Remember the Raisin!
A drive into history down Wagner Road
by David Swain
In June 1812, the United States declared war on the United Kingdom. In July, Michigan territorial governor-turned-general William Hull failed to invade Canada. In August, he hastily surrendered Detroit to the British and their Native American allies.
That winter, a militia force was organized in Kentucky to march up and take the city back. On January 18, 1813, they ran into the enemy camped on the River Raisin at Frenchtown--today's Monroe--and drove them off in the first skirmish. Two days later, the enemy returned, to the detriment of the Kentucky militia.
The second, decisive battle left almost 400 Americans dead and more than 500 taken prisoner. The following day, in the River Raisin Massacre, vengeful Native Americans killed dozens of wounded Kentuckians. It was the bloodiest battle ever fought in Michigan and accounted for 15 percent of American deaths in the War of 1812.
I have a long history of being fascinated by history. The newly designated River Raisin National Battlefield Park--much of it, until fairly recently, a paper mill and landfill--is on Monroe's Elm Street. Carefully studying a map, I saw that Elm becomes North Custer, which becomes Plank Road, which becomes Milan's Main Street.
Milan's Main turns into Saline-Milan Road, which turns into Saline's Ann Arbor Street. As it nears Ann Arbor, the road then splits into Ann Arbor-Saline and Wagner roads.
I grew up about a mile from Wagner Road. The idea that it was a gateway to history was new and intriguing to me. I wanted to go to the battlefield, and I wanted to see what I would see along the way. So I headed south on Wagner for the forty-mile drive to the battlefield.
Going back to prehistory, the first landmark I see is Dolph Lake, off Wagner between Jackson and Liberty. One of the three "Sister Lakes," it was formed when a large chunk of ice broke off from a retreating glacier some 13,500 to 16,000 years ago. The glacier also left behind the Defiance
Moraine, which has its high point on Wagner near Scio Church Road. The view south from here is an expansive vista that is uncommon in these parts.
Many roads in southeast Michigan predate the arrival of Europeans by thousands of years. I cross one in downtown Saline: US-12, aka Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Road, and, until the nineteenth century, the Sauk (or Fox) Trail.
South of US-12 I pass the state Fishery Research Station. The Native Americans knew of salt springs here, and when French travelers came up the river by canoe, they named it using their word for salt, saline. Years of drainage and agriculture have lowered the water table so much that the springs no longer flow. The York Mill was at this site until the 1940s.
At Stony Creek Road, I detour about a mile west to see what is left of the village of Mooreville. The sight of a large tree growing up through the porch of the abandoned church is jarring. Mooreville lost out to Milan when the railroad came through, suffering the indignity of having buildings moved to be closer to where the action was.
About halfway between Milan Dragway and the little hamlet of Grape, the Saline, Macon, and Raisin rivers join together. In the 1807 Treaty of Detroit, the Potawatomi surrendered most of southeast Michigan but retained land here called the Macon Reserve.
The road is called North Custer now (South Custer runs parallel on the other side of the River Raisin). At Raisinville, some old buildings are preserved by the Monroe County Historical Society. The little brick schoolhouse was built in the 1850s. The white Navarre House next door was built in 1789--the first of George Washington's eight years as president.
The two Custer roads are named for Monroe native George Armstrong Custer, and there are traces of him and his many relatives all over town. A large statue of Custer, called "Sighting the Enemy," depicts him as a major general in the Civil War. To me, a more compelling image is the photo at the River Raisin National Battlefield Park. Taken in 1871, it shows Custer and his father posing with the aged survivors of the Battle of Frenchtown some fifty-eight years before. Five years later, Custer himself was killed in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The Battle of Frenchtown is a bigger deal in Kentucky than it is here. Nine counties are named after men who fought there, and "Remember the Raisin" became a rallying cry for the rest of the war.
The British held onto Detroit until the following fall, when the American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie cut their supply lines. Soon after, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who led the Native American forces, was killed in the Battle of the Thames.
For the United States and Britain, the war ended in a draw. The Native Americans were the undisputed losers. It wasn't just their military defeat--as Jared Diamond points out in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, they were defenseless against the diseases brought by the Europeans. Soon after the battle, the Macon Reserve was struck by an epidemic. A native cemetery there is marked by a boulder near where the Saline, Macon, and Raisin rivers join.
In the Smithsonian magazine in June, a park staffer admitted that, compared to the Civil War, few remember the War of 1812. "In the fight for memory," he said, "we're like a few guys with flintlocks going up against Robert E. Lee's army."
But the guys with flintlocks aren't giving up. There will be big doings at the park for the bicentennial this month. A full day of activities is scheduled for Saturday the 19th, with historical presentations, uniformed re-enactors, and a memorial ceremony at the Kentucky Monument.
[Originally published in January, 2013.]