One of the first American heroes in our nation’s history was a man who had two distinct lives. One before the American Revolution and one after. Robert Rogers was famous for his companies of Rangers during the French and Indian War. He was a brilliant officer and outdoorsman and his men served the British and American colonies well. He was made famous in the 1940 film “Northwest Passage” and was played by Spencer Tracy. His 28 Rules of Ranging remain today, slightly altered due to changes in warfare as a standard for the US Army Ranger Regiment. His Standing Orders are still printed on the inside cover of the Army’s Ranger Handbook today.

But during the American Revolution, he remained loyal to England, led British troops against his American kinsman and suffered from severe lapses of judgment. He was eventually stripped of his command and most of the officers he appointed were summarily relieved as well by the British. In his later years, he was constantly in debt and suffered from alcohol problems. He died penniless and alone in 1795. However, it was his service with the Rangers that he is most noted for. And in doing so, he’s America’s first Special Operations hero.

Rogers was born to Irish immigrants in November 1731 in Methuen, Massachusetts. Methuen lies on the Merrimack River, 30 miles north of Boston on the New Hampshire border. At the time of his birth, settlers would set forth from Methuen to the “wilds” of New Hampshire. When he just a boy of eight, his family moved to a 2100 acre farm in Dunbarton, New Hampshire just outside of what is now Concord.

When he was just 15 in 1746 during King George’s War, he joined the New Hampshire militia as a private in Captain Daniel Ladd’s Company of Scouts and, in 1747, also as a private in Ebenezer Eastman’s Scouting Company, with the express mission of guarding the New Hampshire frontier.

When the French and Indian War broke out in 1755, the British initially suffered a series of defeats. This encouraged the Indians allied with the French to begin raiding English colonists in New Hampshire. In 1756, Rogers began recruiting New Hampshire men for his Rangers. He was authorized by the Crown and angry and frightened colonists began to flock to his banner.

Ranger of the French and Indian War painting by Don Troiani.

Rogers’ Rangers grew to 600 rugged New Hampshire outdoorsmen organized into 12 different companies. The green-clad Rangers went thru a rigorous training program which included numerous live-fire exercises which the British regulars considered a waste of time and ammunition. His second in command was John Stark who became famous in his own right later during the battle of Bennington.

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The Rangers under Rogers became the nation’s first unconventional warfare specialists. He adopted the Indians’ tactics for fighting, hardly the first to do so but he regimented his lessons learned into a system where he trained his soldiers. His 28 Rules of Ranging was a brilliantly simple, no-nonsense guide for fighting on the frontier.

The Rangers broke down the barriers that conventional troops had at the time. While most standing armies either scaled down or stopped completely, operations in the winter months, Rogers showed their true unconventional nature in 1758 when using a mix of snowshoes, sleds and even ice skates, when his troops successfully engaged the enemy over Lake George. In that same year, he was given command of all Colonial Rangers in North America.

In 1759, the Rangers had their most famous operation against the hated Abenaki (Abnaki) Indians from Quebec. The Indians had launched numerous raids against the colonists in the south and had killed hundreds. Rogers men got a measure of revenge against the Abenaki for their attacking English troops who were retreating under a white flag of truce. The Rangers had infiltrated deep into the Abenaki territory from Crown Point, NY with 200 hundred Rangers, surprised the Indians, burning their village to the ground and killed scores at Saint-Francis. While the Abenaki raids never completely stopped, after burning the town of Saint-Francis, they diminished markedly. They were no longer untouchable.

After the fall of Quebec and Montreal, Rogers was transferred to the west under the command of Brigadier General Robert Monckton. He ordered Rogers and the Rangers to capture Detroit where they were successful. After the French surrender at the Great Lakes, the Rangers were disbanded and Rogers was retired at half-pay.

He traveled to England and wrote a book, “A Concise Account of North America” and a stage play, Ponteach [Pontiac]: or the Savages of America to help free him from the debt of paying for and equipping his own troops during the war. He won an audience with King George III, convinced him of finding a Northwest Passage to the Pacific and was commissioned as the Governor of Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Michigan).

Ranger re-enactors fire on the British during Revolutionary War reenactment in Massachusetts. (Photo by the author)

He quickly ran afoul of the military, specifically General Thomas Gage who actively tried to undermine Rogers because of his friendship of General Amherst, a fierce rival of Gage. It was also during this time when Rogers’ alcoholism began to take hold of his actions.

Gage drummed up false charges of treason against Rogers in 1767 and had him brought to Detroit in chains. His trial in 1768 resulted in an acquittal. Rogers once again left for England but did time in a debtor’s prison.

He returned to the colonies in 1775 with the outbreak of the Revolution imminent and offered his services to the rebels and George Washington. But Washington had him arrested, believing him to be a spy. Rogers escaped and once again offered his services to the British Crown.

He was given command of a unit and formed the Queen’s Rangers as its Colonel. He appointed many strange officers to his command including tavern owners as well as whore-house owners which infuriated the British. Although he was responsible for the capture of Nathan Hale, he was defeated in his only action. He and most of his officers were sacked. He returned to England suffering from “poor health” until he returned in 1779 to raise another Ranger unit, the “King’s Rangers” until General Henry Clinton. By then his alcoholism was full-blown and he was sacked again.

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Unable to ever return to New Hampshire, he once again withdrew to England where he remained until his death.

 

Rogers Standing Orders:

  1. Don’t forget nothing.
  2. Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning.
  3. When you’re on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See the enemy first.
  4. Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don’t never lie to a Ranger or officer.
  5. Don’t never take a chance you don’t have to.
  6. When we’re on the march we march single file, far enough apart so one shot can’t go through two men.
  7. If we strike swamps, or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it’s hard to track us.
  8. When we march, we keep moving till dark, so as to give the enemy the least possible chance at us.
  9. When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.
  10. If we take prisoners, we keep ’em separate till we have had time to examine them, so they can’t cook up a story between ’em.
  11. Don’t ever march home the same way. Take a different route so you won’t be ambushed.
  12. No matter whether we travel in big parties or little ones, each party has to keep a scout 20 yards ahead, 20 yards on each flank, and 20 yards in the rear so the main body can’t be surprised and wiped out.
  13. Every night you’ll be told where to meet if surrounded by a superior force.
  14. Don’t sit down to eat without posting sentries.
  15. Don’t sleep beyond dawn. Dawn’s when the French and Indians attack.
  16. Don’t cross a river by a regular ford.
  17. If somebody’s trailing you, make a circle, come back onto your own tracks, and ambush the folks that aim to ambush you.
  18. Don’t stand up when the enemy’s coming against you. Kneel down, lie down, hide behind a tree.
  19. Let the enemy come till he’s almost close enough to touch, then let him have it and jump out and finish him up with your hatchet.

Rogers 28 “Rules of Ranging”

These have been simplified over time and still used today by the Ranger Regiment. They’ve changed the language a bit to fit more to a modern timeframe but the tenets remain the same. *Note that now there are 29*

  1. All Rangers are subject to the rules of war.
  2. In a small group, march in single file with enough space between so that one shot can’t pass through one man and kill a second.
  3. Marching over soft ground should be done abreast, making tracking difficult. At night, keep half your force awake while half sleeps.
  4. Before reaching your destination, send one or two men forward to scout the area and avoid traps.
  5. If prisoners are taken, keep them separate and question them individually.
  6. Marching in groups of three or four hundred should be done in three separate columns, within support distance, with a point and rear guard.
  7. When attacked, fall or squat down to receive fire and rise to deliver. Keep your flanks as strong as the enemy’s flanking force, and if retreat is necessary, maintain the retreat fire drill.
  8. When chasing an enemy, keep your flanks strong, and prevent them from gaining high ground where they could turn and fight.
  9. When retreating, the rank facing the enemy must fire and retreat through the second rank, thus causing the enemy to advance into constant fire.
  10. If the enemy is far superior, the whole squad must disperse and meet again at a designated location. This scatters the pursuit and allows for organized resistance.
  11. If attacked from the rear, the ranks reverse order, so the rear rank now becomes the front. If attacked from the flank, the opposite flank now serves as the rear rank.
  12. If a rally is used after a retreat, make it on the high ground to slow the enemy advance.
  13. When lying in ambuscade, wait for the enemy to get close enough that your fire will be doubly frightening, and after firing, the enemy can be rushed with hatchets.
  14. At a campsite, the sentries should be posted at a distance to protect the camp without revealing its location. Each sentry will consist of 6 men with two constantly awake at a time.
  15. The entire detachment should be awake before dawn each morning as this is the usual time of enemy attack.
  16. Upon discovering a superior enemy in the morning, you should wait until dark to attack, thus hiding your lack of numbers and using the night to aid your retreat.
  17. Before leaving a camp, send out small parties to see if you have been observed during the night.
  18. When stopping for water, place proper guards around the spot making sure the pathway you used is covered to avoid surprise from a following party.
  19. Avoid using regular river fords as these are often watched by the enemy.
  20. Avoid passing lakes too close to the edge, as the enemy could trap you against the water’s edge.
  21. If an enemy is following your rear, circle back and attack him along the same path.
  22. When returning from a scout, use a different path as the enemy may have seen you leave and will wait for your return to attack when you’re tired.
  23. When following an enemy force, try not to use their path, but rather plan to cut them off and ambush them at a narrow place or when they least expect it.
  24. When traveling by water, leave at night to avoid detection.
  25. In rowing in a chain of boats, the one in front should keep contact with the one directly astern of it. This way they can help each other and the boats will not become lost in the night.
  26. One man in each boat will be assigned to watch the shore for fires or movement.
  27. If you are preparing an ambuscade near a river or lake, leave a force on the opposite side of the water so the enemy’s flight will lead them into your detachment.
  28. When locating an enemy party of undetermined strength, send out a small scouting party to watch them. It may take all day to decide on your attack or withdrawal, so signs and countersigns should be established to determine your friends in the dark.
  29. If you are attacked in rough or flat ground, it is best to scatter as if in rout. At a pre-picked place you can turn, allowing the enemy to close. Fire closely, then counterattack with hatchets. Flankers could then attack the enemy and rout him in return.

Photos courtesy: Don Troiani, Wikipedia, Author