U.S. War History Without the Airbrush
Unit #35 / 413 - River Raisin National Battlefield Park
Nazis! Hitler! Genocide!
Imagine if your job was marketing an organization whose consumers recalled those words at its mention.
Yet that's what the country of Germany has to do for every visitor.
Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Tagging along one of Berlin's famous free walking tours, I was stunned at the way Germans openly acknowledged the sins of their past.
But as the guide explained, "We find it's important to not hide from or deny our past, because then we remember it and can use it to not make the same mistakes again."
A half-century after the culprit for those German scare words, the country is now both a leader in the European Union and a worldwide example of a nation welcoming those who are different.
On the other side of the world, it seems the United States is less wholly embracing of our past transgressions.
"I have to be careful how I tell the story," Ranger Ron explained minutes into my time at Monroe, Michigan's River Raisin National Battlefield Park.
"If visitors are Canadian," he continued, "they don't like hearing the story from a U.S. = Good Guy, Canada = Bad Guy perspective. Because while to us in the States it was a victory, for them it was a massacre. So I try to explain the story in a way that doesn't offend Americans, Canadians or Native Americans, but still shares what really happened."
And it's a tricky topic the Park Service tries to handle. For at this battle in which the United States lost 15% of their War Of 1812 militia, all parties experienced both victory and defeat and all parties committed atrocities; showing that there are no "winners" in war, only perspectives.
For one man's "Freedom Fighter" is another man's "Terrorist."
U.S. propaganda against the British, implying they were funding Native attacks
The Natives, including famous leader Tecumseh, have been cited as defending their land, aiding a victory, and creating a massacre.
The Americans write history beginning with a bloody massacre, a call to arms, and finally an equalizing treaty.
And the Canadians equally lay claim to both triumph and loss, all while balancing their relationship as to whether they were actually British or independence-seeking Canucks.
It's enough to make a high-school history student weep, and a war historian salivate.
Fortunately, the exhibits in the Visitor Center do a great job explaining both this battle's complex history, and the way it was crucial to establishing the America we have today (all you Michigan college football fans...you'd be part of Canada were it not for this battle).
River Raisin also serves as an example of the diverse park system and its goal of telling America's stories in tactile and creative ways. As one of only four National Battlefield Parks in the entire system of 400+ units, they have used the location of their site (formally covered by legions of paper mills) by building mock archeological sites with faux artifacts for kids to discover.
Aware that history has not always been kind to the Native American perspective ("History is written by the victors"), Park Superintendent Scott Bentley has engaged 13 local tribes to create the Journey Toward Understanding, a partnership with the Park Service allowing the Natives to be part of the expansion this young park hopes will better share its complex story.
So if you're looking for an American battlefield with a glossed-over appeal ala displaying ones best virtues on Facebook/Instagram, this likely isn't your park.
However, if you're interested in learning about an American battle that displays both our dark and heroic pasts, how those heavily influenced the War Of 1812, and how a contemporary community seeks to honor the traditions of all involved--both the "good guys" and the "bad"--then you may have just found your park here.
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5 River Raisin Highlights (You Can Do)!
For this unit's highlights, I've let River Raisin Battlefield Foundation former chairman, William H. Braunlich, takeover and share his 5 favorite highlights of the area.
1. Bike or Hike the River Raisin Heritage Trail to Sterling State Park
Set off on the River Raisin Heritage Trail (right in front of the River Raisin Visitor Center) and head east to the marshes of Lake Erie and Sterling State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. Information stations along the way share of local flora and fauna.
2. Fawn Over Custer
Did you know Monroe, Michigan, was the childhood residence of George Armstrong Custer? (Of "Custer's Last Stand" fame). He even took a picture with the veterans of the River Raisin battle (see below).
In downtown Monroe, the Monroe County Historical Museum houses one of the largest collections of Custer memorabilia, in addition to a Custer statue adorning the town's nearby main street.
3. Make it a Road Trip!
Take the Route 1812 Driving Tour through Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, and celebrate 200 years of peace by reliving some of the most heroic moments, bloodiest battles, and cowardly acts of the War Of 1812. Especially fitting for the state of Michigan's history of automotive sites and events.
4. Eat Where the Locals Do (and on the River Raisin!)
Have a post/pre River Raisin National Battlefield Park meal at Clamdiggers on the River Raisin, a short walk from the Visitor Center. Try the house specialty: mashed potato pizza with sour cream and bacon.
5. Take Part in an Event
A failed attempt at sponsorship
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Ohio to New York to Vermont to New Hampshire to Maine
-Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial
-James A. Garfield National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
-Women's Rights National Historical Park
-Fort Stanwix National Monument
-Martin Van Buren National Historic Site
-Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
-Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
-Appalachian National Scenic Trail
-Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument *New NPS site added 1 week ago*
-Saint Croix Island International Historic Site
-Acadia National Park
The journey thus far: