Using Ed Dovey’s beautiful illustrations as a visual guide, Robin Smith reports on an early British special-forces unit that operated in the 18th century American wilderness.
In the annals of British military history, there are few greater stories than the desperate expedition mounted by Captain Robert Rogers and his command through miles of unforgiving North American wilderness in the bleak autumn of 1759.
Quebec, the French power-base, had fallen, but there were still plenty of scores to be settled in the struggle to control a rich new world. Rogers and his men were on their way to destroy the Abenaki Indian village on the St Francis River. Encouraged by their French allies, the Abenakis had been raiding theNew England frontier for years.
With the exception of the battle for Quebec, the chess-game manoeuvres on open battlefields that characterised 18th century warfare in Europe had little place in the forests and rugged terrain of North America.
Conditions called for military units to be agile and flexible. The classic mantra, still chanted by historians who should know better, is that British soldiers in immaculate red coats blundered around the woods, easy prey for howling Indians. The truth is that British forces adapted quickly to woodland warfare, backed up by provincial forces long experienced in the arts of petite guerre.
An unconventional commander
Growing up fast in New Hampshire, Rogers was always one step ahead of the law. The French and Indian War provided him with a sense of purpose and an opportunity to raise his standing in the local community, especially after he was accused of being a member of a counterfeiting gang.
Rogers raised and commanded a ranger company for Blanchard’s New Hampshire Regiment. Scouting the French, Rogers became renowned for the accuracy of his reports.
Stories of his tracking skills filled newspapers and he was lauded for his exploits. British Army officers at Albany presented him with a handsome suit of clothes and 161 shillings. Not to be outdone, the New York General Assembly presented him with 125 Spanish pieces of eight.
Rogers’ exploits brought him to the attention of Governor William Shirley, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. He ordered Rogers to raise an independent company of rangers to serve the Crown. Rogers’ original command comprised 60 privates, two lieutenants, three sergeants, and an ensign.
The rule was that ‘none were to be enlisted but such as were accustomed to travelling and hunting and in whose courage and fidelity the most implicit authority could be placed.’ Described as ‘hearty fellows’ in one contemporary account, the unit grew in size throughout the war. Only loosely attached to the British Army, His majesties independent companies of rangers retained a high degree of operational independence.
Rogers’ Rangers was not the only such unit to be raised during the French and Indian War. Many others were recruited by talented and innovative commanders. But none of these had quite the same charisma or impact as Rogers and his doughty woodland warriors.
The Rangers in action
Throughout its career, Rogers’ command suffered only one major defeat – in a savage fight known as ‘the Battle on Snowshoes’ in March 1758. Scouting Fort Ticonderoga, then in French possession, Rogers and his men successfully ambushed an enemy force, but were then overwhelmed themselves. The Rangers retreated into the woods, fighting in small groups for several hours. One company surrendered after they were offered good terms, but they were then hacked to pieces.
What was left of Rogers’ battered command fought the French to a standstill and under cover of darkness slipped through enemy lines to safety. Out of 180 men, only 54 were left. But tales of Rogers’ derring-do far outweighed any reverses he suffered.
In a fight near Fort Edward, he saved the life of a British officer who was grappling hand-to-hand with a giant Indian. Coolly taking aim with his musket, Rogers shot the Indian through the head.
Rogers’ attack on St Francis – ending a particular menace in one decisive blow – would prove the nadir of his fame. The destruction of the village, where Jesuit priests had even built a church near trophy poles festooned with scalps, would also be another nail in the coffin of French influence inAmerica.
The St Francis raid
After nightfall on 13 September 1759, a force of 200 Rangers, augmented with a sprinkling of regular and provincial troops, slipped away from Crown Pointin a fleet of whaleboats, beginning a hazardous trip upriver to Mississquoi Bay at the north-eastern tip of Lake Champlain.
Leaving a group of Stockbridge Indians to guard the boats, Rogers and his men began a gruelling 100-mile trek through a hellish swamp wilderness. There were so few areas of dry land that at night they slept as best they could in trees.
The French were also on their trail. The Indians left guarding the boats caught up withRogersand told him the vessels had been discovered and destroyed.Rogers realised that after the raid his men would have to travel back by a different route with few provisions.
After ten days, Rogers and his men reached the St Francis River, which was flowing so quickly they had to form a human chain to cross it, one of the memorable exploits captured in the 1940 movie Northwest Passage. Having lost over 40 men to sickness and a freak powder explosion earlier in the expedition, Rogers had 142 men left to attack the village.
As dawn rose on 6 October 1759, they struck the village from all sides. The unsuspecting Abenakis had held a drunken party the night before and were easy targets to be shot or clubbed down as they staggered wearily from their lodges. Over 100 were killed. The Rangers burned the village, looted the church, and liberated 25 captives.
But any sense of triumph was quickly extinguished by the journey back. The weather turned colder, game was scarce, and the men trudged through the wilderness in small, bedraggled bands. More than 30 Rangers died of starvation and some even turned to cannibalism to survive.
Rogers was known as Wobi Madaondo – ‘the White Devil’ – and the fearsome reputation of his men, pioneering 18th century commandos, laid the foundations for modern special forces. Ranger units in the United States Army are issued with instructions based on Rogers’ practical and reliable orders.
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