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A diorama at the River Raisin visitor center depicts the war’s northern front. (Andrew Spear)

The War of 1812: Remember the Raisin!

The war's battle cry, along with almost everything else about it, has been forgotten for far too long

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“Muskrat’s an acquired taste,” acknowledges Ralph Naveaux, scraping dark meat from the rodent’s bony hindquarters, or what another diner calls “the ass-end.” Naveaux likens the taste to wild duck, or “a very aggressive turkey.” Many others at his table stick to the spaghetti.

Re-enacting at River Raisin also requires a hardy constitution, since the original battle occurred in January. Some of the Lacroix men hide hand warmers in their boots and wear long johns beneath period knee pants and linen shirts. Most are over 50, and there aren’t enough of them to stage a full-scale battle. Ken Roberts, a former autoworker who has re-enacted almost every conflict in American history, says the War of 1812 attracts fewer participants than any other. “It’s not a Hollywood kind of war,” he says.

This is especially true of the River Raisin fight. At first, Americans succeeded in dislodging a British encampment by the river. But a few days later, the British and their Indian allies launched a devastating counterattack. Of the thousand or so Americans involved, mostly Kentuckians, only a few dozen escaped killing or capture. This made River Raisin the war’s most lopsided U.S. defeat, accounting for 15 percent of all American combat deaths in the entire conflict.

But the most notorious incident at River Raisin occurred after the battle, when Indians attacked 65 wounded American prisoners, in apparent reprisal for atrocities the Kentuckians had committed against natives. Reports of the slaughter were quickly exaggerated in wartime propaganda, with political cartoons and recruitment broadsides depicting a drunken massacre and scalping by Indian “Savages,” abetted by their British allies.

In October 1813, shouting “Remember the Raisin!,” U.S. troops exacted revenge in a victory over the British and Indians that resulted in the killing and skinning of the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh.

The vengeful Raisin battle cry was the precursor of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember the Maine!” Bitterness over River Raisin also contributed to the postwar expulsion of tribes living east of the Mississippi, a campaign championed by William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, two leading Indian fighters from the War of 1812.

“This isn’t just local history, it’s critical to our nation’s long war against Native Americans,” says Daniel Downing.

Even so, the Raisin and its legacy are largely forgotten, and the War of 1812’s bicentennial has brought little federal or state support to the battlefield, which lies within the industrial city of Monroe. Until recently, a paper mill covered the heart of the battlefield. It’s been demolished, but a light industrial park, an ice rink and other buildings occupy other parts of the historic ground. Toxic chemicals linger beneath the field and in the River Raisin, originally named by French settlers for the abundant grapes along its banks.

Downing, a disabled Iraq War veteran, attributes some of this neglect to Americans’ penchant for redacting dark passages from their history. “This battle, and all that flows from it, isn’t flattering to our self-image,” he says.

The opposite applies at Fort McHenry, on the shore of Baltimore Harbor. It was here, during a British bombardment in 1814, that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The flag that Key saw waving above the rampart now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; Key’s words appear on the inside flap of U.S. passports; and Fort McHenry is a well-preserved national monument and historic shrine, attracting 650,000 visitors a year.

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