- Historic Sites
Americans As Guerrilla Fighters: Robert Rogers And His Rangers
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Unlike the crisp lines of European-trained troops, Rogers’ men disdained the brilliant red and white uniforms that advertised a target to the distant ambusher. Instead their drab green hunting jackets and brown thigh-length boots allowed them to merge with the forest hues. In winter months they broke their silhouette against the snow with a white doublet. And the Rangers did not scorn a discreet withdrawal to the cover of the forest when attacked. “If you are obliged to receive the enemy’s fire,” Rogers advised in his manual, “fall, or squat down, till it is over, then rise and discharge at them.” And while elaborately equipped regulars might take days or weeks to prepare for battle, the Rangers must always “be ready on any emergency to march at a minute’s notice.”
On the move Rogers urged his men to avoid neatly drilled ranks and to “march in a single file, keeping such a distance from each other as to prevent one shot from killing two men.” Encampment in the field was a time for special caution. To prevent observation by hostile eyes, Rangers were ordered to “march till it is quite dark before you encamp … keeping one half of your whole party awake alternately through the night.” Outposts, each numbering six men, should be set up “in such a manner as not to be relieved from the main body till morning, profound secrecy and silence being often of the … [utmost] importance in these cases.” If hostile movement was seen or heard, the sentry must not cry out; instead he must silently report back so that his commander could stealthily prepare a devastating counterattack.
While conventional troops were accustomed to attack at dawn, Roberts favored the evening attack, when the enemy is tired and “will not know your numbers, and if you are repulsed, your retreat will be favored by the darkness of the night.” Moreover, the Rangers often feigned a ragged retreat as a device to draw the enemy into an ambush.
To make an orderly retreat when hard-pressed by a superior foe often demanded a much higher order of discipline than the mindless obedience required of the conventional eighteenth-century soldier. When overwhelmed, the Rangers would let their first line fire and fall back and then let their second line do the same. The enemy, observed Rogers, would then be obliged “to pursue you, if they do it at all, in the face of constant fire.”
Much of Rogers’ manual is devoted to dealing with a very contemporary problem: how to avoid an ambush. Scouts, he said, should march some twenty yards in front and to each side of a column. In addition outlying observation patrols should move from high ground to high ground to watch for hostile movement ahead and in the rear. “If the enemy pursue your rear, take a circle till you come to your own tracks and there form an ambush to receive them,” he advised. By the same token, if in pursuit of a hostile party, the Rangers were instructed to “follow not directly in their tracks, lest you should be discovered by their rear guards … but endeavour by a different route, to head and meet them in some narrow pass, or lay in ambush to receive them when and where they least expect it.”
As word of the Rangers’ exploits spread, Rogers became the colonies’ most romantic combat hero. News sheets from Virginia to Maine printed his dispatches verbatim. London print shops blossomed with portraits of Rogers, and every Englishman from King George down to the lowliest street urchin rejoiced in the Rangers’ daring accomplishments.
By spring of 1759 the French were forced to withdraw, first from Fort Carillon (now Ticonderoga, New York) and then from Fort St. Frederick. That autumn Quebec fell to Wolfe. Within a year France surrendered all her possessions in North America. Two hundred Rangers in fifteen whaleboats under Major Rogers were ordered to row up the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario to take over the remote line of French outposts that stretched from Detroit to Michilimackinac, at the foot of Lake Superior.
Rogers’ diary of his pioneering voyage into the heartland of America is charged with intense excitement. Up until this moment the French fur-trading syndicates had jealously veiled the whole continent west of Fort Pitt in a shroud of secrecy. The British had no accurate maps of this western wilderness and knew neither the names nor the customs of many of the Indian tribes that dwelt there. Though rapidly forming lake ice prevented Rogers from reaching Michilimackinac in the fall of 1760, he relieved Detroit and made contact with several important Indian chiefs, including Pontiac.
When Rogers finally returned to civilization by marching directly across the unmapped wilderness to Philadelphia, the church bells of that city were rung in his honor, and he was welcomed as a national hero.
Peace, however, confronted Rogers with the most implacable opponent of his career: the British Army’s paymaster general. Due to the Rangers’ haphazard bookkeeping, the government refused to make good a large part of some £6,000 worth of debts that Rogers had incurred in paying his men and in purchasing weapons to replace those lost in combat. His creditors sued, and soon there were numerous attachments against his property in New Hampshire.