Raisin Hell

Frenchtown Benson Lossing
Troop positions at Frenchtown Photo Credit: Bensson Lossing

As 1813 dawned, the conflict would take an uglier turn for both sides. Initially, there was some grounds for optimism. The hapless General Hull in the west was gone, replaced by the old nemesis of Tecumseh and future forty day President, Major General William Henry Harrison. In no mood to waste time, Harrison opted to push hard towards Detroit for a rare winter campaign. Sending out a thousand men under the command of another revolutionary war veteran Brigadier General James Winchester, Harrison’s initial probe ran into stiff resistance southwest of Detroit at a community called Frenchtown along the river Raisin.

After the American forces drove out the British and Native American garrison, they soon found themselves flanked by a counterattack under the command of the Wyadnot chief Roundhead and Major-General Henry Procter, now filling in for the late lamented Brock in the west. Already too far ahead for Harrison to support him, Winchester was flanked and after several hours of fierce fighting his forces were wiped out. The Battle of Frenchtown was a crushing loss for the Americans, with all but 33 of Winchester’s men either killed or captured in the fighting. Unprepared for the sudden influx of prisoners, Procter ordered the Americans who were uninjured to begin a forced march back to secure territory.

In a brutal finale, anyone too wounded to walk was butchered by Tecumseh’s coalition. To finish the job, the tribesmen set the makeshift American hospitals on fire and killed anyone who staggered from the blaze. The massacre of anywhere from 30-100 soldiers became a national sensation. It was the kind of nightmare story that fed into every American fear about the tribes on their western border, and the cry of “Remember the Raisin!” became national call to arms.[1] For the once boastful Henry Clay and Kentucky especially it was acutely felt, as the majority of Winchester’s army had been raised from the state’s militia. Clay’s volunteers had marched north, and been hacked to death far from home. For the moment, Harrison’s attack had stalled out and he fell back to western Ohio.

General Dearborn Gilbert Stuart
General Henry Dearborn, another holdover from the Revolutionary War. Photo Credit: Gillbert Stuart

Elsewhere, there were finally signs of life from the lackluster General Dearborn, though this would have consequences of its own. As part of his own planned advance into Canada, Dearborn’s primary objective was the fort at Kingston, along Lake Ontario. The fort had been transformed into Britain’s naval base for the lake, and the British were frantically building a fleet and extra fortifications to hold the area. Dearborn and his maritime counterpart Admiral Chauncey didn’t like the look of Kingston’s defenses, and even after reinforcements arrived they settled for the smaller prize of Fort York, now the modern city of Toronto.

On April 27th, American forces under General Zebulon Pike rowed towards York in the early morning. With 1,800 men at his back and just 700 opposing him, Pike had every reason to be confident. Before too long his men had hit the opposite shore, and under covering fire from the American flotilla they steadily drove the British back. It didn’t take long for British commander Sheaffe to realize the situation was hopeless. Sheaffe wasn’t the kind of man to take defeat lightly though. He had seized command of the faltering British at Queenston Heights after Brock died, and he was in no mood to give anything to the Americans if he didn’t have to.

Death_of_General_Pike_at_the_Battle_of_York Wiki Commons
A very odd and facially goofy version of Pike’s  death. Like Brock, he was an energetic officer who’s talents were missed. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Without warning, his regular troops received orders to fall back to Kingston, abandoning York and the militias to their fate. As Pike and his soldiers closed on the fort’s walls, the guns facing them abruptly fell silent. Confused, Pike and his men stalled a few hundred yards away from the fort. As they pondered what to make of the situation, Sheaffe set the fort’s powder magazine on fire. The explosion was massive, with one eyewitness describing, “an immense cloud…a great confused mass of smoke, timber, men, earth,…rose, in a most majestic manner…[assuming] the shape of a vast balloon.”[2]

Pike was smashed in the face and back by debris, and died of his wounds. More than 200 Americans were killed or wounded by Sheaffe’s parting shot. Afterwards, whether it was outrage over the ruse, the loss of their commander, or just the pure habit of victorious armies everywhere, the American forces began to sack York.[3]

The Mace of Upper Canada. Hilariously, after the Canadians commissioned its replacement in 1841 it was looted rampaging Montreal mob in 1849. Photo Credit: Ottawa Government

Over the next ten days, parts of the fledgling town were burned or pillaged as militias and regular soldiers ambled into homes for anything to fatten their army paycheck. Homes owned by known Native Americans or British agents were a favored target, but for the most part the destruction was widespread. In a moment of dark comedy, many American soldiers claimed they took a scalp from the York Parliament Building, which was likely one of the wig’s worn by the legislators. The Speaker’s Mace of office was also stolen, something the Americans only got around to returning in 1934.[4] Though Dearborn claimed he ordered none of this and tried to reign in his men, the destruction left an ugly scar on the American reputation. Maybe once Canadians would have looked to the United States as liberators in this war, but whatever goodwill they had to the south was burned away with York. From then on, both British and American forces now found themselves with personal grudges to avenge in this war.

[1] Disappointingly, Sun-Maid rejected the author’s attempt to pitch “Remember the Raisin” as the company’s new marketing slogan. Perhaps they don’t feel like making money this year.

[2] Malcomson R., Malcomson, T. 1998. The Battle of York. Military History Magazine.

[3] While the incident is little known in America, Toronto certainly remembers that time they were set on fire. In 2013 they commemorated the bicentennial.

[4] It literally took the intervention of President Franklin Roosevelt to set about returning the mace. Proof that the joy of looting far outlasts the nominal reasons for a conflict.


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