Americans As Guerrilla Fighters: Robert Rogers And His Rangers
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
The Rangers continued their raids in increasing strength into the fall and winter. Unlike conventional forces they did not go into winter quarters with the coming of the first snows. Instead they continued to assail the French supply convoys throughout the freezing upstate New York winter. Often Rangers went into action against the horse-drawn supply sleds on ice skates or snowshoes. Indeed, the frosty, leafless forests around Lake Champlain became the scene of some of the grimmest fighting in colonial history. Even when the intense cold jammed their primitive firearms and slowed their limbs with frostbite and gangrene, Rogers’ troops clambered across the ice to assail the convoys with no more than steel bayonets.
One of the severest Ranger battles took place on January 21, 1757. Rogers and a party of eighty-five Rangers attacked a sled convoy on the ice between Crown Point and Ticonderoga. But the enemy was inadvertently alerted, and soon more than two hundred Canadians and Indians endeavored to cut off the Rangers’ retreat.
About two o’clock in the afternoon, just as the Ranger column had topped a snow-covered hillock, it fell into a French ambush. Two men were killed in the first fire, and Rogers received a head wound. Startled, the outnumbered Rangers fell back on a small hill, where they formed a circle in the snow and doggedly repulsed each new French attack until nightfall. Short of ammunition, they soon had to fight off their attackers with bayonets, musket butts, and scalping knives. Twice the French tried to outflank the Rangers, but each time they were thwarted by a small reserve under two sergeants Rogers had cunningly concealed in the trees to his rear.
Just before sunset Rogers was wounded again, receiving “a ball thro’ my hand and wrist, which disabled me from loading my gun.” Though suffering from shock and loss of blood, he remained undaunted. Pulling in his outposts, Rogers broke out of the surrounding cordon under cover of darkness. The French were too severely mauled to attempt pursuit, and two days later Rogers led fortyeight effective and six wounded Rangers into Fort William Henry, on the southern end of Lake George.
Although Rogers listed twenty Rangers nearly one quarter of his total force either killed or missing, the battle was construed as a great victory throughout the colonies. Perhaps this was because he also reported that French losses totalled 116 killed. (The French governor put his losses at thirty-seven killed and wounded.)
Rogers’ greatest feat of endurance, however, came in 1759. By now a major, he marched 141 Rangers more than one hundred miles behind enemy lines for a retaliatory strike against the main Abenaki village in Canada. In the morning mists of October 6 his men stealthily surrounded the Indian stronghold, which was situated on the St. Francis River at what is now Pierreville, Quebec.
In the half-light that precedes the dawn Rogers gave a signal, and the Rangers rose to their feet and began to move forward. With no sound save for the creak of leather webbing and the occasional chink of gun metal the Rangers stole swiftly through the unguarded outposts of the sleeping village. Soon every lodge was surrounded, and, on another signal from Rogers, heavy musket butts smashed a score of shanty doors. Some Indians were tomahawked before they awoke. Others were bayoneted as they made a grab for their weapons. Some perished in the flames of their burning houses, singing their highpitched song of death, while others were shot down as they struggled to escape across the St. Francis.
Surprise had been complete. In all, some two hundred St. Francis warriors—nearly the whole fighting force of the once-powerful Indian tribe—had been slaughtered in the space of a half hour. The Rangers dispersed into the wilderness as French-led war parties were hastily assembled and sent off in pursuit.
In an attempt to shake off his pursuers Rogers, instead of returning, as he had come, by way of Lake Champlain, headed directly overland to New England, through two hundred miles of uncharted back country. The rugged march took twenty-five days. Often lost and beset by bitter cold, the Rangers staved off starvation by eating ground nuts and lily roots. Some even resorted to cannibalism when they came upon some scalped and mangled bodies. When their ammunition ran out, they fought off the French-led Indians with fists and knives. In all, fortyseven Rangers perished on the march, and two were taken prisoner. The survivors finally reached the Connecticut River near the present site of Woodsville, New Hampshire, where Rogers and two of his men built a log raft that enabled them to reach the safety of a British fort.
To make continued long-range penetrations possible, the British high command had previously ordered Rogers to recruit and train six companies of Rangers, nearly a thousand men. It had also called upon him to indoctrinate young British officers in the techniques of wilderness fighting. To accomplish this Rogers set up a guerrilla-warfare training school on the shores of Lake George and supplemented on-patrol instruction with a tersely written manual.