by a chain of enclosed lots and a group of houses, having in their rear a thick brushy wood filled with fallen timber.”[22]   

At the age of 53, Captain Bland Ballard was the most experienced that day
at fighting native warriors and lead the advance “great skill and bravery.”

            To this point, American casualties had been light.  This would soon change.  While the Essex Militia concentrated their fire on Allen’s Riflemen, the Kentucky Infantry moved along the edge of the woods to press the Canadian right flank.  With the Americans pressing forward and on the side, Reynolds wisely pulled his men back from the fences and into the woods, joining the native warriors there.    Throughout this the natives kept up a brisk and effective fire on the 1st Kentucky Rifle Regiment, forcing Allen at one point to partially retreat while the other Regiments attacked the flank.[23]  However the American pursuit did not end.   One Kentuckian remarked how when they “reached the woods the fighting became general and most obstinate, the enemy resisting every inch of ground as they were compelled to fall back.”[24]  Reynolds brother commented later how the Essex Militia “fought most bravely, retired slowly from log to log.”[25] Captain John McCalla of the 5th Infantry Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers was taken aback by the intensity of the fighting witnessing “my fellow soldiers extended lifeless bloody corpses on the ground, and many others crying in agony from dangerous wounds. I have heard balls whistling as thick as the pattering hail, around me and yet not touched, even in my clothes.  I wondered that I should escape, and expected every ball would be for me.”[26]

            Kentucky Rifleman William Atherton concurred stating “the fight now became very close, and extremely hot ... I received a wound in my right shoulder.” The moment before Atherton was hit he witnessed two of his fellow riflemen move too far forward. One was killed and the other wounded.[27]   Atherton also recounted seeing “several of our brave boys lying upon the snow wallowing in the agonies of death.”[28]  The native warriors and the Essex Militia showed themselves expert in bush warfare.  Atherton described perfectly the bash-and-dash tactics being used by Reynolds: “Their method was to retreat rapidly until they were out of sight (which was soon the case in the brushy woods) and while we were advancing they were preparing to give us another fire; so we were generally under the necessity of firing upon them as they were retreating.”  Another Kentucky private had similar recollections: “As we advanced they were firing themselves behind logs, trees, etc. to the best advantage.”[29]

            For two miles through dense woods Reynolds’ force kept battling the Kentuckians, who charged each of the positions set up by the Essex militia.  Only the setting of the sun brought the running battle to a close.  In total the battle had lasted three and a half hours.  Leaving the dead and pulling back to encamp at Frenchtown, the American tallied their losses.   The bitter fighting had resulted in twelve killed and 55 wounded.  Among the wounded was Frenchtown resident Antoine Mominie.   Mominie had broken his parole, or promise not to fight until officially exchanged, and had attached himself with the Kentucky riflemen.  Suffering a debilitating wound in the battle, Mominie would later be denied an invalid’s pension from the U.S. Treasury.[30]  To them, he was technically a prisoner of war on parole and therefore a non-combatant.  Despite the casualties, the Kentuckians took pride in how they handled themselves in the battle. While some died, they had conquered.

            The number of Canadian and aboriginal casualties is unfortunately unknown.  A native and two Canadians were taken prisoner and one witness noted “from the number found on the field where the battle commenced, and from the blood and trails were they had dragged off their dead and wounded, the slaughter must have been considerable.”[31]  Strangely surviving muster rolls of the Essex Militia make no mention of any casualties during the battle.[32]  Determining the number of native casualties is unfortunately next to impossible.

            Reynolds and his exhausted men trudged north along Hull’s road through the night, eventually arriving at the Wyandot village of Brownstown on the Huron River.  From there, a scout was dispatched across to Canada to warn Colonel Proctor that Winchester’s advance force had taken Frenchtown.   The news arrived at 2:00am in Amherstburg while the officers of the garrison were in the middle of celebrating the birthday of Queen Charlotte at a ball.  The ball had been arranged by “les jeunes de gens de la cote” or the young French Canadians of the coast for the military.  Little did they know that while they were merry-making, their friends and family were locked in a desperate struggle with the enemy in the woods of Michigan.  The music came to an abrupt halt when a British officer barged in announcing: “My boys you must prepare to dance to a different tune; the enemy is upon us and we are going to surprise them.”[33]  In the coming days Proctor would gather together all his forces, cross the ice and rendezvous the Reynolds men, and then take the war back to Frenchtown.

French Canadian Round Dance in winter time, 1801 (Library and Archives Canada)



                        In the United States the skirmish with the Essex Militia and natives on January 18 has become known as the first battle of the River Raisin.  Surprisingly, considering its ferocity, the engagement is hardly mentioned in Canadian history texts of the war.   Not having British officers present to report on events likely contributed to the overlooking of the noble efforts of the Essex Militia.  Upon conclusion of the campaign, Proctor’s official dispatch of events was somewhat vague on the January 18 engagement.  He stated being informed on January 19 that the enemy was possession of Frenchtown on the River Raisin, 26 miles from Detroit after experiencing every resistance that Major Reynolds of the Essex Militia had it in his power to make with a three pounder well served by Bombadier Kitson and the Militia men whom he had well trained to the use of it.  The retreat of the Gun was covered by a brave band of Indians who made the enemy pay dearly for what he obtained.[34]

             During the second battle of Frenchtown (River Raisin) on January 22, 1813 the Essex Militia again played an important role, though somewhat overshadowed by the efforts of the 41st Regiment of Foot and the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles.  Later on May 5, 1813 the Essex Militia would clash with the Americans at the Battle of Maumee and Reynolds was again in the thick of it.  Even with Essex County under enemy occupation in 1814, men from the flank companies - as the Loyal Essex Volunteers or Rangers - continued the fight in the Niagara peninsula, suffering casualties at both the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane.  It was at the former battle, that Ensign Joseph Eberts of the 2nd Essex Regiment lost his younger brother William Henry. Records of war losses suggest the Americans occupying Essex County were harsh on the families who had men fighting “for their country.”[35]  For example, Joseph Eberts house was destroyed and his wife with their two young children (aged one and three) were turned out in the cold at the end of 1813.[36]   

            Today the Essex Militia Regiments are perpetuated by the Essex and Kent Scottish, a Primary Reserve Regiment in the Canadian Army.  In 2012 the Essex Militia was rightly awarded the honours ‘Defence of Canada, 1812-15’, ‘Detroit’, ‘Maumee’ and ‘Niagara’.  Their service record in the war more than justifies these honours and it is only unfortunate it took so long for them to be awarded.  It is to be hoped that further research will be done on both the Essex Regiments in the war and the challenges faced by the residents of Essex County during the American occupation of 1813-1814.


Members of the Essex and Kent Scottish in wintertime (Unit Website)


[1] Elais Darnell A Journal Containing an Accurate and Interesting Account of the Hardships...of...Kentuky Volunteers and Regulars Commanded by General Winchester in the Year of 1812-1813... (Paris KY, 1813) p. 40

[2] Each side suffered one wounded in the exchange of fire.  The natives had attempted to gain possession of three American horses.  Elais Darnell A Journal  p. 39; Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) Record Group (RG) 8 I, vol. 678 p. 25-6 Proctor to Sheaffe, Sandwich, January 13, 1813.

[3] Often Canadian units were used at advanced posts because of the problem of desertion with British regulars.

[4] LAC RG 8 I, vol. 678 p. 27 Proctor to Sheaffe, Sandwich, January 13, 1813.

[5] James Winchester’s home, Historic Craigfont Mansion, in Memphis, TN is open to the public. 

[6] Allen had shown himself an ardent supporter of taking the offensive during the war council. Elais Darnell A Journal  p. 38.

[7] Elais Darnell A Journal  p. 41-42.

[8] Some estimates put the total  number of Militia present at 63.  This is derived from the muster rolls of the companies.  Having all present for duty is an optimistic assessment.  American intelligence was correct that there were two companies at Frenchtown.  However American estimates at the time of a hundred men present are inflated and not supported by the evidence.

[9] An exact count of the Native warriors present is difficult. This is because of the daily changes to that figure as natives roamed about the region.  Generally it is believed to have been between one and two hundred warriors.  

[10] The brother of Major Reynolds, Robert, says the Essex Militia occupied Frenchtown after the surrender of Detroit.  A war losses claim for Colonel Alexander Anderson, a resident of Frenchtown supports this.  However it does appear their occupation was sporadic.   However from November to January its two flank companies were constantly there.   “Squire” Reynolds account in William F. Coffin, 1812: The War and Its Moral: A Canadian Chronicle (Montreal, 1864) p. 208; For Anderson claim see Reports from the Court of Claims Submitted to the House of Representatives during the Second Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress, 1861-1862. Vol. 1 (Washington, 1862) p. 64.

[11] LAC RG 19 E5 (a) vol. 3728 file 5 War Losses Claim #58 Joseph Dazet of River Raisin.  Dazet provided medical attendence to the sick of two companies of the 1st and 2nd Regiments of Essex Militia while stationed there between November 1812 and January 1813.  One company was that of Capt. William Elliot who had accepted the surrender of Frenchtown’s militia after the capture of Detroit. 

[12] Joseph Greusel, ed. Collections and Researches Made by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society vol. xvi  (Lansing, 1910) p. 738

[13] See James Dalliba, Narrative of the Battle of Brownstown, August 7, 1812 (New York, 1816)

[14] By contrast the other flank company of the 1st Essex Militia under Captain William Caldwell was made up almost entirely of Anglophones.  It seems clear from a command perspective, the Essex Militia was being organized along linguistic lines to better communication.  In 1813 one of Captain Barclay’s complaints about the Provincial Marine on Lake Erie was that it would be difficult to communicate to them in a naval battle situation because most were French Canadian. see LAC, RG 9 IB7 vol. 32 Muster Rolls of the Essex Militia.  Robert Reynolds notes his brother’s detachment was made up mostly of French Canadians from the coast or shoreline areas.  William F. Coffin, 1812: The War and Its Moral p. 208.

[15] LAC RG 19 E5 (a) vol. 3728 file 5 #97 2nd Class.  War Loss Claim for Joseph Eberts.

[16] William Henry Eberts was later wounded and bayoneted to death at the Battle of Chippawa on July 5, 1814.

[17] Rene Chartrand, A Scarlet Coat: Uniforms, Flags and Equipment of the British in the War of 1812. (Ottawa, 2012) p. 137.

[18] Rene Chartrand, A Scarlet Coat.. p. 137 quoting from Major Richardson, Matilda Montgomerie or The Prophecy Fulfilled. (New York, 1888) p. 20.

[19] Essex Militia were noted as behind picketing by Thomas Dudley.  This was likely stockading that was put in 1812 to defend against attack by natives.  Essex Captain William Elliot was noted approaching a stockade in Frenchtown to inform the garrison there of the surrender of Detroit. 

[20] “the ice in many places was very slippery.” William Atherton, Narrative of the Suffering and Defeat of the North-Western Army under General Winchester. (Frankfort, 1842) p. 35.

[21]  Thomas P. Dudley, “Battle and Massacre at Frenchtown, Michigan, January 1813” Western Reserve and Northern Ohio Historical Society (Cleveland, 1877) p. 3.

[22] William Atherton, Narrative of the Suffering. p. 36.

[23] Thomas P. Dudley, “Battle and Massacre at Frenchtown, Michigan, January 1813” p. 3.

[24] Thomas P. Dudley, “Battle and Massacre at Frenchtown, Michigan, January 1813” p. 3.

[25] Recollections of Robert “Squire” Reynolds in William F. Coffin, 1812: The War and Its Moral: A Canadian Chronicle. (Montreal, 1864) p. 208.

[26] Letter from John McCalla, Frenchtown, January 21, 1813. The Richard Frajola Collection of Letters and Postal History. n.d.

[27] William Atherton, Narrative of the Suffering… p. 37.

[28] Ibid. p. 39.

[29] Elias Darnall, A Journal.  p. 42.

[30] Retrieved on January 16, 2013.  Based on sworn dispositions by Antoine when he applied for a invalid’s pension from the Treasury Department.

[31] William Atherton, Narrative of the Suffering…  p. 37.

[32] However it is possible Essex Militia casualties on the 18th were clumped together with the casualties returns from the second battle of River Raisin on January 22, 1813 though this would be unusual.  Also there are gaps in the Essex Militia monthly muster rolls at this time.  At Lacolle Mill in 1814 the Frontier Light Infantry and Mohawks used similar tactics, and successfully slowed the advance of an American Army of four thousand. They suffered only a couple wounded.

[33] William F. Coffin, 1812: The War and Its Moral p. 203.

[34] Proctor to Sheaffe, Sandwich, January 25, 1813 LAC RG 8 I, vol. 678, p. 31-32.

[35] Statement often made by the War Losses Board when assessing the claims of Militiamen in 1815.

[36] LAC RG 19 E5 (a) vol. 3728 file 5 War Losses Claims.




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