Wilderness Ordeal


A dozen miles north of the British fort of Crown Point on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, amid the buttonbush, bulrush, and cattail wetlands that crowded Otter Creek’s delta, Maj. Robert Rogers glassed down the lake for the lateen sails of a patrolling enemy French sloop or schooner. Pulled into hiding within the marsh lay 17 whaleboats, each bearing eight oars and provisions for a month. It was Saturday, September 15, 1759, in the midst of the French and Indian War, the titanic struggle between the French and British empires for dominion over North America.

Rogers’s nearly 200 handpicked men waited patiently. His glass disclosed one sloop, then another, tacking smartly within the lake’s close confines. Soon a schooner joined them. Had Rogers not pulled his craft inshore, these warships would have made short work of their small flotilla. In the coming days, the expedition, which had just set out from Crown Point, would undergo perhaps the most grueling ordeal ever recorded in North American history, and in so enduring and surviving its members would write a new chapter in the roster of special operations. The British commander in North America, Jeffery Amherst, had finally approved Rogers’s long-nurtured plan to make a bold and unprecedented strike against the village of Saint-Francois, 150 miles north as the crow flies into Canada. Since the early years of the 18th century, the Abenaki of Saint-Francois, strongly encouraged by the French, had launched dozens of terrorizing raids against British colonial settlements on the frontier. By playing the enemy’s own game of waging fast, surprising, and destructive small-unit warfare, Rogers was gambling that he could take the heart out of the Indians’ will to continue their alliance with the French—a bold wager indeed. No British ground expeditionary force in 70 years of colonial wars had even contemplated a long-range lunge of such operational scope or strategic intent.

Rogers intended to row 75 miles north from Crown Point to the lake’s northeastern headwaters at Missisquoi Bay. That evening, no clouds or fog masked the waning quarter-moon, and so his impatient rangers had to wait again.

The next day Rogers noticed that a couple dozen men showed telltale signs of measles. With a full-blown epidemic on his hands not two days into the expedition, Rogers allowed the disease no further time to take its toll, posting 41 men, mostly invalids, under a minimum escort of healthy rangers, back to Crown Point within 48 hours of setting out.

Amherst’s orders to Rogers had dictated: “You will march and attack the enemy’s settlements on the south side of the river St. Lawrence, in such a manner as you shall judge most effectual to disgrace the enemy, and for the success and honour of his Majesty’s arms. . . . Take your revenge, but don’t forget that tho’those villains have dastardly and promiscuously murdered the women and children of all ages, it is my orders that no women or children are killed.”

That day, the French flotilla dropped past their position of concealment toward Crown Point. The whaleboats hurriedly resumed their tortuous journey north, hugging the eastern shore. The long train of boats each kept close to the next, following the 25th of Rogers’s 28 rules of warrior conduct—North America’s first war manual—that he had written to help the British survive brutal wilderness warfare against highly experienced French and Indian adversaries. The rule not only prevented dangerous straggling but also made mutual assistance possible in the event that gummed seams burst or a westerly surge broadsided and capsized part of the column.

In the morning hours of September 23 the tired men pulled into the northern confines of Missisquoi Bay. A cold rain had pounded the open boats all night, soaking the woolen blankets wrapped around heads and shoulders. In strict silence, the men dragged the boats ashore and unloaded their supplies; then they overturned the craft and covered them with brush.

One hundred and fifty men in 17 boats could only be so quiet. Despite the insistent patter of rain, a small party of keen-eared Abenaki hunters hurrying for the warmth and brandy of the French fort at Ile aux Noix, some 10 miles to the northwest, heard some unmistakably human sounds and hurried yet faster.

Unaware of this shadowy passage, the rangers had tucked at least a week’s cache of provisions into the boats for their return journey. Rogers posted two Indian rangers to lie watch; should the enemy discover them, they were “with all possible speed to follow on my track, and give me intelligence.” The raiders’destination still lay 72 miles away; they would have to wind as much as a third more of that distance to follow any practical path.

The small command moved directly east and away from Ile aux Noix out into the gently undulating hardwood forest of what is now southern Quebec. While it still comprised a few more than 150 men, the force had already lost much of the Indian ranger complement and two of its three regular officers. Amherst had required Rogers to pick his men from the entire army, not just the rangers. As was often the case over the course of his military career, Rogers was struggling to build coherent working order among a disparate group. Time and again he strove to mold frontier individualists into effective battle formations by communicating effectively with unlettered pioneer Scots-Irish, praying Indians, British regulars, and flat-footed coast provincials. He trained his men rigorously and taught them extraordinary practical skills. Above all, he treated them in a challengingly respectful and equal spirit, taught them to overcome dread, and created a collective mystique. In doing so, Rogers innovated and codified a particularly modern—and American—brand of warfare still taught to special forces today and used in critical situations the world over.