Ever since U.S. Grant mobilized the Union’s superior numbers of men and industrial strength against the Confederacy, the American way of war has relied heavily on intensive firepower, mass production, and cutting-edge technology to defeat the enemy. It was an approach to conflict that worked exceedingly well in the world wars and in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, but proved far too blunt and unsubtle to prevail in unconventional conflicts like Vietnam, and our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Global War on Terror, of course, is very much an unconventional struggle, and the United States’ most critical military asset in waging it has been our unconventional warriors—the special forces. The Special Operations Command consists of about 70,000 men and women. Their primary missions are hunt-and-kill (or capture) raids, long-range reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, and training of indigenous military forces. Green Berets, SEALs, and the Delta Force all emerged after 1950, when special forces at long last became a permanent part of the U.S. military.
But America’s unconventional warfare tradition goes back to the 17th century, when a handful of men like Benjamin Church and John Talcott in New England formed independent scouting and raiding companies of friendly Indians and colonial soldiers to defeat a major Indian rebellion in New England called King Philip’s War (1675-76).
The most colorful and influential unconventional warrior in our colonial history, though, is unquestionably Robert Rogers (1731-95). Of Scots-Irish descent, Rogers was born in Methuen, Massachusetts, but raised on a farm on the upper reaches of the New Hampshire frontier. This was at a time when France and England were vying for dominance of northern New England and New York, and raids by Indians allied with the French in northeastern Canada were the scourge of the English settlers’ existence.
By the time he was 24, Robert Rogers had established himself as a leather-tough, exceptionally resourceful backwoodsman and soldier, having served two tours of duty with the New Hampshire militia tracking Abenaki raiders. While still a teenager, he had often left the family farm to serve as a guide or a hunter-trader in the trackless wilderness between the French and British settlements.
Contemporary reports describe the young Rogers as “six feet in stature, well proportioned, and... well known in all trials of strength.” In the only reference he made in writing about his youth, he tells us that between 1743 and 1753, he was
led to a general acquaintance both with the British and French settlements in North America, and especially with the uncultivated desert, the mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, and several passes that lay between and contiguous to the said settlements. Nor did I content myself with the accounts I received from the Indians, but travelled over large tracts of country myself, which tended, not more to gratify my curiosity than to inure me to hardship and to qualify me for my later services.
Rogers’ name and exploits were widely celebrated in his own time, and in popular works of history by Francis Parkman in the 19th century and Kenneth Roberts in the 1930s. More recently, he languished in obscurity until resurrected by the writers and producers of AMC’s popular TURN: Washington’s Spies series in 2014. TURN presents Rogers as a vicious killer, a mercenary fighting for the British in the American Revolution.
Very little of what Rogers does on screen in the series has any grounding in real history. Yes, he did fight for the British. Yes, he did end up a pathetic drunk living out the end of his days in London. (More on that later.) But his role in the Revolution was marginal at best. He was given command of a battalion of Queens’ Rangers, fought in one minor battle in Westchester County, New York, lost it, and was summarily relieved of command. And then he was sent to Canada to do some recruiting duty.
Rogers’ significance lies not in what he did in the Revolution, but in his spectacular career as Major Rogers, commander of a corps of about 600 specially trained scouts and raiders in the long struggle that established Britain as the dominant power in North America for good: the French and Indian War (1754 to 1763).
A crucial theater in this vicious and complex conflict was in the thickly forested, mountainous region around Lakes George and Champlain in northern New York. In spring 1755, the French were on the offensive here, building up strength for deeper incursions to the south. Gen. Edward Braddock, commander of British forces in North America, ordered a joint force of 5,000 New England militia and their Mohawk allies to march on the great French stone fortress, Fort St. Frederick, at the south end of Lake Champlain. It was the main base for French-Indian raids on the English settlements to the south.
The commander of this expedition, Gen. William Johnson, was in desperate need of detailed intelligence on the enemy’s order of battle and the nature of his fortifications. His own scouts had either been captured or lost their nerve when they came near enemy patrols and returned to base with nothing to show for their efforts. The commander of the New Hampshire regiment had a solution to Johnson’s problem. The captain of his first company was the best backwoodsman in northern New England, and he had ice water in his veins. He’d get the job done. His name was Robert Rogers.
In his first long-range recon mission, Rogers and two hand-picked men reconnoitered for nine days deep behind enemy lines, evading French-Indian patrols again and again. After several close calls, he returned to Fort William Henry with a detailed schematic of the French defenses and a remarkably accurate assessment of the enemy’s order of battle.
Before the end of the year, Rogers, accompanied by anywhere between a handful and 50 troops, made six other sallies deep behind the French lines, where he monitored the buildup at both Fort Frederick and Fort Carillon (later called Fort Ticonderoga when it was in British hands), 16 miles south of Frederick at the head of Lake George. On these missions, he repeatedly captured French and Indian prisoners and brought them back through enemy lines to British headquarters, where they provided excellent intelligence on the enemy’s morale and intentions.
Rogers’ success as a scout—and trainer of scouts—led the British to offer him a commission to form a company of 60 rangers—soldiers with the skills to “range” the long distances between forts on the frontier. In early 1756, this new force conducted several successful raids in which they ambushed enemy patrols and burned down pro-French Indian villages near the big French installations.
If Rogers had any fear of the enemy, of close combat, of adversity of any type, he masked it well. For the next five years Rogers and his Rangers—ultimately consisting of eight or nine discrete companies—served as the eyes and ears, as well as the chief raiding force—of the British forces in the New York theater. Although Rogers personally commanded only one of these companies, he assumed responsibility for training the entire corps—and reserved the most harrowing missions for his own unit.
Ranger training, carried out in isolation on what is now Rogers Island in the upper Hudson River—put a premium on developing endurance, stealth, marksmanship, and mastery of small-unit tactics of attack and defense refined from Rogers’ close study of Indian warfare.
Unlike conventional forces in the 18th century, the Rangers operated throughout the winter months. One of the Rangers’ most celebrated successes came in January 1757, when Rogers led 75 men in an ambush of a convoy of supply sleds heading to Fort Frederick from Fort Carillon. They’d made their way toward the French convoy using both snowshoes and ice skates. Once again, they had managed to take several prisoners. On their way back to Fort William Henry, they were themselves ambushed by a force double their size, yet through superior mobility and marksmanship, they repulsed attacks to both their front and flanks.
Holding off the French until dark, the Rangers slipped through the enemy cordon and escaped through the wilderness, again employing snowshoes. Fourteen Rangers were killed and 12 wounded, but the French lost more than double that number, and Rogers still had his prisoners.
In more seasonable weather, the Rangers often employed fast, maneuverable whaleboats, 10 men to a boat, with oars and sails, to disrupt French supply lines on Lake Champlain and Lake George. The Rangers on many occasions had to portage these vessels over rough mountain passes—some as long as six miles—before being put into action. Allan Nevins, Rogers’ first 20th century biographer, tells us that “scarcely one of his scores of raids was performed without fatigue, pain, loss of life, and often as his achievements were spectacular, still oftener they were the result merely of... persevering labor, and were brought to triumph over difficulties which less hardened soldiers would have deemed insuperable.”
Perhaps the Rangers’ greatest feat of audacity and endurance occurred in September 1759, when they launched a stunning surprise attack more than 100 miles behind the French lines. The objective was the village of a band of Abenaki Indians believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 400 American colonials, situated on the St. Francis River in what is now Pierreville, Quebec. The Rangers managed to enter the village before dawn undetected. Using hatchets and knives, they quickly dispensed with an estimated 200 warriors before withdrawing stealthily into the forest.
The French sent a powerful reaction force after Rogers and his men. They destroyed the Rangers’ boats and provisions, so the Americans were forced into making a harried, nightmarish escape through uncharted wilderness to an obscure military post near the upper reaches of the Connecticut River, far to the southeast. As Rogers described it in his Journals, the trip took “many days of tedious marching over steep rock mountains, or through wet dirty swamps, with the terrible attendants of fatigue and hunger.” Most of the men were too weak to press on after eight days of merciless pursuit. (About 50 Rangers were ultimately killed or captured en route.)
With his troopers starving and too weak to go on, Rogers and two of the strongest men vowed to make their way to the post and send back food and supplies as fast as possible. They made a raft and headed south on a tributary of the Connecticut River, only to see the raft destroyed in rough water after they had covered only half the distance to the post. Rogers refused to quit. Too weak to cut down trees for another raft, he burned them down, lashed the logs together with grapevines, and pushed southward on the Connecticut River until he reached the objective. Aid made it back to the main Ranger contingent in the nick of time.
The Rangers served as assault troops in the capture of Fort Carillon in 1759, and as scouts in Gen. Jeffrey Amherst’s conquest of Montreal, which brought about the surrender of all the French forces in North America. In appreciation for the vital contribution of the Rangers to British victory, Amherst ordered Rogers to take the surrender of all the French posts on the Great Lakes. With a party of 200 men, he completed this mission with aplomb, showing a real knack for Indian diplomacy. Over the course of four months, Rogers and his Rangers marched some 1,600 miles.
By the end of the war, Rogers’ exploits had been heralded in hundreds of newspapers and pamphlets throughout the British colonies. A case could be made that Robert Rogers was the first genuine American war hero.
Although most British officers held American forces in the French and Indian War in low regard, Rogers’ superiors recognized the value of the rugged frontiersman’s unconventional warfare skills, and his tenacity. In 1757 he was ordered to prepare a short primer for regular officers interested in employing Ranger methods. Rogers’ “28 Rules of Ranging” was the result. The document remains one of the classic early texts for students and teachers of unconventional war. In fact, “28 Rules” is still used, albeit in modernized form, in the U.S. Army’s Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where prospective Rangers are taught:
*Never return to base by the same route used to reach an objective.
*When crossing a river in enemy territory, avoid use of the most common fording spots.
*If a superior enemy force threatens to overwhelm your unit, let the troops disperse, with each man taking a different route to the evening rendezvous.
*If you have inferior numbers, attack at night when the strength of your force will be masked, and your withdrawal favored by darkness.
The life of Robert Rogers after the glory days in the French-Indian War was both eventful and tragic. After fighting without distinction at Fort Detroit in Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, Rogers rapidly lost his good name by fleecing a series of business associates in real estate deals in New England and New York, and in the Indian trade. Having accumulated hefty debts in America, he fled to London. There he enjoyed a brief season of notoriety after publishing The Journals of Robert Rogers and the Rangers, a gripping account of his combat and scouting experiences, and establishing impeccable credentials as a hard-drinking Party Animal. He wrote an appallingly bad play about Pontiac, whom he had come to know well during his long journey to the Great Lakes at the close of the French-Indian War in 1760.
Influential friends secured for him a royal commission as governor of an important military post near the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan, where he was meant to supervise British-colonial relations with the many Indian tribes in the region. There he manipulated dozens of Indian chiefs and Indian traders with a view to lining his own pockets.
Rogers made powerful enemies during his brief stint as governor, most notably General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces in America, who arrested him for consorting with the French, and for mutiny.
Acquitted of the charges in Montreal, he returned to England in 1768. An insatiable appetite for alcohol, and for spending other people’s money, led to several short stints in his Majesty’s prisons. Returning to America just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he offered his services to George Washington, but the commander of the Continental army thought Rogers a spy, and had him arrested near Philadelphia.
He soon escaped, and as we pointed out above, the British commissioned him to command a battalion of Rangers, and soon came to regret it. After he was relieved of command toward the end of 1776, his movements and activities become difficult to follow. In May 1779, Gen. Henry Clinton ordered him to raise a new troop of Rangers in Canada, but Rogers failed to come through. The commanding British general in Canada complained that Rogers “at once disgraces the Service, and renders himself incapable of being depended upon.”
He sailed for New York aboard a sloop in early 1781, only to be captured by an American naval ship and jailed for about a year. Apparently he sailed to London sometime in late 1782 or 1783, never to return to his native country. (He was banned from returning to New Hampshire.) We have no evidence that he ever worked again in any meaningful capacity. He survived on a small pension from the British Army, remaining heavily in debt until the end.
London’s Morning Press noted his passing on May 18, 1795: “Lieutenant Colonel Rogers, who died on Thursday in the Borough [of Southwick], served in America during the late war, in which he performed prodigious feats of valour. He was a man of uncommon strength, but a long confinement in the Rules of King’s Bench [a prison for debtors], has reduced him to the most miserable state of wretchedness.”
A grand total of two mourners attended the funeral service.