Monroe, MI and River Raisin National Battlefield Park

It’s finally that most quintessential of American summer holidays: Independence Day week. If you’re road-tripping through Michigan on I-75 and in need of a better excuse than fast food to get out of the car, consider Monroe, Michigan and River Raisin National Battlefield Park.

There are only four National Battlefield Parks in the United States and only one of them–River Raisin–relates to the War of 1812. It’s a largely forgotten battle in a largely forgotten war that is only remembered, if at all, for when the British burned down Washington D.C. and when Andrew Jackson gave them the what for in New Orleans after the war had officially (but not practically) ended. Three minutes off I-75 will put you at the small visitor center where you can learn a thing or two about this surprisingly important occasion.

Visitor Center at River Raisin National Battlefield Park

The basic gist of the battle is thus: It’s January 1813 and the Americans take a settlement then known as Frenchtown only to be pulverized days later by a rejuvenated British and American Indian force. Of the roughly 1,000 American soldiers in the engagement, only 33 escape death or capture. Still, the battle isn’t important so much for the military narrative so much as it is for the aftermath. The day after the battle, the town was the scene of a particularly gruesome massacre where a force of Indians returned and killed dozens of wounded, defenseless American soldiers. News spread throughout the country of the events at Frenchtown. “Remember the Raisin!” was the “Remember the Alamo!” of the War of 1812, rallying the country to fight the good fight against the British. It also made Americans particularly vindictive against Native Americans and convinced most that they should be removed. As with most early American wars, the real losers were the Indians. The war would be the beginning of the end for many tribes in the Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana area as their lands would subsequently be absorbed and their people shoved West.

Visitor Center at River Raisin National Battlefield Park

I won’t lie to you. There’s not a lot to ‘see’ at River Raisin National Battlefield Park. There aren’t remnants of ramparts, stately memorials, or anything like that. There’s the visitor center, a re-creation of a cannon, and some paths that meander into the meadows and woods beyond where you can take 10 seconds to think “so this is where all that happened.” There’s a nice picnic area, and if you plan your stop just right, there may be reenactments and demonstrations. I coincidentally stopped by on one of the scheduled ‘Black Powder Days’ where re-enactors fire the cannon, shoot muskets, and do other cool things. You probably don’t need to spend more than 30 minutes here, but it’s an educational, interesting place to stretch your legs and go ‘huh.’ Maybe you’ll go ‘huh’ at McDonald’s, but not for any good reasons.

Black Powder Days at River Raisin National Battlefield Park

I bring this place up not just for what it is but for what it will be. The park has been awarded millions in grant money to start a $100 million River Raisin Heritage Corridor which will feature a new visitor center, a restoration of the historic Frenchtown settlement, a waterfront development, and a greenway along the river. Construction is slated to begin on the visitor center this summer and when completed, the corridor is expected to make an economic impact of $30 million a year. That’s some big numbers for a small city.

Downtown Monroe, Michigan

Speaking of the city, strolling through downtown Monroe isn’t a bad way to stretch your legs either. Its old brick buildings and enticing shops and restaurants are only a couple minutes from the Battlefield. Book Nook is a browse-worthy bookstore. Grab some Mexican food and a beer across the street at Amaya’s. You can peek at River Raisin and think for a second that this may have been the international boundary between the United States and Canada had British and Canadian officials had their way back in the day. And then be on your way on I-75.

Have you been to Monroe, Michigan? What did you think?