- Historic Sites
Americans As Guerrilla Fighters: Robert Rogers And His Rangers
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
However, the American militia, under Major General William Johnson, could not immediately execute this simple plan. Many of Johnson’s troops arrived late, and the men of the different colonies began to feud among themselves. In the confusion it became clear that the militiamen—contrary to their reputation as intrepid woodsmen—were no more capable of fighting the Indians on their own terms in the wilderness than the redcoated British regulars. Though Crown Point lay more than fifty miles away at the opposite end of Lake George, militia scouts often panicked when no more than a couple of miles from American lines.
It was under these conditions that Captain Robert Rogers was recommended to General Johnson one day early in September, 1755, as “a person well acquainted with the haunts and passes of the enemy and the Indian method of fighting.” According to contemporary accounts the twenty-three-year-old Rogers was “six feet in stature, well-proportioned, and … well known in all trials of strength.” On September 24 Johnson authorized Rogers to carry the fight to the enemy for the first time by making a daring raid for prisoners and information far behind French lines.
Under cover of darkness Rogers and four men climbed aboard a small bateau on Lake George. After rowing through the night with muffled oars they finally disembarked at a point on the western shore twenty-five miles down lake. Leaving two men to guard the boat, Rogers headed into the deep woods. Unlike conventional scouts his men carried little more than a hatchet, a few days’ rations, and a musket with sixty rounds. They lit no fires and pitched no tents. Guided by his uncanny knowledge of the forest, Rogers’ party reached a hilltop overlooking the French citadel at Crown Point on September 29. Rogers crept through the enemy’s guards into a small village nearby. Although he was unable to take a prisoner for interrogation, he did make a detailed study of the fort’s defenses and the deployment of its French garrison. Four days later he and his companions returned to British lines with more useful information than all the preceding patrols—some of them numbering more than fifty men—had been able to acquire together. More important, Rogers had demonstrated that the wilderness was a weapon that could be turned against the enemy.
Overjoyed with this unexpected success, General Johnson now dispatched Rogers on almost continuous patrol duty. Early in October Rogers left with five men to reconnoiter a new fort the French were building at Ticonderoga, some sixteen miles south of Crown Point; on October 8 his party ambushed a French canoe on Lake George, killing all but four of its occupants in the first fusillade.
Later that month Rogers again set out to capture a prisoner from Crown Point. After a gruelling five-day march he and his four companions stealthily advanced to within three hundred yards of the French battlements—close enough to hear the bugle calls and to see the white and gold French standard flapping lazily against its pole.
“My men lay concealed in a thicket of willows,” Rogers reported in his dispatch, “while I crept something nearer, to a large pine log, where I concealed myself by holding bushes in my hand. … About 10 o’clock a single man marched out directly towards our ambush. When I perceived him within ten yards of me, I sprung over the log, and met him, and offered him quarters, which he refused, and made a pass at me with a dirk, which I avoided, and presented my fusee to his breast; but … he still pushed on with resolution, and obliged me to dispatch him. This gave an alarm to the enemy, and made it necessary for us to hasten to the mountain.” Such audacity came to be commonplace for Rogers throughout the winter months. Though the lack of foliage and the glistening backdrop of snow made concealment difficult, he continued to harass the enemy with ambuscades and sneak attacks. Among the French he quickly earned the sobriquet of the White Devil. And even France’s savage mercenaries were perturbed by the ruthlessness of the Rangers, who often adopted the Indians’ custom of hatcheting and scalping prisoners.
It was clear to the British high command that it had at last found the answer to the problem that had beset the unfortunate General Braddock at the Monongahela —conventional European training versus the wilderness. In March, 1756, Captain Rogers was summoned to Boston by William Shirley, governor of Massachusetts and British Commander in Chief in North America. Appreciating the potential of this new mode of warfare, Shirley ordered Rogers to raise, train, and command a force of sixty Rangers, to be paid, not from colonial funds, but directly from the war chest of the British Army.
Throughout the summer of 1756 Rogers saw to it that the French were kept under continual alarms. Late in June he took fifty men in five whaleboats down lake. Under cover of darkness they cut past the enemy encampment at Ticonderoga—“so near the enemy as to hear their Gentry’s watchword”—and eventually rowed to a point twenty-five miles north of Fort St. Frederick at Crown Point. Carefully picking the moment to attack, the Rangers then played havoc with the French supply convoys moving up and down Lake Champlain. In a few days they captured several ships and sank two.