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Americans As Guerrilla Fighters: Robert Rogers And His Rangers

May 2024
17min read

As the fourth ice age of the Pleistocene epoch receded some eleven thousand years ago, an almost impenetrable forest of oak, elm, birch, maple, and pine trees sprang up between the coast of New England and the shores of the Mississippi. So fertile was the soil and so thick did the green canopy become that sunlight seldom penetrated to the forest floor, where ferocious beasts prowled and decaying tree trunks littered the primordial gloom. It was in this great arboreal cavern, stretching from Maine to Missouri, that Robert Rogers found himself at home. He learned the haunts of its game, the pattern of its mountain ranges, and the run of its streams and rivers.

Such knowledge, combined with a breezy contempt for conventional military doctrine, became invaluable to the British colonial authorities at the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754. With a band of carefully chosen New Hampshire foresters known as Rangers, Rogers was to evolve the basic principles of modern irregular warfare and give native Americans an unconquerable confidence in their own military prowess. ”… though it was the fashion of the day to sneer at the efforts of provincial troops,” wrote the historian Francis Parkman of the French and Indian War, “the name of Rogers’s Rangers was never mentioned but with honor.” Indeed, most historians concede that without a hard backbone of highly disciplined Ranger veterans, Massachusetts men would not have triumphed at the Battle of Concord in 1775, nor would the colonies have survived the first year of their struggle for independence.

The man chiefly responsible for their accomplishments was a powerfully built, ugly individual with goggle eyes and a strangely effeminate mouth. Through his mastery of the leaf-dark forests Robert Rogers—an unlettered son of the New Hampshire frontier— was to become one of the great romantic legends of the eighteenth century; yet in many ways the plain facts of his turbulent career overshadow the fiction that grew up about his exploits.

His parents, James and Mary Rogers, were Scottish Presbyterians from Ulster who probably left northern Ireland sometime in the late 1720’s. At the time of Robert’s birth on November 18, 1731, his family owned a primitive farm on the banks of the Merrimack, which separated Massachusetts and the virgin territory that was shortly to become New Hampshire.

When Robert was seven, the family moved beyond the existing line of settlements to a fertile new tract of land close by what is now Dunbarton, New Hampshire. But the newcomers were not left in peace for long. In 1744 France declared war on England, and the outlying farms and villages became constant targets for marauding Indians allied to the French. In the summer of 1746, at the age of fourteen, Robert Rogers joined the militia. He signed up again for the 1747 campaign, returning to his family with the winter. As the snow melted the following spring, Indian raiders once more cut deep into New Hampshire. In April they burned the Rogers farm to the ground. Though the family escaped, all the cattle were killed, and most of the fruit trees, tenderly nurtured through years of toil, were cut down by the Indians.

Young Rogers himself attempted to farm for a while, but between 1743 and 1755, he later declared in his Journals , “my manner of life was such as led me to a general acquaintance both with the British and French settlements in North America, and especially with the unculticated desart, the mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and several passes that lay between and contiguous to the said settlements.”

Rogers’ purpose in making such long trips between New England and Canada is not clear, though some historians surmise that he was probably engaged in some aspect of the smuggling trade. In any event he enjoyed an easy familiarity with the American wilderness.

Perhaps it was on one of his smuggling ventures through this wilderness that Rogers met a convicted forger named Owen Sullivan. Court records show that in January, 1755, Rogers was arrested and imprisoned with eighteen others on charges of disbursing counterfeit money printed by Sullivan. The case, however, came to nothing, because the war drums were again beating throughout New England. Indians, led by French officers, once more terrorized English frontier settlements in an effort to deter further westward migration. As incentive the savages received sixty livres for every scalp.

Rogers came out of jail on bond and enlisted with the New Hampshire militia. Since he brought more than fifty men in with him, he was promptly commissioned captain and placed in command of Company One.

After patrolling the New Hampshire frontiers the militia was eventually posted to Albany, New York. Its objective was the great stone fortress of St. Frederick, built by the French at the southern end of Lake Champlain (at Crown Point) and a major mustering point for invading Indian war parties. By capturing Crown Point the British would dominate Lake Champlain, whose waters thrust like a gleaming bayonet to the very heart of French Canada. Thus, in a single successful siege, the British planned to move from the defensive to the offensive in the struggle for North America.

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.

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.

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.

Rogers’ financial situation was not helped by his marriage, on June 30, 1761, to Miss Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of a leading Episcopalian clergyman in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In less than two years his father-in-law was suing him for £2,500 for failing to support Elizabeth. At the same time the Reverend Browne accused Rogers of “Gratification of unlawful pleasure and Passion.”

Despite her father’s accusations Elizabeth stood by Robert as he struggled to pay off his creditors. After brief service against the Cherokee in the Carolinas and helping to quell Pontiac’s Rebellion, Rogers was finally thrown into debtors’ prison in New York. On the night of January 14, 1764, veterans who had served under him broke into the jail and released their former commander. Rogers escaped to New Hampshire, and a year later he departed for London, where he hoped to make his plight directly known to the government.

Once in London, Rogers added new luster to his reputation with the publication of his military Journals and A Concise Account of North America. Both books were highly successful, but the Concise Account had a special appeal for the British public, because it described regions of the continent previously occupied by the French.

Rogers befriended Benjamin Franklin and a rising young politician, Charles Townshend, whose brother had fought and died alongside Rogers at Fort Carillon in 1759. On October 17, 1765, the young warrior from the borders of New Hampshire was presented at court and permitted to kiss the hand of George III.

There is little doubt that Rogers used the audience to forward his pet project: an expedition to discover a northwest passage through the Great Lakes of America to China. For the cost of £32,000 he proposed to lead an expedition on a three-year trek to the head of the Mississippi and “from thence to the River called by the Indians Ouragon which flows into … the Pacific Ocean.” Discovery of such a passage to the East, Rogers reasoned, would not only pay off his debts but yield an immeasurable fortune to him and his backers.

Although the king favored the project, he judged it too expensive. However, he did appoint Rogers the first royal governor of Fort Michilimackinac at the salary of £183 a year. Rogers was also to receive pay as a captain in a troop known as the Royal Americans. It was hoped that from his vantage point at Michilimackinac he would superintend the local Indian tribes and make a detailed exploration of the wilderness to the west.

Rogers’ appointment to Michilimackinac ran directly counter to the interests of two powerful and vengeful men then serving in North America. These were General Thomas Gage, the new Commander in Chief of British forces, and Sir William Johnson, the soldier-trader who controlled the Iroquois tribes of upstate New York and much of the territory to the west. Gage had reason to resent Rogers, because the New Hampshireman’s Rangers had time and again outperformed the British Army’s corps of “light infantry,” a body of regular soldiers raised by Gage in 1757 to perform similar scouting duties against the Indians. At the same time Johnson believed that Rogers’ governorship, however far west, would tend to siphon off much of his own profitable trade with the Indians.

Shortly after Rogers arrived in New York on January 9, 1766, Gage wrote Johnson: “Be So good to Send me your Advice in what manner he may be best tied up by Instructions and prevent doing Mischief and imposing upon you.” In the months to come the two plotters did more than tie up Rogers with instructions. Working through a number of spies, Johnson purported to discover that Rogers planned to hand over his post to the French, who still maintained a shadowy presence beyond the Mississippi. Rogers was accused of holding “dangerous and traitorous Conferences with his Majesty’s Enemies” and was arrested by one of his own officers on December 6, 1767.

Rogers’ court-martial, held in Montreal, did not begin until mid-October, 1768, and even after his acquittal Gage stalled on releasing him from jail for three more months. The General also refused to reimburse some £3,800 in debts that Rogers had legitimately incurred as governor of Michilimackinac.

In an effort to pay off his creditors Rogers departed once again for London in the summer of 1769, only to be thrown in a debtors’ prison on arrival. His old patron, Charles Townshend, had died, but he was shortly rescued by another friend. At his release the hulking Ranger once again set London agog as, using his bare fists, he “fought his way thro the jaylers and turnkeys,” refusing to tip them for their small favors. In the coming months, however, the subtle and devious pressures brought to bear by Gage and Johnson were too much for him, and Rogers was returned to prison in the spring of 1771. Again his release was obtained by friends, but he began drinking heavily.

On October 16, 1772, Rogers failed to meet a debt of £1,400 and was imprisoned once more, this time in the Fleet—one of London’s most notorious prisons. Only the passage of a new bankruptcy law enabled him to gain his freedom nearly two years later. He returned to North America in 1775 after obtaining a major’s pension from the British government.

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. Eleazar 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 wife 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.

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