Rogers’ Rangers, A Unique Unit?
An English military unit sent to scout the Champlain Corridor at the height of the French and Indian War spent the afternoon of January 21, 1757, fighting its way out of an ambush in a snow-covered valley near modern-day Ticonderoga, New York. The engagement came to be referred to as the Battle on Snowshoes. That memorable name contributed to the fame of both the unit involved and of its leader, Robert Roger and his rangers.
This article serves partly as an overview of the Battle on Snowshoes. In addition, it serves to ask the question of whether Rogers’ unit was as unique a force as it has come to be remembered. Rogers’ is certainly a colorful figure in colonial American military history. But was a unit of the type such as his actually without precedent? To answer that question, some background is in order.
The defining characteristics of ranger units
While ranger units are capable of performing a variety of tasks, reconnaissance and raiding are their raison d’être. Both require the ability to move quickly, so ranger units are a notch above conventional military units as well as logistically light. The patrols conducted by the mounted ranger units formed by the South Carolina Colony after the outbreak of the Yamasee War in 1715 are one example of the reconnaissance function, and Rogers’ Rangers operation in mid-January of 1757 is, of course, another. Mosby’s Rangers were a Confederate mounted unit based in Virginia well-known for their raids against Union supply lines during the second half of the Civil War. The participation of the 6th Ranger Battalion in the liberation of the prisoners at the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines during WWII is a more recent example of the raiding function of ranger units.
Predecessors of Roberts’ Rangers?
Apart from the ranger units raised in South Carolina during the Yamasee War, were there any predecessors to Roger Roberts’ Rangers? Indeed there were, and this is clear without looking further at the Southern colonies. Benjamin Church and his rangers played an important role in Metacomet’s/King Philip’s War in 1675–78 and raided into Acadia twenty+ years later. Gorham’s Rangers were renowned for both defensive and offensive operations in the French and Indian War prior to the existence of Roberts’ Rangers.
I think it should be clear at this point that Robert Rogers did not innovate a new type of military unit. His rangers in fact followed in the tradition of a number of colonial units that existed in the century prior to his own birth.
The Battle on Snowshoes
Throughout the late fall and early winter of 1756/57 Rogers and his unit were largely occupied with patrolling in the vicinity of Fort Edward, New York, and the island in the Hudson now home to the museum and monuments created in their honor. On January 15, 1757, Roberts and some of his men set out for Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George. After two days’ spent provisioning themselves, they departed across the ice of Lake George to begin their reconnaissance patrol. They left the ice and donned their snowshoes on the 19th, beginning their movement into French-controlled territory overland. All proceeded well for Roberts’ party until the 21st, when they observed a number of French sleds in transit between Fort Carillon at the head of Lake Champlain and Fort Saint-Frédéric at the choke point now traversed by the Lake Champlain Bridge. The rangers managed to capture some, but not all, of the French party, and quickly decided they should reverse course towards Fort William Henry in anticipation of a party being sent out against them from Fort Carillon.
Roberts and his men fell into the French ambush at about 2PM that afternoon. Of his 68 men, fourteen were killed, six wounded (including Rogers himself, who was shot through the wrist), and six captured. The rangers and their ammunition held out until nightfall, after which they were able to resume their journey to Fort William Henry, albeit the worse for wear.
Acknowledgement. My thanks to Ken White for answering my queries regarding the defining characteristics of ranger units. Any errors in interpretation are, of course, my own.
Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de. Adventure in the wilderness: the American journals of Louis Antoine De Bougainville, 1756–1760. Translated and edited by Edward Pierce Hamilton. American Exploration and Travel Series 42. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
Ivers, Larry E. Colonial Forts of South Carolina, 1670–1775. South Carolina Tricentennial Commission Booklet Number 3. Columbia: Published for the South Carolina Tricentennial Commission, by the University of South Carolina Press, 1970.
Rogers, Robert. Journals of Major Robert Rogers. Reprinted from the original edition of 1765. Introduction by Howard Henry Peckham. American Experience Series, AE6. New York: Corinth Books, 1961.