Thursday, August 25, 2016

River Raisin National Battlefield Park

August 25th marked the 100th anniversary of Congress creating the National Park Service as an agency of the United States Department of the Interior when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act into law. As its name implies, the agency manages all of the U.S. national parks, as well as many national monuments, conservation areas, and historical sites.  All together the National Park Service manages 412 sites covering more than 84 million acres across the United States as well as locations in American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  While Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the monuments along the National Mall in Washington D.C. are some of the best known locations, properties managed by Park Service range from the 13.2 million acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska to the 0.02 acre Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania.  You can do a search for locations that may be near your home or an area you plan on visiting at

I used this online feature and discovered the River Raisin National Battlefield Park which is located in the community of Monroe, Michigan about an hour away from our home.  To commemorate the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service my kids and I spent the afternoon of August 25th exploring the site.  River Raisin National Battlefield Park marks the spot of a major skirmish that took place during the War of 1812 between a U.S. force of 1,000 soldiers consisting of the U.S. Army's 17th Infantry Regiment and units of the Kentucky militia under the command of General James Winchester versus an opposing force of 600 British Red Coats and Canadian militia aided by 800 Native American allies.  It was a disastrous engagement for the United States with only 33 of the 1,000 Americans escaping the battlefield without being killed or captured during the fighting that took place January 18 - 22, 1813.  Additionally, the day after the battle dozens of wounded and captured Americans who were abandoned when the British withdrew from the battlefield were scalped and brutally murdered by the Red Coats' Native American allies in what is referred to as the River Raisin Massacre.  General William Henry Harrison, who later become President of the United States, at the time of the battle called it a "national calamity" and inspired the battle cry "Remember the Raisin" used throughout the remainder of the war by U.S. forces.

In 2000, an excavation taking place on the property that now makes up the national park discovered a line of scattered human remains which archeologists believe identified the main skirmish line for the 17th U.S. Infantry Regiment during the Battle at River Raisin.  This helped spur Congress to incorporate the site into the National Park Service.  River Raisin National Battlefield Park opened in 2011.

When thinking of battles that took place on American soil, Revolutionary War and Civil War sites are the ones that most often come to mind.  River Raisin National Battlefield Park is a reminder that the War of 1812 also was a deadly conflict impacting the country and that Michigan was a cross road in determining the future of  the United States.  When driving around Metro Detroit and southeastern Michigan today it is hard to imagine the area 200 years ago as a wild frontier that was a contested gateway to the growth of the United States beyond the original 13 colonies.  River Raisin National Battlefield Park pays tribute to those people who lost their lives fighting in a battle long forgotten by the general public in a conflict that contributed to shaping the country we live in today.

At the park's visitor center you can watch a 15 minute video which provides the history of the War of 1812 and the battle at River Raisin's role in the conflict.  It also provides an excellent narrative that describes how the events of the battle unfolded.  Combined with two wall-sized maps that can be referred to during the video presentation, it is easy to picture how the skirmish took place on the grounds surrounding the visitor center.

The visitor center also features several full-scale vignettes that show how American and British troops may have appeared during the battle.  The life-like statues show U.S. enlisted infantry, Kentucky militia, British Red Coats, and a Native American warrior.  Original military firearms from that time period are also on display.

There are also several miniature dioramas on display that depict scenes from the War of 1812 including the skirmish at River Raisin, the naval battle of Lake Erie, and the decisive victory in the battle of the Thames by the United States that re-established its control of the Old Northwest Territory.

Visitors can also try on costumes replicating the clothing the combatants would have worn during the War of 1812.  My kids and I tried on the hats that were part of the standard uniform for the U.S. Army's infantrymen during that time period while we checked out the various artifacts, diagrams, pictures, and maps on display at the visitor center.  We learned about history and had fun while exploring the River Raisin National Battlefield Park.

The grounds of the park contain a .6 mile paved Battlefield Loop Trail with historical markers.  There is also a 1 mile crushed rock nature trail that meanders through the battlefield grounds.  A trail also connects the national park with nearby Sterling State Park which has 6 miles of hiking paths through a marsh habitat, fishing lagoons, and Lake Erie beach access.

In addition to exploring the battlefield, my kids earned patches from a park ranger for learning about native Michigan flowers, herbs, and vegetables that are grown onsite during our visit.

We had a nice summer road trip adventure visiting River Raisin National Battlefield Park.  It is open 7 days per week from 9am to 5pm excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.  Admission is FREE.  For more information about the park, visit

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