Americans As Guerrilla Fighters: Robert Rogers And His Rangers

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When Rogers landed in Maryland in August, 1775, the American Revolution was well under way. News of Lexington was already four months old, and the Battle of Bunker Hill had shown what native Americans, including many former Rangers under the firm hand of John Stark, at one time Rogers’ second in command, could do against England’s finest regular infantry. Later these same troops would overwhelm the Hessian forces at the Battle of Bennington. “If the British military mind had allowed regulars to be exercised in Ranger tactics, they might have crushed the American Revolution,” writes Howard H. Peckham, director of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, “instead the Americans absorbed the lessons of Rogers’ experience and fielded an army that perplexed the orthodox British.”

Preoccupied with paying off his debts, Rogers took little interest in the war. In his efforts to obtain a grant of land in upstate New York he petitioned both Tory Governor William Tryon of New York and patriot Dr. Elea/ar Wheelock, the founder and first president of Dartmouth College. Such behavior by a man with Rogers’ fearsome reputation, now on half pay as a major in the British Army, aroused deep suspicions among the rebels. General Washington ordered his arrest in South Amboy, New Jersey, early in July, 1776. Though Rogers had vaguely hoped to serve the Continental forces upon settlement of his debts, his arrest drove him to cast in his lot with the British. On the night of July 8 he escaped from jail and ten days later was seen clambering up the side of the British flagship in New York. General William Howe immediately ordered him to raise a battalion of Rangers for use against the Americans.

For all his popularity, however, Rogers was unable to recruit many of the backwoods fighters who had served so valiantly with him against the French. It also appeared that the forty-four-year-old Ranger, rumsodden and quarrelsome, was no longer up to the rigors of command. After some brief skirmishing around Mamaroneck, New York, he was soon replaced and took little part thereafter in the conflict.

Divorced by his wile in 1778, Rogers was again imprisoned for debt, this time in Malifax. After his release he sailed to New York, only to be captured by an American privateer and once more incarcerated, this time as a prisoner of war. He returned to London with the defeated British armies to live out the remainder of his days in a haze of alcoholic penury. He died on May 18, 1795, at Southwark and was buried two days later in a churchyard near the famous inn The Elephant and Castle.

Memorials to Rogers’ prodigious feats of valor still stand at the sites of the old forts of his Ranger days. Both Fort William Henry at the foot of Lake George and Fort Carillon (Fort Ticondcroga) have been completely restored, and at Crown Point can be seen the remains of Fort St. Frederick.

But the most enduring monument to Robert Rogers is likely to remain the unspoiled wilderness of the Lake Champlain region. Even today it is easy to imagine the spirits of long-departed Rangers flitting from cover to cover across the green woodland glades or trudging on some spectral mission through the eerie silences of the snow-muffled forest.