The Battle of Frenchtown was a devastating defeat for the Americans. The battle was fought between the American Army and the British with their Native American allies. The battle fought on January 22 may rank as having had the highest number of fatalities of any battle during this war.
Prelude to the Battle of Frenchtown
General William Hull surrendered the Fort of Detroit to the British and their Native American allies with minimal shots fired. He left the fort in disgrace and would be court-martialed. The Fall of Detroit opened up much of the frontier to Indian attacks.
After Hull was relieved of his command, he was replaced by General James Winchester. Winchester was not popular with his men, and the command was given to William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe. However, Winchester remained as second-in-command.
Harrison developed a plan that would divide his army into two columns. Harrison would lead one column, while Winchester was in charge of the other.
On the British side, Brigadier General Henry Proctor was in command of the British Army around Detroit. He assembled all the British troops that were available and was supported by about 500 Native Americans led by Tecumseh.
First Battle: William Henry Harrison ordered James Winchester to remain within supporting distance, but Winchester ignored the order.
Lieutenant Colonel William Lewis led these men across the frozen Maumee River and along the shore of Lake Erie to the River Raisin. His force consisted of 667 Kentuckians and about 100 local French-speaking Michigan militiamen.
On January 18, 1813, Lewis charged across the frozen River Raisin to attack the British and Indian camp, which contained 63 soldiers of the Essex Militia, accompanied by a 3-pounder cannon and about 200 Potawatomi.
Despite the surprise attack, the Canadians in the Essex militia fought bravely with their Native Allies. They continuously charged the American lines and fought them log to log. Eventually, the Canadians and the Natives retreated, thus giving Frenchtown to Colonel Lewis.
Second Battle: The Americans had gained a small victory, but William Harrison was worried that the British would overwhelm the small force of Americans holding the town. This, coupled with Winchester's poor planning, would spell doom for the Americans.
British General Proctor surprised the American forces before sunrise on January 22.
The American regulars stood their ground for only twenty minutes. These four companies of infantry, consisting mostly of green recruits, were caught in the open. They faced heavy musket volleys to their front while they were also under direct round shot and canister fire from the six 3-pounders and flanked by the Essex militia and the Indians. The regulars broke and ran.
General Winchester was awakened by the artillery fire and rushed to the battlefield, ordering 240 men from the 1st Kentucky Rifle Regiment under Colonel John Allen to reinforce the regulars.
Allen's men could not even reach them. Under fire from three sides, the Americans fell into a headlong retreat toward Ohio. They tried to rally three times, but they were eventually surrounded by a narrow road.
Almost 220 of the 400 Americans had been killed, many of them shot, tomahawked, and scalped during the withdrawal; 147 men, including Winchester, were captured by the Indians and Canadian militia.
Despite Winchester's failure, the 1st and 5th Kentucky riflemen held their ground and took many British casualties. General Proctor put Winchester at gunpoint and ordered him to call his men down, or else he would kill the POWs and burn Frenchtown to the ground.
Winchester agreed to send the order, but when the Kentucky riflemen saw the order, they refused and said they would fight to the death.
The riflemen continued to fight hard, but they eventually surrendered to the British.
Massacre: After the Battle, General Proctor retreated. He was worried that Harrison would be able to overwhelm his small force. He took with him the captured men that could move and left the wounded behind in Frenchtown.
On the morning of January 23, the Native Americans began robbing the injured Americans in Frenchtown. Any prisoner who could walk at all was marched toward Fort Malden; those more severely injured were left behind, and the Native Americans killed them.
The Indians also set fire to the buildings that housed the wounded. Prisoners who escaped from the burning buildings were killed; the rest died in the flames. As the Potowatomie marched prisoners north toward Detroit, they killed any who could not keep up.
The slaughter became known as the River Raisin Massacre.
James Winchester bore the responsibility for the failure at Frenchtown.
There were 397 Americans killed in the battle and nearly 600 captured. Of those that were captured, approximately 100 died in the massacre.
Immediately following the battle, Procter, fearing that General Harrison would send more Americans to Frenchtown, made a hasty retreat slightly north to Brownstown.
Harrison was forced to call off his plans for a winter campaign to retake Detroit.