In 1755, as overall commander in America, Braddock had started off with several British advances against the French, most of which ended in disaster. The campaign seasons from 1755 through 1757 all went poorly for the colonists and the British. The French form of guerrilla warfare on the frontier was far superior to the major campaigns of regular forces that the British were attempting. As British general John Forbes neatly summarized, “the French have these several years by past, outwitted us with our Indian Neighbors, have Baffled all our projects of Compelling them to do us justice, nay have almost everywhere had the advantage over us, both in political and military Genius, to our great loss, and I may say reproach.” In 1757 the Crown charged William Pitt with the conduct of the war, and he began focusing on using the superior Royal Navy—combined with regular and provisional forces—in an attempt to drive the French from North America once and for all. The plan called for a naval blockade to cut off essential supplies and trade goods from Canada and increasing the resources needed to campaign on the ground. In addition to regular troops, the Crown took over the financing of provincial units, including the invaluable rangers.
Braddock’s defeat opened the floodgates for French and Indian frontier raids. From the end of 1755 until early 1756, attackers swarmed in from the Pennsylvania frontier south to Georgia. By the fall of 1756 the Ohio Valley Shawnees and Delawares had killed or captured upward of three thousand colonists in the Appalachian range. The frontier receded as survivors flocked east to more densely settled areas. In Pennsylvania, for example, the raiders pushed as close as seventy-five miles from Philadelphia. The French reported that “all these provinces are laid waste for forty leagues from the foot of the mountains, in the direction of the sea.”
After Braddock’s defeat, colonial assemblies began commissioning ranger units and offering bounties for Native scalps. For example, the Virginia House of Burgesses raised three fifty-man ranger companies and offered a bounty of £10 (approximately $2,000 in today’s currency) for each scalp of an Indian male over twelve years of age. Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie noted that over the fall of 1755 and early winter of 1756, the rangers devastated many Native villages. In New Hampshire, Robert Rogers received permission to enlist experienced frontiersmen from Colonel Joseph Blanchard’s militia to become “Rogers’ Rangers.”
The problem of French and Indian raids was particularly acute in Pennsylvania, where the pacifist Quaker-dominated assembly had always avoided any kind of support for a militia system. The raiders made no distinction between pacifists and combatants, and even after the pacifist Moravian settlement of Gnadenhütten (“huts of grace” in German) was annihilated in November 1756, the Quaker assembly was slow to act. The main obstacle was an impasse over taxes between the assembly and the proprietors, the Penn family. The stalemate finally broke after Germans from the frontier began parading the dead and mangled bodies of their loved ones on carts down High Street in Philadelphia and the Scots-Irish on the frontier threatened to take up arms and march on the statehouse. In order to avoid breaking with their pacifist theology, the assembly passed a bill to provide £55,000 for “the King’s use.”
On the Pennsylvania frontier, Lieutenant Colonel John Armstrong also formed a ranger unit of mountaineers to face the danger. Armstrong had attempted to protect the area with a string of traditional forts and militia garrisons, but found these were useless in ending the raids. He went on the offense, and in 1756, with three hundred men, led a strike against the village of Kittanning, a Delaware settlement on the Allegheny River north of Fort Duquesne. Just before dawn on the morning of September 8, 1756, the rangers overran the village, capturing and killing the inhabitants and then destroying the settlement. The idea was to eliminate the village as a forward operating base to attack the Pennsylvania frontier. But the rangers did not leave it at that. In retribution for prior attacks, the rangers took no prisoners, chasing surviving men, women, and children into the forest in search of scalps. Although the attack on Kittanning was a success, it was costly and in the long term prolonged the conflict: it came at the same time that Quaker representatives from the colony were in talks with the Delaware and Shawnee, hoping to convince them to return to the status of neutrality.
Major General Braddock’s defeat led the British to rethink their strategy on the continent and their reliance on the “fickleness” of the Indians as guides and scouts. Major General Jeffery Amherst, now commander-in-chief of the British army in North America, chose instead to lean on the American settlers who knew guerrilla warfare the best, the rangers. Well acquainted with the American tradition of using ranger units to counter the French and their Native allies, Amherst turned to Robert Rogers and his rangers. The most famous leader of American rangers, Rogers had extensive experience in the field. He was a true backwoodsman, ideally suited to frontier warfare. He noted in his Journals that he became familiar with “some knowledge of the manners, customs, and language of the Indians,” adding that he was knowledgeable of 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.”
In the summer of 1754, during King George’s War, Rogers was a fourteen-year-old living with his parents, James and Mary Rogers, in the Great Meadow frontier of New Hampshire when Abenakis from Canada laid waste to their farm and the surrounding area. Rogers then joined Captain Daniel Ladd’s company of rangers and began his storied career. During this war Massachusetts governor William Shirley had enlisted colonists whom he called “snowshoe men,” or rangers, to defend the frontier. They were to “hold themselves ready at the shortest Warning to go in pursuit of any Party of Indians, who frequently in time of War make sudden Incursions, whilst there is a deep Snow upon the Ground, and retreat as suddenly into the Woods after having done what Mischief they can.”
Robert Rogers’s service began when he raised a unit of New Hampshire volunteers for service in the 1755 Lake George campaign. The backwoodsmen Rogers recruited were experienced hunters like he was. At times, British regulars were simultaneously shocked by the lack of discipline among provincial rangers and in awe of their skills in scouting and raiding. Rangers cared little for the redcoats and regulations of the regulars. One British officer observed that the rangers “have no particular uniform, only they wear their cloaths short.” Each man carried his musket, hatchet, possibles bag containing sixty bullets, buckshot, and a long knife. They also carried a “bullocks horn full of powder” that “hangs under their right arm by a belt from their shoulder.”
Rogers spent 1755 and 1756 leading his men on scouting expeditions from Fort William Henry up to Lake George and Lake Champlain. In March 1756 he managed to approach the walls of France’s greatest citadel, Fort Carillon (later renamed Fort Ticonderoga by the British), on Lake Champlain. By the time he was recalled to meet Governor Shirley in Boston, now the overall British commander in North America, the papers had made him a celebrity. The Boston Evening Post hailed him as the man “who has made himself famous in these Parts of America, by his Courage and Activity with his Scouting-Parties near Crown-Point.” Rogers was pleased with the meeting, during which the governor “soon intimated his design of giving me the command of an independent company of Rangers.” Shirley authorized Rogers to raise a company of sixty-six men “used to traveling and hunting, and in whose courage and fidelity I could confide” in order to “distress the French and their allies by sacking, burning, and destroying their houses, barns, barracks, canoes, battoes, etc., and killing their cattle of every kind; and at all times to endeavor to way-lay, attack, and destroy their convoys of provisions by land and water, in any part of the country.”
Throughout 1756 Rogers’s Rangers scouted from Fort William Henry and Fort Edward to report on the French and their Native allies on Lake Champlain. Rogers looked for targets of opportunity and used the surprise of an ambush to capture and bring back prisoners for interrogation. The risks were extremely high; unlike regular forces fighting in Europe, the war on the American frontier did not always include the option of surrender. If captured by Natives, colonists could expect a level of torture that made death a blessed relief.
When Major General James Abercrombie assumed command of British forces in America in the summer of 1756, he summoned Rogers to Albany. Pleased with Rogers’s efforts, the major general added a new company of rangers to be commanded by his brother, Richard Rogers. When General John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun, assumed command, Rogers reported that he had also taken command of a group of about thirty Stockbridge Indians, whom Rogers had sent scouting; Rogers reported they had returned with two “French scalps, agreeable to their barbarous custom.” Rogers used his knowledge of the French language to his advantage. On a scouting party within a mile of Fort Carillon, he spied a French sentry. Taking five men, he boldly approached the soldier and answered the sentry’s challenge “in French, signifying that were friends; the centinel was thereby deceived, till I came close to him, when perceiving his mistake, in great surprize he called, Qui etes vous? I answered ‘Rogers,’ and led him from his post in great haste, cutting his breeches and coat from him, that he might march with the greater ease and expedition.” This prisoner, like others taken before, provided a boon of information for the British over the French and Indian strengths and plans.
That winter Rogers’s force was increased by two more ranger companies and split between Forts Edward and Henry. In mid-January 1757, Rogers set out from Fort Henry with a snowshoe-clad heavy scouting party down from Lake George in the direction of Fort Carillon. Due to injuries on the first day, by the second day the party was reduced to seventy-four officers and men. On January 21, 1757, midway between Crown Point and Carillon, the party spotted a sled traveling between the two posts. Sending Lieutenant John Stark with part of the force to intercept the sled, Rogers and another force attempted to block the sled’s line of retreat back to Carillon. At that point Rogers spotted about ten more sleds that had spotted them, and all beat a path to safety back at the fort. “We pursued them,” wrote Rogers, “and took seven prisoners, three sleds and six horses; the remainder made their escape.” Rogers learned from the prisoners that the fort was well garrisoned with French and their Indian allies, and the men who had escaped the ambush would surely rouse the garrison. Here Rogers held a council of war in which his officers suggested they should “return by a different route from that by which the party came.” The men were soaked and exhausted, and Rogers ordered them back to the fires of their last camp to clean their wet weapons and prepare to fight or retreat. The cocky twenty-four-year-old was defiant, stating “that they would not dare pursue him.”
After the halt, at around two in the afternoon, the rangers marched on in single file about a half-mile, with Rogers in the lead and Lieutenant Stark taking up the rear. Rogers should not have wasted time returning to his camp; in fact, by doing so he violated one of his own famous “Rules of Ranging.” Rule V states that “in your return take a different route from that in which you went out, that you may better discover any party in your rear, and have an opportunity, if their strength be superior to yours, to alter your course, or disperse, as circumstances may require.” Instead Rogers led his men into a deadly ambush in which the first sign they had of the enemy “was the noise in cocking their guns.” Entering a valley where the French and Indians had taken positions in the wood line, they met “the enemy, who had here drawn up in the form of a half-moon, with a design, as we supposed to surround us, saluted us with a volley of about 200 shot, at the distance of about five yards from the nearest, or front, and thirty from the rear of their party.” As men fell all around, Rogers was wounded, but still ordered his men to rally with the rear guard on the closest hill. Several more were killed or captured as they fell back. “My people,” noted Rogers, “however, beat them back by a brisk fire from the hill.” Here Rogers placed his officers and men in a high defensive position, all the while fearing being flanked. Outnumbered, almost surrounded, and in a desperate situation, the rangers did have one distinct advantage: they were wearing snowshoes and could skim across the surface while the French had to plow through waist-high snow. The French and Indians moved to flank them on their right, and Rogers sent his reserves over to hold them off. Rogers noted they performed well, “giving them the first fire very briskly,” forcing them to take cover where “it stopped several from retreating to the main body.” They then made a head-on assault, but using the cover and concealment of the trees, Rogers recorded that “we maintained a continual fire upon them, which killed several, and obliged the rest to retire to their main body.” The standoff continued in this way for several hours, with the enemy taunting Rogers by name with threats. They claimed that they were about to be reinforced, and if Rogers refused to surrender they would “cut us to pieces without mercy.” They then tried flattery, stating that it was “a pity so many brave men should be lost; that we should, upon our surrender, be treated with the greatest compassion and kindness.” The rangers turned down the offers, replying that “we were determined to keep our ground as long as there were two left to stand by each other.”
The fighting finally began to taper off at sunset, as human targets began to blend in with the growing shadows. At this time Rogers “received a ball thro’ my hand and wrist, which disabled me from loading my gun. I however found means to keep my people from being intimidated by this accident; they gallantly kept their advantageous situation, till the fire ceased on both sides.” Under darkness the rangers fell back, making it to Lake George by sunrise. With many wounded, Rogers dispatched Lieutenant Stark and two other men to Fort William Henry to bring up transportation for the wounded. The next day a relief force with a sled guided the party back to the fort, where fifty-four survivors including six wounded men arrived. Rogers guessed they had been attacked by 250 French and Indian fighters, and he had heard that the French reported 116 men killed or mortally wounded.
By late 1757 Loudoun and his commanders came around to the use of American guerrilla rangers and decided to increase their numbers for the upcoming campaign season to a thousand men. Rogers was then given the order to raise five companies of New England rangers that he would command.
However, Rogers and his command saw the war through different lenses. This war in America was not a contest between the “King’s Champions” who, under bright banners in colorful uniforms, would meet their enemy on the field of honor while advancing by fife and drum. No. For Robert Rogers and his neighbors, the Seven Years’ War in America was a fight for survival on the frontier, dominated by the guerrilla tactics of small-unit ambushes and raids, using the elements of stealth and surprise to dominate the enemy. Quarter was neither freely given nor expected by either side, and civilian settlements were considered fair game. As early as 1756, Rogers had pressed Loudoun for permission to “plunder Canada” with attacks and raids upon the settlements of the French and their allied Natives. Loudoun demurred. He thought this would simply turn into a scalping party by the New Englanders, something he considered a “Barbarous Custom.” Besides, rather than enemy scalps, he needed the intelligence that prisoners could provide. He ended the practice of awarding bounties for scalps. Loudoun’s successor, Major General Abercrombie, freely used the rangers on scalping parties and reported to London that he had sent them out to do “as Much Mischief as they” could.
While the scouting and raiding by the rangers proved valuable, British authorities had little faith in using American provincial troops. General James Wolfe opined that “Americans are in general the dirtiest, the most contemptible cowardly dogs you can conceive.” In fact, he considered rangers in particular to be “Lazy cowardly People.” The rangers developed a reputation of being poorly disciplined and insubordinate. After going on a scout with Rogers’s men to Fort Carillon in late 1757, Captain James Abercromby (no relation to the general) complained that “the Ranger officers have no Subordination amongst them.” He advised his commanders that if the ranger force was to be expanded, they should be led by regular British officers “to introduce a great deal of Subordination.”
At Fort Edward in December 1757, Rogers’s Rangers mutinied after the regulars flogged two privates. The rangers knew Rogers’s first rule: “All Rangers are to be subject to the rules and articles of war.” This also included brutal forms of corporal punishment that were rare among provincials. Two respected veteran rangers, Samuel Boyd and Henry Dawson, were convicted of stealing rum from the fort. They were taken by the regulars and brutally whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip with nine separate lashes, each tipped with a sharp metal barb. The rangers had seen enough. Unlike regular British troops, they did not consider themselves professional career soldiers, but rather colonial citizen-soldiers who had temporarily taken up arms under contract to protect their neighbors on the frontier. Their concept of discipline and service could not have been more foreign than that of the regular officers, who used the brute force of corporal punishment to ensure the discipline of the regular forces—many of whom enlisted from the most impoverished classes of Britain.
The event may not have spiraled out of control had Rogers been there. But he had been bedridden fighting scurvy, and his men took action. First they focused their anger on the greatest symbol of oppression: the whipping post. After they gathered around it and cut it down, they attempted to free the prisoners from the guardhouse. They surrounded the stockade and began to knock boards off of it until two ranger officers, Captain Charles Bulkeley and Captain John Shepherd, intervened at some risk to themselves. Shepherd grabbed a weapon from one of the mutineers and ordered some of the men who had accompanied him to fire on the next man who attempted to destroy the guardhouse. The regulars heard the commotion in the American camp and went to investigate. The commander of Fort Edward, Lieutenant Colonel William Haviland, had little use for the rangers and demanded that Rogers turn over the ringleaders of the mutiny. Rogers complied, but warned Haviland that if the men were treated too brutally, he could not ensure that a good portion of his command would not desert. This stand simply convinced the lieutenant colonel that the rangers were unfit for service at the fort and should be transferred away due to their bad influence on the regulars. General Abercrombie concurred and informed his commander Loudoun that he had always felt that the rangers were “unfit for service.